Hope for America

I’ll bet you thought I was about to announce an alternative to fossil fuels, or at least an exciting new political candidate.


No, tonight is the opening reception for a new exhibition in the Bob Hope Gallery at the Library of Congress on which my husband has been working for the past several months. It’s one of many history exhibitions he’s created for the LOC over the years. Hope for America: Performers, Politics & Pop Culture explores the involvement of entertainers in politics throughout the 20th century, often through satirical commentary, sometimes through direct participation. There is also a moving segment on Hope’s work for the USO entertaining troops all over the world, which he did for SEVENTY YEARS. The exhibition features film and television clips and radio broadcasts as well as photos, letters, sheet music, and other artifacts to tell the story.

If you are in the DC area, come visit! I’ll bet you could use a few belly laughs. (This is the cover of the brochure I designed for the exhibit.)


Sea Fever

I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky,
And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by,
And the wheel’s kick and the wind’s song and the white sail’s shaking,
And a gray mist on the sea’s face, and a gray dawn breaking.

I must go down to the seas again, for the call of the running tide
Is a wild call and a clear call that may not be denied;
And all I ask is a windy day with the white clouds flying,
And the flung spray and the blown spume, and the sea-gulls crying.

I must go down to the seas again, to the vagrant gypsy life,
To the gull’s way and the whale’s way, where the wind’s like a whetted knife;
And all I ask is a merry yarn from a laughing fellow-rover,
And quiet sleep and a sweet dream when the long trick’s over.

—John Masefield


My mother shared with my husband a deep love of sailing ships and the sea, as well as sea-related poetry and books. They discovered together and passed back and forth the entire Patrick O’Brien series, set aboard ship during the Napoleonic Wars. (My mother was convinced she had been a cabin boy in some past life and had drowned off the White Horse Reef.)

At her memorial service, my dear husband, never one to stand up and speak before a crowd, decided to read aloud in my mother’s honor this poignant and evocative poem they both love, written by John Masefield (1878-1967), whose birthday it is today. For me now my mother and my husband are forever within its lines.


Irish Skies are Smiling


My husband has a widget on his desktop with which he tracks the weather in his favorite places. Orcas Island, in Washington state. Montpelier, Vermont. Paris, France. And Dublin, Ireland, where for the last couple of weeks it’s been sunny, with a high in the low 70s.

The weather we experienced in Ireland was more like this (above). Beautiful, but “soft.” As they say, there is no bad weather; only the wrong clothes.


Earth Day

From my sketchbook. My husband regarding the earth from a Shenandoah Valley peak.


Today is Earth Day, a day on which we attempt to recall that Mother Earth is the source of all life and nourishment and that we ought to stop greedily stuffing ourselves with her resources and dumping toxic waste all over her. Human beings are clearly a bunch of sloppy ungrateful thankless brats. What’s a mother to do? Lose her cool? Blow her top?

A holiday to celebrate the Earth was proposed in 1969 by peace activist John McConnell and was originally, and logically, intended to be celebrated on the Equinox, around March 22nd. In fact the first Earth Day WAS celebrated on March 22nd, 1970, in San Francisco, California.

However, U.S. Senator Gayelord Nelson of Wisconsin had, coincidentally, planned an environmental awareness day to take place that same year, on April 22nd. This event coordinated the efforts of a number of autonomous grass-roots environmental groups who had been working independently of one another on different issues for a while—air and water pollution, oil spills, pesticides, loss of green space, extinction of species, various other environmental disasters—and who recognized their common purpose. The April 22nd event received more attention and thus determined the future “official” date. It was a movement in embryo just waiting for its birthday. Millions participated in the celebration, all over the country.

Only a few years earlier Rachel Carson had been vilified for her condemnation of DDT; now the brand-new Environmental Protection Agency burst onto the scene. Then the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Followed by a slew of environmental legislation: The Clean Air Act. The Water Pollution Control Act. The Safe Drinking Water Act. The Endangered Species Act. The Toxic Substances Control Act. Then we got fuel efficiency standards for cars. That one’s been harder for Americans to get used to, given their love of enormous cars, and their increasingly enormous rear ends. It’s amazing how quickly things moved along in the first decade (grinding to a standstill and retreating for a while in the 80s under the Reagan “You’ve Seen One Tree You’ve Seen Them All” administration).

In 1990 Earth Day was declared an annual national holiday, and it went global. Now it’s a huge international event marked by every conceivable environment-friendly related activity. “The environment” is no longer a fringe issue. We recycle, we compost, we buy organic, we conserve water, we take public transportation, we use the energy-efficient bulbs with their repellent prison-like glow. (I am told they are getting better.) Living green is not only socially acceptable; it’s a Madison Avenue device to sell more products (kind of defeats the goal of preserving the environment). The White House, the EPA, the National Park Service, Greenpeace, National Geographic, every community large and small (except perhaps the NRA), you name it, has its Earth Day events, publicized on their websites, through which citizens can do something to educate themselves and/or make a difference. I am going to tell my own neighbors about two of them right now:

April 22nd, 2010: 7:00pm at the Cleveland Park Library, Melanie Choukas-Bradley, author of City of Trees, will give a talk about the botanical history and diversity of Washington, DC. For more information, please call (202) 282-3080.

April 24th, 2010: 9 to 11am, a neighborhood ivy-pulling-and-trash-cleanup event in the park along Rock Creek Drive and Normanstone Drive. All ages. For more information, please email woodlandnormanstoneneighbors@gmail.com.

I hope you are finding a useful and jolly community event in your own neighborhood. And remember…“every day is Earth Day.”



