May 15, 2011


by Michael Lind

In Jamaica, no grief's allowed.
There the rooftops are smile-white and the terrace pools,
          chairs and shirts are horizon-blue;
laughter's greener and song blacker than dragonflies;
          talk's resilient as hammock string.
Sorrow, though, has a home anywhere people are.
          From the suitcases tourists bring
it will wriggle and slip. It will be swept ashore,
          gripping branches a storm broke off.
I've not visited that island, and yet I'm sure,
          even there in Jamaica, on
afternoons when the blank porcelain dazzle breaks
          into chips on a million waves,
lizardlike on a wall sadness will blink and crawl.

"Jamaica" by Michael Lind, from Parallel Lives. © Etruscan Press, 2007. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It’s the birthday of writer Katherine Anne Porter (books by this author), born Callie Russell Porter in Indian Creek, Texas (1890). Her mother died when she was two years old, and her father didn’t pay much attention to young Callie or her brothers and sisters. She was raised by her grandmother, Catherine Anne Skaggs, in the town of Kyle, which had about 500 people. Catherine Anne Skaggs traced her family back to Daniel Boone. Porter wrote later: "Grandmother was by nature lavish, she loved leisure and calm, she loved luxury, she loved dress and adornment, she loved to sit and talk with friends or listen to music; she did not in the least like pinching or saving and mending and making things do. ... But the evil turn of fortune in her life tapped the bottomless reserves of her character." Porter grew up in poverty, but she soaked in her grandmother’s stories of the affluent family she had left behind in Kentucky, and a family history full of important and wealthy people. She described herself as "a precocious child full of miscellaneous talents and hellish energy."

But then her grandmother died, and Porter hated living with her father — they argued constantly and lived in squalid conditions, with Porter supporting both of them by giving lessons. So when she was 15 years old she ran off with a man named John Henry Koontz, who was from a wealthy ranching family. They got married just after her 16th birthday. The marriage was unhappy — Koontz was physically abusive, he had affairs, and he drank too much. Finally, after he beat her unconscious with a hairbrush, she decided she had to get out and she divorced him. In the divorce proceedings, Callie Porter changed her name to Katherine Porter, in honor of her grandmother, and soon started going as Katherine Anne Porter.

After a struggle with tuberculosis, Porter got a job writing for a newspaper in Fort Worth, then at the Rocky Mountain News. She barely survived the influenza epidemic, and afterwards she set out for a new life as a writer in Greenwich Village. In 1922, she sold her first short story to Century magazine, and in 1930 published her first book of short stories, Flowering Judas. Her writing got good reviews but not a lot of attention, until she published her first and only novel, Ship of Fools (1962),which came out on April Fools’ Day. It was the best-selling novel of 1962, and she finally had the financial security she had wanted for so long. Three years later, she published The Collected Stories of Katherine Anne Porter (1965), which went on to win the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. She died in 1980 at the age of 90.

Her friend Kitty Barry Crawford, who founded the Fort Worth Critic and inspired Porter to write, said of her friend: "I am frank to say, however, that K.A. as a person has always interested me more than her writings. She had and perhaps still has qualities of personality which lift her far, far above even highly talented people. Her delicate beauty — lovely black-lashed violet eyes, dark wavy hair, small nose, pertly snubbed — just to look at her was to love her."

Katherine Anne Porter said: "If I didn’t know the ending of a story, I wouldn’t begin. I always write my last lines, my last paragraph first, and then I go back and work towards it. I know where I’m going. I know what my goal is. And how I get there is God’s grace."

In Pale Horse, Pale Rider (1939), Porter wrote: "He had his uniforms made by the best tailor he could find, he confided to Miranda one day when she told him how squish he was looking in his new soldier suit. ‘Hard enough to make anything of the outfit, anyhow,’ he told her. ‘It’s the least I can do for my beloved country, not to go around looking like a tramp.’ He was twenty-four years old and a Second Lieutenant in an Engineers Corps, on leave because his outfit expected to be sent over shortly. ‘Came in to make my will,’ he told Miranda, ‘and get a supply of toothbrushes and razor blades. By what gorgeous luck do you suppose,’ he asked her, ‘I happened to pick on your rooming house? How did I know you were there?’

