May 21, 2014


by Robin Becker

I wanted to believe in it, the word
softer than hospital but still not home

like any other frame house on the street,
it had a lawn, a door, a bell—

inside, our friend lay, a view
of the garden from her room but no lift

to raise her from the bed. A sword,
the sun plunged across the cotton blankets.

I wanted dying to be Mediterranean,
curated, a villa, like the Greek sanatoria

where the ancients cared for their sick
on airy porticos and verandas

with stone paths that led to libraries.
A nurse entered her room and closed the door.

For the alleviation of pain, I praise
Morpheus, god of dreams, unlocking

the medicine drawer with a simple key,
narcotic placed beneath the tongue.

In the hall, the volunteer offered us coffee.
How could I think the Mozart in G major

we played to distract her could distract her?
Or marble sculpture in the atrium?

"Hospice" by Robin Becker from Tiger Heron. © University of Pittsburgh Press, 2014. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

On this day in 1881, Clara Barton founded the American Red Cross.

When Clara was only 10, her brother David fell off the roof of the family barn. At first, he seemed fine, but the next day he developed a headache and fever. The doctor diagnosed "too much blood" and prescribed the application of leeches to help draw out the extra blood. Clara took over as her brother's nurse and spent two years at his bedside applying leeches (though David did not get any better until he tried an innovative "steam therapy" several years later).

As a girl, Clara was shy and had a stutter, and her worried mother asked a phrenologist (phrenologists, who were fairly common in the 1800s, examined the bumps on a person's skull as a way to determine their personality traits) to help her. The phrenologist said that she was shy and retiring and that the solution to her problem was to become a schoolteacher. Barton did not want to teach but she began teaching in 1839 at the age of 18. She overcame her shyness, became a sought-after teacher, and believed in the value of her work. She once said, "I may sometimes be wiling to teach for nothing, but if paid at all, I shall never do a man's work for less than a man's pay."

Several men proposed to Barton, but she remained single her whole life, at one point telling her nephew that on the whole she felt that she had been more useful to the world by being free from matrimonial ties.

In 1854, she gave up teaching and took a job in the United States Patent Office in Washington, D.C. She worked hard, got promoted, and within a year was making a salary equal to the men in the office (which angered the men). She left Washington for three years when the administration changed, but she returned in the early 1860s and resumed her job in the Patent Office. By 1861, war was breaking out, and when supporters of the Confederacy attacked Union soldiers in Washington, D.C., Clara helped nurse wounded soldiers in the same way she had nursed her brother when they were young.

During one of the first major engagements of the war, the Battle of Bull Run, the Union suffered a staggering defeat and as Clara read reports of the battle she realized that the Union Army had not seriously considered or provided for wounded soldiers. She began to ride along in ambulances, providing supplies and comfort to wounded soldiers on the frontlines.

After the war, she traveled to Geneva, Switzerland, where she learned about the International Red Cross and its mission to be a neutral organization that helped wounded soldiers. When Barton returned to the United States, she pressed for the creation of a national branch of the Red Cross. But many people thought there would never again be a war as monumental and devastating as the Civil War and didn't see the need for the Red Cross. Barton finally convinced the Arthur administration that the Red Cross could be used in other crises.

The American Red Cross was officially incorporated on this day, with Barton as its president.

Clara Barton said, "I may be compelled to face danger, but never fear it, and while our soldiers can stand and fight, I can stand and feed and nurse them."

And she said, "The door that nobody else will go in at, seems always to swing open widely for me."

She also said, "Everybody's business is nobody's business, and nobody's business is my business."

It's the birthday of poet Alexander Pope (books by this author), born in London (1688). Shortly after Pope was born, the country erupted into anti-Catholic sentiment, so his family left London for the countryside, where they felt they would be safer. As a Catholic, Pope was not allowed to attend public school. His aunt taught him to read, and a priest taught him Latin and Greek. He was eight years old when he first fell in love with the works of Homer. He told a friend: "In a few years I had dipped into a great number of the English, French, Italian, Latin, and Greek poets. This I did without any design but that of pleasing myself [...] I followed everywhere as my fancy led me, and it was like a boy gathering flowers in the woods and the fields just as they fall in his way. These five or six years I still look upon as the happiest part of my life."

When Pope was 12 years old, he developed tuberculosis, which affected his bones and stunted his growth. He was hunchbacked, and he never grew above 4'6". Since Pope published satires, he made plenty of enemies, and they often mocked his appearance as much as his ideas.

The criticism didn't stop Pope, who went on to write many satirical poems, including The Rape of the Lock (1712), a mock epic about the theft of a noblewoman's lock of hair. Although not many of his poems are read today, Pope is one of the most quoted writers in the English language.

He said, "To err is human; to forgive, divine."

And, "Fools rush in where angels fear to tread."

And, "Be not the first by whom the new are tried, Nor yet the last to lay the old aside."

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




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