Dec. 21, 2005

Father's Song

by Gregory Orr

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Poem: "Father's Song" by Gregory Orr from The Caged Owl. © Copper Canyon Press. Reprinted with permission.

Father's Song

Yesterday, against admonishment,
my daughter balanced on the couch back,
fell and cut her mouth.
Because I saw it happen I knew
she was not hurt, and yet
a child's blood's so red
it stops a father's heart.
My daughter cried her tears;
I held some ice
against her lip.
That was the end of it.
Round and round; bow and kiss
I try to teach her caution;
she tries to teach me risk.

Literary and Historical Notes:

In the northern hemisphere, today is the Winter Solstice, the shortest day of the year and the longest night. It's officially the first day of winter and one of the oldest known holidays in human history. Anthropologists believe that solstice celebrations go back at least 30,000 years, before humans even began farming on a large scale. The stone circles of Stonehenge were arranged to receive the first rays of midwinter sun.

Ancient peoples believed that because daylight was waning, it might go away forever, so they lit huge bonfires to tempt the sun to come back. The tradition of decorating our houses and our trees with lights at this time of year is passed down from those ancient bonfires.

In Ancient Rome, the winter solstice was celebrated with the festival of Saturnalia, during which all business transactions and even war were suspended, and slaves were waited upon by their masters.

It's the birthday of the essayist Edward Hoagland, born in New York City (1932). He is one of the few writers working today who writes almost nothing but personal essays.

He's written about his own thoughts on go-go dancers, jury duty, boxing gyms, mountain lions, suicide, and the loss of his eyesight. A new collection of his nature writing Hoagland on Nature came out in 2003.

For most of his life, he suffered from a terrible stutter, and so to avoid awkward social situations he became an obsessive walker. When he was in college in Boston, he estimates that he walked about fifty miles a week all around the city. He also grew to love animals, because they didn't require him to talk, and he worked a job as a lion keeper in the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus. But most of all, his stutter made him admire language, because it came with such difficulty. He said, "Being in these vocal handcuffs made me a devoted writer at twenty, I worked like a dog choosing each word."

After college, he moved to New York City trying to be a novelist, and his first two books got generally good reviews. But his third novel was such a failure that he decided he needed to get away from everything for a while and went up to live in the remote wilderness of British Columbia. He walked for hundreds of miles through the forests and along the rivers, and when he got home he published his first book of non-fiction Notes from the Century Before: A Journal From British Columbia (1969), and it was a big success.

It's the birthday of Joseph Stalin, born in the Russian colony of Georgia (1879). Stalin was born into a poverty-stricken family. His mother wanted him to become a priest, so he enrolled in an Orthodox theological seminary. He was expelled from school after he decided he was more interested in revolutionary politics than religion.

Stalin was one of Lenin's close associates during the Russian Revolution that began in 1917. He returned from fighting in Russia's civil war in 1920 and suddenly became gravely ill with appendicitis. It was thought that he might die. But a doctor performed a risky operation and Stalin made a full recovery. He completed his rise to power after Lenin died in 1924.

He ruled over communist Russia through World War II, and it was his decision to take control of most of Eastern Europe at the end of the war. In the last twenty-five years of his life, he held absolute power over more people than anyone in history, before or since.

He may also have been responsible for more human deaths than anyone in history. Historians aren't sure how many people he ordered to be executed in his many political purges, but some estimate about 20 million. Of the hundred or so people who belonged to his ruling inner circle, he eventually had more than half of them murdered.

He was also deeply interested in the arts and was a big reader. His favorite writers were Balzac and Zola, Hemingway, and James Fenimore Cooper. He loved Last of the Mohicans so much that he sometimes dressed up as an Indian to entertain guests.

It's the birthday of the novelist Anthony Powell, born in London (1905). He wrote the longest novel in the English language, A Dance to the Music of Time, which he published in twelve volumes, starting in 1951. He wrote the whole thing, more than a million words, on an ancient typewriter at a card table squeezed into his bedroom.

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