Wednesday

Feb. 28, 2001

Run before Dawn

by William Stafford

WEDNESDAY, 28 February 2001
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Poem: "Run Before Dawn," by William Stafford, from An Oregon Message (Harper and Row).

Run Before Dawn

Most mornings I get away, slip out
the door before light, set forth on the dim gray
road, letting my feet find a cadence
that softly carries me on. Nobody
is up—all alone my journey begins.

Some days it's escape: the city is burning
behind me, cars have stalled in their tracks,
and everybody is fleeing like me but some other direction.
My stride is for life, a far place.

Other days it is hunting: maybe some game will cross
my path and my stride will follow for hours, matching
all turns. My breathing has caught the right beat
for endurance; familiar trancelike scenes glide by.

And sometimes it's a dream of motion, streetlights coming near,
passing, shadows that lean before me, lengthened
then fading, and a sound from a tree: a soul, or an owl.

These journeys are quiet. They mark my days with adventure
too precious for anyone else to share, little gems
of darkness, the world going by, and my breath, and the road.

It's Ash Wednesday, the Wednesday after Quinquagesima Sunday, which is fifty days before Easter. Ash Wednesday is the first day of the fasting period known as Lent. On this day, Catholics are exhorted to approach the altar before the beginning of Mass, and there the priest, dipping his thumb into ashes of the previous year's Palm Sunday palms, marks the forehead of each with the sign of the cross, saying the words: "Remember man that thou art dust and unto dust thou shalt return."

It's the birthday of the English poet and critic Sir Stephen Spender, born in London (1909). At Oxford he struck up friendships with W.H. Auden, Cecil Day-Lewis and Christopher Isherwood. His collections include Vienna (1934), The Still Centre (1939), and Collected Poems (1955).

It's the birthday of historian Dee Brown, born in Alberta, Louisiana (1908). He was a librarian at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign when he started writing a book about the West: Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West (1970).

It's the birthday of novelist and playwright Ben Hecht, born in New York City (1894), but raised in Racine, Wisconsin. He got a job as a columnist for the Chicago Daily News when he was just a teenager. In his late twenties, he headed out to Hollywood and wrote screenplays, often in collaboration with Charles MacArthur. Their 1928 stage play, The Front Page, was filmed three times. His other screenplays include Gunga Din (1938), Wuthering Heights (1939), Spellbound (1945) and Notorious (1946).

It's the birthday of illustrator John Tenniel, born in London (1820), best known for his illustrations for Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (1865) and Through the Looking Glass (1872).

It's the birthday of essayist Michel de Montaigne, born at Périgord, in Bordeaux, France (1533). The son of a wealthy Catholic landowner, he studied law at the University of Toulouse, and practiced in Bordeaux. After his father's death, Montaigne retired to the family chateau and devoted himself to writing and study, remaining aloof from the political and religious quarrels of France. His first book of Essays was published in 1580, and contained the essay, "On Friendship."

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