Dec. 12, 2010

Alone for the Fifth Day

by Jason Shinder

When I look at the ocean for a long time, the blue

and restless driven waves, I keep looking, I keep looking,
I keep looking at the waves swaying in the wind

like a metronome, wired for the sound of a sleeping heart,

and I keep looking with the silence of the sun
on the windowpane, and I keep looking and do not stop

looking deeper into waves as if into the middle

of a woman's body, where the soul and spirit
have no human bonds, and I begin never to turn away

from looking though I am frightened but keep looking

beyond what I know until I can hardly think or breathe
because I have arrived, with the need to be me disappearing

into the beautiful waves, reflecting no one, nothing, no one.

"Alone for the Fifth Day" by Jason Shinder, from Stupid Hope. © Graywolf Press, 2009. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Today is the Feast Day of Our Lady of Guadalupe, because it was on this day in 1531 that the image of the Virgin of Guadalupe appeared on the cloak of a Mexican peasant, a man who had been baptized and given the name Juan Diego. Only 10 years earlier, Hernán Cortés had conquered Mexico and brought Christianity there. Juan Diego and his wife had embraced the new religion, and apparently were so taken with the teachings that they decided to live in celibacy after that. A few years later, Juan Diego's wife died, and so by 1531 he was a widower.

On December 9th, he was on his way to attend Mass when he heard strange music and birds chirping from a nearby hill, and someone calling his name. He followed the sounds, and saw a vision of a young woman, dressed like Aztec royalty and bathed in light. He recognized her as the Virgin Mary, and she spoke in his language, Nahuatl, telling him that she wanted a shrine in her honor built on that spot, and that he should meet with the bishop and tell him so. When Juan Diego asked her what her name was, she called herself "Coatlaxopeuh," [pronounced "quatlasupe"] or "She who crushes the serpent," which the Spanish translated as Guadalupe, so that she became Our Lady of Guadalupe.

So Juan Diego went to Bishop Zumárraga, who was skeptical. Diego went back to the hill, defeated, but the Lady told him to try again. So he returned again to the bishop, who still didn't believe him and told him he would need a sign. But Juan Diego's uncle was dying, and he was trying to find a bishop to administer the last rites, and he avoided the hill, hoping to deal with his uncle first. However, the Lady appeared once again, this time down on his path, assuring him that his uncle would not die. She asked him to climb up the hill and pick the roses there. Even though the hill was a barren spot, not growing much more than cactus, Juan Diego found it covered in the type of roses that grew in Spain, where Bishop Zumárraga was born. The Lady helped Juan Diego arrange the roses inside his cloak, or tilma. She told him not to open his tilma until he reached the bishop.

When he opened his tilma for Bishop Zumárraga, the roses fell out and an image of Our Lady of Guadalupe appeared on the fabric of his tilma. The bishop was so amazed that he got down on his knees and agreed to build the shrine, whose construction started days later. It became the Basilica of St. Mary.

Each year, more than 20 million pilgrims visit the Basilica of St. Mary in Mexico City. Juan Diego was canonized in 2002, a somewhat controversial canonization since there is no proof that he actually existed. The first record of the story of Juan Diego and the Lady of Guadalupe was written down in 1648, more than 100 years after the events it described.

In 1974, the Mexican writer Octavio Paz wrote: "The Mexican people, after more than two centuries of experiments, have faith only in the Virgin of Guadalupe and the National Lottery."

It's the birthday of the jack-of-all-trades whom Samuel Taylor Coleridge called "the first literary character of Europe, and the most original-minded Man." That's the physician, inventor, poet, philosopher, and scientist Erasmus Darwin, (books by this author) born in Elston, England (1731). His six older siblings all had normal British names like John and Anne and William, but his parents chose Erasmus for their youngest, possibly after the Dutch classical scholar Desiderius Erasmus.

Apparently, the young Erasmus was inclined toward accidents. He was hit on the head when he was five years old and his hair grew back white. His brothers stuffed him in a bag with nothing but his feet exposed and pointed him toward the river; he walked straight in and almost drowned. He and a friend played with gunpowder and hurt themselves badly when it exploded. And he managed to break his kneecap twice.

