Tuesday

Dec. 4, 2012

Great Things Have Happened

by Alden Nowlan

We were talking about the great things
that have happened in our lifetimes;
and I said, "Oh, I suppose the moon landing
was the greatest thing that has happened
in my time." But, of course, we were all lying.
The truth is the moon landing didn't mean
one-tenth as much to me as one night in 1963
when we lived in a three-room flat in what once had been
the mansion of some Victorian merchant prince
(our kitchen had been a clothes closet, I'm sure),
on a street where by now nobody lived
who could afford to live anywhere else.
That night, the three of us, Claudine, Johnnie and me,
woke up at half-past four in the morning
and ate cinnamon toast together.

"Is that all?" I hear somebody ask.

Oh, but we were silly with sleepiness
and, under our windows, the street-cleaners
were working their machines and conversing in Italian, and
everything was strange without being threatening,
even the tea-kettle whistled differently
than in the daytime: it was like the feeling
you get sometimes in a country you've never visited
before, when the bread doesn't taste quite the same,
the butter is a small adventure, and they put
paprika on the table instead of pepper,
except that there was nobody in this country
except the three of us, half-tipsy with the wonder
of being alive, and wholly enveloped in love.

"Great Things Have Happened" by Alden Nowlan, from What Happened When He Went to the Store for Bread. © Nineties Press, 1993. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Today is the birthday of Rainer Maria Rilke (books by this author), born in Prague (1875). The year before he was born, his mother had given birth to a girl who died after a week, and she wanted her son to fill that place. Rainer's given name was René, and his mother dressed him in dresses, braided his hair, and treated him like a girl. Later, he wrote, "I think my mother played with me as though I were a big doll."

He financed his career as a poet by seducing a series of rich noblewomen who would support him while he wrote his books. One princess let him live for a while in her Castle Duino near Trieste, a medieval castle with fortified walls and an ancient square tower. It was during the winter of 1912, alone in the castle, that Rilke later said he heard the voice of an angel speaking to him about the meaning of life and death. Rilke wrote two poems about angels in almost a single sitting, and he knew that he had begun his most important work, but then he got stuck. Finally, in February of 1922, he managed to finish in a single month what he'd started a decade before. The result was a cycle of 10 long poems that he called The Duino Elegies, about the difference between angels and people, and the meaning of death, and his idea that human beings are put on earth in order to experience the beauty of ordinary things.

Rilke wrote: "Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue [...] Live your questions now, and perhaps even without knowing it, you will live along some distant day into your answers."

Today is the birthday of the British essayist, philosopher, and historian Thomas Carlyle (books by this author), born in Ecclefechan, Scotland (1795). Carlyle moved to London with his wife in 1834, and began work on an ambitious project about the French Revolution. He spent months of hard work on the book, living in poverty and devoting every resource to the project, but when he lent the manuscript to philosopher John Stuart Mill, Mill's maid accidentally threw it in the fire. Even though he wasn't normally a cheerful person, Carlyle refused to let the loss get him down, and he began rewriting it immediately. The French Revolution (1837) became one of his most respected works, and would later serve as Dickens' primary reference when he was writing A Tale of Two Cities (1859).

It was on this date in 1867 that Oliver Hudson Kelley founded the Order of the Patrons of Husbandry, also known as The Grange. It's the oldest national agricultural advocacy organization. Kelley was born in Boston in 1826, and moved to Itasca, Minnesota, to become a farmer when he was 23. After the Civil War, President Andrew Johnson sent him to the Southern states to report back on the condition of the farms there. It was during this trip that Kelley began to think about a fraternal organization, similar to the Freemasons, which would work to improve conditions for farmers and bring the North and South back together in a common cause. So he formed the Order of the Patrons of Husbandry for this purpose, and his organization was unusual for the time: it encouraged women and teenagers to participate. In fact, the charter required that four of the elected positions must be held by women. The Grange represented the interests of farmers in disputes with the railroads, it established free rural mail delivery, and helped farmers improve their lives through research-based education. It also championed other, non-agricultural causes like temperance and women's suffrage.

It's the birthday of mystery writer Cornell Woolrich (books by this author), born in New York City (1903). His first six books weren't crime fiction at all, but were Jazz Age novels inspired by the work of F. Scott Fitzgerald. He first started writing detective stories under pseudonyms like William Irish and George Hopley. He was a contemporary of other, more famous crime writers like Erle Stanley Gardner, Dashiell Hammett, and Raymond Chandler, and his stories and novels were adapted for radio and film noir, including The Bride Wore Black (novel: 1940; film: 1968) and Night Has a Thousand Eyes (novel: 1945; film: 1948). His story "It Had to Be Murder" (1942) inspired the Hitchcock classic Rear Window (1954). But Woolrich gave up writing to care for his invalid mother, and became reclusive. By the time of his death in 1968, he had been forgotten, and his funeral was unattended.

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

 









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