Dec. 3, 2010

The Court of the Two Sisters

by Phillip Lopate

The slow green fans turning in the courtyard
Of the classy restaurant in New Orleans;
The green napkins and the Negro waiters
Advancing in their bright green uniforms, superiorly
Filling the large water goblets dusty in the sun.
The hot rolls with curled butter shells like snails
And the enormous breakfasts served at all hours
Of Eggs with lemon sauce, asparagus, ham and toast points;
Cold creamed shrimp soup, oranges.
I read two newspapers at once, starting with sports;
Crowding the tablecloth with unwanted sections.
And when I was too stuffed to go on
I ordered a chickory coffee, dark and bitter
And a Charlotte Russe bursting with whipped cream.

"The Court of the Two Sisters" by Phillip Lopate, from At the End of the Day. © Marsh Hawk Press, 2010. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the 30th birthday of writer Zlata Filipović, (books by this author) born in Sarajevo (1980). She kept a diary while living under siege in Sarajevo during the Bosnian civil war, starting in 1991 when she was 10 years old. In 1993, Zlata's Diary was published in France and became an international best-seller. Her French publishers helped her and her parents flee Sarajevo and move to Paris. Her diary was translated into three dozen languages and is required reading now at many schools around the world. A Hollywood studio paid a million dollars for the rights to her story.

She graduated from Oxford and moved to Dublin, where she still resides, writing and making documentaries. Her most recent book is Stolen Voices: Young People's War Diaries from WWI to Iraq (2006).

A Guardian interviewer once asked for her philosophy in a nutshell and she said, "If you can put yourself in other people's shoes and wish other people the shoes that you like best yourself we have a recipe for better relationships with each other."

It was on this day in 1818 that the state of Illinois was admitted to the Union.

Today Illinois is the "most average state" in America. It was given this distinction by the Associated Press, which analyzed data from the U.S. census, looking at things like income and age and race, as well as education, immigration, rural population percentages and more than a dozen other factors. The Associated Press concluded that Illinois mirrored the makeup of the country as a whole better than any other state. Second was Oregon, and then Michigan, and Washington, and Delaware. The "least average state" in the Union: West Virginia.

Illinois' official slogan is the "Land of Lincoln." And it was on this day in 1839 that 30-year-old Illinois state assemblyman Abraham Lincoln was admitted to practice law in the United States Circuit Court. For the next 16 years, he "rode the circuit," which meant that he traveled around to different counties in Illinois arguing cases while their circuit courts were in session. It was during these two decades on the Circuit Court, litigating disputes over canal boats and river barges and railroad charters and defending accused murderers, that Abraham Lincoln learned to give really good speeches. Twenty-one years after he was admitted to the Circuit Court, he was elected to the American presidency, and he's now known as one of the best orators in presidential history.

He delivered the Gettysburg Address in 1863 at the dedication of a new cemetery to honor the Union soldiers who had died during the Battle of Gettysburg. The three-day Battle of Gettysburg had been fought a few months earlier, in July of 1863, and there were more than 50,000 casualties. Eventually more than 3,500 Union soldiers were reburied in the cemetery. The speech is 10 sentences long, just 272 words. In it, he said that our nation was founded on the idea of equality and that the war was being fought over that idea.

In his second inaugural address, which he gave a few weeks before being assassinated, he stood on a wet and muddy Pennsylvania Avenue and talked about the Civil War, saying:

"Neither party expected for the war the magnitude or the duration which it has already attained. Neither anticipated that the cause of the conflict might cease with or even before the conflict itself should cease. Each looked for an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding. Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God's assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men's faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes."

With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations."

Abraham Lincoln once said, "America will never be destroyed from the outside. If we falter and lose our freedoms, it will be because we destroyed ourselves."

And he said, "Neither let us be slandered from our duty by false accusations against us, nor frightened from it by menaces of destruction to the Government nor of dungeons to ourselves. Let us have faith that right makes might, and in that faith, let us, to the end, dare to do our duty as we understand it."

From the archives:

It's the birthday of novelist Joseph Conrad, (books by this author) born Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski in 1857 in Berdichev, which is now in Ukraine. His father was a scholar and an outspoken opponent of the oppressive regime. He was arrested, and the family was exiled to a northern province in Russia, where both Joseph's parents contracted tuberculosis and died. So the boy went to live with his uncle in Switzerland. His uncle was kind and supportive, and he gave his nephew a good education. But Conrad was restless; he wanted to travel. So as a teenager, he headed to France, and from there, he went to sea. He ran guns, he smuggled, and he got himself in debt. He couldn't pay his creditors, he tried to commit suicide but failed, and he lost his job. But his uncle paid off his debts, and Józef changed his name to Joseph Conrad and went back to sea with the British.

In 1890, he captained a steamboat into the Congo, which was then the Belgian Congo, controlled by King Leopold II. He saw horrible atrocities there. People had been forced into slave labor camps, where many of them were abused and killed. He called it "the vilest scramble for loot that ever disfigured the history of the human conscience."

He went back to England, settled in Kent, and never worked as a sailor again. He wrote adventure stories, and 10 years after returning from the Congo, he wrote Heart of Darkness (1902). It's about a man's journey down a river into the middle of Africa and about a powerful and mysterious trading agent named Kurtz. Kurtz has established himself as a god among the natives, surrounding his trading post with severed heads on stakes.

Joseph Conrad said, "My task which I am trying to achieve is, by the power of the written word to make you hear, to make you feel — it is, before all, to make you see. That — and no more, and it is everything."

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




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