Nov. 13, 2007
I Used to Be but Now I Am
Poem: "I Used to Be but Now I Am" by Ted Berrigan, from The Collected Poems of Ted Berrigan. © University of California Press, 2005. Reprinted with permission.(buy now)
I Used to Be but Now I Am
I used to be inexorable,
But now I am elusive.
I used to be the future of America,
But now I am America.
I used to be part of the problem,
But now I am the problem.
I used to be part of the solution, if not all of it,
But now I am not that person.
I used to be intense, & useful,
But now I am heavy, & boring.
I used to be sentimental about myself, & therefore ruthless,
But now I am, I think, a sympathetic person, although
I used to be a believer,
But now, alas, I believe.
Literary and Historical Notes:
It's the birthday of Saint Augustine, born in Tagaste, Numidia, a part of North Africa that is now Algeria (354). He converted to Christianity as an adult and wanted nothing more than to settle down to a quiet life of thinking about theology and writing books. But when he moved to the port town of Hippo to set up a monastery, he was forced to take over the duties of the local bishop, and he regretted for the rest of his life that he had to spend so much of his time delivering sermons and running a parish, when he could have devoted all that time to writing.
He still managed to write more than 90 books in his lifetime, but he wasn't taken very seriously by other theologians. He couldn't read or write in Greek, which was the language of intellectuals, and he lived in a backwater part of the Roman Empire. But by living on the edge of the empire, he was intimately familiar with all the pagan influences that were threatening Christianity, and he devoted himself to debunking all the popular new-age religions. His most famous book, The Confessions (c. 400), is in part the story of how he converted to Christianity after living for years as a pagan.
In the last years of his life, Augustine was witnessing the fall of the Roman Empire. His city of Hippo was besieged by vandals, and it was destroyed soon after his death. But somehow Augustine's library survived, and all his ideas about resisting pagan influences became doctrine within the church.
It's the birthday of Robert Louis Stevenson, (books by this author) born in Edinburgh, Scotland (1850), who was a sickly, moderately successful essayist and travel writer, living in France, when one evening he walked to a friend's house, looked in through the window, and fell instantly in love with a woman sitting there at the table. To make a grand entrance, he opened the window, leapt inside, and took a bow. The woman was Fanny Osbourne and she was both American and unhappily married. She had come to Europe to get away from her husband, but after spending months getting to know Stevenson, she decided to go back to California.
Stevenson got a telegram from her a few weeks after she'd returned to the United States, and he decided on the spot to drop everything and go persuade her to divorce her husband and marry him. His health, as always, was terrible, and the trip to the United States almost killed him. He collapsed on Fanny Osbourne's doorstep, but she nursed him back to health. She did divorce her husband, and they got married in San Francisco and spent their honeymoon in a cabin near an abandoned silver mine.
They moved back to Scotland with her son from her previous marriage, and one rainy afternoon the following summer Stevenson painted a map of an imaginary island to entertain his new stepson. The map gave him and idea for a story and in a single month he had written his first great novel, Treasure Island (1883), about the young Jim Hawkins, who finds a treasure map and goes on a journey to find the treasure. He meets pirates, survives a mutiny, and gets to know a one-legged cook named Long John Silver. The book has been in print for 124 years now.
Around the same time that Treasure Island was published, Stevenson woke up one morning and told his family that he did not want to be disturbed until he had finished writing a story that had come to him in a dream. It took him three days to write it, but when he read the story aloud to his wife, she said it was too sensationalistic. So he sat down and rewrote the whole thing. By the end of the week he was fairly happy with the result, which he called Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1885), about a scientist who invents a chemical that changes his personality from a mild-mannered gentleman to a savage criminal.
Those two books made Stevenson rich and famous. He spent the rest of his life traveling from one place to the next, producing about 400 pages of published work a year. He finally settled on the island of Samoa, where his health improved greatly, and in the last five years of his life, he wrote 10 more books. He died at the age of 44, not from his respiratory illness, but from a stroke. His contemporaries saw him as one of the greatest writers of his generation, but he's now remembered mainly as a writer of adventure stories. Critics wish he had finished the last novel he had been working on, about colonial life in Samoa, because the fragments that survive are among his best work.
Robert Louis Stevenson, who said, "Our business in life is not to succeed, but to continue to fail in good spirits."
Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®