Sep. 9, 2004

Ordinary Life

by Barbara Crooker

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Poem: "Ordinary Life," by Barbara Crooker, from Ordinary Life (By Line Press).

Ordinary Life

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 cold knuckle of the year,
a day that unwrapped itself
like an unexpected gift,
and the stars turn on,
order themselves
into the winter night.

Literary Notes:

It's the birthday of British novelist James Hilton, born in Leigh, Lancashire, England (1900). In the first decade of his writing career, he published more than 10 novels without receiving any attention. Then he wrote Goodbye Mr. Chips (1934), about an old, beloved schoolmaster whom Hilton based on his father. When the story was published in the United States it became a huge bestseller. All of his previous novels were reissued and they became bestsellers too. The most popular of the earlier novels was Lost Horizon (1933) about an imaginary Tibetan village called Shangri-La.

It's the birthday of Paul Goodman, born in Greenwich Village in New York City (1911). He's the author of Growing Up Absurd: Problems of Youth in the Organized System (1960), about the alienation of American young people. The book made him a hero among lefty beatniks.

It's the birthday of literary critic Granville Hicks, born in Exeter, New Hampshire (1901). He was one of the first literary critics to join the Communist Party during the Great Depression. He wrote several books analyzing American literature from a Marxist point of view, including The Great Tradition (1933).

It's the birthday of Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy, born on his family's estate in the province of Tula, near Moscow (1828). Both of his parents died when he was a boy, and he was raised by a series of aunts. As a young man, he loved to drink and gamble, but he always felt guilty about it. He started keeping a diary, and wrote his first diary entry about his fear that he had contracted a venereal disease. He wrote pages and pages wondering why he couldn't help breaking all the rules that society had made for him, and he became fascinated by the idea that people are always trying to stop themselves from doing what they really want to do.

He volunteered to fight in a war against the Chechen mountain tribes, and went on to fight in the Crimean War. He wrote stories about the battles he witnessed and he described military battles as realistically as possible. He was one of the first writers to describe battles as chaotic and insane and meaningless.

In the 1850s, Russia was still operating under a medieval economic system with most of the peasants enslaved as serfs. Tolstoy opened a school for peasants on his family's estate and helped open more than 20 schools in surrounding villages. He believed in complete freedom in the classroom and let his students study whatever interested them. He also edited an educational journal and wrote that the upper classes had as much to learn from peasants as peasants had to learn from the upper classes.

Tolstoy got married in 1862, and it was the best thing that ever happened to him. He wrote, "Domestic happiness has swallowed me completely." His wife had 13 children, and she helped him copy out and edit all his manuscripts. She copied by hand the huge manuscript for War and Peace (1868) four times. During the first years of his marriage, free love was becoming fashionable among the Russian upper classes, and everyone started to think of marriage as old fashioned and silly. Tolstoy was disgusted.

In 1872, he heard about a woman who had thrown herself in front of a train after the end of an affair, and it gave him an idea for a novel about a woman whose life is destroyed by adultery. That novel was Anna Karenina (1875). He wrote it as a defense of marriage as the most important foundation of society. When it was published, most critics said it was inferior to War and Peace, but it is now considered one of the greatest novels ever written.

After publishing Anna Karenina, Tolstoy fell into a deep depression. He was healthy, and he had plenty of money, but he felt that life had no purpose. He noticed that the peasants on his estate wore ragged clothes, lived in leaky huts, and had no way of improving their lives, but they were happy. He came to believe that they knew the meaning of life, so he renounced all his property and became a peasant. He learned to make his own food and clothes, and lived in a hut. He started to write theology and philosophy and founded his own form of Christianity. He became a kind of prophet, and people from all over the world visited him and wrote to him, including Woodrow Wilson and Mahatma Gandhi. Leo Tolstoy said, "In the name of God, stop a moment, cease your work, look around you."

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