May 13, 2011

Conversation's Afterplay

by Donald Hall

                     At dinner our first night
           I looked at you, your bright green eyes,
                             In candlelight.
           We laughed and told the hundred stories,
           Kissed, and caressed, and went to bed.
           "Shh, shh," you said,
"I want to put my legs around your head."
                                              Green eyes, green eyes.

                     At dawn we sat with coffee
           And smoked another cigarette
                             As quietly
           Companionship and eros met
           In conversation's afterplay,
                            On our first day.
Late for the work you love, you drove away.
                                              Green eyes, green eyes.

"Conversation's Afterplay" by Donald Hall, from The Painted Bed. © Houghton Mifflin Company, 2002. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It was on this day in 1373 that the mystic Julian of Norwich (books by this author) received the last of her divine visions. Julian is not technically a saint, and no one even knows her given name. She was called "Julian" because she was an anchoress in a cell adjoining the Church of St. Julian in Norwich, England. An anchoress renounces society for solitary religious practice (similar to a hermit) instead of living in a community as a nun.

Julian was born in England, probably in 1342, just before the worst outbreak of the Black Death in Europe. During that time, the Late Middle Ages, England was fighting the Hundred Years’ War with France, the Black Death killed at least a third of England’s population, there had been widespread famine and crop failures, and peasants were in revolt. In addition to all that, the Catholic Church was falling apart. The Church was leading up to a major schism — the pope had defected to Avignon in France since the early 14th century, which didn’t sit well with Rome. In 1351, Pope Clement VI himself railed against his own highest-ranking clergy: "What can you preach to the people? If on humility, you yourselves are the proudest of the world, puffed up, pompous and sumptuous in luxuries. If on poverty, you are so covetous that all the benefices in the world are not enough for you. If on chastity — but we will be silent on this, for God knoweth what each man does and how many of you satisfy your lusts."

This was the context in which Julian of Norwich, whoever she might have been, decided to withdraw from society for a life of religious solitude. She spent her days in contemplative prayer, and when she was 30 years old she became seriously ill. She was so near death that the priest was called to administer the last rites, when suddenly she began experiencing visions. She had 16 visions of God, and was healed. She wrote: "All this blessed teaching of our Lord was shown to me in three parts, that is by bodily vision and by words formed in my understanding and by spiritual vision." Shortly after her visions occurred, she wrote them down into a work she called Short Text, which was 25 chapters long. And although she described herself as a "simple creature unlettered," she kept thinking about the visions and revising her account of them, and 20 years later she completed all 86 chapters of her Long Text. Eventually, these became Revelations of Divine Love, one of the first books written by a woman in English.

Julian of Norwich wrote: "So I understood our sensuality is founded in nature, in mercy and in grace, and this foundation enables us to receive gifts which lead us to endless life. For I saw very surely that our substance is in God, and I also saw that God is in our sensuality, for in the same instant and place in which our soul is made sensual, in that same instant and place exists the city of God, ordained from him without beginning. He comes into this city and will never depart from it, for God is never out of the soul, in which he will dwell blessedly without end."

It was on this day in 1958 that Velcro was patented. Velcro was invented by Georges de Mestral, an electrical engineer from Switzerland. Mestral was a born inventor — he applied for his first patent when he was 12 years old, for a model airplane.

Besides being an engineer, Mestral enjoyed mountain climbing, and in 1941 he went on a hunting trip with his dog in the Alps. He hiked through patches of burdock. Burdock is a thistly plant whose roots are used in cooking, especially in Asia; but the plant spreads its spiny seeds by latching them onto anything or anyone passing by. When Mestral got home, he was picking the burs off his dog’s coat and his own clothes, and he wondered how burdock was so effective. He put the seeds under his microscope, and saw that each bristle was a tiny hook that was able to catch in the loops of clothing. He realized that by copying burdock he could create a way to simply bind materials together.

Most people Mestral told about his "hook and loop" cloth thought that his idea was stupid, but he kept on with it. It took him 10 years to get it right. With the help of a talented weaver, he was able to make a workable product, but the cotton didn’t hold up to wear. Then he discovered that nylon sewn under infrared light made the perfect set of loops — but that meant sewing hundreds of loops per inch, a slow and inefficient task. Eventually, he was able to mechanize the whole process, and 10 years after his walk with his dog, he applied for a patent for his invention: "Velcro," which combined the French words velour (which means velvet) and crochet (which means hook).

