Jan. 8, 2005

Teaching a Child the Art of Confession

by David Shumate

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Poem: "Teaching a Child the Art of Confession" by David Shumate, from High Water Mark: Prose Poems © University of Pittsburgh Press. Reprinted with permission.

Teaching a Child the Art of Confession

It is best not to begin with Adam and Eve. Original Sin is
baffling, even for the most sophisticated minds. Besides,
children are frightened of naked people and apples. Instead,
start with the talking snake. Children like to hear what animals
have to say. Let him hiss for a while and tell his own tale.
They'll figure him out in the end. Describe sin simply as those
acts which cause suffering and leave it at that. Steer clear of
musty confessionals. Children associate them with outhouses.
Leave Hell out of the discussion. They'll be able to describe it
on their own soon enough. If they feel the need to apologize
for some transgression, tell them that one of the offices of the
moon is to forgive. As for the priest, let him slumber a while

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of British physicist Stephen Hawking, born in Oxford, England (1942), who pursues what physicists call a Grand Unified Theory, or a "Theory of Everything." As Hawking puts it, "My goal is simple. It is complete understanding of the universe." His most important work in physics has explored the nature of "singularities," anomalies in the space-time continuum commonly known as "black holes." In 1988 he published A Brief History of Time: From the Big Bang to Black Holes, a book that brought his work to a general audience. In the mid-1960s, Hawking was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig's disease, and given three months to live. When asked about living with the disease many years later, he told an interviewer that he was "happier now" than before he became ill. "Before, I was very bored with life. I drank a fair bit, I guess; I didn't do any work... When one's expectations are reduced to zero, one really appreciates everything that one does have."

It's the birthday of English poet Charles Tomlinson, born in Stoke-upon-Trent, Staffordshire (1927), the author of more than a dozen volumes of poetry, including The Necklace (1955) and American Scenes (1966). In 1979 he collaborated with the Mexican poet Octavio Paz on a bilingual volume of poetry called Air Born/Hijos en Aire, in which each translated the other man's poems.

It's the birthday of English novelist Storm Jameson, born in Whitby, Yorkshire (1891). She often set her novels in Yorkshire, and wrote a trilogy of books about a ship-building family called The Triumph of Time (1932). She preferred travel to writing, and once said: "I would infinitely rather write than cook, but I would rather run around the world, looking at it, than write."

It's the birthday of American poet and novelist John Neihardt, born near Sharpsburg, Illinois (1881). In 1901 he moved to Nebraska, where he became acquainted with many of the local Omaha Indians. He became fascinated with their culture, and his interviews and research formed the basis of his book, Black Elk Speaks (1932).

It's the birthday of publisher Frank Doubleday, born in Brooklyn, New York (1862). He started working for Charles Scribner's Sons at the age of 15, and became editor of their magazine. Then, in 1897, he joined with Samuel S. McClure to found his own house. He published Joseph Conrad, Selma Lagerlöf, Sinclair Lewis, and many other great writers. He's also known for the terrible thing he did to Theodore Dreiser: after publishing Dreiser's novel Sister Carrie in 1900, he withdrew it almost immediately because he did not approve of it.

It's the birthday of English novelist Wilkie Collins, born in London (1824), author of Antonina (1850) and other novels, and a lifelong friend of Charles Dickens.

It's the birthday of hymn composer Lowell Mason, born in Medfield, Massachusetts (1792). Between 1818 and 1822, he composed and arranged dozens of hymns, including "Nearer My God to Thee," "Blessed Be the Tie That Binds," and "When I Survey the Wondrous Cross."

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