Tuesday Jun. 21, 2016

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Still, I Give Thanks

Day fourteen in the radiation waiting room
and the elderly man sitting next to me
says he gives thanks every day because
he can still roll over and climb out of bed.
We wear the same cotton gowns—repeating
pattern of gold stars on a field of blue—that gape
in back, leaving our goose bump flesh exposed.
Lately, I too, give thanks for the things I can do—
sit, stand, take my next breath. Thanks for my feet,
my fingers, the ears on my head. I give thanks
for the scrub jay’s audacious cries outside
my window at dawn. He is a hungry soul,
forever foraging to feed his mortal appetite.
Like him, I want more of everything: more light,
more life, another cup of Darjeeling tea and a silver
teaspoon to stir it with. I want to see my mother again,
before the winter settles in, and when she’s gone,
I want her porcelain Madonna. I want my doctor
to use the word “cure” just once. Each day, supine
on the table, I listen to the razoring whine
of the radiation beam. It hurts to lie still,
the table sharp as an ice floe beneath the bones
of my spine. Still, I give thanks for the hands
that position me, their measurements and marking
pens, the grid of green light that slides like silk
across my skin. I close my eyes and think
of the jay. We wear the same raiment: blood, bone,
muscle. Most days I still feel joy. I give thanks
for that bird, too—invisible feathers, invisible wings—
a quickening, felt deep within the body, vigorous and fleeting.

“Still, I Give Thanks” by Marie Reynolds. Reprinted with permission of author. 

It's the birthday of novelist Ian McEwan (books by this author), born in Aldershot, England (1948). His father served in the army, so the boy grew up all over the world, including Singapore, Germany, and Libya. His father was a working-class Scot who had worked his way up to an officer's rank in the army. He drank too much, and Ian and his mother were both frightened of him. His mother was constantly anxious about trying to fit in with the other officers' wives, who spoke polished English with upper-class accents. McEwan said: "I don't write like my mother, but for many years I spoke like her, and her particular, timorous relationship with language has shaped my own. There are people who move confidently within their own horizons of speech; whether it is cockney, estuary, RP or valley girl, they stride with the unselfconscious ease of a landowner on his own turf. My mother, Rose, was never like that. She never owned the language she spoke. Her displacement within the intricacies of English class, and the uncertainty that went with it, taught her to regard language as something that might go off in her face, like a letter bomb. A word bomb. I've inherited her wariness, or more accurately, I learnt it as a child. I used to think I would have to spend a lifetime shaking it off. Now I know that's impossible, and unnecessary, and that you have to work with what you've got."

When McEwan was 11 years old, living in Libya, his parents sent him off to boarding school in England, where he eventually learned to correct his grammar and write polished sentences. But he kept the tendency to approach language with caution, and he is a notoriously slow and careful writer. He spent more than a year brainstorming before he began Atonement —he said, "I had a number of good descriptions of novels, as if they had already been written," but no actual writing to speak of. Then he took his sons away to a weekend resort and he had a vision of a young woman arranging flowers and thinking about the gardener outside her window. He managed to write a paragraph and a half, and that became the beginning of his second chapter of Atonement (2001). He wrote: "Partly because of her youth and the glory of the day, partly because of her blossoming need for a cigarette, Cecilia Tallis half ran with her flowers along the path that went by the river, by the old diving pool with its mossy brick wall, before curving away through the oak woods. The accumulated inactivity of the summer weeks since finals also hurried her along; since coming home, her life had stood still and a fine day like this made her impatient, almost desperate."

Ian McEwan's other novels include Amsterdam (1998), Saturday (2005), On Chesil Beach(2007), and Solar (2010). His novels have sold more than 15 million copies.

He said, "My ideal state as a reader when I'm reading other people is feeling I'm vaguely wasting my time when I'm not reading that novel."

It's the birthday of philosopher and writer Jean-Paul Sartre (books by this author), born in Paris (1905). This giant of existential thought was also a well-known prankster during his days at the École Normale. He and a friend dropped water balloons from the roof onto dinner guests in tuxedos, shouting, "Thus pissed Zarathustra!" He sometimes showed up naked to official functions, and he vomited on the feet of a school official. After Charles Lindbergh successfully flew across the Atlantic, Sartre and several of his friends announced to the media that Lindbergh would be receiving an honorary degree at the École Normale, then one of them impersonated Lindbergh and convinced the media that he was at the school. There was such an uproar when it turned out to be a hoax that the school's president was forced to resign.

In 1964, Sartre was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature, but he refused it. When he died in 1980, 50,000 people turned out on the streets of Paris to pay their respects.

He wrote: "I was there, standing in front of a window whose panes had a definite refraction index. But what feeble barriers! I suppose it is out of laziness that the world is the same day after day. Today it seemed to want to change. And then, anything, anything could happen."

It's the birthday of author Mary McCarthy (books by this author) born in Seattle, Washington (1912). She published several novels — including The Group (1963) about a group of Vassar students — but she had a hard time making things up, so most of her novels are autobiographical.

Most critics believe that her best book is the memoir Memories of a Catholic Girlhood (1957). She is also remembered for her literary criticism. The writer Gore Vidal said, "She was our most brilliant literary critic, [because she was] uncorrupted by compassion."

It's the birthday of naturalist and writer Donald Peattie (books by this author), born in Chicago (1898). He married his high school sweetheart, studied botany at Harvard, and worked as a botanist for the Department of Agriculture. He felt that literature was his true calling, and he and his wife moved their family to Paris, where they hoped to become great writers. He said, "We had crossed a wide Atlantic elated with excitement, unafraid to launch the frail bark of our careers." But two days after their arrival, their young daughter died. Autumn came to Paris — cold, dark, and dreary. They relocated to the South of France and lived there for six years. Peattie published a couple of novels, but they were flops.

In 1933, they returned home with their three sons, so poor that they had to borrow money for the ship tickets back home. It was the middle of the Great Depression, Peattie was unemployed, and his wife's health was bad. They settled at his wife's childhood home, The Grove, a 100-acre estate in Glenview, Illinois. He found work writing pamphlets about trees, and he began writing a day-by-day account of the natural area at The Grove — the woods, wetlands, and original prairie. That became An Almanac for Moderns (1935), and it launched his career. He wrote: "I learned also the value of knowing some one thing, at last, with a certain degree of thoroughness, be it only my one square mile. I even began to welcome the very limitations of my problem, as a sonnet writer his fourteen lines ... I have learned, however, that three years is utterly insufficient to make me a master of a reasonable amount of wood-wisdom concerning one square mile of Illinois land."

A few years later, they moved to Santa Barbara, and there Peattie wrote his two greatest books: A Natural History of Trees of Eastern and Central North America (1950) and A Natural History of Western Trees (1953). For each tree, Peattie wrote poetic descriptions, natural histories, identifying characteristics, and anecdotes.

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