Dave Barry said, "Your modern teenager is not about to listen to advice from an old person, defined as a person who remembers when there was no Velcro."

It was on this day in 1940 that Winston Churchill gave his first speech as prime minister to the House of Commons. Three days earlier, he had taken over the job from Neville Chamberlain, who resigned. Chamberlain was a controversial leader — he had signed the Munich Agreement in September of 1938, ceding a region of Czechoslovakia to Hitler, a decision that Churchill highly criticized at the time. After Chamberlain’s decision, Churchill had said in a speech to the House of Commons: "You were given the choice between war and dishonor. You chose dishonor, and you will have war." Sure enough, one year later Britain declared war on Germany, and eight months after that, Chamberlain stepped aside.

So although the 65-year-old Churchill had been a politician for more than 30 years and delivered plenty of speeches to the House of Commons, this was his first as prime minister. Churchill’s reception from the House of Commons was not particularly enthusiastic — plenty of Conservative members wanted Chamberlain to stay on as prime minister. But the speech Churchill gave is considered one of his greatest. He said: "I would say to the House, as I said to those who have joined this government: ‘I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears, and sweat.’ We have before us an ordeal of the most grievous kind. We have before us many, many long months of struggle and of suffering. You ask, what is our policy? I can say: It is to wage war, by sea, land, and air, with all our might and with all the strength that God can give us; to wage war against a monstrous tyranny, never surpassed in the dark, lamentable catalogue of human crime. That is our policy. You ask, what is our aim? I can answer in one word: It is victory, victory at all costs, victory in spite of all terror, victory, however long and hard the road may be; for without victory, there is no survival. Let that be realized; no survival for the British Empire, no survival for all that the British Empire has stood for, no survival for the urge and impulse of the ages, that mankind will move forward towards its goal. But I take up my task with buoyancy and hope. I feel sure that our cause will not be suffered to fail among men. At this time I feel entitled to claim the aid of all, and I say, ‘Come then, let us go forward together with our united strength.’"

Churchill was a good writer as well as a good speaker. He wrote more than 40 books — histories, biographies, memoirs, and even a novel. He is the only British prime minister who has received the Nobel Prize in literature.

It’s the birthday of comedian Stephen Colbert (books by this author), born in Washington, D.C. (1964). He was the youngest of 11 siblings, and he grew up in South Carolina. He thought that he wouldn’t seem smart if he had a Southern accent, so he taught himself to imitate TV news anchors, and he lost his accent. Many years later, he is a TV news anchor himself — at least, a fake news anchor. He hosts his own satirical show, The Colbert Report, in which he stays in character as a conservative pundit. He is the author of the best-selling book I Am America (And So Can You!) (2007).

He said, "Reality has a well-known liberal bias."

And, "If our Founding Fathers wanted us to care about the rest of the world, they wouldn’t have declared their independence from it."

From the archives:

It’s the birthday of novelist Daphne du Maurier (books by this author), born in London (1907). She came from a family of actors and writers, and her first two big successes were books about her family — Gerald (1936), a biography of her father; and The Du Mauriers (1937), the story of her family beginning in the early 18th century. She was inspired to write about her family after she found a stack of old letters in a drawer, letters belonging to her "grandfather and his father before him."

She spent most of her adult life in Cornwall, known for its stormy, unpredictable weather. In a book called Vanishing Cornwall (1967), she wrote: "Here was the freedom I desired, long sought-for, not yet known. Freedom to write, to walk, to wander, freedom to climb hills, to pull a boat, to be alone." Her three most famous novels, Jamaica Inn (1936), Frenchman’s Creek (1941), and Rebecca (1938), are all set in Cornwall.

Rebecca is narrated by a young, nameless woman who lives with a rich widower in a haunted house near the cliffs of Cornwall. It begins: "Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again. It seemed to me I stood by the iron gate leading to the drive, and for a while I could not enter, for the way was barred to me. There was a padlock and a chain upon the gate. I called in my dream to the lodge-keeper, and had no answer, and peering closer through the rusted spokes of the gate I saw that the lodge was uninhabited."

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