Dec. 7, 2009

After Psalm 137

by Anne Porter

We're still in Babylon but
We do not weep
Why should we weep?
We have forgotten
How to weep

We've sold our harps
And bought ourselves machines
That do our singing for us
And who remembers now
The songs we sang in Zion?

We have got used to exile
We hardly notice
Our captivity
For some of us
There are such comforts here
Such luxuries

Even a guard
To keep the beggars
From annoying us

We have forgotten you.

"After Psalm 137" by Anne Porter, from Living Things Collected Poems. © Zoland Books, 2006. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It was on this day in 1972 that astronauts on the Apollo 17 spacecraft took a famous photograph of the Earth, a photo that came to be known as "The Blue Marble." Photographs of the Earth from space were relatively new at this time.

On Christmas Eve of 1968, the astronauts on the Apollo 8 mission, orbiting the moon, took a photo with the gray, craggy surface of the moon in the foreground and the bright blue Earth coming up behind, only half of it visible. That photo was called "Earthrise," and it really shook people up because it made the Earth look so fragile, and because the photo was taken by actual people, not just a satellite.

And on this day in 1972, the crew of Apollo 17 took another photograph, not only one of the most famous images of the Earth but one of the most widely distributed photos ever taken. It's known as "The Blue Marble" because that's how the Earth looked to the astronauts. It was the first clear photo of the Earth, because the sun was at the astronauts' back, and so the planet appears lit up and you can distinctly see blue, white, brown, even green. It became a symbol of the environmental movement of the 1970s, and it's the image that gets put on flags, T-shirts, bumper stickers, and posters.

The crew of Apollo 17 was about 28,000 miles away from Earth when they took the Blue Marble photo. It was the last time that astronauts, not robots, were on a lunar mission — since then, no people have gotten far enough away from the Earth to take a photo like it.

It's the birthday of novelist Willa Cather, (books by this author) born in Back Creek Valley, Virginia (1873). Her father, Charles, raised sheep in Virginia, but her aunt and uncle and her grandparents had all moved to Nebraska to homestead near the town of Red Cloud. When Charles' sheep barn burned down in 1883, the whole family, including nine-year-old Willa, took a train to her grandparents’ homesteading site in Red Cloud, Nebraska.

Willa Cather stood out in the small farming community of Red Cloud. She wanted to be a doctor, she dressed in boys' clothes and called herself "William Cather, Jr.," she learned Latin and Greek, she accompanied local doctors on their house visits and taught herself about dissection. But she also made friends with the immigrant women and liked to hear their stories, including a woman named Annie Sadilek. Willa Cather said: "One of the people who interested me most as a child was the Bohemian hired girl of one of our neighbors, who was so good to me. She was one of the truest artists I ever knew in the keenness and sensitiveness of her enjoyment, in her love of people and in her willingness to take pains. I did not realize all this as a child, but Annie fascinated me, and I always had it in mind to write a story about her."

But it took a long time for her to write about Annie Sadilek. She wanted to be a surgeon, and she went to the University of Nebraska to be a doctor. But her English professor secretly submitted an essay that Cather wrote about Thomas Carlyle to the Nebraska State Journal, and they published it. And she decided to become a writer.

She was a very good writer, got job after job, and eventually went to New York to work as an editor. But she couldn't find enough time to write, and she was having trouble finding her voice. In March of 1912, after six years in New York, she took some time off to visit friends and family across the country, and then spent two months in Red Cloud. She went back to the East Coast and started writing O Pioneers!, which was published in 1913, her first novel about Nebraska.

A few years later, her close friend and companion of many years, Isabelle McClung, decided to get married. Cather was devastated and felt betrayed, and she went home to Red Cloud for a while to sort through things. There she saw Annie Sadilek, now Annie Sadilek Pavelka, and was inspired to write about her. And Annie became the main character in My Ántonia (1918),often considered Cather's greatest novel.

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt called December 7th "a date which will live in infamy," because it was on this day in 1941 that Japanese planes attacked the naval base at Pearl Harbor. More than 2,300 Americans died in the attack, and the United States joined World War II, which it had stayed out of for more than two years, adhering to its policy of neutrality in Europe's affairs.

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