Apr. 21, 2012

Days End

by Alden Nowlan

for Anne

I have worked since daylight in the hayfields.
We walked home at dusk, following the horses.
For supper, I ate hot bread and spiced ham,
     onions and tomatoes.
Now I kneel over a basin of cold water
and a woman washes my hair —
a strong woman whose knuckles rake my scalp.
Her hands smell of soap, I am naked to the waist,
     she leans her weight against me;
laughs huskily when I seize her wrists
     and try to push away her hands.
I am young and strong but a great weariness is upon me —
I would be willing to die now if I were sure that death is sleep.

"Days End" by Alden Nowlan, from Selected Poems. © House of Anansi Press, 1996. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of writer Nell Freudenberger (books by this author), born in New York City (1975).

After graduating from Harvard, she turned down a job offer from Random House and instead spent a year teaching English to teenagers in Thailand. She said, "I didn't really have anything to say about being an American until I went and lived in that high school." After Thailand, she traveled in India, then came home and got a job at The New Yorker. She wrote every morning before work, and one day she started a story about an American woman in Delhi coping with the death of her married Indian lover. She said, "I liked working on that story because it wasn't work; it was simply an hour and fifteen minutes of nostalgia every morning, before I got on the train to go to my real job." A year later, that story, "Lucky Girls," was published in The New Yorker, and it sparked a bidding war for a book. Lucky Girls, a collection of five stories, was published in 2003, followed by a novel, The Dissident (2006).

She said: "I think that the practice of writing every day was what made me remember that writing doesn't have anything to do with publishing books. It can be totally separate and private — a comforting thought. If you can make that distinction in your head, you can write just the way you always did, even after you start publishing books."

It's the birthday of Charlotte Brontë (books by this author), born in Thornton, England (1816). She grew up with five siblings, including future novelists Emily and Anne. Their mother died of cancer, and they were sent briefly to school, but her two older sisters died of tuberculosis there. After that, they were educated at home under the supervision of their father, an Anglican priest. He was strict and aloof, but he had a huge library, which the children loved. Charlotte read everything she could get her hands on, from the Bible to Lord Byron. The children mostly educated themselves: reading, acting out plays, making up stories about an imaginary kingdom, and going for long walks on the moors.

Charlotte's friend, the novelist Elizabeth Gaskell, wrote in a biography of Brontë: "In 1831, she was a quiet, thoughtful girl, of nearly 15 years of age, very small in figure [...] with soft, thick, brown hair, and peculiar eyes, of which I find it difficult to give a description, as they appeared to me in her later life [...] The usual expression was of quiet, listening intelligence; but now and then, on some just occasion for vivid interest or wholesome indignation, a light would shine out, as if some spiritual lamp had been kindled, which glowed behind those expressive orbs. I never saw the like in any other human creature. As for the rest of her features, they were plain, large, and ill set; but, unless you began to catalogue them, you were hardly aware of the fact, for the eyes and power of the countenance over-balanced every physical defect; the crooked mouth and the large nose were forgotten, and the whole face arrested the attention, and presently attracted all those whom she herself would have cared to attract. Her hands and feet were the smallest I ever saw; when one of the former was placed in mine, it was like the soft touch of a bird in the middle of my palm."

In 1846, when she was 30, Charlotte accompanied her father to Manchester, where he underwent cataract surgery. She spent a month with him in a boarding house, nursing him back to health, and it was there that she began writing Jane Eyre. Brontë sent Jane Eyre to a publisher under the name "Currer Bell," and when it was published in 1847, it sold well. Within several months, both of her sisters published their first novels: Anne published Agnes Grey by "Acton Bell," and Emily published Wuthering Heights by "Ellis Bell." Then, within eight months, all three of her siblings died — her brother of tuberculosis, and both Emily and Anne of tuberculosis. Brontë published two more novels, Shirley (1849) and Villette (1853), and in 1854 she was married. But she died a year later, possibly of tuberculosis, at the age of 38.

She wrote, "I would always rather be happy than dignified."

It's the birthday of writer and naturalist John Muir (books by this author), born in Dunbar, Scotland (1838). When he was 11 years old, his family moved to America and started a farm in Wisconsin. He was working as a sawyer in Indianapolis when he had a terrible accident in the shop: An awl pierced his right eye, and he went completely blind, temporarily. When his eyesight returned, he quit his job and went out to Yosemite in California. He spent the rest of his life traveling and advocating for the preservation of wilderness. His books include Studies in the Sierra (1874), Our National Parks (1901), The Yosemite (1912), and Travels in Alaska (1915).

He said, "One day's exposure to mountains is better than cartloads of books."

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




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