An Hymn to Phillis


I post this painting and verse (“An Hymn to the Morning”) in honor of poet Phillis Wheatley (circa 1753-1784). Her birth date, and in fact her birth year, are unknown, but today is the anniversary of the day that she was emancipated from slavery. So we might think of that as a kind of birthday.

I chose this image to accompany her poem partly because of its depiction of dawn, but also because it was, unhappily, across the sea that Wheatley came to these shores, kidnapped in West Africa by slavers and sold in Boston. Her age was estimated at around seven or eight, because she had “already lost her front teeth,” a fact that clutches at the heart of any parent reading this unembellished observation. Or of anyone who knows a child… or remembers being a child. No tooth fairy for her, though. Her birth name went unrecorded, and her new owners blithely and undoubtedly without irony gave her the name Phillis, the name of the slave ship that had brought her to Boston, adding their own surname.

Phillis was a thin, sickly child (no surprise, after such a voyage), and although she was nursed and raised more as a child of the house than a slave, she remained delicate all her short life. Her owners soon recognized that Phillis was bright and precocious and put her education into the hands of their grown daughter Mary. Within sixteen months Phillis was fluent in English and could read even difficult passages in the Bible. Her education included Classical and English literature, geography, history, and Latin, as well as the ubiquitous Bible, plus heaps of poetry—an unusual education for a woman of the day, let alone an African slave. (Mary must have been given the same education.)

At around age twelve, Wheatley began writing her own poetry, and her first published work appeared in a Newport newspaper when she was fourteen. She felt a powerful drive to create poetry, and her owners encouraged her and assisted in its publication in journals in the colonies and in England. Much of the subject matter was quite somber, consisting of tributes to noteworthy personages of the day and elegies composed upon the death of someone’s spouse or child. They are complex in their use of language, employing ambiguity and subtle understatement, and allusions to Greek and Roman history and mythology as well as to the Bible. Wheatley was obviously assuming similar education on the part of her audience, and it’s pretty rough sledding for the 21st century reader. I liked this particular poem because of the rare note of humor in the closing lines, and was glad to imagine her having a small chuckle.

It wasn’t long before Wheatley’s poetry brought her attention. Her owners, unable to find a colonial backer to publish a book of her work, found a publisher in London, who agreed to the project if the work could be prefaced by a statement signed by respectable Bostonians testifying to its authenticity! Phillis was questioned by Boston’s judges, and the required document was procured (one of its 18 signers was John Hancock).

So off she went to England, accompanied by her owners’ grown son, where she spent several months overseeing the publication of her book and meeting both members of the nobility and free Britons of African descent. She was a celebrity. In England there was public criticism of Phillis’ American enslavement, which embarrassed her owners. It probably would have been possible for her to refuse to return to America, and to stay where she would have been free; nevertheless, on hearing of her mistress’ illness, she boarded ship for home, missing an upcoming opportunity to be presented at court. And shortly after her return, her owner signed her emancipation papers.

She was free. What did that mean? Well, her books belonged to her, and she tried to sell them to support herself. She continued to write poetry, including a tribute to George Washington, who invited her to come call on him, as he wished to meet “the little black poetess.” Phillis had hopes for the Revolution—that the new country, once freed from Britain’s yoke, would turn around and free its own yoked people. Her poetry, which had been necessarily ambiguous in its references to slavery, grew more clearly critical.

Happy Emancipation Day, Phillis! With your gifts and your drive to create, what would you have become in another era? Undoubtedly a published author of many works, making the author tours, speaking at bookstores, interviewed on National Public Radio’s Diane Rehm Show.

Attend my lays, ye ever honour’d nine,
Assist my labours, and my strains refine;
In smoothest numbers pour the notes along,
For bright Aurora now demands my song.
Aurora hail, and all the thousand dies,
Which deck thy progress through the vaulted skies:
The morn awakes, and wide extends her rays,
On ev’ry leaf the gentle zephyr plays;
Harmonious lays the feather’d race resume,
Dart the bright eye, and shake the painted plume.
Ye shady groves, your verdant gloom display
To shield your poet from the burning day:
Calliope awake the sacred lyre,
While thy fair sisters fan the pleasing fire:
The bow’rs, the gales, the variegated skies
In all their pleasures in my bosom rise.
See in the east th’ illustrious king of day!
His rising radiance drives the shades away–
But Oh! I feel his fervid beams too strong,
And scarce begun, concludes th’ abortive song.

