Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Memorization Challenge: Disturb Us Lord

Who knew that as I faced one of the busiest weeks of the year I would turn to the inspiring words of an age-old English privateer. In fact, this week will mark the close of what has been an intensely dense three months, packed with studies, performances, writing projects and presentations. It's for this reason that the posts have been sparse lately.

Here I am contradicting the very advice I've posted on my own blog; I've made myself so busy that I can't appreciate the little things, or share them, like I need to. On the other hand, all of us have moments from time to time when we can look back at an arduous trail, once so barren and threatening, and in our swollen feelings of accomplishment see instead a verdant walkway filled with gentle sunshine. These difficult periods in our life are what make us. They test us and try us. They work like a whetstone against our purest character.

Here's a personal example. I have a little brother, Chip, who loves to play basketball. A year ago he was placed on the seventh grade basketball team with a group of boys a year older than him. The resulting basketball season didn't award him much playing time and it certainly didn't inflate any of his stats. It was a school of hard knocks, playing against boys that were bigger and more aggressive than him on the court.

This year he signed up to play basketball in the city's parks and recreation league where he was put on a team with kids his own age. He had his first game this week and, truth be told, had a quiet first half. But after half-time, when his coach gave him the go-ahead to take some shots, that brother of mine stepped up and took full advantage of the experience his proverbial rougher seas had given him the year before.

It started with a jump shot, nothing too flashy. He threw the ball up and it came down, nothing but net. The next time down the court, he pulled up a few feet from behind the three-point arc and launched another. Swish! The momentum started to build and before the end of the quarter he sank two more jumpers. When the fourth quarter began he revved up his engines again. As he drained shot after shot, the spectators in the gymnasium slowly worked themselves into a mild frenzy. The streak continued and each time he launched the ball towards the hoop, silence filled the room until the net's beautiful "swoosh" sound cued the the crowd to go wild. By the end of the game, he scored 18 points in the second half alone and for a seventh grader, that's not bad. Hey, for any player that's not bad.

Chip's performance illustrated a difficult lesson we could all remember more often. It takes hard times to make us great. Sir Francis Drake, the great naval captain, understood that all too well when he signed on to fight the Spanish Armada on behalf on England or when he circumnavigated the Earth in the 1500s. His credo was beautifully immortalized in a prayer, attributed to him, called Disturb Us Lord.

My favorite line in this is "Where storms will show your mastery; Where losing sight of land, We shall find the stars." It's absolutely moving.

Disturb Us Lord

Disturb us, Lord, when
We are too well pleased with ourselves,
When our dreams have come true
Because we have dreamed too little,
When we arrived safely
Because we sailed too close to the shore.

Disturb us, Lord, when
With the abundance of things we possess
We have lost our thirst
For the waters of life;
Having fallen in love with life,
We have ceased to dream of eternity
And in our efforts to build a new earth,
We have allowed our vision
Of the new Heaven to dim.

Disturb us, Lord, to dare more boldly,
To venture on wider seas
Where storms will show your mastery;
Where losing sight of land
We shall find the stars.

We ask You to push back
The horizons of ours hopes;
And to push into the future
In strength, courage, hope, and love.

-Sir Francis Drake 1577

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Memorization Challenge: The Tables Turned

I've been trying to take better notice of the beauty that surrounds me in nature. It's not easy. My mind gets so filled with checklists and deadlines that it's hard to slow down, breathe in for a second and smile at what life is offering. I'm in the thralls, or maybe the trenches, of formal education and assignments stack high. While I was buried in books and papers this week's poem hit me like a ton of bricks.

The piece is called The Tables Turned by William Wordsworth. There are several phrases that struck a vibrant chord with me, especially because of how busy I make myself. Somewhere in my head I hear my father's voice telling me he's concerned I'm spreading myself too thin. Don't worry Dad, I'm writing the worth of Wordsworth's words.... I'm sorry... I couldn't resist.

Wordsworth was a major English poet during the Romantic Period. He was born in the Lake District. His mostly absentee father taught him poetry and introduced him to authors like Milton and Shakespeare. He also sent little William to Hawkshead Grammar School in Lancashire. Wordsworth saw his first writing success when a sonnet he wrote was published in The European Magazine.

Wordsworth published a book of poetry with Samuel Taylor Coleridge called Lyrical Ballads. When writing the preface to the book Wordsworth noted that he wanted to write in the "true language of men" and insisted poetry is a "spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin in emotion recollected in tranquillity."

He was close with his sister, Dorothy, for all of his life. He lost a brother in a shipwreck. He lost another brother to the clergy. He traveled to Revolutionary France and fell in love with a woman there, with whom he had a child. He married a childhood friend.

Wordsworth's poetry sadly focuses on separation, grief and death, but he also is recognized for his ideas about the human mind and its connection to nature. His idealistic lines should be taken with a grain of salt though because the guy But his poetry still hits home for the busy-minded like myself. He writes like someone who knows what it is to feel time slip through his fingers; for that reason I feel a particular connection to his poetry.

