Another winter, another sketchbook. The Virgin Mary gazing protectively over the snowy Holy Cross Hospital parking lot. It struck me as both funny and extremely poignant.
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Then you may get a sense of the resilience and inner resources of the family of Laura Ingalls Wilder (1867-1957), whose birthday it is today. Such was the winter they experienced in Dakota Territory during the winter of 1880-81.
Wilder, born in a log cabin in Wisconsin, is well-known from her “Little House” books depicting 19th-century pioneer life through the eyes of a growing child. They are unique in combining a finely observed and personal yet unsentimental window into iconic aspects of American history: travel by covered wagon, homesteading, Indian migration, education in a one-room schoolhouse—with fascinating homely detail: cheesemaking, house construction, sugaring off—and a glimpse into the inner life of a bright, curious, imaginative girl struggling to adapt to the circumstances of her time and place.
The family’s joys are simple, their sorrows formidable. Crop devastation, malaria, prairie fires, and a sister’s blindness are described; the death of a baby brother is left unrecorded, probably still too painful to include. The books are a quiet testament to stubborn faith, determination, love, and courage, virtues frequently lauded but less often demonstrated. A bouquet of wildflowers on a clean checkered tablecloth and a family hymn accompanied by the paternal fiddle are the stuff of a boundary between hope and despair.
Although she had written magazine articles and newspaper columns, Wilder didn’t publish her first book until 1931, when she was 64, after having been asked for years by her daughter Rose to put her childhood memories on paper. Since then her books have been published in 40 languages and have informed, inspired, and enchanted many millions of readers. Happy Birthday, Laura Ingalls Wilder! You certainly were (and remain) a shining light of my growing-up.
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.
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.
Today is the birthday of [James] Langston Hughes (1902-1967), born in Joplin, Missouri. After his parents’ divorce, Hughes spent his childhood with a number of relatives, including his grandmother, who was one of the first women to graduate from Oberlin College. She taught him Bible stories, hymns, and the history of African-American heroes, among them Hughes family members. We can here speculate that this probably had a long-term effect on a thoughtful child with an ear for language.
During his rather isolated early childhood, Hughes began writing his own stories and poems. Despite his father’s disapproval (his father wanted him to become an engineer), he persisted, developing a sensitive, passionate voice that was influenced by jazz, blues, and the speech and concerns of ordinary black Americans. Frustration led him to drop out of Columbia University and try something else. Before he achieved recognition for his writing, Hughes worked as a merchant seaman, busboy, cook, dishwasher, and Paris doorman(!). Wanderlust and perhaps a hopeful temperament made a traveler of him. Hughes said, “Most people are essentially good, in every race and in every country where I have been.”
In his life he spent time in Mexico, West Africa, Europe, and the Soviet Union, as well as all over the States, but of all places he loved Harlem best. His first (and prize-winning) book of poems was about Harlem life. He went on to write many books of poetry, novels, essays, short stories, song lyrics, and plays. In the 1930s his work was attacked by critics as disturbingly dark; by the 1960s it was attacked as insufficiently radical. This may be the inevitable fate of many a creative person who lives long enough to endure it.