Phillis Wheatley

Justice of the Peace


This sketch is from a canal barge tour we took on the C&O Canal as part of our homeschooling Local History & Geography block. It was mid-week, and my daughter and I were the only non-senior citizens on the trip, so she was definitely the focus of kindly attention (being small and cute with long blond braids), which was fine with her. The restored barge was beautiful, the costumed guide was excellent, the mules were friendly, and it was a lovely day.

ANYWAY, I post the sketch in honor of Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas (1898-1980), whose birthday it is today. What, you may ask, is the connection?

Well, some of you may know that Douglas, in addition to serving for 36 years on the Supreme Court, was an avid outdoorsman and supported various environmental causes, even serving briefly on the board of the Sierra Club.

In the 1950s, an era newly keen on the divine glory of automobiles and expanses of concrete pavement, there was a movement in Congress, supported by The Washington Post, to replace the canal with a highway. Douglas, familiar with the canal’s scenery and wildlife, thought this an idiotic and short-sighted idea and challenged the Post’s editorial staff to accompany him on a hike of the canal’s entire length.

Douglas expected that perhaps a handful of folks might accompany him; however, news of the challenge spread, and by the departure date there were 58 in the group, including conservationists, historians, geologists, ornithologists, and zoologists. Each night when they crashed, the group had a free, informative lecture, offered by one of their traveling companions, on some aspect of the canal.

Word got around, and thousands of newspapers carried updates on the hikers. Organizations along the way hosted them and prepared meals. Children and townspeople watched for them and shouted their support. Some joined in for parts of the route.

Even given the ongoing attention, it was a tough hike. The C&O Canal is 185 miles long, and Douglas, age 55, maintained an average pace of 23 miles a day. This was a man who had, after all, hiked the 2,000-mile Appalachian Trail. Only eight of his companions made it to the end. By then, public support to save the canal was enormous. Douglas organized and worked with a committee to plan its restoration and preservation, and The Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park Act finally passed in 1971.

Canal-lovers, imagine this place as a highway! Today it’s one of the most popular national parks in the U.S., enjoyed by millions of hikers, boaters, bicyclists, and birdwatchers. Not to mention the birds themselves, as well as countless fish, frogs, beaver, fox, and deer. Happy Birthday, Justice Douglas! We have you to thank for this gift, all year round.


CakeYellowRosesAunt Bett

this is the garden

In honor of Edward Estlin Cummings (1894-1962), whose birthday it is today, a painting and a poem.


this is the garden: colours come and go,
frail azures fluttering from night’s outer wing
strong silent greens serenely lingering,
absolute lights like baths of golden snow.
This is the garden: pursed lips do blow
upon cool flutes within wide glooms, and sing
(of harps celestial to the quivering string)
invisible faces hauntingly and slow.

This is the garden. Time shall surely reap
and on Death’s blade lie many a flower curled,
in other lands where other songs be sung;
yet stand They here enraptured, as among
the slow deep trees perpetual of sleep
some silver-fingered fountain steals the world.

—ee cummings



Somewhere in the world there must be a person turning ten years old on this day, perhaps even someone actually born at 10:10 in the morning. Happy Birthday to you! It’s a special one.

In honor of this day, here is a page from my daughter’s first grade homeschooling main lesson book, Numbers. I don’t know about you, but I am perfectly content to be living in a base-ten number world, with the ten represented by a one followed by a zero. And it was not a foregone conclusion. We could be living in a base-twenty world, like the ancient Mayan, Aztec, Celtic, and Germanic peoples (remnants of which groupings by twenty survive in some modern European counting systems). Or a base-sixty world, like the Babylonians. Or, we could be using base ten but still be lumbering along in lengthy strings of Roman numerals, with nary a zero to be seen. And the computer would never have been born.


Birthday blessings from near and far

Today is the birthday of my cousin Dianne and her twin sister Monica. Dianne is in critical condition in the ICU with complications following a bone marrow transplant from her sister Erin. Not the ideal place to celebrate a birthday, but the extended family have all been working together to monitor her treatment, keep her household and business running, and make the celebration as festive as possible under the circumstances. All that love and care is healing in itself.



Language Lover


Here’s the answer to a question that has probably been puzzling you for some time. What do the Sphinx and the sphincter have in common? Well, they share a root in the Greek verb sphingein, to squeeze. The Sphinx, if you recall, punished those unable to solve its riddles by strangling—squeezing the air out of them. And if you’ve ever been eight months pregnant, desperately searching for the nearest ladies’ restroom, you’ve done a little squeezing yourself.