"Strolling, keeping step, his stout polished well-made boots setting themselves down firmly beside her thin-soled black suede, they put off as long as they could the end of their moment together, and kept up as well as they could their small talk that flew back and forth over little grooves worn in the thin upper surface of the brain, things you could say and hear clink reassuringly at once without disturbing the radiance which played and darted about the simple and lovely miracle of being two persons named Adam and Miranda, twenty-four years old each, alive and on the earth at the same moment: ‘Are you in the mood for dancing, Miranda?’ and ‘I’m always in the mood for dancing, Adam!’ but there were thing in the way, the day that ended with dancing was a long way to go."

It was on this day in 1817 that the Asylum for the Relief of Persons Deprived of the Use of Their Reason was founded in Philadelphia. It was the first private mental health hospital in the United States. The Asylum was founded by a group of Quakers, the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting of Friends, who built the institution on a 52-acre farm. It is still around today, but goes by the name Friends Hospital.

At the time that Friends Hospital was founded, mental illness was widely misunderstood, and treated as criminal behavior. Mentally ill people were tied up, put in chains, isolated, or beaten. The Quakers wanted to model a new type of care. They wrote out their philosophy in a mission statement for the hospital: "To provide for the suitable accommodation of persons who are or may be deprived of the use of their reason, and the maintenance of an asylum for their reception, which is intended to furnish, besides requisite medical aid, such tender, sympathetic attention as may soothe their agitated minds, and under the Divine Blessing, facilitate their recovery."

The group purchased the 52-acre farm for less than $7,000, and tried to create a beautiful place with gardens and lots of outdoor space. These days, the hospital occupies 100 acres, which include flower gardens and about 200 varieties of trees. Much of this was the work of one man who started out at the hospital as a bookkeeper in 1875 and ended up working there and managing the grounds until his death in 1947. One day, he found an azalea that a family member had brought for a patient and tossed out. He tended it in the greenhouse until it was healthy again, took cuttings, and planted those, and from that one plant more than 20 acres of the Friends Hospital are now planted in azaleas.

It’s the birthday of folk singer and activist Utah Phillips, born in Cleveland, Ohio (1935). He said: "I have a good friend in the East, who comes to my shows and says, you sing a lot about the past, you can’t live in the past, you know. I say to him, I can go outside and pick up a rock that’s older than the oldest song you know, and bring it back in here and drop it on your foot. Now the past didn’t go anywhere, did it? It’s right here, right now. I always thought that anybody who told me I couldn’t live in the past was trying to get me to forget something that if I remembered it it would get them serious trouble."

From the archives:

It’s the birthday of the man who wrote The Wizard of Oz: Lyman Frank Baum (books by this author), born in Chittenango, New York (1856). His father was a rich oil tycoon, and the family lived at an idyllic country home in upstate New York. He was a shy and absent-minded child, and his parents sent him to military school to instill some discipline in him. Frank had a heart condition his entire life and was never able to exert himself physically. He had a heart attack at school and returned home, where he turned his creativity toward writing and publishing. When he was 15 years old, his father bought him a small printing press for his birthday, and he and his brother Harry started a newspaper called The Rose Lawn Home Journal. Frank was also interested in raising Hamburg chickens, and he published a magazine called The Poultry Record. His first book was published in 1886 and was called The Book of Hamburgs, A Brief Treatise upon the Mating, Rearing, and Management of Different Varieties of Hamburgs.

He wrote a couple of plays and toured around the country before settling down in Aberdeen, South Dakota. He ran a general store that he called "Baum’s Bazaar," where, with a cigar constantly dangling from his mouth, he liked to entertain children by telling them fairy tales and giving them candy as they gathered around on the dusty, wooden sidewalk. In 1897, he published his collection of Mother Goose stories, Mother Goose in Prose. Two years later he met the illustrator William Denslow, and the pair published Father Goose, His Book (1899), a huge success. Baum made so much money from Father Goose that he was able to buy a summer home in Macatawa Park, Michigan, where he built all of the furniture by hand.

In 1900, Baum wrote the book that made him famous, The Wizard of Oz, illustrated by Denslow. The book began as a story he told to some neighborhood children; Frank thought it was so good that he stopped in the middle of the story to go start writing it down. The story of Dorothy, her dog Toto, the Scarecrow, the Lion, and the Tin Man was an instant classic.

Frank Baum wrote, "No matter how dreary and gray our homes are, we people of flesh and blood would rather live there than in any other country, be it ever so beautiful. There is no place like home."

And, "I am convinced that the only people worthy of consideration in this world are the unusual ones."

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




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