Jun. 2, 2012
Seventy-Two is Not Thirty-Five
I spent seven hours yesterday at my daughter's house
helping her expand their garden by at least ten times.
We dug up sod by the shovelful, shook off the dirt as
best we could; sod into the wheelbarrow and off to the
pile at the edge of the yard. Then all that over and over
again. Five hours total work-time, with time out for lunch
and supper. By the time I got home I knew all too well
that seventy-two is not thirty-five; I could barely move.
I got to quit earlier than Nadine. She told me I'd done
enough and that I should go get a beer and lie down on
the chaise lounge and cheer her on, which is what I did.
All this made me remember my father forty years ago
helping me with my garden. My father's dead now, and
has been dead for many years, which is how I'll be one
of these days too. And then Nadine will help her child,
who is not yet here, with her garden. Old Nadine, aching
and sore, will be in my empty shoes, cheering on her own.
So it goes. The wheel turns, generation after generation,
around and around. We ride for a little while, get off and
somebody else gets on. Over and over, again and again.
It's the birthday of Harlem Renaissance writer Dorothy West (books by this author), born in Boston, Massachusetts (1907). Her father was an ex-slave who'd built a trade as a wholesale banana merchant, and his success meant that theirs was one of the first black families in America to own a vacation home on Martha's Vineyard.
West's mother was light-skinned, and had been sent by her Southern family to the North when she was young, afraid that her looks would attract unwanted attention from white men. In Boston and Martha's Vineyard, West's mother believed, they could overcome racism with enough money. West wasn't content to live in a bubble, so at 19, when she went to New York City to receive an award for a story she'd written for Opportunity magazine (she'd tied with Zora Neale Hurston) she stayed. She met the young writers of the Harlem Renaissance, was given the nickname "The Kid" by Langston Hughes. When the Depression hit, West started the magazine Challenge with $40 to "recapture the literary vitality of the Harlem Renaissance" and to publish up-and-coming black writers like Ralph Ellison and Richard Wright. After the magazine ultimately failed, West became a welfare investigator, worked for the WPA project, and began writing her own stories that explored race and class.
By the mid-1940s, West left New York and settled permanently in her family's childhood vacation home on Martha's Vineyard, where she worked as a reporter for the local paper and wrote her first novel, The Living is Easy (1948). The book was well received but did not sell many copies. Nearly 50 years passed before West published again, encouraged by Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. Her second novel, The Wedding (1995) is set on Martha's Vineyard in the 1950s, and tells the story of a wealthy black family's struggle with identity and race as the youngest daughter prepares to marry a white jazz musician. West writes: "Identity is not inherent. It is shaped by circumstance [...] and resistance to self-pity."
It's the birthday of Thomas Hardy (books by this author), born in Stinsford, England, in 1840. His father was a mason, and the family didn't have the money for Hardy to go to college. His formal education ended at the age of 16, when he was apprenticed to an architect. Hardy was already well versed in Latin and French, and had taught himself the Greek and Roman classics, as well as Shakespeare.
Hardy suspended his apprenticeship to take a position as an architect's assistant in London, possibly as a way to make a fresh start after a series of heartbreaks. Able to attend public lectures by famous writers, watch plays performed live, and befriend poets like Robert Browning, Hardy was inspired to try writing his own poetry—but after failing to get any published, he left London, resumed his apprenticeship, and started writing fiction, which he figured was likelier to make money.
It did, eventually. After publishing three novels without attaching his name to them, Hardy wrote Far From the Madding Crowd (1874), which was so successful he was able to quit his job and pursue a literary career. He published ten novels over the next 25 years, but when his last two—now his most famous—Tess of the d'Urbervilles (1891) and Jude the Obscure (1895) created scandal for candid depictions of sex, Hardy became disgusted with fiction altogether. As he wrote years later, "Then somebody discovered that Jude was a moral work—austere in its treatment of a difficult subject—as if the writer had not all the time said in the Preface that it was meant to be so. Thereupon many uncursed me, and the matter ended, the only effect of it on human conduct that I could discover being its effect on myself—the experience completely curing me of the further interest in novel-writing." He returned to his original love, poetry, publishing eight collections, including Wessex Poems (1898) and Satires of Circumstance (1914).
It's the birthday of the author Carol Ann Shields (books by this author), born in Oak Park, Illinois (1935). She emigrated from the U.S. to Canada just after college when she married a Canadian. She occupied herself raising five children and getting her master's in English, for which she wrote her thesis on the English-born Canadian pioneer writer Susanna Moodie. Shields' interest in Moodie, and her experience writing about her, inspired her first work of fiction, a novel called Small Ceremonies (1976).
Her readership remained small until her fifth novel, when a British editor stumbled upon it and was so impressed that he bought the rights to all her previous books too. Three years later, her book The Stone Diaries (1993) won the Pulitzer. The book is a fictional biography of an apparently unremarkable woman named Daisy Goodwill Flett, who lives for more than 90 years, goes from rural Manitoba to Sarasota, Florida, marries several men, raises children, writes a gardening column, and whose final thought at the end of her life is, "I am not at peace."
Shields wrote the novel as a kind of scrapbook, with excerpts of fictional letters, diaries, and newspaper articles. She even included photographs that she had found in antique shops to give the sense that Daisy might have been a real person. It became an international best-seller.
She also published a collection of short stories, a biography of Jane Austen, and a novel in the three consecutive years before she died of breast cancer in 2003.
Shields said: "Open a book this minute and start reading. Don't move until you've reached page fifty. Until you've buried your thoughts in print. Cover yourself with words. Wash yourself away. Dissolve."
Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®