In The Tables Turned a few lines really move the waters, so to speak. The first is the idea of a "meddling intellect." The power of the human mind is an incredible force. Sometimes, though, it doesn't know when to stop working. It analyzes, breaks down, compares, contrasts, accepts, rejects-- enough is enough. We "murder to dissect." Sometimes it's important to just look around and take in the world for how it is. It's great to admire and accept bits of life without carrying the burden of "figuring things out."

I love this poem because it sounds like a friend reminding me to take it easy and enjoy every moment.

The Tables Turned

Up! Up! my Friend, and quit your books;
Or surely you'll grow double:
Up! Up! my Friend, and clear your looks;
Why all this toil and trouble?

The sun above the mountain's head,
A freshening lustre mellow
Through all the long green fields has spread,
His first sweet evening's yellow.

Books! 'tis a dull and endless strife:
Come, hear the woodland linnet,
How sweet his music! on my life,
There's more of wisdom in it.

And hark! how blithe the throstle sings!
He, too, is no mean preacher:
Come forth into the light of things,
Let Nature be your teacher.

She has a world of ready wealth,
Our minds and hearts to bless--
Spontaneous wisdom breathed by health,
Truth by by cheerfulness.

One impulse from a vernal wood
May teach you more of man,
Of moral evil and of good,
Than all the sages can.

Sweet is the lore which Nature brings;
Our meddling intellect
Mis-shapes the beauteous forms of things:--
We murder to dissect.

Enough of Science and of Art;
Close up those barren leaves;
Come forth, and bring with you a heart
That watches and receives.

-William Wordsworth

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Memorization Test: The Apology

The other day as I was walking from appointment to appointment when I noticed that autumn had arrived. Right under my nose it had been delicately painting the trees, starting with the highest leaves and trickling to the bottom. While traveling beneath the limbs that extended over the sidewalks I was struck by all the deep seasonal colors.

Looking toward the mountains I noticed that the night before a slight snow had bleached some of the cliffs. The mixtures of whites, browns, oranges, yellows and greens were breathtaking. Where had the summer gone and how did I not notice nature's firework display until that morning?

As luck would have it, in the library there was an exhibit featuring Romanticism inspired by national parks. I can't believe how many incredible writers America produced during this period. In the display, writings from these authors on the importance of the interaction between man and nature. Among them were some words from Ralph Waldo Emerson. 

Emerson was born in Boston and it is a small wonder that he fell in love with nature there. An autumn in Boston is definitely on my bucket list. 

He went to Harvard College at 14. When he turned 23 he moved south, looking for warmer climates first in South Carolina and then in Florida. There he befriended the nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte and engaged in enlightening discussion about religion and philosophy. At the same time he witnessed the brutality of the slave trade, still thriving in Florida.

Emerson faced trauma in his private life. Several of his siblings died while they were still relatively young. His first wife died from tuberculosis only two years after their marriage. After her death he left his job as minister of a church, arguing that the structure of worship there only allowed the commemoration of Christ in an antiquated fashion. In reality, the death of his wife shook him out of his stalwart convictions. He craved the freedom to pursue a badly needed catharsis. 

He toured Europe, meeting other influential authors like William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge and John Stuart Mill. When he returned to the States he married again and bought a house in Concord, Massachusetts, which he named Bush. There he spent out the rest of his life.

Emerson was a pioneer of the transcendentalist movement. At the time the movement was considered a blend of atheism and individualism. Personally though, I question the criticism that Emerson faced regarding his opinions on deity. He was opposed to the established order of worship at the time. He was also opposed to the theories developed about Jesus throughout historic theological scholarship. He rightly recognized gaps in the doctrine and the established practice. 

The Emerson Clan
He had revolutionary ideas that assessed the motives for which men make their pursuits. You could say he was an advocate of nature, but for him it wasn't about nature; it was about philosophy. It's not about just appreciating nature's beauty; it's understanding the role of self in the scheme of something much larger. He was interested in going beyond the socially constructed expectations for mankind and learning, from something more perfect, what he was meant to understand.

I appreciate Emerson's ideas because they remind me to look beyond what is expected. In his poem, The Apology, he contrasts the ambition of industry with the extra bounty available everywhere but left unnoticed. 

I hope I can live the spirit of this poem better and learn to reap a second crop from the acres of my life.

The Apology

Think me not unkind or rude
   That I walk alone in grove and glen;
I go to the god of the wood
   To fetch his words to men.

Tax not my sloth that I
   Fold my arms beside the brook;
Each cloud that floated in the sky
   Writes a letter in my book.

Chide me not laborious band
   For the idle flowers I brought;
Every aster in my hand
   Goes home loaded with a thought.

There was never mystery
   But 'tis figured in the flowers;
Was never secret history 
   But birds tell it in the bowers.

