Thursday

Nov. 29, 2012

Teenagers

by Pat Mora

One day they disappear
into their rooms.
Doors and lips shut
and we become strangers
in our own home.

I pace the hall, hear whispers,
a code I knew but can't remember,
mouthed by mouths I taught to speak.

Years later the door opens.
I see faces I once held,
open as sunflowers in my hands. I see
familiar skin now stretched on long bodies
that move past me
glowing almost like pearls.

"Teenagers" by Pat Mora, from Communion. © Arte Público Press, 1991. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of novelist Madeleine L'Engle (books by this author), born in New York City (1918). She worked for a while as an actress, and she was performing in the play The Cherry Orchard when she met her husband, the actor Hugh Franklin. She published a novel, The Small Rain (1945), and decided to give up acting and focus on writing and raising her kids. But while she was in her 30s, her career as a writer was going so badly that she considered giving up.

Then she read a book that made her change her mind. She said, "I read a book of Einstein's, in which he said that anyone who's not lost in rapturous awe at the power and glory of the mind behind the universe is as good as a burnt-out candle." She was so fascinated by Einstein's thinking that she kept reading about theoretical physics, and ended up writing a science fiction novel for young adults based on those ideas. L'Engle's three children loved the book, but it was rejected by 26 publishers; many thought it was too hard for children, and others thought that a science fiction novel shouldn't have a female as a main character. So L'Engle gave up on the book.

That year, her mother visited for Christmas, and L'Engle hosted a tea party for her mother's old friends. One of those friends was in a writing group with John Farrar of the publishing house Farrar, Strauss, & Giroux. They didn't publish young adult fiction, but the woman insisted that L'Engle meet Farrar and at least show him the manuscript. He published L'Engle's novel, A Wrinkle in Time (1963). It won the Newbery Medal; during her acceptance speech, she said: "I can't possibly tell you how I came to write it. It was simply a book I had to write. I had no choice. And it was only after it was written that I realized what some of it meant." A Wrinkle in Time has sold more than 10 million copies.

Her other books include A Circle of Quiet (1972), A Swiftly Tilting Planet (1978), and A Ring of Endless Light (1980).

It's the birthday of novelist and theologian C.S. Lewis (books by this author), born Clive Staples Lewis in Belfast, Ireland (1898). He grew up going to church, but he was more interested in mythology, and after his mother died when he was a boy, he became even less convinced that God existed. By the time he was a young teenager, he was a committed atheist. He received a scholarship to Oxford, and although he did not like England and though English accents sounded strange, he loved it there and ended up teaching there for nearly 30 years.

At Oxford, he met another faculty member, J.R.R. Tolkien. Lewis said: "At my first coming into the world I had been (implicitly) warned never to trust a Papist, and at my first coming into the English Faculty (explicitly) never to trust a philologist. Tolkien was both." But they became close friends, and it was Tolkien who helped convince Lewis to give up his atheism and embrace Christianity. Lewis described himself as "the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England," but he went on to write books that are now considered classics of Christian apologetics, including The Screwtape Letters (1942) and Mere Christianity (1952). He is best known for his fantasy series The Chronicles of Narnia, which begins with The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe (1950).

It's the birthday of novelist Louisa May Alcott (books by this author), born in Germantown, Pennsylvania (1832). Her family friends included Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Nathaniel Hawthorne, and she was sometimes tutored by them, but mostly she was self-taught or taught by her father. Her father, Bronson, was often involved in idealistic projects. He ran several failed experimental schools, and when Louisa was 10 years old, her father founded an intentional community where everyone ate a vegan diet, no one used animal labor or wore cotton (because of slavery), and all property was communal. Like most of Bronson's projects, the community was a failure. The Alcotts never had enough money, so as a teenager, Louisa Alcott went to work as a seamstress and governess.

When the Civil War broke out, she enlisted as a nurse at the Union Hospital in Georgetown. She had always been the nurse in the family, and she never got sick. Six weeks later, she contracted typhoid pneumonia and almost died; she never fully recovered. She said, "I was never ill before this time and never well afterward." Her six weeks as a nurse gave her plenty of material for her writing, and in 1863, she published Hospital Sketches. She wrote later: "The Sketches never made much money, but showed me 'my style', and taking the hint, I went where glory waited me."

It was a while before Alcott took that hint and wrote more about her own life. For several years, she focused on the writing she loved: lurid, sensational potboilers, which she called "blood and thunder" stories. They had titles like "Pauline's Passion and Punishment" and A Long Fatal Love Chase, and they featured revenge, opium addiction, sex, and cross-dressing.

She was not happy when her publisher asked her to write a book for girls. She wrote in her journal: "Mr. N. wants a girls' story, and I begin 'Little Women.' Marmee, Anna, and May all approve my plan. So I plod away, though I don't enjoy this sort of thing. Never liked girls or knew many, except my sisters; but our queer plays and experiences may prove interesting, though I doubt it." Two months later, she wrote in her journal that she had sent off the manuscript. Little Women (1868) was an immediate hit, and her publisher demanded sequels. Alcott made enough money that, for the first time, her whole family could live comfortably.

She said, "I like good strong words that mean something."

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®

 









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