Jan. 3, 2013


by Linda Pastan

The deep strangeness
of flowers in winter—

the orange of clivia,
or this creamy white rose

in its stoneware
vase, while outside

another white
like petals drifting down.

Is it real?
a visitor asks,

meaning the odd magenta
orchid on our sill

as makeup on a child.

It's freezing all around us—
salt cold on the lips,

the flinty blacks and grays
of January in any northern city,

and flowers

in the supermarket
by cans of juice,

filling the heated stalls
near the river—

secular lilies engorged
with scent,

notched tulips, crimson
and pink, ablaze

in the icy
corridors of winter.

"Flowers" by Linda Pastan, from Traveling Light. © Norton, 2010. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Martin Luther was excommunicated from the Catholic Church on this date in 1521. Luther was a professor of biblical interpretation at the time in Germany, and he could find no text in Scripture that permitted the church to make money by selling indulgences for the forgiveness of sins. So he wrote up a list of 95 theses and distributed them among church leaders and friends, intending to spark a discussion of reform in the Catholic Church. The advent of the printing press meant that the theses soon spread far and wide. Pope Leo X didn't like the implied criticism of papal policy, but the theses were popular with most Germans, who were tired of the church collecting money from the poor and sending it to Rome.

The church started formal proceedings against Luther in 1519. It took some time for the commission to agree on whether his writings were heretical or not. Eventually, they decided that Luther was indeed guilty of heresy, and Pope Leo X issued a bull giving him 60 days to recant. Luther reacted by throwing the bull on a bonfire, so the Pope excommunicated him.

It was on this date in 1777 that George Washington and his troops won the Battle of Princeton. Washington and his men had just won a surprising and decisive victory over British General Cornwallis at Trenton a week before. Cornwallis, stung by his loss, assembled 8,000 British soldiers to attack Washington's smaller army. Cornwallis left an additional 1,200 men behind to defend Princeton, and they departed on January 2, intending to crush Washington at Trenton. The British and the Continentals engaged in a few skirmishes, but darkness fell not long after Cornwallis arrived at Trenton, and so the battle was postponed until the following day.

But in the night, Washington and his troops sneaked around behind Cornwallis's army and made their way to Princeton. He told 500 of his men to hang back, and they lit campfires and made noise so that Cornwallis wouldn't realize that most of the colonials had stolen away from their encampment. As for Washington and his men, the going was icy, and although the frozen ground made it easy to move the artillery, the horses and men kept losing their footing. As a result, they didn't arrive at Princeton until after daybreak, later than they'd planned.

All told, 40 Continental soldiers and 275 British troops died in the battle. The British viewed this and the Battle of Trenton as minor American victories, but even so, they abandoned many of their posts in New Jersey, and ceded control of the region. The Continental army's morale was high after the Battle of Princeton, and they began to believe they would actually win the war.

Today is the birthday of Father Damien, born Joseph de Veuster in Tremelo, Belgium (1840). He served the leper colony on the Hawaiian island of Molokai. At that time, victims were dumped off the boat in the shallows because the captains were terrified to go ashore. Doctors left medicine on the beach and fled. Damien, however, dressed the wounds of his patients himself, ate with them, and buried them when they died. He erected six chapels and two orphanages, built beds, made coffins, and dug graves.

Eventually, he developed the illness himself, and he died on the island. He said: "I would not be cured if the price of the cure was that I must leave the island and give up my work. I am perfectly resigned to my lot. Do not feel sorry for me."

Today is the birthday of J.R.R. Tolkien (books by this author), born in Bloemfontein, South Africa (1892). He studied classics, language, and literature at Oxford. In 1925, Tolkien returned to Oxford University as a professor. One day, while grading exams, he discovered that a student had left one whole page in his examination booklet blank. Tolkien, for reasons unknown even to him, wrote on the page, "In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit." This single line turned into a bedtime story that he told his children, and from there, a book: The Hobbit (1937).

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