One harvest from thy field
   Homeward brought the oxen strong;
A second crop thine acres yield,
   Which I gather in a song.

- Ralph Waldo Emerson

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Memorization Test: Song of Hope

Every now and then we all have to cut our losses. There are days when, for some reason, nothing goes right. Some say it's getting up on the wrong side of the bed or it's just not their day. Regardless, it is a unifying human experience to sometimes wish a day would just end.

Thomas Hardy was the son of a stonemason, born in Dorset England. At 16, after being educated at Mr. Last's Academy for Young Gentlemen, he went off to become an architect's apprentice. He eventually spent some time at King's College and found his way into some interesting employment.

Once, Hardy was in charge of excavating a graveyard to make way for a railroad. I can only imagine what it must have been like to wake up each morning during that job. Moving the dead after they've been buried has to be disconcerting.
Thomas Hardy and Emma Lavinia Gifford

Later, Hardy fell in love and married Emma Lavinia Gifford, a woman he stood by for 28 years, although at the end of her life they had fallen out with one another. Even so, when she died, Hardy was never quite the same. He ended up marrying another woman who was almost forty years younger than him, presumably a literary fan. He was said to dictate his last poem to her while he was on his deathbed.
Hardy with Florence Dugdale,
his second wife

I sometimes wonder what it must have been like for Hardy the year after his first wife died. I wonder what he agonized over and what he regretted the most. There really is no pain deeper than the crushing realization that the window of opportunity to right a wrong has closed. It stings deeply to gaze into the past and recognize those indelible moments when we, ourselves, committed our most grave errors. After 30 years of marriage, I can only imagine how intensely Hardy must have wished he could have wound back the clocks in order to wipe whatever feud had divided his marriage. For me, his second marriage said everything. What kind of serious interpersonal relationship can a widower, especially one as intelligent as Hardy, hope to achieve by marrying a woman 40 years his junior?

Even in the throes of this despair, the lines of Song of Hope shine like sunlight. They represent the eternal resilience of mankind. That no matter what hole we find ourselves in, if we choose, we can find a new beginning when the sun comes up again. In the darkest times of my own life, I've felt this sentiment, so beautifully put into words by Thomas Hardy.

Song of Hope

O sweet To-morrow! -
     After to-day
     There will away
This sense of sorrow.
Then let us borrow
Hope, for the gleaming
Soon will be streaming,
     Dimmed by no gray -
     No gray!

While the winds wing us
     Sighs from the Gone,
     Nearer to dawn
Minute beats bring us;
Then there will sing us
Larks of a glory
Waiting our story
     Further anon -

Doff the black token
     Don the red shoon,
     Right and retune
Viol-strings broken;
Null the words spoken
In speeches of rueing,
The night cloud is hueing,
     To-morrow shines soon -
     Shines soon!

-Thomas Hardy

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Memorization Test: Ozymandias

There are times when I can't sleep at night because I feel so restless. A million thoughts fly around and rather than counting them I indulge myself in imagination. There are so many plans and ideas that I want to realize and I understand ever more fully that the ambition of man is without limit. The desire to leave our indelible mark on the world is not mine alone. It's illustrated by the millions of graffiti artists living among us. Some spray on walls, some write books, some paint canvases while others work to better the community, start a business or develop a family legacy. Somehow, some way, we want to be remembered, if even by a scratch on the wall.

Percy Bysshe Shelley touched on this concept in this week's memorization challenge, Ozymandias. What is an Ozymandias? Why, an Egyptian pharaoh named Ramesses of course. The poem carries a haunting message from the past, that even a man as powerful as Ramesses the Great fell victim to the steady, endless power of entropy. In the poem, the only evidence left of this great pharaoh are a few ruins in the desert, soon to be vanished by sweeping sands, and it's accompanying pedestal inscribed with his name.

I love the contrast at play here when we compare Ramesses the Great against Percy Shelley. Shelley was a Romantic poet who didn't even see his poems to any great success during his own life. He died at age 29. In school he faced daily group bullying sessions in which his offenders tore his books and his clothes. He had a crackly soprano voice as a child, easy to ridicule. He was also a science-driven mischievous kid and as a final prank to his school he blew up the tree in the yard with gunpowder. Good times! (Yeah try that one today...) When he left school he didn't have a friend to his name.

At Oxford, he eventually published a pamphlet called The Necessity of Atheism, which led to his expulsion and an eventual falling out with his father. Later he got in a tiff with one of his only friends from university, Thomas Jefferson Hogg, when he continually made advances on Shelley's wife. In all fairness, one could doubt Shelley was really in love with her. They reportedly married to save her from a suicidal depression and they eventually separated. Awkward story, Shelley later fell in love with some other girl and threatened suicide if she didn't return his affections, taking a leaf out of his first wife's book of romantic strategy.

He was an aristocrat that opposed the monarchy. His own circle of peers must have detested him. He lost custody of his kids when his first wife committed suicide.

