Washington’s Monument


Today is the 125th anniversary of the dedication (in 1885) of the Washington Monument. It was certainly a long time a-building, considering Pierre Charles L’Enfant had included a location for a monument to George Washington in his 1791 drawings for the new capital city. What L’Enfant had in mind, though, was an equestrian statue.

After Washington died in 1799, Congress thought a tomb might be a better plan—hey, how about right inside the Capitol? But his wife Martha wasn’t too happy with that idea. Progress stalled until the 1830s, when a group of impatient citizens raised funds themselves and held a competition for a monument design. The other entries were far more complicated: designs for monuments rich in Gothic windows, enlivened by multicolored stonework, festooned with all manner of carving and statuary. It makes me wonder how much the final choice was driven by budget. Even the award-winning design by Robert Mills originally had a colonnade at the base.

Construction began at last in 1848 and continued in fits and starts, slowed by the Civil War, lack of money, and anti-Catholic fervor (don’t ask). Congress occasionally offered funds. Reading American history I am struck by how reluctant the U.S. government used to be to spend money on much of anything, no matter the generally acknowledged need or value. When Congress finally decided to fund the rest, the monument went up quickly and immediately began to draw crowds. According to the National Park Service, it has over 800,000 visitors a year and is still the TALLEST STONE STRUCTURE in the WORLD. How about that.

You may be asking, “What the heck does this have to do with a picture of a Monument-Pen?” Well, uh… this image is the cover of a Literary Map of Washington DC commissioned by the Women’s National Book Association and featuring writers who have lived and worked here. For February 21st, I searched my work for a Monument image. And thereby hangs the tale. (Later this month I will post the illustrated map inside, so you can see what it looks like. It’s available at DC bookshops or through the WNBA.)

There is a celebration of the anniversary at 1pm today at the foot of the Monument.

Tyger, Tyger, Burning Bright


How often does Chinese New Year fall on Valentines Day? So I had to celebrate both.

According to the Chinese Zodiac, 2010 is the Year of the Tiger (as were 1998, 1986, 1974, and so on backward every twelve years). If you were born in the Year of the Tiger, you are lively, engaging, sociable, and affectionate. Friends are always welcome in your home. You are impulsive, which can express itself in outbursts of generosity or hot temper. You are stubborn, a bit vain, and sensitive to criticism. Know anyone like this? Maybe you can guess which of your friends are Tigers without even knowing their birth years.

Tigers are supposed to be compatible with Dogs and Horses, and incompatible with Goats and Oxen. A Tiger/Tiger match is not recommended because both like to be in charge. Uh-oh. Well, Happy Chinese New Year, all you Valentines!

Demons Out! Happiness In!


In the northern hemisphere, early February is the season of festivals of light, spring, and beginnings, because of its placement approximately mid-way between the winter solstice and the spring equinox. Candlemas and Groundhog Day are but two examples. Another is the ancient Celtic festival Imbolc, named for the pregnancy and lactation of ewes, and celebrated with the lighting of fires in anticipation of the returning sun. In Japan the festival of Setsubun marks the beginning of the spring season, and this year, according to the old lunar calendar, it falls on February 3rd.

Given the numerous Japanophiles in our household, we are moved to celebrate Setsubun. First, we eat special sushi rolls containing seven ingredients—seven being a lucky number—in complete silence, while facing the auspicious direction for the year (in 2010 it’s sort of south-southeast) and making a New Year wish. After dinner we eat one roasted soybean for each year of our lives so far, pondering the memorable events. This alone keeps certain of us busy for some time. Then we toss the remaining soybeans out into the darkness and shout ONI WA SOTO! FUKU WA UCHI! to chase away wicked demons (and wary neighbors) and bring happiness. Some people (not us) also hang a fish head on the front door. Depending upon the kind of demon, I bet this is pretty effective.

Light Those Fires


Today we celebrate two festivals: Groundhog Day, at which time we learn, as the groundhog emerges from his burrow, whether or not the end of winter is near; and Candlemas, when, in the Christian church, the infant Jesus was presented for the first time in the Temple. Each is a festival of light in a season of darkness, ever-necessary even in a world of perpetual artificial illumination. (Probably more so.)

On this day, some people make the candles they will then store and use the following winter. Others make crêpes, a lovely round golden symbol of the coming sunshine (and if you can flip your crêpe without dropping it, you will supposedly have luck in the coming year). Some spend the evening entirely by candlelight, which really makes you think about the meaning of darkness, and the legacy of Thomas Edison. And some gather around the tv screen to watch Bill Murray in Groundhog Day, and laugh and feel hopeful all over again. In our family we have done each of the above. But not all the same year. Happy February 2nd, all.

CakeBalloonsRoshan (which means “Bright Light”)

Something to Tell the Grandchildren


A year ago today over a million people converged upon Washington, DC to watch, or at least get as close as possible, even if it was only a nearby tunnel, as Barack Obama was sworn in as President of the United States. It was a day of extremes—vast numbers of people, below-freezing temperatures, ecstatic good humor. A splendid milestone in the country’s history: an optimistic, energetic, wise and good-hearted young man arrived willing to take on an unimaginably horrible mess. And it’s been like trying to clean up and repair the squalid and deteriorating family home of your recently departed mentally unstable grandfather while some of your cousins look on impatiently and others complain bitterly about the tile you chose for the bathroom.