Dec. 11, 2012

In Praise of Hands

by Stuart Kestenbaum

It's not just the people
who live in the city

who've lost the thread
that ties them to the woven

world of stones and earth,
fields alive with pollen and wings.

Who among us understands
how oceans rise and fall,

currents swirling around the planet
with messages in bottles

floating on the water.
When the tide is out

we can go to the shore
dig clay with our bare hands

and make something beautiful from it,
a vessel with thin walls

that holds a canyon.
In both hands, like an offering,

we can hold the memory
of eroded stones and earth,

eons contained in this empty bowl.
We can fill it with water

that reflects the sky that has
witnessed everything since

time began, we can drink and be blessed,
clouds gathering over us.

"In Praise of Hands" by Stuart Kestenbaum, from Prayers & Run-on Sentences. © Deerbrook Editions, 2007. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of American short-story author Grace Paley (books by this author), born in New York City (1922). She grew up in an immigrant neighborhood in the Bronx, where she was surrounded by a wide variety of languages. Her own parents spoke Yiddish and Russian at home, and English in public. She loved to hear the different tongues, and especially loved listening to all the gossip, but when she first started writing poetry, she wrote in a formal, stilted British style because she thought that's what poems were supposed to sound like. Then, in college, she met W.H. Auden and he agreed to read her work. She later recalled: "We went through a few poems, and he kept asking me, 'Do you really talk like that?' And I kept saying, 'Oh yeah, well, sometimes.' That was the great thing I learned from Auden: that you'd better talk your own language."

She wrote while her children were at school, and eventually moved from poetry to fiction. She wrote three stories and showed them to her friend, who happened to be married to an editor at Doubleday. He told her that if she could write seven more, he would publish the collection. Her first book was The Little Disturbances of Man (1959), and it was full of the voices of the immigrant women in her Greenwich Village neighborhood. She only wrote three books in all, but she was always busy doing something: teaching, or giving talks, or engaging in political activism.

Today is the birthday of novelist Jim Harrison (books by this author), born in Grayling, Michigan (1937). He was a big reader as a kid, but he was more interested in religion and spirituality than he was in writing. That all changed dramatically when he was a teenager. "Up to sixteen I wanted to be a preacher, and then one day I did a whirlwind: I jumped from Jesus to John Keats in three days," he later said.

He started out as a poet, and published his first book, Plain Song, in 1965. A few more poetry books followed; then, in 1970, he was hunting and he hurt his back so badly that he had to stay in bed for months. His friend Thomas McGuane told him he should try writing a novel, so he did, and it was Wolf: A False Memoir (1971). Legends of the Fall (1979), a collection of three novellas, was his first major success, and though he's written several more novels, he still considers himself a poet first.

He published two books last year (2011): The Great Leader (a novel), and Songs of Unreason (a book of poems).

It's also the birthday of the man who prompted Harrison to write that first novel: Thomas McGuane (books by this author), born in Wyandotte, Michigan (1939). As a kid, he had plans to become a scientist and study fish when he grew up. Then, at 10, he changed his mind and decided to become a writer instead. So he and one of his friends tried to co-write a novel, but they came to blows over the description of a sunset, and that was the end of that particular project. McGuane's first novel, The Sporting Club, came out in 1969. His 10th novel, Driving on the Rim, came out last year (2011).

He lives on a ranch in Montana, and he's the only member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters who is also in the National Cutting Horse Association's Hall of Fame, but he doesn't consider himself a real rancher. "All the ranchers I know have had back surgery, operations on their rotator cuffs," he said. "They all have new knees. I'd like to think I belong to that breed, but I don't."

The United Nations created UNICEF on this date in 1946. The acronym originally stood for United Nations International Children's Emergency Fund; the organization is now called the United Nations Children's Fund. UNICEF provided food, clothes, and medical aid for children in countries devastated by World War II. Once the immediate post-war crisis was over, UNICEF began providing humanitarian aid in troubled and developing nations. It's now an advocate for children's nutrition, health, and education in a broader sense.

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