When I work outdoors all day, every day, as I do now, in the fall,
getting ready for winter, tearing up the garden, digging potatoes,
gathering the squash, cutting firewood, making kindling, repairing
bridges over the brook, clearing trails in the woods, doing the last of
the fall mowing, pruning apple trees, taking down the screens,
putting up the storm windows, banking the house—all these things,
as preparation for the coming cold…
when I am every day all day all body and no mind, when I am
physically, wholly and completely, in this world with the birds,
the deer, the sky, the wind, the trees…
when day after day I think of nothing but what the next chore is,
when I go from clearing woods roads, to sharpening a chain saw,
to changing the oil in a mower, to stacking wood, when I am
all body and no mind…
when I am only here and now and nowhere else—then, and only
then, do I see the crippling power of mind, the curse of thought,
and I pause and wonder why I so seldom find
this shining moment in the now.
“This Shining Moment in the Now” by David Budbill from While We’ve Still Got Feet. © Copper Canyon Press, 2012. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)
On this date in 1847, Henry David Thoreau left Walden Pond. Thoreau had tried and rejected working in his father’s pencil factory, and ran a school with his brother for a little while, but realized in 1839 that he wanted to devote his life to poetry. In 1841, he moved in with his friend and mentor Ralph Waldo Emerson, and did odd jobs for Emerson’s family when he wasn’t writing. When Emerson bought a plot of land on the shores of Walden Pond, he offered to let Thoreau live there. So Thoreau did. He built a little one-room cabin, planted beans, and tried to live up to Transcendentalist principals: simplifying his life, spending time alone in nature as a spiritual practice, and living directly off his own labor. He wasn’t exactly living in seclusion; Walden was only a couple of miles from the village of Concord, Massachusetts, and Thoreau often went into town to have dinner with friends or spend time with the Emersons. He also spent a night in jail because he refused to pay taxes, because he didn’t want to support slavery or the United States’ war with Mexico.
Thoreau lived on Walden Pond for two years, two months, and two days. During that time, he wrote A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers (1849). He also kept a journal of his musings on and observations of nature. He left the cabin when Emerson asked him to come and stay with his wife and children while he, Emerson, was away in Europe. Thoreau later wrote: “I left the woods for as good a reason as I went there. Perhaps it seemed to me that I had several more lives to live, and could not spare any more time for that one.” But he also admitted in his personal journal that he often missed the woods and wished he could go back.
Today is the birthday of social reformer, activist, and peace worker Jane Addams (1860), known as the “Mother of Social Services.” She co-founded Hull House, one of the first settlement houses in the United States. Addams was born Laura Jane Addams to a wealthy Quaker family in Cedarville, Illinois. She was the eighth of nine children, several of whom died in infancy. Her father spent 16 years as a state senator and also owned flour and lumber mills. He doted on Jane, whose mother died when she was two.
At the age of four, Jane developed tuberculosis of the spine, also known as Pott’s disease. From then on, she had a limp and a curve to her back, which made her self-conscious. She began to read voraciously, especially the work of Charles Dickens, and thought perhaps she had a calling working for the poor and needy.
Addams graduated from Rockford Seminary and studied medicine in Philadelphia, but she was also ill and underwent surgery on her spine, which kept her bedridden and depressed. When she was well enough, she and her friend Ellen G. Starr traveled to Europe for 21 months. While visiting Toynbee Hall, a settlement house in London’s East End, Addams began thinking seriously about the poverty in Chicago. In London, she saw a bedraggled man tear into an unwashed and uncooked cabbage on the street. In her memoir, Twenty Years of Hull House (1910), she wrote, “Perhaps nothing is so fraught with significance as the human hand, this oldest tool with which man has dug his way from savagery, and with which he is constantly groping forward.”
In 1889, Addams and Starr leased a neglected mansion at the corner of Halsted and Polk Streets in Chicago. The building needed repairs, but they received a 25-year rent-free lease. They convinced the wealthy daughters of Chicago’s elite to serve as volunteers and within two years, Hull House was helping more than 2,000 people a week. The neighborhood was filled with immigrants from Germany, Poland, Italy, Ireland, and Greece. Addams added an art gallery, kindergarten classes, a book bindery, public kitchen, and gymnasium. Addams had studied early childhood behavior and the plight of immigrant children, often left at home, sometimes tied to chairs, while their parents worked, disturbed her. Hull House opened a daycare and the first public playground in the city of Chicago (1893).
By 1913, Hull House had added 13 more buildings. By 1920, there were almost 500 settlement houses across the United States. Addams wrote several books on social reform, settlement houses, poverty, and peace, including Newer Ideals of Peace (1907), The Spirit of Youth and the City Streets (1909), and Peace and Bread in Time of War (1922). Addams’s anti-war lectures got her expelled from the Daughters of the American Revolution and earned her the nickname “Bull Mouse” from Teddy Roosevelt.
Jane Addams was a founding member of the Progressive Party (1912) and the American Civil Liberties Union (1920). And she was the first woman to receive an honorary degree from Yale University (1910).
Jane Addams was the first American woman to receive the Nobel Peace Prize (1931). She was admitted to a Baltimore hospital after suffering a heart attack on the very day that the award was being given in Oslo, Norway.
From the day Hull House opened until the day she died (1935), Jane Addams never lived anywhere else.
It’s the birthday of writer and activist Fanny Wright (books by this author), born in Dundee, Scotland (1795). She published her first book when she was 18. She and her sister visited the United States in 1818, where they traveled alone throughout the new country. A few years later, Wright published Views of Society and Manners in America (1821). She settled in America and became an outspoken champion of radical political views: She opposed slavery, supported workers’ rights and sexual freedom, fought for access to public education, and worked to get religion out of politics. She had plenty of enemies — she was labeled “the great Red Harlot of Infidelity,” “the whore of Babylon,” and “Priestess of Beelzebub.” Most frequently, her critics just described her as “masculine.” One acquaintance wrote of Wright: “In person she was masculine, measuring at least 5 feet 11 inches, and wearing her hair à la Ninon in close curls, her large blue eyes and blonde aspect were thoroughly English, and she always seemed to wear the wrong attire.”
It’s the birthday of writer Alice Sebold (books by this author), born in Madison, Wisconsin (1963). She grew up near Philadelphia — and she says that she was the “weird” one in an otherwise normal, suburban, middle-class family. Her older sister was smart and talented, but Alice fell between the cracks. She was turned down by the University of Pennsylvania even though her father was a professor there.
She ended up at Syracuse, and during her first semester of college, she was attacked and raped near campus. Sebold tried to piece her life back together — she helped bring her rapist to trial and got him convicted with a maximum sentence; and she went back to college, where she was mentored by Raymond Carver and Tess Gallagher in the creative writing program. But after graduation, she floated around all over the country, did too many drugs, worked a series of jobs, and made halfhearted attempts to write but never finished anything. When she was in her 30s, she got a job as the caretaker of an arts colony in California. It was there, in a cinderblock house in the woods with no electricity, that she finally started to write seriously. She applied to graduate school and wrote a memoir, Lucky (1999).
Her breakthrough was her first novel, The Lovely Bones (2002), the story of a 14-year-old girl who is raped and murdered and narrates the whole novel from heaven while looking down on her family and murderer. It remained on the New York Times best-seller list for more than a year.
Sebold has said in interviews that she was as surprised by the book’s success as anyone. She said, “It’s very weird to succeed at thirty-nine years old and realize that in the midst of your failure, you were slowly building the life that you wanted anyway.”
Her most recent novel is The Almost Moon (2007).