Yet, he seemed to understand that with life's hills come valleys as well. In his poem Ode to the West Wind his insights in the line, "If winter comes, can Spring be far behind?"are inspired. Shelley, who (by a quick glance at his resumé) doesn't seem qualified to talk about optimism, teaches a lesson in perseverance.

What's more important, Shelley, notwithstanding empty successes during his difficult life, writes with a tragic wisdom. In Ozymandias, he exposes the impending effect time has on great accomplishments. At the same time, for me, the poem is a type of challenge. Where Ramesses the Great failed at creating a legacy that endured the test of time, perhaps we can succeed. Shelley's legacy, for example, was much stronger after his death than during his life.

When working toward our own personal legacies, I hope we don't build our houses on the sand. A giant's footsteps will vanish quickly in the sands, but the feet of the smallest bird will remain for years if it walks across wet cement.


I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet remain, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked and the heart that fed:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
"I am Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!"
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
the lone and level sands stretch far away.

-Percy Bysshe Shelley, 1818

This is a harder poem for the memorization challenge because there isn't an easy rhyme scheme or a musical meter. Good luck!

Friday, August 23, 2013

Memorization Test: Darest Thou Now O Soul

Walt Whitman, in many ways, is like the wizard of poetry. He at least looks a little like Gandalf the Grey. In fact, it is entirely possible that Tolkein, who lived a century after Whitman, found some inspiration for his character in "The Great Grey Poet."

For me, there has always been a shroud of mystery around his life. Even after reading up on him, he feels more distant from me than other authors. In all odds, it is most likely because of the way he writes. Many older poets have a structure that I can relate to. Rhyming couplets, for example, offer just enough rules for a reader to really get in an author's head. We can start to expect a certain ebb and flow from the poems and consequentially feel like we are understanding the way he or she thinks. Walt Whitman, on the other hand, is sometimes called the Father of Free Verse, and in his writing some conventional rules start to go out the window.

Not only will this make the week's Memorization Test a little more difficult (learning rhyming stanzas is definitely easier), it will also make Whitman's sentence structure a little more abstract.

But what do you expect from a man like Walt Whitman? His time did not have the luxury of order. He was born into a poor family with eight brothers and sisters. Three of his brothers were named after founding fathers. When he was a kid he was kissed on the cheek by the Marquis de Lafayette on the Fourth of July. He finished his formal education at age 11.

The man was a volunteer nurse during the Civil War. Later, employed in the Attorney General's office, his job was to interview Confederate soldiers seeking Presidential pardon. If there were ever a confusing time to be an American, it was during his generation. His opinions on slavery illustrate well the polarizing struggle he faced in his turbulent times. He was opposed to extending slavery, he was for the abolishment of slavery and he later saw the end of slavery as a danger to democracy, the root of America.

Whitman was admired by some other incredible authors. When his first book of poetry came out Ralph Waldo Emerson praised him heavily for his work. Later he would be visited by Henry David Thoreau. These men would stand by him while critics railed on his work for being overtly sexual, severely tarnishing his reputation in the public eye.

Darest Thou Now, O Soul, is a beautiful poem that I've found myself repeating during hard times. It is a dialogue from a man addressed to his inner self, his courage. There is something universally mysterious and daunting about the unknown paths in our lives. For a rising generation with college degrees and little work, I think this poem has inestimable value. It assesses the difficulty there is in being a pioneer, an explorer, and carving your own path. It calculates the risks and payoffs of blazing a new trails.

It reminds me of a few intensely spiritual moments in my life. They all stick out in my mind. Moments when I collect information, advice and opinions from those I hold close, and then walk towards my decision, never looking back for a second, and, while squinting at the ever-approaching fog, repeat to myself over and over: Darest Thou Now, O Soul?

Darest Thou Now, O Soul

Darest Thou Now, O Soul
Walk with me toward the Unknown Region,
Where neither ground is for the feet, nor any path to follow?

No map there, nor guide,
Nor voice sounding, nor touch of human hand,
Nor face with blooming flesh, nor lips, nor eyes, are in that land.

I know it not, O Soul;
Nor dost thou-- It is a blank before us;
All waits, undream'd of, in that region -- that inaccessible land.

Till, when the ties loosen,
All but the ties eternal, Time and Space,
Nor darkness, gravitation, sense, nor any bounds bound us.

Then we burst forth -- we float,
In Time and Space, O Soul -- prepared for them;
Equal, equipt at last -- (O Joy! O Fruit of All!) them to fulfill, O Soul.

-Walt Whitman 1900

Friday, August 16, 2013

Memorization Test: Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening

Robert Frost is certainly one of the more beloved poets of the 1900s. His poem, The Road Less Traveled, is printed on posters hanging in nearly every American ninth-grade classroom. That poem offers a close up look of a man who truly cut his own path through life.

This week's challenge, Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening is one of Frost's standout poems and communicates deeply to the eternal soul of the individual.