My Heart Leaps Up

My heart leaps up when I behold
A rainbow in the sky.
So was it when my life began;
So is it now I am a man;
So be it when I grow old,
Or let me die!
The Child is father of the Man;
And I could wish my days to be
Bound each to each by natural piety.
—William Wordsworth


(painting is a detail from a larger work, The Age of Reason)

Whenever someone in the family mentions a rainbow, my husband launches into this poem. (It’s now inevitably become a sort of family tradition—wait for it….) And today we celebrate the fortuitous birthday of its author, William Wordsworth (1770-1850), born in Cumberland, England.

Is it obligatory for English poets to have had unhappy childhoods? Wordsworth’s was no exception—his father, mysteriously, lived apart from the family, and when the children’s mother died, instead of taking them in, he parcelled them out between boarding schools and a series of unpleasant misery-inducing relatives. Wordsworth wasn’t reunited with his beloved favorite sister Dorothy for years. The highlight of his dismal schooling (besides introducing him to his future wife) was the holidays, which he consistently spent going long walks in nature and writing poetry.

At twenty Wordsworth set off on a walking tour of Italy, Switzerland, and post-Revolutionary France, where he became a passionate advocate of the republican cause. In France he formed a liaison with a local girl, but the relationship was discouraged by her parents (despite his having fathered a daughter whom he visited and supported rather erratically over the years). He returned home alone, disillusioned by the increasing violence of the revolution and England’s violent response to it, aimless, without profession, depressed.

This dark period was finally relieved by a legacy from Raisley Calvert, a sculptor and loyal former classmate, that allowed Wordsworth to support himself while writing poetry. May we all be so fortunate in our old school friends! With a steady income, he was able to form a household with Dorothy and their mutual friend Samuel Coleridge that Dorothy termed “three persons with one soul.”

It was a creative partnership that marked the birth of English Romanticism. Inspired by one another, Wordsworth and Coleridge produced innovative, experimental, controversial poetry, and Dorothy’s letters (luckily for literary historians) documented the process. Wordsworth defined poetry as “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings” but his rapture was borne within measured frameworks, among them the sonnet form, which Wordsworth reawakened after its long disuse. In 1798 they published Lyrical Ballads (“Tintern Abbey,” “The Idiot Boy,” “Rime of the Ancient Mariner”) and Romanticism was up and running.

The Romantic movement emphasized the value of individual experience, the contributions of ethnic traditions and folklore, the primal power of wild landscape and the wonders of nature, a consciousness of the infinite, and the use of imagination and the senses as a path to spiritual truth. It was a break from the formal elegance, polish, dignity and conservative restraint that characterized the formerly hot movement, Neoclassicism. Instead of, say, a series of elevated dramatic couplets on the epic semi-divine hero of ancient tragedy, we have a lyrical meditation on the soul-response to a sea of daffodils, or to the loss of a much-loved child. A personal perspective on life, the natural world, and mortality.

Yes…quite a break! taken up by Blake, Scott, and Göethe, followed by a whole string of younger Romantic poets and writers (Byron, Shelley, Keats, Hugo, Dumas, Pushkin) and the Transcendentalists (Emerson, Thoreau) and later the Victorians (Browning, Tennyson). Where would it end?? Culture as well as politics seems to be an ongoing struggle between the poles of head and heart, with adherents of each movement certain of having achieved a universally valid means of expression. But that is a subject for another post.

The partnership foundered on a falling-out with Coleridge, a pretty gloomy fellow, as one would expect of someone who writes a lengthy baffling poem about a curse-bearing dead albatross. Wordsworth and Dorothy moved on, settling eventually in the beautiful Lake District, that region abundant in literary inspiration and indomitable tourists. Joined by Robert Southey, the two became known as the “Lake Poets,” and Wordsworth married and proceeded to have five children. A sizable household. But a household that, as any other, had its share of suffering, with the drowning of William and Dorothy’s brother, and the deaths of three of the children. Wordsworth’s poetry grew more sober, restrained, and elegiac. In fact in his later years, while serving as England’s poet laureate, he was criticized by younger writers for his increasing conservatism. Suffering and loss does shade and temper youthful abandon.

Even if you can’t recite a Romantic poem in entirety, you know that your head is filled with lovely memorable fragments (“Dear God! the very houses seem asleep; And all that mighty heart is lying still…” “I wandered lonely as a cloud That floats on high o’er vales and hills…” “The Soul that rises with us, our life’s Star, Hath had elsewhere its setting, And cometh from afar…”) that are part of our literary legacy and that emerge in moments of wonder and joy. For the fragments, for the poetry, for the consciousness that shaped them, and for my husband’s regular recital of the rainbow poem, thank you, William Wordsworth, and Happy Birthday.

i carry your heart with me

My dear husband, celebrating Passover a couple of years ago with friends. I chose this picture from my sketchbook because we are once again entering the season. And also because I think he looks really good in a yarmulke. (I hope that’s not sacrilegious.) He was diagnosed with a heart condition since then and yesterday suffered an episode that sent us to the ER for most of the day. He’s in the hospital now, under observation on a new medication. Please send your kind healing thoughts his way.


i carry your heart with me(i carry it in
my heart)i am never without it(anywhere
i go you go,my dear; and whatever is done
by only me is your doing,my darling)
i fear
no fate(for you are my fate,my sweet)i want
no world(for beautiful you are my world,my true)
and it’s you are whatever a moon has always meant
and whatever a sun will always sing is you

here is the deepest secret nobody knows
(here is the root of the root and the bud of the bud
and the sky of the sky of a tree called life;which grows
higher than the soul can hope or mind can hide)
and this is the wonder that’s keeping the stars apart

i carry your heart(i carry it in my heart)

—e.e. cummings