Monday

Nov. 29, 2010

His Stillness

by Sharon Olds

The doctor said to my father, "You asked me
to tell you when nothing more could be done.
That's what I'm telling you now." My father
sat quite still, as he always did,
especially not moving his eyes. I had thought
he would rave if he understood he would die,
wave his arms and cry out. He sat up,
thin, and clean, in his clean gown,
like a holy man. The doctor said,
"There are things we can do which might give you time,
but we cannot cure you." My father said,
"Thank you." And he sat, motionless, alone,
with the dignity of a foreign leader.
I sat beside him. This was my father.
He had known he was mortal. I had feared they would have to
tie him down. I had not remembered
he had always held still and kept quiet to bear things,
the liquor a way to keep still. I had not
known him. My father had dignity. At the
end of his life his life began
to wake in me.

"His Stillness" by Sharon Olds, from Strike Sparks. © Random House, 2004. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of Louisa May Alcott, (books by this author) born in Germantown, Pennsylvania (1832). She's the author of Little Women (1868), a book that over the last century has been adapted into numerous stage plays, an opera, a Broadway musical, several Japanese anime films, and about a dozen Hollywood movies — including movies starring Katharine Hepburn, Elizabeth Taylor, Susan Sarandon, Kirsten Dunst, and Claire Danes.

And this 1868 children's book inspired the novel that won the 2006 Pulitzer Prize: Geraldine Brooks's March (2005), which is a retelling of Little Women, this time narrated by the girls' absent father. And in 2008, a dual biography of Louisa May Alcott and her dad won the Pulitzer Prize for biography. That book: John Matteson's Eden's Outcasts: The Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Father (2007).

Little Women begins:
"Christmas won't be Christmas without any presents," grumbled Jo, lying on the rug.
"It's so dreadful to be poor!" sighed Meg, looking down at her old dress.
"I don't think it's fair for some girls to have plenty of pretty things, and other girls nothing at all," added little Amy, with an injured sniff.
"We've got Father and Mother, and each other," said Beth contentedly from her corner.
The four young faces on which the firelight shone brightened at the cheerful words.

It's the birthday of the writer who said: "When I was ten, I read fairy tales in secret and would have been ashamed if I had been found doing so. Now that I am fifty I read them openly. When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up." That's C.S. Lewis, (books by this author) born in Belfast (1898), the author of the seven-volume children's series The Chronicles of Narnia, which begins with The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (1950), the story of four children sent away from London because of wartime air raids. He also said, "Some day you will be old enough to start reading fairy tales again."

As a teenager, he went off to boarding school in England. He hated it there. He said that English accents sounded to him like the "voices of demons." Worst of all was the landscape; he first looked at it and in that moment, he said, "conceived a hatred for England which took many years to heal." Also, he felt that his favorite poet, W.B. Yeats, — "an author exactly after [his] own heart" — was totally underappreciated in England. He wrote to a friend: "Perhaps his appeal is purely Irish — if so, then thank the gods that I am Irish." But despite all his disdain and contempt for England, he chose to live and teach at Oxford University for almost 30 years — while acquainting himself with other Irish people living in England as much as possible.

Besides fairy tales and children's classics, he wrote theological books, including The Screwtape Letters (1942), a novel in which a demon writes to his nephew; and The Great Divorce (1945), where residents of hell take a bus ride to heaven, and Mere Christianity (1952), based on talks he gave on the BBC during World War II.

C.S. Lewis said, "Miracles are a retelling in small letters of the very same story which is written across the whole world in letters too large for some of us to see."

From the archives:

It's the birthday Madeleine L'Engle, (books by this author) born in New York City (1918), who struggled to find any success as a writer with novels about ordinary families and ordinary situations. But after reading about the ideas of Albert Einstein, she wrote a science fiction novel called A Wrinkle in Time (1962), about a group of children who have to rescue their father from a planet where individuality has been outlawed. The book was rejected by 26 different publishers, who all felt that it was too difficult for children but too fantastic for adults. But when it came out in 1962, the novel won the Newbery Medal, and it sells about 15,000 copies a year.

Madeleine L'Engle said, "You have to write the book that wants to be written. And if the book will be too difficult for grown-ups, then you write it for children."

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