Apr. 6, 2011

Why I'm Here

by Jacqueline Berger

Because my mother was on a date
with a man in the band, and my father,
thinking she was alone, asked her to dance.
And because, years earlier, my father
dug a foxhole but his buddy
sick with the flu, asked him for it, so he dug
another for himself. In the night
the first hole was shelled.
I'm here because my mother was twenty-seven
and in the '50s that was old to still be single.
And because my father wouldn't work on weapons,
though he was an atomic engineer.
My mother, having gone to Berkeley, liked that.
My father liked that she didn't eat like a bird
when he took her to the best restaurant in L.A.
The rest of the reasons are long gone.
One decides to get dressed, go out, though she'd rather
stay home, but no, melancholy must be battled through,
so the skirt, the cinched belt, the shoes, and a life is changed.
I'm here because Jews were hated
so my grandparents left their villages,
came to America, married one who could cook,
one whose brother had a business,
married longing and disappointment
and secured in this way the future.

It's good to treasure the gift, but good
to see that it wasn't really meant for you.
The feeling that it couldn't have been otherwise
is just a feeling. My family
around the patio table in July.
I've taken over the barbequing
that used to be my father's job, ask him
how many coals, though I know how many.
We've been gathering here for years,
so I believe we will go on forever.
It's right to praise the random,
the tiny god of probability that brought us here,
to praise not meaning, but feeling, the still-warm
sky at dusk, the light that lingers and the night
that when it comes is gentle.

"Why I'm Here" by Jacqueline Berger, from The Gift That Arrives Broken. © Autumn House Press, 2010. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It was on this day in 1327 that the poet Petrarch (books by this author) first saw his idealized love, Laura, in the church of Saint Clare in Avignon, France. He went on to write 366 poems about her over the span of 40 years. Those poems make up Il Canzoniere.

Petrarch burned with desire for Laura, but she remained oblivious, and then rejected him. He wandered the countryside, caught between enjoying the happiness of life and indulging in the lustful pleasures of longing for a woman he could not have. When she died of the plague he was devastated. He wrote all of it down.

Eventually he came to see her not as an object of sinful desire, but as a spiritual guide who helped him to understand himself as a Christian, a lover, and a poet.

Today, discovering your identity through unrequited love — and poems about doing so — is called "Pertrarchan," but giving it a name doesn't make it hurt any less.

On this day in 1895, Oscar Wilde (books by this author) was arrested in room 118 of the Cadogan Hotel in London. He was arrested for "gross indecency" for sodomy.

The day before he had lost a libel case he'd brought against his lover's father, John Sholto Douglas, the 9th Marquess of Queensberry. The Marquess had called Wilde a sodomite, and Wilde wanted to humiliate him and show off his own wit by taking him to court. Wilde was the one who famously said, "The only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about."

The whole thing backfired. Wilde lost the libel case, and Douglas gathered enough evidence to have him arrested. Still, it took two trials to convict Wilde, though it helped that the prosecution paid Wilde's former lovers to testify.

He was sentenced to two years of hard labor. He walked six hours a day in 29-minute increments, with five minute breaks, until he'd covered a distance equal to a 6,000-foot incline. He slept on a wooden plank, and for the first several months he was not allowed books, writing utensils, or paper.

When he finally got them, he wrote the poem The Ballad of Reading Gaol, an allegory of his downfall. It was published anonymously until its seventh printing, when Wilde finally told his publisher it was OK to add his name to it.

It was on this day (1909) that American explorer Robert E. Peary claimed to have reached the North Pole, as reported in The New York Times. It was interesting news considering that the week before, The New York Herald had said Frederick Cook was the first to make it, and claimed he had done so a year earlier.

The two explorers were friends until they had a falling out over who owned the publishing rights to their previous expeditions together. The newspapers stoked the feud, and everyone — from the Smithsonian to the National Geographic Society to Congress — has been arguing about it since.

But no one disputes that an Oklahoman named Joseph O. Fletcher flew over the Arctic Circle and set foot on the North Pole in 1952. And no one disputes that an insurance salesman from Minnesota named Ralph Plaisted showed up with his crew in 1968 on snowmobiles, which had just been invented.

On this day in 1917, the United States officially entered World War I. President Woodrow Wilson tried to keep the U.S. out of the war, even after a German U-boat sunk the passenger ship Lusitania, until British intelligence intercepted a secret German communication to Mexico. Apparently, Germany had promised Mexico that they could have the U.S. if Mexico would support the German cause.

In his speech to Congress, President Wilson said: "It is a fearful thing to lead this great peaceful people ... into the most terrible and disastrous of all wars. ... But the right is more precious than peace, and we shall fight for the things which we have always carried nearest our hearts — for democracy, for the right of those who submit to authority to have a voice in their own governments, for the rights and liberties of small nations, for a universal dominion of right by such a concert of free peoples as shall bring peace and safety to all nations and make the world itself at last free."

On this day, the first Tony Awards were presented (1947) in the ballroom of the Waldorf Astoria in New York City. It was an Easter Sunday. Arthur Miller, Ingrid Bergman, Elia Kazan, and Agnes de Mille were just some of the talent that took home awards.

It's the birthday of the Shoshone woman Sacajawea, born in Idaho (sometime around 1789). She was kidnapped at age 10 by the Hidatsa tribe, sold into slavery, and bought by a French-Canadian trapper who made her one of his two wives. When Lewis and Clark hired the trapper to guide them to the Pacific, Sacajawea — a teenager with her two-month-old baby on her back — was part of the package. She was the only woman to accompany the permanent party to the Pacific Ocean and back.

Officially she acted as interpreter, since she could speak half a dozen Indian languages. But she also knew which plants were edible, and she saved the explorers' records when their boat overturned. In his notes, William Clark pointed out that tribes were inclined to believe that their party was friendly when they saw Sacajawea because a war party would never travel with a woman, especially one with a baby.

When the trip was over, Sacajawea received nothing. Her trapper husband got $500.33 and 320 acres of land. She died on December 22, 1812, of a "putrid fever," according to Clark's records. She was 23. Eight months later, Clark legally adopted her two children — the boy who had been a baby on the expedition, Jean Baptiste, and an infant daughter, Lisette.

It's the birthday of country songwriter and singer Merle Haggard, born in Bakersfield, California (1937). The first song he wrote was "Branded Man," about the life of an ex-con. He was still on parole when he wrote it.

His parents were Dust Bowl migrants from Oklahoma, and Haggard grew up in a house made from a railroad boxcar. As a young man, he wrote bad checks, stole cars, hopped trains, and was in and out of reform schools and jails. Eventually, he spent 27 months in San Quentin prison, which was such a bad experience he decided he'd never go back. He became a model prisoner, and joined the prison's country music band, and saw Johnny Cash perform there. Later, when he met Johnny Cash in person, Johnny said he didn't remember Merle being in the show with him, and Merle had to tell him it was because he was in the prison audience.

Today, Haggard has released more than 600 songs, 40 of which were No. 1 hits.

Governor Ronald Reagan pardoned his time at San Quentin. Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger inducted him into the California Hall of Fame. Vanity Fair interviewed him last year to ask if he had any advice for the troubled actress Lindsay Lohan on how to handle prison.

Haggard said: "She has to be honest, and she has to let the other prisoners know that she doesn't feel like she's any better than they are. If I told somebody I was going to meet them on a Tuesday, I met 'em. I learned that it's better to be honest, because you can't get away from your lie."

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




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