This year has been a disappointment for so many people and a disaster for some. Almost all the notes written on holiday cards from friends include some reference to being shocked and depressed by the election results last month. We are all wondering what the spring and summer will bring.
At a time like this it is a relief to take refuge in some of the books I have loved since childhood. I remember a poem by Oliver Herford that I read many years ago:
I heard a bird sing
In the dark of December
A magical thing
And sweet to remember.
“We are nearer to Spring
Than we were in September,”
I heard a bird sing
In the dark of December.
That poem was in a book called More Silver Pennies that my mother bought in a second-hand bookstore. It has echoed in my head every January for years.
When I was growing up, my friends and I had access to many poems that we read and reread. As a preteen I remember finding a book of Dorothy Parker’s poems at the home of one of my Girl Scout leaders. My best friend and I used to giggle over Parker’s verses when the scout meetings seemed long. We especially liked this one:
Razors pain you;
Rivers are damp;
Acids stain you;
And drugs cause cramp.
Guns aren’t lawful;
Gas smells awful;
You might as well live.
That struck us as the most sophisticated and witty language we had ever heard. Parker gave us a glimpse of the glittering world of Manhattan just across the river from the quiet streets of Queens. We both decided that someday we would live in that world.
I know that school children today are encouraged to write their own poetry and express their feelings, but I hope they are also reading other people’s poetry. Poems, especially the old-fashioned kind that have rhythm and rhyme, linger in the mind and can be a lifelong pleasure.
Another favorite poet of my childhood was, of course, Emily Dickinson. Her works were everywhere—in schools and libraries . Teachers read them to us and we recited them back in class during Friday afternoon poetry sessions. Some of them are still with me.
“Hope” is the thing with feathers –
That perches in the soul –
And sings the tune without the words –
And never stops – at all –
And sweetest – in the Gale – is heard –
And sore must be the storm –
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm –
I’ve heard it in the chillest land –
And on the strangest Sea –
Yet – never – in Extremity,
It asked a crumb – of me.
At the end of this long and trying year, I am grateful I grew up with poetry. I hope children today are doing the same. Hope remains. Let’s all keep it in our hearts during the year ahead.
Not every American celebrates Christmas, but if you have been spending any time at shopping malls or downtown city centers in the past few weeks, you might assume that everyone did. Department stores and public transit are jammed with people buying either for themselves or others. Whether Christian, Jewish, or Muslim, the stores welcome everyone who celebrates the holiday season by spending money. Recently I saw a news item designed to help people prepare for the holiday season:
It’s never too early to start shopping for Christmas gifts! Undoubtedly, Christmas can be one of the most celebrated yet equally stressful times of the year. First of all, consumers scramble their brains for great Christmas gift ideas followed by some frenzied Christmas shopping.
But it wasn’t always this way. In colonial times, celebrating Christmas was made a crime in some areas. Massachusetts passed a law against the keeping of Christmas and fined anyone who chose to acknowledge a holiday that was popular in Catholic countries. It
wasn’t until the mid-nineteenth century when German and Irish immigrants flocked into the country that Christmas trees were introduced and Christmas gradually became the most popular holiday in the country.
It wasn’t long after Christmas started to be celebrated on this side of the ocean that people began to complain about how stressful it all was. In 1874 Fanny Kemble wrote:
Christmas is a season of such infinite labor, as well as expense in the shopping and present-making line, that almost every woman I know is good for nothing in purse and person for a month afterwards, done up physically, and broken down financially.
And so it goes. After two hundred years of Christmas celebrations, Americans still haven’t decided whether the holiday is a wonderful way to celebrate with friends and family or a fraud imposed by greedy marketers to encourage needless spending and anxiety. If the average American didn’t enjoy the holiday, they wouldn’t be crowding all the shopping malls and buying endless supplies of turkey and chocolates.
Perhaps we should stop worrying about how other people waste their time and money during the holiday season and just sit back and do whatever we want to do with our own family and friends. At least the lights of Christmas, Hanukah, and Kwanza brighten up the chilly midwinter season and strengthen us to face the beginning of a turbulent new year.
I’m wishing the whole world Christmas—
The children, the beasts, and the birds;
I’m wishing the whole world Christmas—
And I’d like to have magical words
To wish just the shining wish I would wish
In the Christmas words I would say,
For I’m wishing the whole world Christmas,
And joy on Christmas Day.
During the past week, newspapers and other news sources have carried stories about two world leaders who share a characteristic rare among the powerful players on the
international scene—they are both women and both are Asian. Women have not had an easy time reaching the heights of power in Asian countries, but they have moved faster
than American women. The stories about President Tsai Ing-wen of Taiwan (above) and President Park Geun-hye of South Korea (below) have made me think about the fact that the United States is lagging behind many other countries in having a power structure that includes both men and women. What is it that makes us so backward?
Thinking about this inspired me to go back to a book I read a few years ago— Jung Chung’s biography Empress Dowager Cixi: The Concubine Who Launched Modern China (Knopf 2013). I wrote a blog post about it at the time, but recent events both here and
around the world makes the book even more relevant today.
Cixi was born in 1835, during a period when China was isolated from most other countries. A few Europeans and Americans had visited China, but there was little trade between China and the West and even less understanding. Chinese leaders considered the Westerners to be barbarians and most Westerners scorned the Chinese as ignorant and backward. Cixi was destined to revolutionize the relations between China and the rest of the world.
Girls and women at that time were not expected to play any role in public life. They existed to provide sons and heirs to their husbands. Cixi went to the royal court as one of many
concubines for the emperor, but she had the great good luck to bear a healthy son. This changed her life. The emperor was sickly and because Cixi could read and write, she could help him handle his government duties. Doing this taught her a lot about government and how it worked. When the emperor died young, Cixi’s five-year-old son became emperor.
Cixi was intelligent and politically astute. Her husband had appointed eight regents to govern the country while his son was a child, but Cixi knew she could do the job better. She allied herself with her husband’s childless wife and the two of them became guardians of Cixi’s son, the child emperor, and effectively ruled the country. Because women could not be acknowledged as rulers, Cixi sat behind the royal throne, concealed by a screen, to listen to official reports and make decisions about what should be done.
During the late 1800s, Europe and America because more aware of the valuable resources China had to offer to the world. Europeans and Americans, as well as the Japanese, competed to get access to natural resources and to the China trade. The struggle led to the Opium Wars and to many other battles. Cixi and some of her supporters recognized that in order to keep the country independent they had to accept some Western ways. Education was reformed so that young students learned more than just the classics of Chinese literature; representatives were sent to Europe and America and foreign diplomats were finally welcomed into the Chinese court.
Cixi was by no means a perfect person; she could be cruel and impose harsh punishments and death upon her enemies, but she set the course of China toward modernization. By the time she died in 1908, China was ready to enter the twentieth century and take its place on the world stage. Now, more than a hundred years later, reading about the Dowager Empress Cixi gives us an idea of what a strong and powerful woman she was. Her determination and strength can help us to understand where China is today—a world leader. And reading about how the Dowager Empress was maligned and underestimated by many of the leaders in her own country and internationally may make us ponder whether Americans are also underestimating the women leaders in our country. I strongly recommend reading Jung Chung’s book Empress Dowager Cixi: The Concubine Who Launched Modern China (Knopf 2013).