From an early age Frost, son of a newspaper editor, felt his calling was poetry. He spent all of two months at Dartmouth College before ending his formal education. He sold his first poem for $15 and was so proud of his accomplishment he marched down to his girlfriend, Elinor, to propose to her.

Frost is known for rural themes in his writing, but growing up he was a city boy. His true love of the outdoors matured when he worked at his grandfather's farm. While working there for nine years he would rise early in the morning and write what would become some of his most successful poetry. I can sometimes feel that early morning farm atmosphere when I read Frost's work. It's quiet, reverent, mysterious.

Frost went on to teach at various colleges and, despite his meager two years at university, earned over 40 honorary degrees from schools like Harvard, Oxford and Princeton. It demonstrates that while education is important, dedicated passion and vision can be just as valuable.

A man plagued throughout his life with deep personal loss (he would only be outlived by two of six children), he perhaps knew better than most the depth of the human heart. His relationship with rural life seemed spiritually mixed with his relationship with a higher power.

The poem touches me because it reminds me of important moments in my life. Every now and then we come across a simple scene; it can be a visual scenario or even just a feeling in the air, that makes us feel as though the veil between the Earth and the hereafter is much thinner than we ever thought. It's almost as if a voice whispers to our heart to remind us of a greater purpose. Frost remarked that he saw the scene in the poem as if it had been a hallucination after writing all through the night.

Even the rhyme scheme of this poem is reflective of our life here. We establish our own little routines, like the rhyme on lines one, two and four of each stanza, but some new experience comes along to further shape our lives, line three. That new line dictates our new routine until, finally, a brush with some eternal truth changes us. It's beautiful.

Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening

Whose woods these are I think I know,
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.

My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.

He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound's the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.

The woods are lovely, dark and deep.
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

-Robert Frost 1922

You can actually see a video of Robert Frost reading his poem here. Word of warning, he is not a performer. He's a writer.
Robert Frost Reading This Poem

Also, Eric Whitacre, arguably the most genius composer of our time wrote a choral piece using this poem for his lyric. He forgot to check the copyright date on the poem though and upon the song's completion he was not legally allowed to publish. In response, a friend, Charles Anthony Silvestri, was commissioned to write a poem using the exact same meter and rhyme scheme. The resulting song "Sleep" was an enormous success. However, it wasn't hard to take the words of Frost's poem and switch them out for Silvestri's lyrics so video of choirs singing the song the way it was originally intended is available. The last stanza is particularly haunting in the song.

If you have five minutes, plug in the old earphones, close your eyes and enjoy.
Listen to Whitacre's interpretation here

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Man of the Hour: Giuseppe Garibaldi

Italy has a very special place in my heart. Many of my most potent life's lessons were learned while I was living there. The language is musical, the people are passionate, the food is to die for and the culture is absolutely enchanting. It moved me so deeply I still dream about its streets, doused with the smell of wine, pastries and nostalgia.

Since I came back to the States I tasked myself with the study of Italian culture and history. It amazed me how long the country remained divided. It wasn't until relatively recently that the language was universalized and the regions united into one nation. Today the regional differences are strong. Different dialects are still spoken, especially by the older generation, and sound like separate languages. The various regions take pride in their local, unique attributes. While these differences are charming to tourists and give depth to the country's overall culture, they are the residue of hundreds of years of conflict. Wars were fought, men died, all in the name of conquest between the princes and republics of territories like Venice, Sardinia and Florence. The eventual unification is largely thanks to a few key individuals that were man enough to believe in something bigger than themselves.

One of these men was Giuseppe Garibaldi, the Hero of Two Worlds.

Garibaldi was greatly admired by men like Victor Hugo and Alexandre Dumas. If you've read any of their books you'll have a clue about the type of man those authors might idolize. Garibaldi was an idealist, who backed up his words with action.

He was born in Nice, which thrust him into the nucleus of an Italian-French conflict at a young age. When he was born the region belonged to France but after the Congress of Vienna in 1815 it was granted to the King of Sardinia, King Victor Emmanuel I when Garibaldi was just seven. The nationality of Nice would create in him a sense of political activism. This spirit drove him to join La Giovine Italia, a political group dedicated to Italy's liberation from Austrian power and unification within its own borders.

Later he met Giueseppe Mazzini, the man behind La Giovine Italia, and joined a group called the Carbonari, who tried to stage an uprising in Piedmont. It was a failure and Garibaldi was forced to flee to France as a political refuge to escape a death sentence. However this brush with fate and exile from his home did not extinguish his spirit of independence and unification. In fact, it's possible it plunged him deeper into a life full of fiery obsession for liberty.

He sailed to South America and joined the Republic of the Rio Grande do Sul, which was trying to separate from Brazil. There he met his wife, Anita, who fought by his side during these Brazilian campaigns.
Anita Garibaldi

They moved to Uruguay, where he raised an Italian legion to support the Colorados faction of the Uruguayan Civil War.

