Sep. 29, 2013

Ordinary Life

by Barbara Crooker

This was a day when nothing happened,
the children went off to school
without a murmur, remembering
their books, lunches, gloves.
All morning, the baby and I built block stacks
in the squares of light on the floor.
And lunch blended into naptime,
I cleaned out kitchen cupboards,
one of those jobs that never gets done,
then sat in a circle of sunlight
and drank ginger tea,
watched the birds at the feeder
jostle over lunch's little scraps.
A pheasant strutted from the hedgerow,
preened and flashed his jeweled head.
Now a chicken roasts in the pan,
and the children return,
the murmur of their stories dappling the air.
I peel carrots and potatoes without paring my thumb.
We listen together for your wheels on the drive.
Grace before bread.
And at the table, actual conversation,
no bickering or pokes.
And then, the drift into homework.
The baby goes to his cars, drives them
along the sofa's ridges and hills.
Leaning by the counter, we steal a long slow kiss,
tasting of coffee and cream.
The chicken's diminished to skin & skeleton,
the moon to a comma, a sliver of white,
but this has been a day of grace
in the dead of winter,
the hard knuckle of the year,
a day that unwrapped itself
like an unexpected gift,
and the stars turn on,
order themselves
into the winter night.

"Ordinary Life" by Barbara Crooker, from Ordinary Life. © By Line Press, 2001. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

In the Christian world, today is Michaelmas, feast day of the archangel Michael, which was a very important day in times past, falling near the equinox and so marking the fast darkening of the days in the northern world — the boundary of what was and what is to be. Today was the end of the harvest and the time for farm folk to calculate how many animals they could afford to feed through the winter and which would be sold or slaughtered. It was the end of the fishing season, the beginning of hunting, the time to pick apples and make cider.

Today was a day for settling rents and accounts, which farmers often paid for with a brace of birds from the flocks hatched that spring. Geese were given to the poor and their plucked down sold for the filling of mattresses and pillows.

Michaelmas was the time of the traditional printer's celebration, the wayzgoose, the day on which printers broke from their work to form the last of their pulp into paper with which to cover their open windows against the coming cold — the original solution for those who could not afford glass yet had more than nothing — and the advent of days spent working by candlelight.

In the past, the traditional Michaelmas meal would have been a roast stubble goose — the large gray geese that many of us only get to admire at our local state and county fairs. Today, when most poultry comes from the grocery store in parts and wrapped in plastic, a roast goose can be a difficult luxury to obtain, but any homey, unfussy meal is a fine substitute — especially with a posy of Michaelmas daisies or purple asters on the table.

In folklore, it is said that when Michael cast the Devil from Heaven, the fallen angel landed on a patch of blackberry brambles and so returns this day every year to spit upon the plant that tortured him. For this reason, blackberries would not be eaten after today, and so folks would gather them in masses on Michaelmas to put into pies and crumbles and preserves. And they would bake St. Michael's bannocks, a large, flat scone of oats and barley and rye, baked on a hot griddle and then eaten with butter or honey or a pot of blackberry preserves.

Whether you recognize Michaelmas or not, you can still greet what comes with the symbols of today: gloves, for openhandedness and generosity, and ginger to keep you warm and well in the coming cold.

And because today is the feast of Saint Michael, it is the day deemed to have been the birthday of Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra (books by this author), author of Don Quixote and Spain's greatest literary figure. Cervantes's exact date of birth is unknown, although it was the custom in Spain to name a baby for the feast day on which he was born, and given that Cervantes was baptized just 10 days later, on October 9th, it is probable that today was his birthday.

Cervantes was born in a small university town near Madrid, the fourth of seven children. Miguel's father was an itinerant surgeon — a profession with no exact analogue in modern medicine — who struggled to maintain his practice and family as they traveled the length and breadth of Spain. The boy received some formal education, and he made his first literary efforts in the form of four poems written in 1568 on the death of the Queen of Spain, but little more than this is known of his early life.

A soldier by his early 20s, Cervantes sustained three gunshot wounds during a major naval battle and his left hand was rendered useless — an injury he would bear with pride. After six months in a hospital in Messina, Cervantes returned to active duty until, in 1575, the galley on which he was sailing was captured by corsairs and he was carried off to Algiers as their prisoner. Despite numerous escape attempts fueled by his belief that "one should risk one's life for honor and liberty," Cervantes was held prisoner for five years until his ransom was paid and he was finally liberated in September 1580.

Back in Spain, with little or no prospects and deeply in debt for the ransom that was paid for him, Cervantes was obliged to earn a living as a tax collector. It was an indigent and wandering lifestyle, a vocation for which he had little aptitude and a situation that led to various misadventures, including excommunication for excessive zeal in collecting wheat, and at least three imprisonments for charges as varied as accounting irregularities and suspicion of murder.

Although all of Cervantes's important works belong to his later years, he began his literary career almost upon returning to Spain, beginning as a dramatist with 20 to 30 relatively successful plays in a six-year span, and his first novel, La Galatea, in 1585. It seems that Cervantes's greatest unrealized dream was to be a poet, although one of his contemporaries once stated that among the new poets, there was none so bad as Cervantes, and even Cervantes himself recognized that he did not seem to possess the gift.

But Cervantes's gift for prose was another matter. When in 1605 he published his magnum opus, Don Quixote — the tale of an elderly but absurd knight-errant and his squire — it was an immediate success and went through six editions that year alone. Russian author Fyodor Dostoyevsky explained something of the workings of the book in an 1868 letter to his niece, saying: "All writers, not just ours, but European writers, too, have always failed whenever they attempted a portrait of the positively beautiful ... There is only one positively beautiful person in the world, Christ, and the phenomenon of this limitlessly, infinitely beautiful person is an infinite miracle in itself ... But I am going too far. I'd only mention that of all the beautiful individuals in Christian literature, one stands out as the most perfect, Don Quixote ... Whenever compassion toward ridiculed and ingenious beauty is presented, the reader's sympathy is aroused. The mystery of humor lies in this excitation of compassion." William Shakespeare most certainly read the most perfect Don Quixote (and wrote the now-lost play Cardenio, based on a scene from the book), but it is doubtful that Cervantes ever heard of Shakespeare.

Don Quixote has come to be considered the first modern novel, and is considered to be among the best works of fiction ever written. It is a lush and satirical invective against its contemporary chivalrous novels, but it is the book's immense panorama of individuals and adventure, and the humor, understanding of and compassion for the human condition that have made Don Quixote so profoundly influential to so many over so great a span. If, in Cervantes's words from Don Quixote, "the proof of the pudding is in the eating," then the proof of his book is in the countless readers that have devoured it with pleasure for more than 400 years.

Of Cervantes's burial place, nothing is known except that he requested in his will to be laid to rest at a neighboring convent. A few years after Cervantes died, the convent moved and, in their tradition, carried their dead along. Whether or not the remains of the author were among these is unknown, and any clue to their final resting place has been lost.

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