Monday Aug. 29, 2016

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Take Your Kids to the Funeral

Let them stretch out on the cool pews
and listen to the valves of the church
pump with coughs and foot scrapes.
Let them discover the pleasing weirdness

of pressing your belly against the seat edge
and swinging your legs. Let them roll
the bulletin into a telescope, stare a hole
into their hands and heal it.

The liturgy won’t hold them, but the furtive
dabbing versus sudden bursts of tears
will foster a curiosity about powers
and exponents. Rock, paper, scissors—

luck leaps in your fingers. Bring your kids
to the funeral and let us smell their heads.

“Take Your Kids to the Funeral” by Michelle Boisseau from Among the Gorgons. © University of Tampa Press, 2016. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

It's the birthday of the man who said, "Love is the master-key that opens the gates of happiness, of hatred, of jealousy, and, most easily of all, the gate of fear. How terrible is the one fact of beauty!" That's 19th-century poet and physician Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. (books by this author), born in Cambridge, Massachusetts (1809).

He ran in the same circles as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and other Boston intellectuals. He helped found The Atlantic Monthly magazine in 1857, and it was Holmes himself who came up with the name. He published his poetry and articles in The Atlantic Monthly at the same time he practiced medicine and taught at Harvard Medical School. He's also the father of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.

He's perhaps best-known for his essays that make up the "Breakfast Table" series. In The Poet at the Breakfast Table (1872) he wrote, "We are all tattooed in our cradles with the beliefs of our tribe; the record may seem superficial, but it is indelible."

He said: "Insanity is often the logic of an accurate mind overtasked. Good mental machinery ought to break its own wheels and levers, if anything is thrust among them suddenly which tends to stop them or reverse their motion. A weak mind does not accumulate force enough to hurt itself; stupidity often saves a man from going mad."

It's the birthday of the man who said, "The actions of men are the best interpreters of their thoughts": British philosopher John Locke (books by this author), born in Wrington, Somerset, England (1632). He believed all of our knowledge is derived from the senses. He also believed that we can know about morality with the same precision we know about math, because we create our ideas. His Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1688) was an instant success and sparked debate all across Europe.

Locke said, "Reading furnishes the mind only with materials of knowledge; it is thinking that makes what we read ours."

Today is the birthday of Newbery and Scott O'Dell Award-winning young-adult writer Karen Hesse (books by this author), born in 1952 in Baltimore, Maryland. In an interview for Scholastic, Hesse says that when she was a girl she dreamed of all the things she could and wanted to become: an archaeologist, an ambassador, an actor, an author. She remembers thinking of herself as someone who was good with words. Her fifth-grade teacher, Mrs. Datnoff, believed that the perhaps-10-year-old girl in front of her had what it would take to become a professional writer, and because the teacher believed, the girl did too. Hesse says it took almost 30 years for that dream to come true, and still isn't sure if that marks her as "extremely patient or just plain stubborn."

When she began college it was at Towson State as a theater major, but she left two semesters later for the University of Maryland, where she earned a degree in English and double minors in psychology and anthropology. Sometime after college, Hesse married and had two children and, in the tradition of so many artists before her, worked her way through a vast array of jobs: waitress, nanny, agricultural laborer, typesetter, proofreader, substitute teacher, and book reviewer, among others. But she kept writing, in all the spaces around her day jobs, producing stories and poems and book after book. Her first attempt at getting published was a failure, a rejected novel about meeting Bigfoot, but her second idea hit and in 1991 Hesse published her first book for young-adult readers, Wish on a Unicorn.

Hesse very often writes literature that grows out of a historical setting. In the course of writing a children's book about rain, Hesse began researching times and places where people desperately needed and wanted precipitation; from this grew the novel for which Hesse won the 1998 Newbury Medal and the Scott O'Dell Award for Historical Fiction,Out of the Dust, the story of a girl living through the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression.

Hesse might suggest that interest and the catalyst for a story can come from anywhere — she frequently listens to National Public Radio, and it was from an interview on the program Fresh Air that the idea for her 1996 novel, The Music of the Dolphins, grew.

Sometimes Hesse tackles disturbing subjects for her younger readers. In The Cats of Krasinski Square, Hesse portrays life in the Warsaw Ghetto during World War II, and inWitness, she takes on the concentrated racism of the Ku Klux Klan, which was reinvigorated in the 1920s and, in Hesse's story, is trying to take over a small Vermont town. Of Witness, Kirkus Reviews writes: "What Copeland created with music, and Hopper created with paint, Hesse deftly and unerringly creates with words: the iconography of Americana ... beautifully written, and profoundly honest."

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

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