Dec. 31, 2005

Why You Travel

by Gail Mazur

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Poem: "Why You Travel" by Gail Mazur from Zeppo's First Wife: New and Selected Poems. © University of Chicago Press. Reprinted with permission.

Why You Travel

You don't want the children to know how afraid
you are. You want to be sure their hold on life

is steady, sturdy. Were mothers and fathers
always this anxious, holding the ringing

receiver close to the ear: Why don't they answer;
where could they be? There's a conspiracy

to protect the young, so they'll be fearless,
it's why you travel—it's a way of trying

to let go, of lying. You don't sit
in a stiff chair and worry, you keep moving.

Postcards from the Alamo, the Alhambra.
Photos of you in Barcelona, Gaudi's park

Swirling behind you. There you are in the Garden
of the master of the Fishing Nets, one red

tree against a white wall, koi swarming
over each other in the thick demoralized pond.

You, fainting at the Buddhist caves.
Climbing with thousands on the Great Wall,

Wearing a straw cap, a backpack, a year
before the students at Tiananmen Square.

Having the time of your life, blistered and smiling.
The acid of your fear could eat the world.

Literary and Historical Notes:

Today is New Year's Eve. Tonight there will be parties all across the country in celebration of the coming new year, and at the stroke of midnight, millions of people will sing "Auld Lang Syne." The lyrics to the song were first written down by the poet Robert Burns, but the song actually comes from Scottish oral tradition. The Scottish title can be translated to mean "old long ago" or "time long past" or simply "the good old days."

Alfred, Lord Tennyson wrote, "The year is going, let him go; ring out the false, ring in the true."

It's the birthday of the painter Henri Matisse, born in Le Cateau, France (1869). He and Picasso are generally considered the two greatest painters of the twentieth century. But as far as historians can tell, there was absolutely no sign in Matisse's early life that he would go on to become an artist. He started out studying law, and though his law school was in Paris, Matisse never once attended an art museum while he was living there, not even the Louvre.

He returned home after law school to take a clerical job in a lawyer's office when he was struck by a case of appendicitis. He was bedridden for weeks, and a neighbor suggested that he try passing the time by painting. His mother bought him a box of paints, and he read a how-to-paint book. He later described those first experiences painting as almost like a religious conversion. He said, "For the first time in my life I felt free, quiet, and alone... carried along by a power alien to my life as a normal man."

When Matisse finally recovered from his appendicitis, he took his job at the law office, but he also enrolled secretly in a local drawing class, which he attended every morning for an hour before going to his job. Then, after several months of this, he told his father that he was going to quit the law practice and devote himself to art. He spent hours at the Louvre copying the techniques of the old masters.

Matisse was not very successful when he first began exhibiting his work and his wife had to run a dress shop to support the family. Then in 1905, Matisse submitted a portrait of his wife called "Woman with the Hat" to an exhibition of paintings by a group of his friends, all of whom were using radically bright, primary colors.

Critics were particularly shocked by Matisse's painting, and so Matisse was surprised to learn at the end of the exhibition that his painting had sold to a couple of American expatriates known for their eccentric taste, Leo and Gertrude Stein. Leo Stein described Matisse's painting as, "A thing brilliant and powerful, but the nastiest smear of paint I had ever seen."

Matisse continued to be one of the most controversial artists in the world for the next decade. When his paintings were shown in America in 1913 students at the Art Institute in Chicago burned him in effigy. But when people met Matisse they were always shocked to find how conservative and mild mannered he was. Though he hadn't become a lawyer he continued to dress like one for most of his life wearing a suit even while he painted.

Henri Matisse said, "I overdid everything as a matter of course."

It's the birthday of the novelist Nicholas Sparks, born in Omaha, Nebraska (1965). He's one of the few successful male romance novelists starting with his first novel The Notebook which he wrote as an homage to his wife's grandparents. They had been married for sixty-two years when he met them and he realized while talking to them for the first time that they were still flirting with each other.

Nicholas Sparks said, "Writing the last page of the first draft is the most enjoyable moment in writing. It's one of the most enjoyable moments in life, period."

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®




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