Jul. 25, 2007
Poem: "Starfish" by Eleanor Lerman, from Our Post-Soviet History Unfolds. © Sarabande Books, 2005. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)
This is what life does. It lets you walk up to
the store to buy breakfast and the paper, on a
stiff knee. It lets you choose the way you have
your eggs, your coffee. Then it sits a fisherman
down beside you at the counter who says, Last night,
the channel was full of starfish. And you wonder,
is this a message, finally, or just another day?
Life lets you take the dog for a walk down to the
pond, where whole generations of biological
processes are boiling beneath the mud. Reeds
speak to you of the natural world: they whisper,
they sing. And herons pass by. Are you old
enough to appreciate the moment? Too old?
There is movement beneath the water, but it
may be nothing. There may be nothing going on.
And then life suggests that you remember the
years you ran around, the years you developed
a shocking lifestyle, advocated careless abandon,
owned a chilly heart. Upon reflection, you are
genuinely surprised to find how quiet you have
become. And then life lets you go home to think
about all this. Which you do, for quite a long time.
Later, you wake up beside your old love, the one
who never had any conditions, the one who waited
you out. This is life's way of letting you know that
you are lucky. (It won't give you smart or brave,
so you'll have to settle for lucky.) Because you
were born at a good time. Because you were able
to listen when people spoke to you. Because you
stopped when you should have and started again.
So life lets you have a sandwich, and pie for your
late night dessert. (Pie for the dog, as well.) And
then life sends you back to bed, to dreamland,
while outside, the starfish drift through the channel,
with smiles on their starry faces as they head
out to deep water, to the far and boundless sea.
Literary and Historical Notes:
It was on this day in 1814 that a man named George Stephenson made the first successful demonstration of the steam locomotive, an invention that would fuel the Industrial Revolution and dramatically affect the settlement of North America.
Stephenson had never had any formal schooling, but he taught himself how steam engines worked by taking them apart when they broke down, and eventually he learned how to build them from scratch. He made his first successful demonstration of the new invention on this day in 1814. His engine pulled eight loaded wagons of 30 tons about four miles an hour up a hill.
By the 1830s, trains were already traveling 60 miles an hour. When the first transcontinental railway lines were completed in the 1870s, a cross-country journey that had taken several months suddenly took only seven days. The railroads shrank distances and increased the speed of life, while fueling America's economic expansion and industrialization.
It's the birthday of Elias Canetti (books by this author), born in Ruse, Bulgaria (1905). He's best known for his novel The Tower of Babel (1935). As a child, he learned to love languages. He grew up in an area of Bulgaria that was so ethnically diverse that his grandfather had to speak 17 languages in order to succeed as a grocer.
He went to high school in Frankfurt, Germany, and it was there that he first saw a workers' street demonstration turn into a riot. He was so disturbed by the sight of a mob that it haunted him for years. Then, in 1927, he was passing by the Vienna Palace of Justice after an unpopular verdict had been announced. A crowd of people on the street suddenly erupted into a riot, and Canetti was surrounded. He later wrote, "I had become part of the crowd, I fully dissolved in it, I did not feel the slightest resistance to what the crowd was doing." He rushed forward with the others and participated in the burning down of the Palace of Justice.
Canetti later said that his experience participating in a riot was the most important day of his life, and he spent the rest of his career as a writer researching crowds and their effect throughout the history of civilization. Most of his plays and fiction are about mobs and riots, and he believed that the 20th century was defined by the mob mentality. He fled the Nazis and lived in England during World War II, and finally published his masterpiece, Crowds and Power, in 1960. He won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1981.
Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®