Over the Moon/s

Last night at about 9pm my son and I went outside with a pair of ordinary bird-watching binoculars and trained them on a bright starry object we’d been noticing in the western sky during the last dog walks of the evening. And this is what we saw (as best I can recall):


According to the NASA website (whose picture is much better than mine), this is no star, but our giant neighbor Jupiter, with four of its 62 moons: Io, Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto, called the Galilean moons, after Galileo Galilei, who first spotted them in 1610.

Jupiter appears especially bright to us right now because it is both in opposition (directly opposite the sun from Earth, peaking on Oct. 29th Universal Time) and closer to Earth than it will be again until 2022. I don’t know about you, but I find it wondrous that without the aid of observatory or telescope we can see these heavenly bodies from our city street corner. In fact, if Jupiter weren’t itself so bright, we could probably see the Galilean moons without binoculars.

Their appearance left us starry-eyed, and dwarfed the importance of political squabbling, and getting that last load of laundry done, and pretty much anything else.


A Stately Pleasure Dome

If the word “Xanadu” happens to come up at our dinner table (and doesn’t it come up from time to time at yours?) we can count on our son’s launching into Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan,” which he memorized at some point due to sheer fascination with the language.

Today is the birthday of Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834), and in his honor I post the opening lines of that poem. Along with it I post my daughter’s drawing, from our homeschooling Middle Ages block, of the rooftops of Xanadu, the summer residence of Kublai Khan (grandson of Genghis Khan), who ruled China during the years of Marco Polo’s visit and subsequent years of service to the Khan.


Cambalu, the winter capital, grew quite hot in summer, so Kublai had a northern marshy river valley drained and transformed into a vast park of gardens, teahouses, terraces, and winding waterways for pleasure boats and wild birds. (Here is Marco surveying the scene from a rooftop.) At its center was the palace of polished bamboo painted with vermilion and gold and elaborate murals.

Xanadu was destroyed in the 14th century, but Marco Polo’s descriptions were familiar and inspirational to later writers, one of whose works (Samuel Purchas’ 1613 Purchas His Pilgrimage) Coleridge had been reading one summer day in 1797 before falling into a deep, some say drug-induced, sleep. While he slept, Coleridge “dreamed” the poem as a series of vivid and haunting images and phrases, which he instantly wrote down upon awakening.

In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree:
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea.
So twice five miles of fertile ground
With walls and towers were girdled round;
And there were gardens bright with sinuous rills,
Where blossomed many an incense-bearing tree;
And here were forests ancient as the hills,
Enfolding sunny spots of greenery…

For the rest, please see Poetry Out Loud. You will want to memorize it, too.

For another Coleridge poem, and a painting, please see Thou shalt wander like a breeze.


The Heir Apparent

Where can you go in DC this month to see a cranky wildly bewigged miser erroneously thought to be a corpse, feisty amorous twenty-somethings cavorting in 17th-century costume, a fantastically attired and exceedingly speedy cross-dressing gentleman, and an adorable live piglet, involved in a ridiculous yet intricate story spoken entirely in clever and hilarious verse (well, except by the piglet) in which all will be satisfyingly resolved by the end?


As far as I know, only at the Lansburgh Theater, in the current production of The Heir Apparent, written by Jean-François Regnard in French but brilliantly adapted into English (with sneaky modern references) by David Ives. If you would like to spend an entire evening laughing, run run run to get a ticket.

(No photography is allowed, but they don’t say a thing about sketching. Which is a bit tricky in the dark.)

Today is also the anniversary of the emancipation of poet and colonial slave Phillis Wheatley (circa 1753-1784). For a painting, poem, and mini-bio, please see An Hymn to Phillis.


Let justice roll down like waters


Today is the official opening of the new Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial (postponed from its earlier date due to Hurricane Irene). However, my son and I got up very early one weekday morning a couple of weeks ago and biked down through Rock Creek Park to see it sans crowds, and, indeed, our only companions were uniformed park service staff.