This post is in honor of Roy Blount, Jr., whose birthday it is today, and thanks to whom I discovered this etymological nugget. I first became acquainted with Roy Blount, Jr. through listening to NPR’s “Wait Wait, Don’t Tell Me,” a humorous and intelligent Saturday morning current-events quiz show to which I am sufficiently addicted to plan my weekend cooking blitz for its time slot. Blount is one of the participants, and I said to myself, “Who is this smart, funny man with the sexy, crumbly, Southern-accented voice?” and I immediately added him to the list of Guys I Admire, which includes my husband and son (at the top, naturally), Gregor Mendel, and Hektor, hero of Troy, among others.

Blount was actually born in Indiana, so he must have picked up his Southern accent in high school in Georgia. Besides the vast amount of work he does for radio and numerous periodicals, he’s written plays, screenplays, and song lyrics, and is the author of many works of fiction and non-fiction about (to name a few subjects) sports, politics, gender relations, domestic animals, poetry, and hair. The first book of his I opened was Alphabet Juice, a book hard to describe but a must-have for the bookshelf of any language-lover. Therein Blount explores from A to Zyzzyva (a class of weevils) words that intrigue, excite, or annoy him, contemplating in the process multiple dictionaries, Indo-European roots, and popular culture. Happy Birthday, Roy! How’s this for a birthday present: a “roy blount” as a meme for “curious word or phrase worthy of investigation.”

Answer: A cow.

Something there is that loves a wall

I post this hastily drawn very poor sketch of my son in Paris in honor of King Philippe-Auguste of France (sorry, Your Majesty), whose birthday it is today.


Years ago, when we lived in Paris, I encountered Philippe-Auguste (1165-1223) in a roundabout way, by means of the wall that he had constructed around the city for its protection between 1190 and 1215. The Gaulois had probably had a palisade around their village on the island of Lutetia (as Paris was formerly known), and a rampart certainly existed under Roman occupation of the Parisii as protection from barbarian invasion, but Philippe-Auguste’s wall was a great leap beyond these.

His wall, built of two outer walls of dressed stone and filled with rubble, grew to be twenty to twenty-five feet high and about ten feet thick at the base, with a walkway on the top, and along it were interspersed 77 towers and eleven gates (four more were added later). At the same time he built a fortress on the left bank of the Seine to defend from invasion by water. Little did Philippe know that one day eight million foreign invaders annually would traipse through his fortress (now greatly expanded in size and function) to stare at the Venus de Milo and the Mona Lisa.

People tended to build residences up against such city walls, making use of them for the back of the house. Voilà! one less wall to build! and a sturdy one besides!—trés commode. As the population grew, houses were also built up against the outside of the city wall (although citizens abandoned these homes and retreated within the walls during sieges). Eventually there were so many new people and structures that a new wall had to be built outside the old one. And so on.

Paris had a succession of these walls, a few reminders of which survive today. The Porte-Saint-Denis in the 10th arrondissement, for example, was built in 1672 to celebrate one of Louis XIV’s military victories. It actually replaced a medieval gate in the wall built by Charles V between 1364 and 1380 (one of the towers of which was the Bastille). But the medieval wall itself is long gone. Only Louis’ fancy newfangled gate remains to laud him and to recall the ghost wall. Some of the grand boulevards follow circuits of disappeared walls. But generally earlier walls were removed to make way for new construction.

But, because they tended to be incoporated into structures rather than replaced by roads, some fragments of Philippe’s 12th century wall survive. For some reason this wall has always fascinated me. Or, rather, what remains of it. Some is invisible, woven into the foundations of modern Paris (which exists above the level of the medieval city). But numerous fragments are visible, like this one on the rue Clovis, behind my son. Others can be found within buildings, down hallways, through shop windows. One lives in an underground parking garage, surrounded by Renaults and Peugeots. And a long stretch (now part of a lycée) stands on the rue des Jardins St.-Paul, and includes one of the 77 towers. There is a wonderful website with photos of these fragments.

Paris, like other continuously inhabited ancient cities of the world, is an architectural palimpsest, and perhaps that’s the source of fascination to one who grew up in an American suburb. Happy Birthday, Philippe-Auguste! You builded better than you knew.

Father and Daughter

Here is a sketch from a past beach vacation, which is when our family customarily plays lots of card games. (We are all especially addicted to La Belle Lucie.) A doting father is so tolerant of a girl’s little foibles. Like cheating at Go Fish.

