Sunday Nov. 29, 2015


Nothing in Common

Sometimes I feel I have nothing in common with anyone.
I shamble through the day, dragging my knuckles in the grass,
and each new hour with each new person is a cliff I can’t climb —

yet I know I’m alive now — inside a song as deep as forever,
that stretches to the infinite future and the bottomless past,
connecting every place I’ve lived or nearly died —

and I shouldn’t worry so much about losing what’s most precious,
my simian balance, shaggy fur, bold fleas,
my plentiful fingers and opposable thumbs,

and my curious, glowing, ape-like eyes that still shine
with radiant chaos, wondrous animal calm,
and so much love, for everyone.

“Nothing in Common” by Freya Manfred from Speak, Mother. © Red Dragonfly Press, 2015. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

It’s the birthday of novelist and Christian apologist C.S. Lewis (books by this author), born Clive Staples Lewis in Belfast, Ireland (1898). He grew up in a big house out in the country. He said: “I am the product of long corridors, empty sunlit rooms, upstairs indoor silences, attics explored in solitude, distant noises of gurgling cisterns and pipes, and the noise of wind under the tiles. Also, of endless books.” He was particularly fascinated by Norse myths and old Scandinavian epics.

Lewis became an atheist after his mother died, and his atheism deepened after he fought on the front lines in France during WWI. He studied at Oxford University, and then became a professor there. After he had been teaching for about a year, he went to an Oxford faculty meeting and met a young professor of Anglo-Saxon named J.R.R. Tolkien. Lewis described Tolkien in his diary: “He is a smooth, pale, fluent little chap [...] thinks all literature is written for the amusement of men between 30 and 40 [...] No harm in him: only needs a smack or two.” Despite his initial misgivings, Lewis and Tolkien became good friends when Lewis joined Tolkien’s newly formed Icelandic Society. Lewis wrote to his best friend from childhood: “You will be able to imagine what a delight this is to me, and how, even in turning over the pages of my Icelandic Dictionary, the mere name of a god or giant catching my eye will sometimes throw me back 15 years into a wild dream of northern skies and Valkyrie music.”

In 1929, Lewis converted from atheism to theism (but still not to Christianity). He described how for months he felt God’s presence in his room each night, and finally, he gave in. He described himself as “perhaps, that night, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England.” Two years later, he invited Tolkien and another friend to dinner, and afterward they spent hours walking along the river on the Oxford campus and discussing Christianity and myth. A few days later, Lewis officially converted to Christianity, riding on a motorcycle on the way to the Whipsnade zoo with his brother. He said, “When we set out I did not believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, and when we reached the zoo I did.”

It was around that time that Lewis and Tolkien began meeting regularly with a group of friends who became known as “The Inklings.” The Inklings met for 16 years. Each week they gathered midday in a back room at the Eagle and Child pub (which they called the Bird and Baby) for food, cider, and informal conversation. The serious literary events occurred each Thursday evening in Lewis’s apartment, which was not particularly clean. Lewis flicked his cigarette ashes directly on the carpet, and as one member pointed out, it was impossible to tell whether his gray chairs and sofa were gray originally or were just dirty. The Inklings would arrive slowly between 9 and 10:30 p.m., someone would make a pot of strong black tea, and they would take turns reading aloud from whatever they were writing. Over the years, Tolkien read The Lord of the Rings, and Lewis The Screwtape Letters (1942), his book of fictional advice letters from a senior demon, Screwtape, to his nephew Wormwood.

One day Lewis sat down to write a story for his goddaughter, Lucy. He said it “began with a picture of a Faun carrying an umbrella and parcels in a snowy wood. The picture had been in my mind since I was about 16. Then one day when I was about 40, I said to myself: ‘Let’s try to make a story about it.’” That was The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (1950), which Lewis followed with six sequels, known collectively as The Chronicles of Narnia.

Lewis’s other books include Mere Christianity (1952) and Surprised by Joy (1955).

It’s the birthday of novelist Madeleine L’Engle (books by this author), born in New York City (1918). She worked for a while as an actress, and she was performing in the play The Cherry Orchard when she met her husband, the actor Hugh Franklin. She published a novel, The Small Rain (1945), and decided to give up acting and focus on writing and raising her kids. But while she was in her 30s, her career as a writer was going so badly that she considered giving up.

Then she read a book that made her change her mind. She said, “I read a book of Einstein’s, in which he said that anyone who’s not lost in rapturous awe at the power and glory of the mind behind the universe is as good as a burnt-out candle.” She was so fascinated by Einstein’s thinking that she kept reading about theoretical physics, and ended up writing a science fiction novel for young adults based on those ideas. L’Engle’s three children loved the book, but it was rejected by 26 publishers; many thought it was too hard for children, and others thought that a science fiction novel shouldn’t have a female as a main character. So L’Engle gave up on the book.

That year, her mother visited for Christmas, and L’Engle hosted a tea party for her mother’s old friends. One of those friends was in a writing group with John Farrar of the publishing house Farrar, Strauss, & Giroux. They didn’t publish young adult fiction, but the woman insisted that L’Engle meet Farrar and at least show him the manuscript. He published L’Engle’s novel, A Wrinkle in Time (1963). It won the Newbery Medal; during her acceptance speech, she said: “I can’t possibly tell you how I came to write it. It was simply a book I had to write. I had no choice. And it was only after it was written that I realized what some of it meant.” A Wrinkle in Time has sold more than 10 million copies.

Her other books include A Circle of Quiet (1972), A Swiftly Tilting Planet (1978), and A Ring of Endless Light (1980).

It’s the birthday of novelist Louisa May Alcott (books by this author), born in Germantown, Pennsylvania (1832). Her family friends included Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Nathaniel Hawthorne, and she was sometimes tutored by them, but mostly she was self-taught or taught by her father. Her father, Bronson, was often involved in idealistic projects. He ran several failed experimental schools, and when Louisa was 10 years old, her father founded an intentional community where everyone ate a vegan diet, no one used animal labor or wore cotton (because of slavery), and all property was communal. Like most of Bronson’s projects, the community was a failure. The Alcotts never had enough money, so as a teenager, Louisa Alcott went to work as a seamstress and governess.

When the Civil War broke out, she enlisted as a nurse at the Union Hospital in Georgetown. She had always been the nurse in the family, and she never got sick. Six weeks later, she contracted typhoid pneumonia and almost died; she never fully recovered. She said, “I was never ill before this time and never well afterward.” Her six weeks as a nurse gave her plenty of material for her writing, and in 1863, she published Hospital Sketches. She wrote later: “The Sketches never made much money, but showed me ‘my style,’ and taking the hint, I went where glory waited me.”

It was a while before Alcott took that hint and wrote more about her own life. For several years, she focused on the writing she loved: lurid, sensational potboilers, which she called “blood and thunder” stories. They had titles like “Pauline’s Passion and Punishment” and A Long Fatal Love Chase, and they featured revenge, opium addiction, sex, and cross-dressing.

She was not happy when her publisher asked her to write a book for girls. She wrote in her journal: “Mr. N. wants a girls’ story, and I begin ‘Little Women.’ Marmee, Anna, and May all approve my plan. So I plod away, though I don’t enjoy this sort of thing. Never liked girls or knew many, except my sisters; but our queer plays and experiences may prove interesting, though I doubt it.” Two months later, she wrote in her journal that she had sent off the manuscript. Little Women (1868) was an immediate hit, and her publisher demanded sequels. Alcott made enough money that, for the first time, her whole family could live comfortably.


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