Meanwhile in Italy, a new Pope, one who seemingly made positive steps in favor of Italian liberation, was elected. It was a turning point that prompted Garibaldi to return to Italy to take part in the First Italian War of Independence. In Italy he went from province to province offering military assistance to anyone struggling to free themselves from Austrian dominion. He eventually made his way to Rome where the French sieged the city and he was forced to leave again, now hunted by Neapolitan, French, Spanish and Austrian troops.

During this time he traveled to New York, down to Central America, went on a merchant voyage to China, sailing underneath the southern shores of Australia, and eventually to Great Britain and back home to Italy.

When the Second War of Independence happened in Italy, he was appointed as a Major General (he was the very model of one) and led successful battles against the Austrians, but his country dealt him a personal blow when they gave the County of Nice, his home, back to the French in return for military assistance.

When he heard about uprising in Sicily, the island off the south west coast Italy, he gathered 1000 volunteers and went to crush Neapolitan occupation there. He was successful, though entirely outnumbered, and declared himself dictator of Sicily, but that was not enough. With swelling support he walked with growing ranks through the south of Italy until he got to Rome, still occupied by Neapolitan troops.

At Rome the fuse ran out.

Garibaldi had 24,000 volunteer troops by then, but there were at least 25,000 hostile soldiers in Rome. In a surge of the spirit that had possessed his soul throughout his life, his thirst for freedom, his hunger for unification and his anger at losing his home to the French, he attacked the city. In an enormous battle, Garibaldi's heroic group of volunteers struggled against the highly trained and experienced Neapolitan troops.

Defeat was imminent until on the horizon, similar thinkers came to terms. King Victor Emmanuel II had arrived with his Piedmontese troops to assist. Together they defeated Napoleon's men and a very awkward situation arose. Garibaldi, dictator of Sicily, the Hero of Two Worlds, leader of thousands of men who had simply volunteered their lives for his cause stood in contrast to the pre-established ruler of Piedmont.

His whole life Garibaldi had been waiting for people to do what he had personally accomplished. Someone to lead the people and force them to action to rid themselves of foreign invaders. He had watched regional governments fail this goal time and time again. Was King Victor Emmanuel II to be any exception the others before him? How could he trust anyone not to blow it when he had so much momentum? Surely he, himself, was the man that could unite Italy.

And he did.

In a historical gesture, Garibaldi rode up to the King, shook his hand, and yelled back to his men, "Hail to the first King of Italy!" He turned all of his territorial gains over to the King and retired.

This act of humility has always been inspiring to me. I often find myself laden with projects, dreams and ideas. They excite me, sometimes even energize me. But really, I need to take a step back and think about Garibaldi. I need to recognize what will and what won't help me accomplish my end goals. We can get so easily sidetracked that it's not hard to lose sight of what we aim to accomplish in the first place.

For me Garibaldi is the man of the hour because he demonstrated the ability to keep his eye on the prize. His whole life he believed Italy could be united and free from foreign rule. When it finally came time for him to realize that dream, he was already 52. It would have been so easy for him to get caught up in the power and influence he had during his march to Rome, but when it came down to it, he kept his head cool and, amidst all the chaos of war, recognized the path to the bigger picture.

Abraham Lincoln wrote to him and invited him to join the Union's cause during the Civil War against the south. Garibaldi reportedly said he would only accept the position if Lincoln would declare then and there that the war's main purpose was the emancipation of slavery. Had the United States been his home, I could see Garibaldi marching through the Confederate States rallying slaves to his cause, fighting his way back to Lincoln.

Obstacles should never distract us from our end goal. They're stepping stones placed in a confusing web to the finish line.

It also illustrates the importance of having dreams in the first place. If we don't have an end goal, how can we expect to have the strength and fortitude to withstand the setbacks that come along the way.

Be unified, be free. Learn from Garibaldi.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Memorization Test: The Builders

This week's test was a little more arduous. The poem is a bit longer than last week's and the author uses words in a way that at first tripped up my mouth. The poem is called The Builders by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

Longfellow is considered one of the great American poets and, rare for artists, was actually highly appreciated during his own life. In an age when poetry was read like TV is watched today, Longfellow became a superstar. Admirers asked for his autograph through letters and in person; to criticize him was a major social faux pas (a faux pas Edgar Allen Poe was all too eager to commit by the way). He also had quite the circle of friends, including Washington Irving, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Ralph Waldo Emerson.

He was a professor at Bowdoin and Harvard. He knew Latin, French, Spanish, Portuguese and German.... and English. He lived through terrible grief brought to him by the death of two wives (his second wife died at home when her dress caught on fire while she was sealing a few locks of their children's hair in envelopes... absolutely terrifying). He received honorary degrees from both Oxford and Cambridge. He was summoned for a visit by the queen of England. His Robert of Sicily was translated by the Emperor of Brazil. Through it all, he did not glory in his popularity.

