Saturday Dec. 20, 2014

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Solstice

It is not so complicated. I am at the window
grinding walnuts for bread.

The chain link fence
surrounds our dormant stamp of grass.

When you speak, I watch your lips,
or else I can’t understand.

This winter is made simple by the cold.
In lean air, the train whistle carries.

Our neighbor’s faucet spills out
the Great Lakes, freezes into a rink.

I hear the hockey sticks
smacking ice. I hear blades.

"Solstice" by Laura Van Prooyen from Our House Was On Fire. © Ashland Poetry Press, 2014. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

The Berlin Wall was opened for the first time on this date in 1963. Four thousand citizens of West Berlin were given passes that allowed them through the wall that had been built two years earlier, dividing a city, and dividing families, friends, and neighbors.

East Berlin was the capital of the communist German Democratic Republic. The Soviet Union had been determined to keep control of at least part of Germany, which alarmed some residents of East Berlin. When faced with the flight of thousands — many of them promising young doctors, teachers, and engineers — across the border, the Soviet Union built a physical barrier, what they called an “antifascist bulwark.” First they put up barbed wire, then cement blocks, and finally a wall, complete with armed watchtowers. The first barrier went up literally overnight and millions of people were separated from their friends, their families, and even their jobs with no warning. So when East and West Germany announced they would issue one-day border passes over the Christmas holidays, people lined up by the hundreds of thousands. They waited outside in the bitter cold for as many as 10 hours, and only half of them were able to get the passes. To qualify, you had to have immediate family on the other side of the wall. You could visit for one day only, from seven a.m. until midnight. You could bring over up to half a pound each of tea, coffee, and cocoa, but no audio recordings. One family filled their baby carriage with chocolate, fruit, and nylons, and had to carry their baby in their arms. Westerners who made the crossing were greeted with communist propaganda and it was explained that the wall was there for the protection of the residents of East Berlin, to keep them safe from the avaricious and decadent culture of the West.

Similar temporary border openings occurred afterward, usually around the Christmas or Easter holidays, but the wall remained in place until 1989.

It’s the birthday of Russian writer Yevgenia Ginzburg (books by this author), who was probably born on this day in Moscow (1904). She was a teacher and a journalist, and when she was 32, she was arrested in an anti-Communist roundup; her husband and parents were also arrested. Ginzburg was sentenced as an “enemy of the people,” and she spent the next 18 years in prison, forced labor, or exile — 10 years were spent in a labor camp in remote Siberia. She survived to write memoirs of her time in the gulag, Journey into the Whirlwind (1967) and Within the Whirlwind (1979). They were published abroad, but Ginzburg died in Moscow in 1977, 12 years before her books were finally published in the Soviet Union.

It’s the birthday of playwright John Fletcher (books by this author), born in Rye, England (1579). He wrote for the King’s Men, the acting troupe that produced Shakespeare’s works.

Fletcher collaborated with Shakespeare on Henry VIII and The Two Noble Kinsmen, and the lost play Cardenio is attributed to Shakespeare and Fletcher in the Stationers’ Register. After Shakespeare’s death, Fletcher took over as the chief playwright for the King’s Men. He wrote a sequel to Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew called The Woman’s Prize, or The Tamer Tamed. In The Woman’s Prize, Katherine has died, and Petruchio is remarried to an even stronger woman, Maria, who refuses to sleep with him when he tries to tame her — Maria happily pursues her own scholarship and flirts with his friends. During the Restoration era, later in the 17th century, it was more popular than The Taming of the Shrew.

When Fletcher died during the plague epidemic, nine years after Shakespeare, he had achieved a similar level of fame; but by the 18th century, his fame was eclipsed by Shakespeare and some of his other contemporaries.

It’s the birthday of fiction writer Hortense Calisher (books by this author), born in New York City (1911). Her father was a Southerner, and she said he had “a towering pride in his Jewishness and in his southernness.” He made his money manufacturing soap and perfume, and even though Calisher grew up during the Depression, she felt comfortable, surrounded by books and music. She started writing in journals when she was seven, but she didn’t try to publish anything until she was almost 40. She sent some stories to The New Yorker, and they published five of them.

She published her first novel, False Entry (1961), at the age of 50 — it was 600 pages long. After that, she turned out book after book, 23 novels and short-story collections in all. She was 90 years old when she published her final novel, Sunday Jews (2002), and two years later, she published a memoir, Tattoo for a Slave (2004).

Today is the birthday of American physicist Robert Van de Graaff (1901), born in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, and known for the literally hair-raising generator that carries his name. A Van de Graaff generator primarily consists of a hollow metal globe standing on a thick, hollow pole; inside the pole, a pair of pulleys drive a belt of silk over a pointed metal comb that is hooked to an external power supply. The comb and one pulley sit at the base of the pole, the second pulley sits inside the metal globe, and as the belt runs it builds up impressively large static electric charges — Van de Graaff’s original hand-built generator, which is now housed at the Boston Museum of Science, can generate more than 2 million volts on a dry day.

Van de Graaff generators are popular in science classrooms and science fiction; when students touch one while it’s running, the static charge will lift their hair into ball-shaped halos around their heads. Recently, Van de Graaff generators have become popular with home hobbyists, who have used them to turn out extreme Christmas light displays, or who run music through the electrical discharges so that the sound is transmitted to the audience on bolts of manmade lightning.

The novelist Elizabeth Benedict (books by this author) was born on this day in Hartford, Connecticut (1954). Benedict’s family was not a literary one — her mother was a gifted artist who worked as a secretary and her father was an insurance salesman — and Benedict had never considered a career in writing until she was in college. But it was there, on the day before her 19th birthday, that a prescient professor returned a term paper with a note saying it was obvious that Benedict wanted to write a novel — a fact that had not been obvious to Benedict herself. Still, that night she decided that she would in fact become a writer, and that to do so she must write every day, no matter what the subject, and that one day what she had written would become a book.

After college, Benedict worked for the Mexican American Legal Defense and wrote her first novel, Slow Dancing (1985), about an immigration lawyer. She followed that with The Beginner’s Book of Dreams (1988), Safe Conduct (1993), and numerous other novels as well as the writing craft book The Joy of Writing Sex: A Guide for Fiction Writers (1996).

Benedict has said that “If it were denied me to write, I imagine I would die,” for through writing she makes sense of her own deepest experiences as she reshapes them into “a fictional universe much larger, more varied, and … more compelling than the extremely personal” with which she begins. And from those deeply personal experiences, she also offers four important lessons for herself and other writers: First, work like a maniac because no one else will do it for you. Second, know that art matters. Next, understand that fiction is about transformation and that change is possible. And finally, make the surface of writing lively, fun-filled, and funny, even if the characters are in excruciating pain.”

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

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