Many years later, his famous grandson, Charles Darwin, wrote about his grandfather: "His frame was large and bulky, and he grew corpulent when old. Owing to his lameness, he was clumsy in his movements, but my father says that, when young, he was very active [...] His energy was unbounded. In his day he was esteemed a great poet. As a physician, he was eminent in the noble art of alleviating human suffering. He was in advance of his time in urging sanitary arrangements and in inculcating temperance. He was opposed to any restraint of the insane, excepting as far as was absolutely necessary. He strongly advised a tender system of education. With his prophetic spirit, he anticipated many new and now admitted scientific truths, as well as some mechanical inventions. [...] He was highly benevolent, and retained the friendship of many distinguished men during his whole life. He strongly insisted on humanity to the lower animals. He earnestly admired philanthropy, and abhorred slavery. But he was unorthodox; and as soon as the grave closed over him he was grossly and often calumniated."

Along with all these other accomplishments, Darwin was such a fine physician that he was invited to be the personal physician to King George III (an offer he refused), although he treated the poor for free; he wrote the best-seller Zoonomia, or, The Laws of Organic Life (1794–1796), which contained some early speculation about evolution; he discovered that sugar and starches are byproducts of what he called "plant digestion"; he designed a steam-powered car, a horizontal windmill, and a copy machine; and he wrote poems.

He wrote:
"Organic life beneath the shoreless waves
Was born and nurs'd in ocean's pearly caves;
First forms minute, unseen by spheric glass,
Move on the mud, or pierce the watery mass;
These, as successive generations bloom,
New powers acquire and larger limbs assume;
Whence countless groups of vegetation spring,
And breathing realms of fin and feet and wing.

Thus the tall Oak, the giant of the wood,
Which bears Britannia's thunders on the flood;
The Whale, unmeasured monster of the main,
The lordly Lion, monarch of the plain,
The Eagle soaring in the realms of air,
Whose eye undazzled drinks the solar glare,
Imperious man, who rules the bestial crowd,
Of language, reason, and reflection proud,
With brow erect who scorns this earthy sod,
And styles himself the image of his God;
Arose from rudiments of form and sense,
An embryon point, or microscopic ens!"

It was on this day in 1850 that The Wide, Wide World was published, a novel generally considered to be the first American best-seller.

The Wide, Wide World is the story of a girl named Ellen who is orphaned and lives with a variety of relatives and acquaintances, all the while developing a good Christian conscience and learning to tame her emotions. After discovering letters from her beloved, dead mother saying that she hoped her daughter would live with relatives in Scotland, Ellen moves to Scotland. Her new relatives adore her, but she resists them because they don't understand her faith. She ends up marrying a kindly minister who is also the brother of her best friend Alice, and returning to America.

Susan Warner came from a prominent family — she could trace her ancestors to the Mayflower on both sides, and her father Henry had been a wealthy and successful lawyer in New York City. But during the Panic of 1837, a financial crisis caused by speculation, Henry Warner lost all of his money and the family had to leave their fancy home and move into an old farmhouse on Constitution Island, outside the city. Susan and her sister Anna both began writing, a respectable way to earn some money.

The Wide, Wide World was Warner's first novel. Henry carried it around New York City to various publishing houses, but it was rejected over and over. Then he took it to George Palmer Putnam. Putnam wasn't too sure about this sentimental novel, either, but his mother insisted that he publish it, telling him he should publish it even if he never published another book. So he grudgingly agreed, and it came out on this day in 1850, just in time for Christmas. The Wide, Wide World was an immediate success — it went through 14 editions in two years. But it still didn't make Susan Warner rich — the novel was extremely popular in England, where it sold 100,000 copies in 10 years, but of the 20 publishing houses that printed it there, one paid her a small advance and the rest didn't pay her at all. The next winter, despite lots of fan mail and huge sales, the Warners were still struggling. She wrote in her journal: "The Island, alas! looks to me a dismal place for us to be locked up in for the winter; without a grown servant, without books, without a piano, without church, without a friend's face, without anybody to get wood but father, without resources to draw upon but the Bible, the Penny Cyclopaedia, and imagination; without ready money to go to market, without earning anything, without any brilliant prospects for the future, unless indeed the Wide World should prove to us a richer storehouse than it does to most people. Well, we are strangely cool, but it may be in part because we are strangely cold. I have been all but thinking of a governess's place — anything but living on nothing, or on borrowed money."

From the archives:

It's the birthday of French novelist Gustave Flaubert, (books by this author) born in Rouen, France (1821). Madame Bovary (1857) is now considered Flaubert's great masterpiece, but in his lifetime he was best known for his second book, Salammbô (1862), a novel about pagan rituals and human sacrifice that became a huge best-seller when it was published, though it is rarely read today.

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