Sep. 14, 2012

Closing the Cabin

by Thom Tammaro

In the yawn of dusk,
We drift home in Minnesota autumn,
Reciting the litany once more:
Dock in; boathouse latched;
Rugs rolled; plugs pulled;
Windows hinged; floors swept;
Pilots out; pipes drained;
Faucets opened; doors locked;
Hummingbird feeder taken down;
Key hanging in its secret place

In the flicker of lights near the city's edge
We talk easily, gather within
All that the summer has given:
A great fish, slender and shiny,
Diving for bottom; loons calling
In the still afternoon;
Stars swirling above the rooftops.
Near home, vees of geese circle,
Circle in the shadows above us.

Later that night, we pause
On the stairs — winterward —
Unlock that other season
Where little puffs of winter dust
Rise when we open the door.

"Closing the Cabin" by Thom Tammaro, from Closing the Cabin. © Stellar Press, 1989. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

George Frideric Handel completed the Messiah oratorio on this date in 1741. Librettist Charles Jennens had finished the text in July, and he handed it off to Handel with great expectations. He wrote to a friend, "I hope [Handel] will lay out his whole Genius & Skill upon it, that the Composition may excel all his former Compositions, as the Subject excels every other Subject." Handel worked at a furious pace, doing nothing else but composing from morning to night, and completed the oratorio in only 24 days.

Messiah tells the story of Jesus' birth, death, and resurrection. It was originally written for the Easter season, and it debuted in Dublin at a charity concert the following April. The event attracted 700 people; to accommodate such a crowd, gentlemen were asked to leave their swords at home, and ladies were requested to remove the hoops from their skirts. The Dublin News-Letter reported that Messiah "far surpass[ed] anything of that Nature which has been performed in this or any other Kingdom."

It remained one of Handel's favorite works for the rest of his life, and grew to become a beloved holiday favorite — but at Christmastime, rather than Easter. Even Mozart was reluctant to change anything about the oratorio when he supervised a new arrangement in 1789. "Handel knows better than any of us what will make an effect," Mozart said. "When he chooses, he strikes like a thunderbolt."

It's the birthday of Margaret Sanger (books by this author), born in Corning, New York (1879). She coined the term "birth control," she was its most famous advocate in the United States, and she was the founder of Planned Parenthood. H.G. Wells said of her, "The movement she started will grow to be, a hundred years from now, the most influential of all time."

Margaret Sanger was born into a working-class Irish family. Her mother died at 50, after 18 pregnancies. Margaret went to New York City, became a nurse, got married, and had three children. As a nurse, she worked in the maternity ward on the Lower East Side. Many of her patients were poor, and many ended up in the hospital from self-induced abortions, which often killed them. At the time, contraceptives were illegal in the United States — it was illegal even to send information about contraception through the U.S. Postal Service. Products were out there, but only the wealthy had the means to access them.

Margaret Sanger quit nursing and wrote a series of articles called "What Every Girl Should Know." She also published a radical newspaper, Woman Rebel, with information about contraception. In 1914, she was indicted for sending information about birth control through the mail. She fled to Europe, where she observed birth control clinics, and eventually came back to face charges. The charges were dropped, and in 1916, she and her sister, who was also a nurse, opened a birth control clinic in the Brownsville neighborhood of Brooklyn, to serve the mostly immigrant population. Nine days later, the police closed it down and arrested Sanger, her sister, and the clinic's interpreter. Sanger spent a month in jail, and her sister went on a hunger strike.

In 1921, Sanger founded the American Birth Control League, which in 1946 became Planned Parenthood Federation of America. She also funded research to create a contraceptive pill. She said, "No woman can call herself free until she can choose consciously whether she will or will not be a mother." She died in 1966, at age 87, a year after the landmark Supreme Court decision Griswold vs. Connecticut finally made birth control legal for married couples.

Today is the birthday of Australian journalist and novelist Geraldine Brooks (books by this author), born in Sydney (1955). She's the author of four novels, including the Pulitzer Prize-winning March (2005). March is a companion novel to Louisa May Alcott's Little Women (1868), a book that Brooks' mother gave her when she was a girl; March tells the story of the March girls' father, who was away fighting in the Civil War for most of the Alcott book.

Her first dream, from the time she was eight years old, was to become a journalist. She would visit her father at the office, where he was working as a proofreader for a newspaper, and one day he pulled a freshly printed paper off the press, and handed it to her. "It was warm — hot off the presses — the link of the reality of this warm newspaper right off the press, knowing I was one of the first to read what was going on in my city, just thrilled the pants off me," she recalled.

She came to America for graduate school, and was hired by The Wall Street Journal for their Cleveland bureau and then, later, as a foreign correspondent. She wrote her first book — a work of nonfiction — in 1994. That was Nine Parts of Desire, and it was about Muslim women in the Middle East. Three years later, she published a memoir, Foreign Correspondence (1997). Brooks' latest novel is Caleb's Crossing (2011), about the first Native American student to graduate from Harvard.

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