Tonight at sunset walking on the snowy road,
my shoes crunching on the frozen gravel, first
through the woods, then out into the open fields
past a couple of trailers and some pickup trucks, I stop
and look at the sky. Suddenly: orange, red, pink, blue,
green, purple, yellow, gray, all at once and everywhere.
I pause in this moment at the beginning of my old age
and I say a prayer of gratitude for getting to this evening
a prayer for being here, today, now, alive
in this life, in this evening, under this sky.
“Winter: Tonight: Sunset” by David Budbill from While We’ve Still Got Feet. © Copper Canyon Press, 2010. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)
It’s the birthday of astronomer Johannes Kepler, in Württemberg, Germany (1571). He was the first to discover that planets move in an elliptical path around the sun.
Kepler said, “The diversity of the phenomena of nature is so great, and the treasures hidden in the heavens so rich, precisely in order that the human mind shall never be lacking in fresh nourishment.”
It was on this day in 1831 that Charles Darwin set sail from England on the HMS Beagle. Darwin’s biology professor had recommended that he go on the upcoming voyage touring the Galapagos Islands and South America, but his father was against the dangerous trip. Darwin went anyway, and he explored the rainforests and was amazed by the plants and animals that he found. He returned to England, and he thought about what he had seen and developed his theory of evolution. In his book On the Origin of Species (1859), he wrote: “Probably all organic beings which have ever lived on this earth have descended from some one primordial form, into which life was first breathed. There is grandeur in this view of life that … from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being evolved.”
It’s the birthday of novelist Wilfrid Sheed, born in London, England (1930). Wilfrid Sheed wrote My Life as a Fan (1993), about his love of baseball, and In Love with Daylight: A Memoir of Recovery (1995). He once said, “The American male doesn’t mature until he has exhausted all other possibilities.”
It is the 47th birthday of Sarah Vowell (books by this author), journalist, essayist, and author of seven books on American history and culture. Vowell’s books include The Wordy Shipmates (2008) and Lafayette in the Somewhat United States (2015).
She said, “Being a nerd, which is to say going too far and caring too much about a subject, is the best way to make friends I know.”
On this day in 1978, the country of Spain became a democracy after 40 years of fascist dictatorship. Spain had been under the control of Generalissimo Francisco Franco since 1939, when he led right-wing Nationalist forces to victory in the Spanish Civil War and promptly set about turning the country into a totalitarian state.
Franco had lingered near death for months, his demise breathlessly watched by news media around the world. The attention to his imminent death became so pronounced that when he finally died in 1975, the American comedy show Saturday Night Live began a running gag in which Chevy Chase, in his role as news anchor on the recurring sketch Weekend Update, would inform viewers, “Franco is indeed dead” and “still dead.”
Not one head of state from a democratic country attended Francisco Franco’s funeral.
Under Franco, Spain had been a one-party state. He established concentration camps, forced labor, and executions as a means of political repression. Under Franco’s rule, a woman could not testify in a trial, become a judge or a university professor, or establish a bank account without having her husband or father as a co-signer.
Francisco Franco had assumed that his handpicked successor, Juan Carlos de Borbón, the great-great-great-great-great-great-grandson of the French King Louis XIV and son of the last sitting Spanish king, would continue the authoritarian regime.
Indeed, many naysayers believed Juan Carlos to lack the necessary education and competency to rule, and his nickname became “Juan Carlos the Brief,” an allusion to how long he was expected to last.
Instead, Juan Carlos immediately began to dismantle the fascist government of Spain. He became king two days after Franco’s death and the first reigning monarch since 1931. The country held its first open and free elections in 1977, with over 150 political parties represented. The Communist Party was officially legalized. Juan Carlos granted amnesty to political prisoners. Languages like Catalan, Gallego, and Euskera, which had been forbidden, were now freely spoken.
On December 27, 1978, King Juan Carlos I signed into law the Spanish Constitution, which began the country’s official slide into democracy. On that morning in December of 1978, newspapers around the country ran headlines reading, “Good morning, democracy.”