Nov. 21, 2009


by Wendell Berry

Though he was ill and in pain,
in disobedience to the instruction he
would have received if he had asked,
the old man got up from his bed,
dressed, and went to the barn.
The bare branches of winter had emerged
through the last leaf-colors of fall,
the loveliest of all, browns and yellows
delicate and nameless in the gray light
and the sifting rain. He put feed
in the troughs for eighteen ewe lambs,
sent the dog for them, and she
brought them. They came eager
to their feed, and he who felt
their hunger was by their feeding
eased. From no place in the time
of present places, within no boundary
nameable in human thought,
they had gathered once again,
the shepherd, his sheep, and his dog
with all the known and the unknown
round about to the heavens' limit.
Was this his stubbornness or bravado?
No. Only an ordinary act
of profoundest intimacy in a day
that might have been better. Still
the world persisted in its beauty,
he in his gratitude, and for this
he had most earnestly prayed.

"XI." by Wendell Berry, from Leavings. © Centerpoint, 2010. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of Christopher Reuel Tolkien (1924) (books by this author) born in Leeds, England. He's the youngest son of J.R.R. Tolkien, who wrote The Lord of the Rings, and he drew the original maps that appeared in his father's epic fantasy novel. In addition to synthesizing all that complicated information about the imaginary Middle Earth to draw up the illuminating maps, he was also his famous father's test audience. It took J.R.R. Tolkien 12 years to write Lord of the Rings; during that time, Christopher was a teenager and in his 20s, and he constantly provided feedback for his dad's work in progress. Since his dad's death, he's edited and published a number of his manuscripts, including The Silmarillion in 1977, which he completed after years of sorting through and deciphering his father's handwritten notes. Between 1983 and 1996, Christopher Tolkien published a 12-volume work, The History of Middle-Earth.

It's the birthday of writer Marilyn French, (books by this author) born in Brooklyn, New York (1929), who wrote her first book on James Joyce and then switched her focus to women's history and radical literary feminism. She had earned a Ph.D. at Harvard and was a nearly 50-year-old college English professor when she published her novel The Women's Room (1977), about a middle-aged housewife who divorces her husband and starts a Ph.D. in literature at Harvard. It sold more than 20 million copies and was translated into 20 languages, and it's considered one of the most influential novels of the second-wave feminist movement. Marilyn French also published a four-volume work on women's history, From Eve to Dawn (vols. 1–3 in 2002 and vol. 4 in 2008), and a memoir that talked about her time battling esophageal cancer (she was in a coma for 10 days as part of it) called A Season in Hell (1998). She passed away earlier this year, in May 2009.

It's the birthday of British diplomat, journalist, and diary-keeper Harold George Nicolson, (books by this author) born in Tehran, Iran (1886), the son of a British ambassador. In 1913, he married Virginia Sackville-West, a writer. They were both, it turns out, bisexual. Four years into their marriage, they decided to stop sexual relations with each other, and each had extramarital affairs. Despite the unconventional arrangement, the two remained close, traveled with each other and worked on renovating a great house together, and wrote to each other whenever they were separated. Their marriage, by the account of their son Nigel, was a happy one.

Nicolson started writing a column for the British Evening Standard, and also began a career in politics as a Member of Parliament in the House of Commons. Around the same time, he began keeping a very detailed diary, which he would write in every morning after breakfast, recording his impressions of people he knew and his thoughts about what was going on in the news. On days that he was too busy to write, he would dictate his thoughts and then file the loose sheets of paper into the appropriate folder. By the middle 1960s, his diary was 3 million words long. He began publishing it in a series of volumes, which his son Nigel helped to edit.

Harold Nicolson said: "The great secret of a successful marriage is to treat all disasters as incidents and none of the incidents as disasters."

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