Aug. 15, 2009

Photograph of My Mother as a Young Girl

by Dana Gioia

She wasn't looking
when they took this picture:
sitting on the grass
in her bare feet
wearing a cotton dress,
she stares off to the side
watching something on the lawn
the camera didn't catch.
What was it?
A ladybug? A flower?
Judging from her expression,
possibly nothing at all,
or else
the lawn was like a mirror,
and she sat watching herself,
wondering who she was
and how she came to be there
sitting in this backyard,
wearing a cheap, white dress,
imagining that tomorrow
would be like all her yesterdays,
while her parents chatted
and watched, as I do
years later,
too distantly to interfere.

"Photograph of My Mother as a Young Girl" by Dana Gioia, from Daily Horoscope. © Graywolf Press, 1986. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of food writer Julia Child, (books by this author) born Julia McWilliams in Pasadena, California (1912). She said, "Life itself is the proper binge."

It's the birthday of Sir Walter Scott, (books by this author) born in Edinburgh, Scotland (1771), one of the most influential novelists of all time. He is responsible for many famous phrases, including "blood is thicker than water" and "O, what a tangled web we weave, / When first we practise to deceive!" He didn't handle money well, though. To pay off his debts, he decided to publish a novel. Scott published his novel Waverley (1814) anonymously. It was a huge best seller. He went on to write many popular historical novels about the end of the old Scotland. He is best known for his novels Rob Roy (1817) and Ivanhoe (1819).

Sir Walter Scott wrote, "Ne'er / Was flattery lost on poet's ear; / A simple race! they waste their toil / For the vain tribute of a smile."

It's the birthday of British novelist and military strategist T. E. Lawrence, better known as Lawrence of Arabia, born in Tremadoc, North Wales (1888), the third illegitimate son of the seventh Baronet of Westmeath and his young governess wife.

He got into Oxford University, and during one of his summer vacations, he decided to go explore the Middle East alone, on foot. He set out for Syria in the summer of 1909, and before he returned to school in the fall, he'd walked more than 1,000 miles in Syria, Palestine, and Turkey, visited three dozen castles, and written journals full of meticulous notes. He came back to Oxford and wrote his final thesis based on these travels, entitled "The Influence of the Crusades on European Military Architecture — to the End of the XIIth Century," which earned him Oxford's highest graduating honors and also a post-graduate fellowship in archaeology.

The British Museum invited him to be part of a prestigious archaeological dig they were conducting that year in Syria, at a Hittite site on the Euphrates River. There, the young graduate student decided that that academic research in any field was not for him, writing home to his mother: "I am not going to put all my energies into rubbish like writing history, or becoming an archeologist. I would much rather write a novel even, or become a newspaper correspondent …"

But he stuck around for a few more years on digs in the Middle East, including ones in Egypt and Palestine. On a dig in Carchemish, he befriended the 14-year-old water boy at the site, teaching him how to read and write. Lawrence then dedicated to the boy the book that is considered his most important, The Seven Pillars of Wisdom (1927), a cross between historical narrative and spiritual memoir.

Lawrence had learned to speak and read Arabic, and when World War I began, he went to work for Britain's intelligence agency. Then, in 1916, he decided to join the armed forces on the ground, to encourage Arab revolt against the ruling Ottoman Turks, who had allied with Germany for the war. He wore long robes and headcloths and his comrades did, and he led Arab tribes in guerilla warfare in the desert, blowing up railroad tracks to impede enemy transport. He led his Arab forces in a decoy mission to distract the Turkish army so that British forces were able to invade Palestine and Syria. At one point, Lawrence was captured, beaten, and raped by a Turkish governor.

He accompanied the Arab delegation to the Peace Conference in Paris, and then Winston Churchill appointed him the political advisor on the Middle East. He was 31 years old and famous all over the world. But he also was unhappy in his new position, and he resigned and joined the Royal Air Force under a fake name, John Hume Ross. He was discovered, and he joined another branch of the British military under a different pseudonym. He spent a decade on a base in India, and also time in Afghanistan repairing engines. He didn't earn much money, so for extra income, he translated Homer's Odyssey for an American publisher. It took him four years to complete the translation, and it became a best seller. In his 40s, he retired to a quiet cottage in the English countryside and rode fast motorcycles; he owned seven of them. He died in a motorcycle at the age of 46. He'd swerved to avoid hitting two bicyclists and lost control, slammed into the ground, and died in a coma within a week.

The film Lawrence of Arabia, which came out in 1963, was based on his book The Seven Pillars of Wisdom, along with other accounts of his life.

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