In honor of Ogden Nash (1902-1971), whose birthday it is today, I post his poem, “Song To Be Sung by the Father of Infant Female Children.” At one time my son wouldn’t have been amused by its depiction of boys. Now, as a big brother, he also has morphed into fatherly protective mode.


My heart leaps up when I behold
A rainbow in the sky;
Contrariwise, my blood runs cold
When little boys go by.
For little boys as little boys,
No special hate I carry,
But now and then they grow to men,
And when they do, they marry.
No matter how they tarry,
Eventually they marry.
And, swine among the pearls,
They marry little girls.
Oh, somewhere, somewhere, an infant plays,
With parents who feed and clothe him.
Their lips are sticky with pride and praise,
But I have begun to loathe him.
Yes, I loathe with loathing shameless
This child who to me is nameless.
This bachelor child in his carriage
Gives never a thought to marriage,
But a person can hardly say knife
Before he will hunt him a wife.
I never see an infant (male),
A-sleeping in the sun,
Without I turn a trifle pale
And think is he the one?
Oh, first he’ll want to crop his curls,
And then he’ll want a pony,
And then he’ll think of pretty girls,
And holy matrimony.
A cat without a mouse
Is he without a spouse.
Oh, somewhere he bubbles bubbles of milk,
And quietly sucks his thumbs.
His cheeks are roses painted on silk,
And his teeth are tucked in his gums.
But alas the teeth will begin to grow,
And the bubbles will cease to bubble;
Given a score of years or so,
The roses will turn to stubble.
He’ll sell a bond, or he’ll write a book,
And his eyes will get that acquisitive look,
And raging and ravenous for the kill,
He’ll boldly ask for the hand of Jill.
This infant whose middle
Is diapered still
Will want to marry
My daughter Jill.
Oh sweet be his slumber and moist his middle!
My dreams, I fear, are infanticiddle.
A fig for embryo Lohengrins!
I’ll open all his safety pins,
I’ll pepper his powder, and salt his bottle,
And give him readings from Aristotle.
Sand for his spinach I’ll gladly bring,
And Tabasco sauce for his teething ring.
Then perhaps he’ll struggle through fire and water
To marry somebody else’s daughter.

Ogden Nash


The Man with the Plan


Here is a drawing from our homeschooling Local History and Geography book, in honor of Pierre Charles L’Enfant (1754-1825), whose birthday it is today. Because of other obligations I cannot give him the lengthy post he deserves, but I hope to do him justice in 2011.

L’Enfant, an artist and son of an artist, came from France with the Marquis de Lafayette, as most Washingtonians probably know, to fight alongside the American colonists for independence, and later, having impressed the General with his battlefield sketches, was appointed by George Washington to design the United States’ new capital, Washington, DC. He created a a plan which was unfulfilled during his lifetime and has been only incompletely followed since, but which nevertheless gives us today this lovely and unusual city.

L’Enfant examined a quiet, hilly site of woodland, meadow, and marsh, uninhabited but for a handful of farms and the tiny port of Georgetown, and visualized an orderly grid overlaid by wide diagonal avenues allowing for long vistas, designed to incorporate stately public buildings, canals, bridges, squares, parks, and monuments: not simply a new bureaucratic center, but a Grand Capital for a young, energetic New Nation.

He had also a number of sensible, intelligent ideas as to how construction of the new city might have been financed, which were unfortunately never followed. Reading about the snail-like early development of the city, its wrangling political factions, its stodgy unimaginative Commissioners, and its greedy unscrupulous speculators, would make your hair stand on end. It also sounds uncomfortably familiar.

In the midst of it L’Enfant and Washington kept before them the vision of a finished work. Along the way L’Enfant, a hot-headed and demonstrative fellow, offended any number of people by vehemently defending his plans against unattractive provincial alterations (like any artist worth his salt) to the point of knocking down a new house that intruded on one of the proposed avenues. Not the way to keep your job. Which he finally lost after an exasperated Washington could no longer defend him against his many critics. L’Enfant remained bitter about his treatment—he was never paid for his work, although others made considerable sums through its implementation—and spent his remaining years as the poverty-stricken guest of a kind friend in rural Maryland, to be buried finally in their garden.

He has since been removed to a more honorable site in Arlington Cemetery, overlooking the city that finally rose to meet his expectations. Happy Birthday, Pierre, and I hope you are enjoying the view.