They guy had a vision for success. He built something incredible with his time and talents. His poem, The Buildersis an intimate sermon from a master on how to become successful and maximize the efforts of our time. I feel very comfortable taking these words to heart because I know that he followed his own advice. Had he not, this blog post wouldn't even be here now would it?

For me there are two bits of striking advice that stand out from the stanzas. The first: every thing we do will build to something larger. Whether it be working out, writing a novel or playing video games. It all builds up some grander habit, attitude, personality, etc... So we have to be very careful how we shape each day.

The second: laboring our darndest on things no one will ever see is just as important as working hard on the big show-stoppers. For Longfellow it seems clear that the quality of our fate is a reflection of the quality of our character.

The Builders

All are architects of Fate,
Working in these walls of Time;
Some with massive deeds and great,
Some with ornaments of rhyme

Nothing useless is, or low;
Each thing in its place is best;
And what seems but idle show
Strengthens and supports the rest.

For the structure that we raise,
Time is with materials filled;
Our to-days and yesterdays
Are the blocks with which we build.

Truly shape and fashion these;
Leave no yawning gaps between;
Think not, because no man sees,
Such things will remain unseen.

In the elder days of Art,
Builders wrought with greatest care
Each minute and unseen part;
For the Gods see everywhere.

Let us do our work as well,
Both the unseen and the seen;
Make the house, where Gods may dwell,
Beautiful, entire, and clean.

Else our lives are incomplete,
Standing in these walls of Time,
Broken stairways, where the feet
Stumble as they seek to climb.

Build to-day, then, strong and sure,
With a firm and ample base;
And ascending and secure
Shall to-morrow find its place.

Thus alone can we attain
To those turrets, where the eye
Sees the world as one vast plain,
And one boundless reach of sky.

-Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
From The Seaside and the Fireside published in 1846

Monday, August 5, 2013

Man of the Hour: Henry Knox

The other day I was watching a show called American Ride. It's a show hosted by Stan Ellsworth, a big guy with a handle-bar mustache who rides around on his Harley Davidson recounting the tale of America's history. I love it because seeing a tough guy like that get passionate about patriotism is truly inspiring. It helps set things in perspective.

When looking back to incredible men in history, I try to put myself in their shoes, put my character in the ring with theirs for a few rounds. It's always humbling. Not surprisingly I am in every case, found wanting. For that reason when there are men in history that seem more approachable than figures like Da Vinci, Washington or Churchill, I feel I can latch on to them as more practical role models.

Henry Knox, is one such man. He was born in Boston to a ship-builder. His dad passed away when he was still pretty young and he dropped out of school in order to support his mother, which he did by taking up a job as a book clerk. Through hard work Knox was able to open his own book store by the age of 21. It was in this book store he met the daughter of some influential British Loyalists, Lucy Flucker (yeah, be careful reading this blog post out loud). There was some tension between the Flucker family and Knox because he was an active supporter of the Sons of Liberty. He is known to have stood guard at the docks before the Boston Tea Party to ensure no tea was unloaded on Colonial soil. He was also present at the Boston Massacre, where he actually tried to diffuse the situation before things got out of hand.

Lucy Flucker did not care about what her parents thought though; she ran off and married Knox. Later he would stand by the side of George Washington during the Revolutionary War and eventually would become the United States' first Secretary of War. Not bad for a guy that taught himself military strategy from the books in his bookshop.

Right after the battles of Lexington and Concord, the colonists faced a limited force of English troops. Their goal was to expel the troops from the colony and free themselves from the oppression of English taxes. George Washington was the General of what was then the Continental Army, a group of untrained soldiers made up of local militia and minutemen. Washington had secured a strategic location on top of Dorchester Heights where he could effectively target several British strongholds in the city, including, most importantly, the British naval presence in the harbor. However Washington did not have the cannons necessary to fire on them and repel the enemy. The closest guns of that caliber were in New York, over 200 miles away, at Fort Ticonderoga.

Enter Henry Knox. He stood up and volunteered to go retrieve the cannons for Washington. It was a trip of over 400 miles. The entire trip back to Boston, his little group of men had to haul over 60 tons of cannons, all in the middle of December where the cold was bitter and the snow unforgiving. Along the way he had to reason with local towns to help get supplies for his men (which may have been difficult considering the colonies' opinion about separation from England was still pretty polarized) and find materials to haul the iron. I cannot imagine what it must have been like for Knox to suggest such a trip to General Washington, but I do know his commitment to duty and his fortitude to follow through to the end changed the fate of our nation.

He successfully completed the trip. Washington had the guns, and blew the British back to Britain, giving the colonists enough peace and quiet for them to draft the Declaration of Independence.

Sometimes when I have to do hard things, I think about Henry Knox. I think about his journey to the white house from such humble beginnings, how he stepped up to the plate when his Dad died and when George Washington needed someone to sacrifice so the colonial cause could advance. I think about how in a lowly book shop he taught himself the principles that would be stepping stones to high places. That was a man who left an example to which I can ascribe.

