Jan. 29, 2006


by Jane Hirshfield

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Poem: "Tree," by Jane Hirshfield


It is foolish
to let a young redwood
grow next to a house.

Even in this
one lifetime,
you will have to choose.

That great calm being,
this clutter of soup pots and books—

Already the first branch-tips brush at the window.
Softly, calmly, immensity taps at your life.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of the man who wrote, "These are the times that try men's souls." The time was the American Revolution, and the writer was Thomas Paine, born in Thetford, England (1737). He joined with Washington's Army when the war broke out, and at nights after fighting, he worked on a collection of essays titled The American Crisis (1783). His pamphlet, Common Sense (1776), was a best seller and helped inspire the move toward a declaration of independence. At the end of the Revolution he returned to England, where he published The Rights of Man (1789), a response to anti-revolutionary sentiment there. After reading it, his friend Benjamin Franklin said, "I would advise you not to attempt unchaining the tiger, but to burn this piece before it is seen by any other person." He was imprisoned in France in 1794, where he wrote The Age of Reason (1795). This book angered his critics further, until he was brought back to the United States in 1802 by Thomas Jefferson. Here, he received much public abuse for his writing, and he died poor and alone in 1809.

It's the birthday of comedian and actor William Claude Dukenfield, W.C. Fields, born in Philadelphia, (1880). He wrote The Bank Dick (1940), Never Give a Sucker an Even Break (1941), and My Little Chickadee (1940), and other films. In an interview with Vanity Fair magazine, he was asked what he wanted as his epitaph. He said, "On the whole, I'd rather be in Philadelphia."

It's the birthday of novelist, essayist, and environmentalist Edward Abbey, born in the town of Home, Pennsylvania (1927). He lived in the Southwest for most of his life. His most famous work, The Monkey Wrench Gang (1975), is about a gang of four "environmental warriors" who liberate sections of the Utah and New Mexico wilderness through sabotage. After a stint as a caseworker in a Brooklyn welfare office, he moved west to work as a fire lookout and ranger in Arches national park, which he did for 15 years. He turned the experience into his book, Desert Solitaire (1968). "There is science, logic, reason; there is thought verified by experience. And then there is California."

It is the birthday of playwright and short story writer Anton Chekhov, born in Tagnarog, Russia (1860) into a peasant family. At a very young age, his grandfather was able to buy the freedom of his family from serfdom. His father owned and operated a grocery store until it went bankrupt when Chekhov was 16.

He studied medicine, became a doctor, but he said, "Besides medicine, my wife, I have also literature, my mistress." He began writing serious fiction, including the "The Steppe," a novella-length story, and his first play, The Seagull. The play was met with awful reviews; at its first performance, Chekhov left mid-performance, vowing never to write for theater again. Two years later, in 1898, Constantin Stanislavsky re-produced the play to raves. This success inspired him to go on to write the plays The Three Sisters (1901), The Cherry Orchard (1904), and Uncle Vanya (1896), all now classics of the theater.

Anton Chekhov said, "Any idiot can face a crisis; it is this day-to-day living that wears you out."

He once wrote to a friend, "Critics are like horseflies which prevent the horse from ploughing ... only [one] made an impression on me. He said I would die in a ditch drunk."

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




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