Thursday Nov. 26, 2015


Thinking about the Past

Certain moments will never change, nor stop being—
My mother’s face all smiles, all wrinkles soon;
The rock wall building, built, collapsed then, fallen;
Our upright loosening downward slowly out of tune—
All fixed into place now, all rhyming with each other.
That red-haired girl with wide mouth—Eleanor—
Forgotten thirty years—her freckled shoulders, hands.
The breast of Mary Something, freed from a white swimsuit,
Damp, sandy, warm; or Margery’s, a small, caught bird—
Darkness they rise from, darkness they sink back toward.
O marvelous early cigarettes! O bitter smoke, Benton…
And Kenny in wartime whites, crisp, cocky,
Time a bow bent with his certain failure.
Dusks, dawns; waves; the ends of songs…

"Thinking about the Past” by Donald Justice from Selected Poetry and Prose. © Middlebury College Press, 1991. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

Today is Thanksgiving Day in the United States. Most American families will enjoy roast turkey, stuffing, sweet potatoes, mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce, corn, and squash — typically in the form of a pumpkin pie — in remembrance of the three-day feast enjoyed by the Pilgrims and their Wampanoag allies in 1621. Most of what we think of as the traditional foods of Thanksgiving were actually new and exotic dishes to the European Pilgrims.

While we Americans view Thanksgiving as central to our own history, we’re far from the only culture to have a holiday dedicated to gratitude and the harvest. Our neighbors to the north have celebrated Thanksgiving Day since 1578, when English explorer Martin Frobisher arrived safely in present-day Nunavut. Canadians celebrate Frobisher’s arrival — as well as the end of the harvest — on the second Monday of October. Their feast is similar to most Americans’: turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, and pie.

The Chinese celebrate the Mid-Autumn Moon Festival, on the 15th day of the eighth lunar month, which usually corresponds to September or October in the Western calendar. The traditional Chinese fare includes the mooncake, a flaky pastry with a sweet or savory filling.

The Germans celebrate Erntedankfest on the first Sunday of October. The festival gives thanks for a good year; people wear crowns of woven grain stalks, flowers, and fruit, and feast on fattened poultry — usually chickens or geese.

On this day in 1864, Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (books by this author) sent Alice Liddell a handwritten manuscript called Alice’s Adventures Underground as an early Christmas present. He published Alice in Wonderland the following year, and Queen Victoria liked it so much that she dispatched a letter to him saying she would be “pleased to accept any other works by the same pen.” She soon received a copy of a book called Syllabus of Plane Algebraical Geometry.

It’s the birthday of science writer Jonathan Weiner (books by this author), born in New York City (1953). His mother was a librarian and his father a physicist, and he was equally enchanted by literature and science; he couldn’t decide which one to make the basis of his career. A few years out of Harvard, he was hired to write a companion book to the PBS series Planet Earth (1986), and he has been a science writer ever since. He won a Pulitzer Prize for his book The Beak of the Finch: A Story of Evolution in Our Time (1986), about the rapid evolution of Darwin’s finches in the Galapagos in reaction to changes in their food. His most recent book, Long for This World (2010), is about the attempts to find scientific ways to achieve immortality.

It’s the birthday of American novelist Marilynne Robinson (books by this author), born in Sandpoint, Idaho (1943). Robinson is best-known for three novels that take place in a small Iowa town called Gilead: Gilead (2004), Home (2008), and Lila (2014).

She was a sensitive child, prone to fainting, and she found her calling in libraries. She tackled Moby-Dick at nine, carrying it around for weeks. Robinson’s parents were casual Presbyterians and were surprised when she developed an interest in religion. She says: “I think an interest in theology surprises most people. But it was just like a fish to water. It has always been so natural to me.” Robinson became a Congregationalist later in life and sometimes leads sermons at her church in Iowa City, where she teaches creative writing at the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Robinson’s faith influences the scope of all her novels, which showcase an earnest spirituality, reverence for the landscape, and humility before nature.

It was while working on a dissertation on Shakespeare’s early history plays at the University of Washington in Seattle that Robinson began her first novel. At first, she just scribbled random notes on scraps of paper, but then she began writing extended metaphors. When she realized what she had was close to being called a book, she began in earnest to write the story of two sisters and their unbalanced aunt. She called the novel Housekeeping (1980) and wrote the first draft entirely in longhand.

Robinson didn’t have high hopes for the book; it was quiet, meditative, more concerned with the inner lives of three women than with plot twists. “I thought it was too private to be published,” she said. The book became a surprise best-seller and was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. It was made into a successful film starring Christine Lahti (1987).

After Housekeeping, Robinson took a 23-year break between novels. When asked what it was like to watch her contemporaries publish numerous novels while she remained quiet, she said, “I would rather be tastefully silent. I’m not terribly interested in clever writing.” Robinson prefers the classics, eschews small talk, has no television, and doesn’t drive. When she writes, she does so in loose pants and a sweatshirt. “I like to be as forgetful of my own physical being as I can be,” she says.While she waited for fictional inspiration to strike, she wrote a number of polemical essays and strident, politically challenging nonfiction, like Mother Country: Britain, the Welfare State, and Nuclear Pollution (1989), which took the British government and Greenpeace to task for toxic waste in Britain. Greenpeace sued Robinson for libel, but she refused to redact passages in the book, and it was never published in Britain. Other nonfiction books include When Was a Child I Read Books: Essays (2012) and The Givenness of Things (2015).

Robinson’s second novel, Gilead (2004), takes the form of a long letter written by an elderly, ailing pastor to his son. It won the Pulitzer Prize (2005). It took Robinson just four more years to write Home (2008), which concerns the Boughton family, who were secondary characters in the preceding book. Robinson said, “Those characters were just in my mind — it was as if I could sense that there was another whole reality that I could explore.” She ended the Gilead series with Lila (2014). When President Obama presented her with the National Humanities Medal (2013), he said she was one of his favorite writers.

When asked why she writes fiction, Robinson is matter-of-fact. “Something comes to my mind and I can sense a certain heft to it — that it has the weight of a novel. I go into this sort of self-induced trance, and I write it until it’s done.”

Robinson rarely revises on paper. She says, “I know there’s a sentence I need, and I just run it through my mind until it sounds right. Most of my revision occurs before I put words down on the paper.”

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

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