I can do hard things, even if they're just hard for me. I can sacrifice for good, even if my sacrifice is small. I can find opportunity in everyday.

I think we can all afford to be a little more like Henry Knox.

Friday, August 2, 2013

Memorization Test: Invictus

As part of my pursuit for mental strength I've taken to doing a weekly memorization challenge. I'm starting with poetry because the meter and rhythm makes it easier to remember. Later I might go on to prose, which I find can be entirely more difficult. The point is to memorize at least twenty lines weekly. Learning to improve the memory is an intensely valuable ability when trying to sharpen the mind so I hope that these memorization tests will help me in my journey to manhood.

On Fridays I make a selection for the new week and each Thursday I test myself to see if I've successfully completed my goal.

If you'd like, you can follow along and take on these memorization challenges too, or you can find your own poems. I know at least for me it's easier to memorize words I believe in.

This first poem is called Invictus, written in 1875 by William Ernest Henley. Invictus is latin for "unconquerable" and the poem really resonates with me because it highlights one of the strongest traits of humanity: the power we have to choose our outlook on any situation. No matter how "charged with punishments the scroll" we can break the chains of our circumstance.

I also enjoy this poem because the words don't fall flat; the author had the chops to pen them sincerely. Henley had his leg amputated at 18 and the doctors insisted they needed to amputate his other leg in order to save his life from tuberculosis. Refusing the diagnosis, Henley's life was spent in hospitals trying to overcome the illness through various painful surgeries. Notwithstanding, he completed law school and went on to become editor of the Scots Observer in Scotland.

Fun fact: Robert Louis Stevenson was so moved by the courage of the maimed William Henley that he based a character off of him in Treasure Island. Perhaps you've heard of Long John Silver? Through this character and the life of this, his most famous poem, Henley is deceased but not forgotten.


"Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds and shall find me unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate,
I am the captain of my soul."

-William Ernest Henley 1875

Monday, July 29, 2013

To Begin

I feel like someone lit a fire underneath me. Around my first wedding anniversary my wife and I discovered the pencil-eraser-sized, very old birth mark near my shin, had a dirty little secret. In a phone call our life changed, just like that.

That innocent looking spot turned out to be Stage III Melanoma. It had already traveled to a lymph cluster in my abdomen. Sleepless nights, big decisions, temptations to listen to that ridiculous song "Live Like You Were Dyin'" (it's one of those country ballads that is meant to pull at your heartstrings... It's a cheap shot kinda song). 

A couple surgeries later I have what the doctors call "No Evidence of Disease" but they're still worried it's going to come back somewhere else. It's an invasive and agressive cancer they say.

In the middle of all of this I got my hands on a book called Manvotionals: The Seven Manly Virtues by Brett and Kate McKay over at TheArtofManliness.com. I got it first for my father because it sounded right up his ally. The McKay's took selected writings by authors from Aristotele to Martin Luther King Jr. that touch on the seven manly virtues: Manliness, Courage, Industry, Resolution, Self-Reliance, Discipline and Honor. 

This was all a big wake up call. Yeah, it's cliche, who cares. Something big was saying, "Hey kid, kick it in gear. Live. Be a man."

And that screaming loud voice echoes in my ear all day long, like someone lit a fire underneath me.

Learning how to live is tough. Learning to be a man, a real man is tough. Not the goof they put on TV, or the vain honor-less shells in the magazines, the brawny shallow thugs in the movies or the thieving selfish politicians of today. Where is there an example of true manliness in our culture?

I appreciate the McKays for their book because they offer an incredible starting point. Theodore Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, Frederick Douglass, Ernest Hemmingway, Harry Houdini. What have names like these accomplished to set them apart from the millions of lonely gravestones in vacant cemeteries?

When I hear about people wanting to live to the fullest I think sky-diving, elaborate travel, throwing caution to the wind. What comes, at least to my mind, is an external pursuit to experience all the world has to offer.

That desire has not gripped me. The conviction that possesses my mind is an internal voyage. I want to dig down with tenacious energy and develop who I am meant to be. And if a time comes when unexpectedly my breath might run out, should I find myself in an interview with whatever creative powers that be, when accounting my time I would shudder to discover any preventable fault of mine regarding my character.

I hope to use this blog to record my journey to true manhood. If other's wish to follow along, I would enjoy the company. The road is uncommon and treacherous but with a careful eye there are noticeable footprints of well-traveled shoes worn by great men. 

Sorry these sentences seem intense... I've been reading too many old books lately.

The point is, here is where I'll be elaborating on things I'm reading, subjects I'm studying, interesting events, poetry, music, art. Discussion is definitely welcome, so if you feel inclined please ask questions in the comments area and I'll answer back. Perhaps we can get a few merry discussions going about some important topics.

Either way... they told me writing is supposed to help get my feelings out or something like that.