Tuesday May 5, 2015

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Natural Disasters

During natural disasters two enemy animals
will call a truce, so during a hurricane
an owl will share a tree with a mouse
and, during an earthquake, you might find
a mongoose wilted and shivering
beside a snake. The bear will sit down
in a river and ignore the passing salmon
just as the lion will allow the zebra
to walk home without comment.
I love that there are exceptions.
At funerals and weddings, for example,
the aunts who never speak nod
politely to one another. When my mother
was sick even the prickly neighbors
left flowers and cakes at our door.

“Natural Disasters” by Faith Shearin from Telling the Bees. © Stephen F. Austin State University Press, 2015. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

Today is Cinco de Mayo, the Fifth of May. It commemorates the Mexican victory over the French in the Battle of Puebla in 1862. In a David-and-Goliath confrontation, the 8,000-strong, well-armed French army was routed by 4,000 ill-equipped Mexican soldiers, and though it wasn’t a decisive battle in the course of the war, it became a symbol of Mexican pride. It’s also become a celebration of Mexican heritage and culture in the United States.

Cinco de Mayo isn’t widely celebrated in Mexico outside the state of Puebla, but it has been adopted by many Americans regardless of their heritage, much like St. Patrick’s Day and Oktoberfest. It’s been celebrated in California since 1863, and grew in prominence in the rest of the country along with the Chicano movement of the 1940s. It wasn’t until beer advertisers decided to promote the holiday heavily in the 1980s that American celebration of Cinco de Mayo became widespread.

It’s the birthday of Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard (books by this author), born in Copenhagen (1813). He was the youngest of seven children, a sickly boy, and his father used to take him for imaginary walks indoors during bad weather, describing all kinds of wonderful and imaginary sights. Kierkegaard’s father was a wealthy wool merchant who had retired young, and when he died he left his son enough money to be financially independent for the rest of his life. Kierkegaard was a homebody, and rarely left Copenhagen. He enjoyed going to the theater, taking carriage rides out into the country, and chatting with people — even servants and laborers — that he met while strolling the streets. He wrote, “I had real Christian satisfaction in the thought that, if there were no other, there was definitely one man in Copenhagen whom every poor person could freely accost and converse with on the street.”

Kierkegaard is widely considered the father of existential philosophy. His work touched not only philosophy, but also theology, psychology, literary criticism, and fiction. He also came up with two concepts that are commonplace to us today: one is “subjectivity,” the idea that we all perceive the world — and “truth” — differently; and the other is the fact that faith is not possible without doubt. One must doubt the existence of God to have faith in the existence of God. Belief without doubt is just credulity. He published several books at his own expense, including Either/Or (1843), Works of Love (1847), and The Sickness Unto Death (1849). He published many works under a variety of aliases: Victor Eremita, Johannes de Silentio, Anti-Climacus, Hilarius Bookbinder, and Vigilius Haufniensis. He did so, he said, to disavow his own authority. He would adopt a “character” who wrote about a particular philosophical viewpoint, and then would adopt another persona to explore the opposing viewpoint.

Kierkegaard wrote: “It is quite true what philosophy says; that life must be understood backwards. But then one forgets the other principle: that it must be lived forwards.”

Today is the birthday of journalist Nellie Bly (books by this author), born Elizabeth Jane Cochran in Armstrong County, Pennsylvania (1864). When she was 16, her family moved to Pittsburgh, where she read an editorial in The Pittsburgh Dispatch titled “What Girls Are Good For.” (The paper’s answer was “not much,” at least, not outside the home.) She wrote a furious reply and signed it “Little Orphan Girl.” The editor was so impressed that he invited her in and offered her a job. She took it, and borrowed the name “Nellie Bly” from a Stephen Foster song to use as her pen name.

Unlike most female journalists of the time, she didn’t write about fashion or gardening, though. She wrote about the poor, and the way women were exploited in factories, sometimes posing as a sweatshop worker to report from the inside, which made companies nervous. They threatened to pull their advertising, so she was demoted to a beat that was deemed more suitable for a lady. She turned in her letter of resignation along with her story. She went to New York in 1887, and after several months with no job prospects, she talked her way into an opportunity with Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World. Her assignment was to cover the notorious Blackwell’s Island Women’s Lunatic Asylum, and she went undercover, convincing doctors and judges that she was mentally ill. She was committed to the asylum and lived there in appalling conditions for 10 days. She wrote: “I have watched patients stand and gaze longingly toward the city they in all likelihood will never enter again. It means liberty and life; it seems so near, and yet heaven is not further from hell.”

In 1914, she went to work for the New York Evening Journal as America’s first female war correspondent. She wrote from the front lines of World War I for almost five years. She returned Stateside in 1919 and died of pneumonia in 1922.

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

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