I realize that this monument has been somewhat controversial, what with complaints about the determinedly literal concept and the outsourcing to China and the misleading engraved quotation. But as I walked along reading King’s words and beheld his sunlit figure gazing intently across the Tidal Basin—and pondered the changes of the last fifty years, for much of which this man, so far ahead of his time, was responsible—I could only be moved. I look forward to returning in all seasons of the year.

Today is also the birthday of Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas (1898-1980), whom we can thank for the preservation and restoration of the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal as a park, with hiking trails and bike paths, thus averting its transformation into a highway. This is where you go in Washington, DC if you want to see hometown bald eagles, or the first bluebells. For sketches and a mini-bio, please see Justice of the Peace.

CakeBlackEyeSusanAunt Bett


Brotherly Love Part 1

I post this travel sketch of a London street in honor of the birthday and birthplace of William Penn (1644-1718), who actually seems to have truly been the laudable character recorded in our childhood history books.


Son of a prosperous knighted admiral and his wife, herself the daughter of a rich Dutch merchant, Penn could have chosen to follow in the footsteps of others of his class, enjoying a life of comfortable privilege on property confiscated by Cromwell from political opponents and dispossessed Irish peasantry. He received the usual rigorous grammar school education accorded boys in his position, studying reading and writing, religion, mathematics, Latin, and Greek from 6am to 6pm, walking the two miles each way between home and the schoolhouse. Be sure to repeat this part to your children when they object to their many burdens.

One Sunday morning, William’s father invited Thomas Loe, a traveling preacher, to lead a service in the family castle. It was an invitation the Admiral had cause to regret, because Mr. Loe, a follower of George Fox, spoke so eloquently of Quakerism that he left a permanent impression upon young William.

At sixteen William went off to Oxford, encountering for the first time extravagantly dressed fellow students who, instead of studying, spent their time, and their parents’ money, playing cards, drinking, and one can only imagine what else. William, however, was drawn to a small handful of progressive, troublesome students who met to discuss surreptitiously such inflammatory subjects as freedom of worship, and who also dared to miss several chapel services. For which they were expelled. Whereas presumably the party-down crowd remained at Oxford as long as they faithfully paid their gambling debts.

Angry and disappointed, Willam’s father gave him a good beating and sent him off on the Grand Tour of Europe to knock some sense into him, an unusual approach to teenage misbehavior not in current use. Perhaps a taste of Parisian society, thought the Admiral, would show William the folly of his queer religious ideas! On the Continent, William acquired fluency in French and a much better wardrobe, but he soon tired of court life and resumed his studies among a group of French Huguenots who (for the moment, anyway) enjoyed an inspiring period of religious freedom.

Back home, although initially cutting an impressive new figure in society, William soon dashed his father’s hopes once again by attending Quaker meetings, sympathizing with the plight of thousands of Quakers imprisoned for their refusal to follow the Church of England, writing to the government in their defense, and eventually serving time in prison himself. On top of this he began to court a Quaker lass. His father was in despair. Beatings, lengthy trips to France, even threats of disinheritance had no effect. What could be done with such recalcitrant offspring?

To Be Continued

Today is also the birthday of Edward Estlin Cummings (1894-1962), known as e e cummings. For a painting and a poem, please see this is the garden.




Today is the birthday of my cousin Dianne and her twin sister Monica. Dianne would have been 53. She passed away this past Sunday, October 2nd, after a year-long struggle with two rare blood disorders. Dianne was so optimistic and cheerful throughout the course of this painful condition and its equally (if not more) painful treatments that both family and hospital staff really thought she would pull through. She leaves behind a beloved husband and two sons, as well as the large extended family of siblings, in-laws, nieces and nephews who provided a warm loving ongoing support system, for her and for each other. Now continuing, as necessary as ever in the wake of her loss.

I see that the card I made for her last birthday (detail above) has an entirely different meaning today.

CakeBeachDianne CakeAutLeaves2Monica