I walk six blocks to the park.
Hoarfrost and fog and ten below zero,
A full twelve inches of snow.
No one believes in the mysteries
Anymore, but still once or twice
Every year this will happen:
Hoarfrost and fog and snow all at once.
I don’t often notice my breath,
But here I am breathing and breathing.
And here is a kid in a scarlet parka,
Pulling a sled through the sugarbush.
He knew all along this would happen.
I forget, and yet once, maybe twice a year,
We enter this other kingdom. We’re here.
And here is a woman so black
And slender and thin, I think of a statue
My friend brought back from Liberia.
She is wading around with a camera,
As if she could capture this hoarfrost
And fog that is softer than breath.
We smile. She hesitates, then decides
She will speak. She says, “Oh!
In my country where I come from
We have many amazing things,
But there is nothing like this!
I would like you if you take my picture?”
I fiddle with the little black box,
Back off, watch her smile and say,
“Can you fit all this everything
Inside the picture? Do you think it will show?”
”I don’t know,” I tell her. “I’ll try.”
My fingers are cold. The shutter is stiff,
But it clicks. The fruit tree behind her
Is heavy with frost, the apples are withered
But red. There is fog in the background,
The snow is nearly up to her knees.
I breathe, and I breathe, and I breathe.
“Hoarfrost and Fog” by Barton Sutter from The Book of Names. © BOA Editions, 1993. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)
It’s the birthday of Jack London (books by this author), born in San Francisco (1876). His mother was Flora Wellman, a spiritualist from a wealthy family, but the identity of his father is not known. He was probably the son of William Chaney, a radical thinker who popularized astrology in America. Flora and William certainly lived together, and in his memoirs, Chaney claimed that she was his wife. But no one knows for sure, because all the official records of that era were destroyed during the San Francisco earthquake. Flora claimed that Chaney abandoned her when she refused to have an abortion. But when Jack London approached Chaney later in life, he said that he was not his father, that his mother had slept around.
In any case, Flora married a Civil War veteran named John London when Jack was a baby, and the boy grew up thinking that John was his own father. His mother was inattentive and sometimes cruel, and his stepsister Eliza raised him a lot of the time. He grew up in Oakland — a working-class town without the high society of San Francisco — and on farms and ranches in the area, where John was a modestly successful farmer. But Flora kept pressuring her husband to buy up bigger and bigger farms, so that she could re-create the affluence of her childhood. Then disease wiped out John's chickens and he couldn't keep up with the mortgage on their large ranch, so they moved back to Oakland. Flora continued to scheme ways to make more money, but they kept failing, and finally had to move to West Oakland, the poorest part of town.
When Jack was seven years old, he drank some red wine at an Italian wedding. He said: "I was a sick child, and despite the terrible strain on my heart and tissues, I continually relapsed into the madness of delirium. All the contents of the terrible and horrible in my child's mind spilled out. ... All the inconceivable filth a child running at large in a primitive countryside may hear men utter was mine. ... My brain was seared for ever by that experience. Writing now, 30 years afterwards, every vision is as distinct, as sharp-cut, every pain as vital and terrible."
In Oakland, he got a reputation as a good fighter. He left school at the age of 14 and went to work in a canning factory. He spent some of his spare time reading, inspired by a local librarian who had befriended Mark Twain and helped publish John Muir, and he read everything she recommended. But most of the time he spent drinking. The men at the bar didn't care that he was poor, that he was young, that he smelled like the cannery. He listened in awe to their stories of adventure, and imagined adventures of his own.
So he bought a boat and started working as an oyster pirate, stealing oysters at night and selling them in the markets during the day. It was profitable work, and the public supported it because they disliked the big companies that monopolized the oyster industry and then sold oysters for high prices. He went on to work as a sailor, a factory worker, and then up north for the Klondike Gold Rush. When he came back, he started writing, setting many of his stories in the Klondike. He worked as hard at writing as he did at everything else — he stuck to a writing regimen of 1,000 words every morning. And his work paid off — he published The Call of the Wild (1903) when he was just 27 years old, and it made him famous. Between 1900 and 1916, he wrote more than 50 books. But he died in 1916 at the age of 40 from an overdose of morphine, which he was using to treat his uremia.
In The Call of the Wild, he wrote: "There is an ecstasy that marks the summit of life, and beyond which life cannot rise. And such is the paradox of living, this ecstasy comes when one is most alive, and it comes as a complete forgetfulness that one is alive. This ecstasy, this forgetfulness of living, comes to the artist, caught up and out of himself in a sheet of flame; it comes to the soldier, war-mad in a stricken field and refusing quarter; and it came to Buck, leading the pack, sounding the old wolf-cry, straining after the food that was alive and that fled swiftly before him through the moonlight."
It's the birthday of the man who has given us the novels of Easy Rawlins and Fearless Jones, Walter Mosley (books by this author), born in Los Angeles (1952). His father was black and his mother came from a family of Russian Jews. When he was growing up, Mosley loved to listen to the stories his relatives told on both sides of the family. His mother's relatives talked about life in Russia, and his father's relatives talked about life in the South.
After riots erupted in his neighborhood, while he was still in high school, Mosley decided that he wanted to get as far away from Watts as he could. So he went to a small college in Vermont. He bounced around in a variety of jobs for a while, selling pottery and then working as a computer programmer. Then, in 1982, he read Alice Walker's novel The Color Purple. He later said: "I'd read a lot of the French [novelists] — Camus and all that — and I love their writing. But I couldn't write like that. Then, when I read Walker, I thought, 'Oh, I could do this.'"
He began writing a novel about a character named Easy Rawlins, living in Los Angeles in the late 1940s, and the result was his book Devil in a Blue Dress (1990). It's the story of a black World War II veteran who's just been laid off from his job when a white man hires him to find a white woman who's known to frequent the black community. It became a best-seller, and Mosley has written several more novels featuring Easy Rawlins.
It's the birthday of John Winthrop (books by this author), born in Suffolk, England (1588). He is best known as the Puritan governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony and the leader of The Winthrop Fleet of 1630, the largest fleet of Englishmen ever to depart for the New World.
Winthrop was a deeply religious man, and he believed that the Anglican Church needed to rid itself of Catholic ceremonies. He and his followers decided to leave England because they thought that God would punish their country for this heresy, and they thought they would be safe in the New World.
He was elected governor of the colony before their departure in 1630, and he was re-elected several times after they had arrived in the New World. As governor, he tried to keep the number of executions for heresy to a minimum, and he opposed the veiling of women, which many colonists supported.