Aug. 20, 2010


by Mark Strand

A white room and a party going on
and I was standing with some friends
under a large gilt-framed mirror
that tilted slightly forward
over the fireplace.
We were drinking whiskey
and some of us, feeling no pain,
were trying to decide
what precise shade of yellow
the setting sun turned our drinks.
I closed my eyes briefly,
then looked up into the mirror:
a woman in a green dress leaned
against the far wall.
She seemed distracted,
the fingers of one hand
fidgeted with her necklace,
and she was staring into the mirror,
not at me, but past me, into a space
that might be filled by someone
yet to arrive, who at that moment
could be starting the journey
which would lead eventually to her.
Then, suddenly, my friends
said it was time to move on.
This was years ago,
and though I have forgotten
where we went and who we all were,
I still recall that moment of looking up
and seeing the woman stare past me
into a place I could only imagine,
and each time it is with a pang,
as if just then I were stepping
from the depths of the mirror
into that white room, breathless and eager,
only to discover too late
that she is not there.

"Mirror" by Mark Strand, from Man and Camel. © Alfred A. Knopf, 2008. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

The Abbey Theatre, the National Theatre of Ireland, was founded in Dublin on this day in 1904.

It's the birthday of poet Heather McHugh, (books by this author) born in San Diego (1948).

In 2009, her most recent book, Upgraded to Serious,came out, and she won a McArthur Fellowship.

It was on this day in 1940 that the Marxist revolutionary Leon Trotsky (books by this author) was mortally wounded when his assassin lodged an ice pick into his skull in Mexico City.

Stalin had exiled Trotsky from the Soviet Union in 1929, and he went to Turkey, then France, then Norway, all the while writing books, including a three-volume History of the Russian Revolution (1932). Mexico offered him asylum, in part thanks to the support of painter Diego Rivera. While he was in Mexico City, Trotsky had an affair with Rivera's wife, Frida Kahlo, and he continued to write.

The assassin made it into Trotsky's heavily guarded home and asked Trotsky to read something he had written. Then he pulled the ice pick out of his coat and attacked Trotsky, who died the next day.

Trotsky's murder is a central event in Barbara Kingsolver's most recent novel, The Lacuna (2009), and in David Ives' one-act play Variations on the Death of Trotsky (1993).

It's the birthday of the theologian Paul Tillich, (books by this author) born in the village of Starzeddel, Germany (1886). He had a stern, demanding father who was a Lutheran pastor. He served as a chaplain in the German army. He was on the front lines, where the experience of war horrified him, witnessing the deaths of so many people. He became seriously depressed, and twice he had to be hospitalized for nervous collapse.

After the war, he became a professor. He had a good life in Frankfurt — he was respected and influential, friends with important people. But with the rise of the Nazis in Germany, Tillich began to speak out against them. From his religious standpoint, he said that the Nazis' emphasis on a supreme race and nation was against the teachings of Christianity. Drawing on his philosophical background, he critiqued the unfounded and unreasonable claims of Nazism. He was a dean at the University, and he expelled militant Nazi students, and stood up for his Jewish friends. In 1933, after Hitler assumed power, Tillich was fired, along with 11 other professors, all of them Jewish. He said, "I had the great honor and luck to be about the first non-Jewish professor dismissed from a German university."

He was offered a position at Union Seminary in New York, and fearing for his life in Germany, he went. He wanted to make religion meaningful in the lives of people like himself, who during the war years had seen so much bad in the world that they didn't know where to look for good. He thought that Christianity was relevant, but not in the way that the church discussed it. And from that idea, he wrote The Courage to Be (1952). He acknowledged the appeal of existentialism in such a strange time, but argued for the power of living with that apparent absurdness and still having faith. The Courage to Be became a huge best-seller — and the book that defined Tillich's career to most people. But in the academic and theological communities, Tillich is remembered for his three-volume work Systematic Theology (1951–63).

He said, "Astonishment is the root of philosophy."

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