Dec. 27, 2012

December, Outdoors

by John Updike

Clouds like fish shedding scales are stretched
thin above Salem. The calm cold sea
accepts the sun as an equal, a match:
the horizon a truce, the air all still.
Sun, but no shadows somehow, the trees
ideally deleafed, a contemplative gray
that ushers into the woods (in summer
crammed with undergrowth) sheer space.

How fortunate it is to move about
without impediment, Nature having
no case to make, no special weather to plead,
unlike some storm-obsessed old symphonist.
The day is piano; I see buds so subtle
they know, though fat, that this is no time to bloom.

"December, Outdoors" by John Updike, from Endpoint. © Knopf, 2009. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of novelist and essayist Wilfrid Sheed (books by this author), born in London, England (1930).

He traveled back and forth between England and the United States as he was growing up, and it made him feel like a foreigner in both places. He went to Oxford for college and wrote his first novel about it, called A Middle Class Education (1961).

He wrote several satirical novels about the business of journalism, including The Hack (1963), about a miserable man who writes uplifting poems and stories for a Catholic magazine, and Max Jamison (1970), about a theater critic who can't help criticizing everything in his own life. He also wrote several memoirs, including My Life as a Fan (1993), about his love of baseball, and In Love with Daylight: A Memoir of Recovery (1995).

Wilfrid Sheed said, "One reason the human race has such a low opinion of itself is that it gets so much of its wisdom from writers."

Today is the birthday of German astronomer Johannes Kepler, born in Weil der Stadt, Württemberg (1571), who intended to become a theologian but then read Copernicus's Six Books Concerning the Revolutions of the Heavenly Orbs, in which Copernicus posits that the planets revolve around the Sun, not the Earth. Kepler saw Copernicus's theory as evidence of a divine blueprint for the universe, and set out to prove the theories through scientific observation. He wrote a defense of Copernicus called The Cosmographic Mystery (1596), and over his lifetime, Kepler came up with three laws of planetary motion. Kepler was also the father of modern optics. He had poor vision himself, as a result of a childhood case of smallpox. He explained the mechanics of vision in the eye, and developed lenses to correct nearsightedness and farsightedness. He also explained how both eyes work together to produce depth perception.

It was on this day in 1831 that Charles Darwin set sail from England on the HMS Beagle, beginning the journey that would take him to the Galapagos Islands and inspire his theory of evolution. His father wanted him to be a clergyman, but Darwin always cared more about collecting beetles than he did about theology. He took a biology class in college, and his teacher recommended him for the spot on an upcoming voyage to South America. His father was furious, but Darwin went anyway.

Darwin had terrible seasickness, so as soon as they reached South America, he spent as much time on land as he could, traveling through unexplored regions. He was amazed at the variety of shapes and colors in the plants and animals he found. He wrote in his diary, "It creates a feeling of wonder that so much beauty should be apparently created for such little purpose."

He returned to England in the fall of 1836, and never traveled beyond Great Britain again. He spent years thinking about what he'd seen during his voyage on the Beagle, and eventually developed the theory of evolution in the mid-1840s. But he was terrified to publish it, for fear of offending people's religious beliefs. He said, "It is like confessing to a murder." Finally, in 1859, he published On the Origin of Species (1859), which forever changed the way people thought about living things and their beginnings.

Charles Darwin wrote: "Probably all organic beings which have ever lived on this earth have descended from some one primordial form, into which life was first breathed. There is grandeur in this view of life that [...] from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being evolved."

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




  • “Writers end up writing stories—or rather, stories' shadows—and they're grateful if they can, but it is not enough. Nothing the writer can do is ever enough” —Joy Williams
  • “I want to live other lives. I've never quite believed that one chance is all I get. Writing is my way of making other chances.” —Anne Tyler
  • “Writing is a performance, like singing an aria or dancing a jig” —Stephen Greenblatt
  • “All good writing is swimming under water and holding your breath.” —F. Scott Fitzgerald
  • “Good writing is always about things that are important to you, things that are scary to you, things that eat you up.” —John Edgar Wideman
  • “In certain ways writing is a form of prayer.” —Denise Levertov
  • “Writing is a socially acceptable form of schizophrenia.” —E.L. Doctorow
  • “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” —E.L. Doctorow
  • “Let's face it, writing is hell.” —William Styron
  • “A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.” —Thomas Mann
  • “Writing is 90 percent procrastination: reading magazines, eating cereal out of the box, watching infomercials.” —Paul Rudnick
  • “Writing is a failure. Writing is not only useless, it's spoiled paper.” —Padget Powell
  • “Writing is very hard work and knowing what you're doing the whole time.” —Shelby Foote
  • “I think all writing is a disease. You can't stop it.” —William Carlos Williams
  • “Writing is like getting married. One should never commit oneself until one is amazed at one's luck.” —Iris Murdoch
  • “The less conscious one is of being ‘a writer,’ the better the writing.” —Pico Iyer
  • “Writing is…that oddest of anomalies: an intimate letter to a stranger.” —Pico Iyer
  • “Writing is my dharma.” —Raja Rao
  • “Writing is a combination of intangible creative fantasy and appallingly hard work.” —Anthony Powell
  • “I think writing is, by definition, an optimistic act.” —Michael Cunningham
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