Oct. 12, 2010

Common Ground

by Paul J. Willis

Today I dug an orange tree out of the damp, black earth.
My grandfather bought a grove near Anaheim
at just my age. Like me, he didn't know much.
"How'd you learn to grow oranges, Bill?"
friends said. "Well," he said, "I look at what

my neighbor does, and I just do the opposite."
Up in Oregon, he and his brother discovered
the Williamette River. They were both asleep
on the front of the wagon, the horses stopped,
his brother woke up. "Will," he said, "am it a river?"

My grandfather, he cooked for the army during the war,
the first one. He flipped the pancakes up the chimney,
they came right back through the window onto the griddle.
In the Depression he worked in a laundry during the night,
struck it rich in pocketknives. My grandfather,

he liked to smoke in his orange grove, as far away on the property
as he could get from my grandmother,
who didn't approve of life in general, him in particular.
Smoking gave him something to feel disapproved for,
set the world back to rights. Like everyone else,

my grandfather sold his grove to make room
for Disneyland. He laughed all the way to the bank,
bought in town, lived to see his grandsons born
and died of cancer before anyone wanted him to, absent
now in the rootless presence of damp, black earth.

"Common Ground" by Paul J. Willis, from Visiting Home. © Pecan Grove Press, 2008. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the day that the Italian explorer Christopher Columbus reached the New World. On this day in 1492, one of the sailors on the Pinta sighted land, an island in the Bahamas, after 10 weeks of sailing from Palos, Spain, with the Santa María, the Pinta, and the Niña. Columbus thought he had reached East Asia. When he sighted Cuba he thought it was China, and when the expedition landed on Hispaniola, he thought it might be Japan.

Columbus became obsessed with finding a western sea route, but he miscalculated the world's size, and he didn't know the Pacific Ocean existed. He called his plan the "Enterprise of the Indies." He pitched it first to King John II of Portugal, who rejected it, and then to the Spanish King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella. They also turned him down, twice, before they conquered the Moorish kingdom of Granada in January 1492 and had some treasure to spare. Columbus led a total of four expeditions to the New World during his lifetime, and over the next century his discovery made Spain the wealthiest and most powerful nation on earth. Still, he died in 1506 without accomplishing his original goal of finding a western trading route to Asia.

The great beer-drinking tradition of Oktoberfest goes back exactly 200 years ago, to this day in 1810. The Crown Prince of Bavaria, Ludwig, was getting married to Princess Therese of Saxony. The newlywed royal couple decided that they wanted to invite the whole town of Munich along to celebrate at their wedding festivities, which included of a horse race on the fields in front of the city gate, and lots and lots of beer.

All the Bavarians had such a good time that the decision was made to have a similar party the next year, and then again and again and again, and it became a tradition. These days, Oktoberfest starts in late September and goes for about two weeks. Approximately 6 million people show up to consume one million gallons of beer.

On this day in 1786, conflicted and love-torn U.S. Ambassador to France Thomas Jefferson composed a now-famous love letter to a married English woman named Maria Cosway. It's more than 4,000 words long, more than three times the length of the Declaration of Independence, which Thomas Jefferson had composed 10 years before.

He had to write out this letter with his left hand because he had broken his right wrist while leaping over a fountain in giddy delight during a stroll with the woman. The letter is now referred to as "A Dialogue between the Head and Heart." In it, he records an inner dialogue he had as he sat next to his fireside one evening, solitary and sad, shortly after parting ways with her. His Head and his Heart take turns speaking, one bubbling over with romantic desire and longing, and the other lecturing him about the need for integrity.
His dialogue begins:

Head. Well, friend, you seem to be in a pretty trim.
Heart. I am indeed the most wretched of all earthly beings. Overwhelmed with grief, every fibre of my frame distended beyond its natural powers to bear, I would willingly meet whatever catastrophe should leave me no more to feel or to fear.
Head. These are the eternal consequences of your warmth & precipitation. This is one of the scrapes into which you are ever leading us. You confess your follies indeed; but still you hug & cherish them; & no reformation can be hoped, where there is no repentance.

In the end, Thomas Jefferson's Head wins out, and he concludes that the only "effective security against such pain of unrequited love, is to retire within ourselves and to suffice for our own happiness." And so he apologizes to his beloved reader Maria for the sermon, and promises he'll keep his letters shorter from then on out, and talks about the weather and the casual comings and goings of mutual acquaintances, and about the book that he happens to be reading at the time.

Maria Cosway stayed married to her husband until his death in 1789, and then moved to Italy to start a convent school. Thomas Jefferson became the third president of the United States in 1801, about 15 years after writing this letter.

From the archives:

It's the birthday of the poet and translator Robert Fitzgerald, (books by this author) born in Geneva, New York (1910), best known for his English translations of Homer's The Odyssey (1961) and The Iliad (1974), generally considered the most beautiful English translations of Homer in the last century. Fitzgerald translated the Odyssey first, and it took him 10 years because he traveled to many of the places mentioned by Homer in order to capture them precisely in English.

Robert Fitzgerald described Homer like this: "A living voice in firelight or in the open air, a living presence bringing into life his great company of imagined persons, a master performer at his ease, touching the strings, disposing of many voices, many tones and tempos, tragedy, comedy, and glory, holding his [listeners] in the palm of his hand."

It’s the birthday of Paul Engle, (books by this author) born in Cedar Rapids, Iowa (1908) into a farming family, best known for his work with the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.  A poet, novelist and editor, his books include Worn Earth (1932), American Child: Sonnets for My Daughter (1956), Poems in Praise (1959), and Embrace: Selected Love Poems (1969)

It's the birthday of Alice Childress, (books by this author) born in Charleston, South Carolina (1916), who moved with her family to Harlem as a child, and every Wednesday night she went to her grandmother's church for something called "Wednesday night testimonials." She said, "I remember how people, mostly women, used to get up and tell their troubles to everybody. ... I couldn't wait for person after person to tell their story." She decided she wanted to grow up and tell those women's stories to the world. She went on to write plays such as Trouble in Mind (1955) and Wine in the Wilderness (1969), and novels including A Hero Ain't Nothin' but a Sandwich (1973) and A Short Walk (1979).

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