May 26, 2014

How to Regain Your Soul

by William Stafford

Come down Canyon Creek trail on a summer afternoon
that one place where the valley floor opens out. You will see
the white butterflies. Because of the way shadows
come off those vertical rocks in the west, there are
shafts of sunlight hitting the river and a deep
long purple gorge straight ahead. Put down your pack.

Above, air sighs the pines. It was this way
when Rome was clanging, when Troy was being built,
when campfires lighted caves. The white butterflies dance
by the thousands in the still sunshine. Suddenly, anything
could happen to you. Your soul pulls toward the canyon
and then shines back through the white wings to be you

"How to Regain Your Soul" by William Stafford from The Darkness Around Us is Deep. © Harper Perennial, 1994. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Today is Memorial Day. The first official observance of what we now know as "Memorial Day" was held on May 30, 1868, by proclamation of John A. Logan, Commander in Chief of the Grand Army of the Republic and a Civil War veteran. The day was set aside to honor those who died "in defense of the country during the late rebellion." Known as "Decoration Day," the observance drew on a long Southern tradition of honoring the dead by decorating the gravesite with flowers. In late spring or early summer, extended families would gather in mountain cemeteries for "dinner on the ground," spreading tablecloths on the grass and using their best plates for the potluck meal. They arranged colorful flowers on the graves, sang hymns, held service and baptisms, and prayed. This practice is still common in the South, from the Ozarks to North Carolina.

On this day in 1868, 5,000 people helped decorate the graves of more than 20,000 Union and Confederate soldiers buried at Arlington National Cemetery; memorial events were held in 183 cemeteries in 27 states.

It's the birthday of jazz musician Miles Davis, born in Alton, Illinois (1926). His father was an oral surgeon, and he grew up in a nice home in East St. Louis. The family also owned a ranch in Arkansas. He was about seven or eight years old when he started listening to a radio show called Harlem Rhythms. It was a 15-minute show, and it came on at 8:45 in the morning. Davis started showing up late to school every day because he couldn't bear to miss the music.

About that same time, he started paying attention to the music he heard in rural Arkansas. He said: "We'd be walking on these dark country roads at night and all of a sudden this music would seem to come out of nowhere, out of them spooky-looking trees that everybody said ghosts lived in. [...] That kind of sound in music, that blues, church, back-road funk kind of thing, that southern, midwestern, rural sound and rhythm. I think it started getting into my blood on them spook-filled Arkansas back-roads after dark when the owls came out hooting." A few years later, he started music lessons, playing the trumpet. And after that, he didn't stop. He was playing professionally by the age of 15, and when he was 18, he struck out for New York to find his hero, Charlie Parker. Soon they were playing together, and Davis continued to play jam sessions with other musicians and experiment with new types of jazz. In 1959, he recorded Kind of Blue, one of the best-selling jazz records of all time.

It's the birthday of astronaut Sally Ride, born in Los Angeles (1951). When she was young, her teachers used to wheel big black-and-white televisions into the classrooms so that students could watch the space launches, and Ride was fascinated by the space program. She was good at math and science, but she was also an athletic kid who loved to play football in the street with the neighborhood boys. Her parents worried that she would be injured, so signed her up for tennis lessons instead. She was such a good tennis player that Billie Jean King encouraged her to consider a professional career. Ride started college at Swarthmore in Pennsylvania, but she didn't like it, and she was homesick. She dropped out and moved back to California to give her tennis career a try. She said, "Fortunately, I took a long, hard look at my forehand and realized that I was not going to make a fortune with that forehand." So she went back to college, this time at Stanford, which had a better tennis team. She graduated with degrees in Physics and English — her specialty was Shakespeare. When an interviewer asked her whether Shakespearean drama helped her as an astronaut, she said, "I am certain that it did."

She had almost completed her Ph.D. in Physics when she saw an ad in the Stanford student newspaper. It was from NASA, looking for applicants for the astronaut program. Traditionally, NASA had selected former Marines, pilots, and Air Force officers to serve as astronauts, but they were looking for a new pool of applicants. Ride said: "It's something that was just deep inside me. There is really no other way to describe it. The moment I saw the opportunity, I knew that that is what I wanted to do." She applied, and out of 8,000 applicants, she was chosen to be one of 35 new members of the astronaut corps. In that new group of astronauts, there were five other women besides Ride; but when they arrived at the Johnson Space Center, there were only four women out of the 4,000 scientists and engineers. At NASA, Ride worked as an engineer and helped develop a robotic arm for the space shuttle. She was chosen to join the crew of the 1983 Challenger mission, making her the first American woman in space. She was bombarded with questions about how she would handle life in space — reporters asked her everything from whether she would cry to whether it would affect her reproductive organs. Johnny Carson joked that the launch was postponed because Ride was looking for a purse to match her shoes. The week before the launch, she said: "I did not come to NASA to make history. It is important to me that people don't think I was picked for the flight because I am a woman."

The Challenger mission launched on June 18, 1983. Ride spent six days in space, helping to operate the robot arm. She was not only the first American woman in space, but also the youngest person, at the age of 32. When she landed, Ride announced: "The thing that I'll remember most about the flight is that it was fun. In fact, I'm sure it was the most fun that I will ever have in my life." She refused to accept a bouquet of flowers, since no one offered flowers to the five male astronauts. Ride went on a second Challenger mission in 1984. She was training for a third mission when the Challenger exploded in 1986. Ride served on the commission that investigated the disaster. She left NASA not long after to teach at the California Space Institute in San Diego. Ride and her partner, Tam O'Shaughnessy, founded a company called Sally Ride Science to make science approachable for kids, especially girls. Ride and O'Shaughnessy became tennis friends at age 12, met again as adults and bonded over a shared love of science, fell in love, and were together for 27 years — but they did not publicly acknowledge their relationship until Ride's obituary. She died in 2012, at the age of 61.

She said: "The view of Earth is absolutely spectacular, and the feeling of looking back and seeing your planet as a planet is just an amazing feeling. It's a totally different perspective, and it makes you appreciate, actually, how fragile our existence is. You can look at Earth's horizon and see this really, really thin royal blue line right along the horizon, and at first you don't really quite internalize what that is, and then you realize that it's Earth's atmosphere, and that that's all there is of it, and it's about as thick as the fuzz on a tennis ball, and it's everything that separates us from the vacuum of space."

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




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