Monday Oct. 2, 2017

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My grandfather, Hank, ran a hardware store
full of straight–shooting

solutions: washers for faucets,
filters for furnace failures, or

he could just cut you
a fresh key.

The aisles of answers held
no allure for me when I was a kid

so I stood by
the cash register where I’d wonder

which flavor candy stick
I wanted from the giant glass jars

protecting unbroken wands
of vibrant, solid confection. My grandpa

let me get sassafras, the one
sounding most like a bad word.

The store changed hands, my grandparents
continued to love each other.

In his ninety-fifth year
my grandfather got up from the breakfast table

without fanfare, went into the bedroom, sat
on a sturdy black chair and died.

“Sassafras” by Marjorie Thomsen from Pretty Things Please. © Turning Point Press, 2017. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

It’s the birthday of comedian Groucho Marx, born in New York City (1890). In 1908, he began acting with his brothers Harpo and Chico, and they became famous as the Marx Brothers. He was known as the most talkative Marx brother, and he’s famous for his snappy insults. He said, “Marriage is a wonderful institution. That is, if you like living in an institution.” And, “I have nothing but confidence in you, and very little of that.” And he said: “I don’t care to belong to a club that accepts people like me as members.”

It’s the birthday of Nat Turner, born a slave in Southampton County, Virginia (1800). He learned to read, studied the Bible diligently, and became a preacher who spoke of self-respect and justice, urging his fellow slaves to rebel against their condition of servitude. He believed he was divinely chosen to deliver them from bondage. In February of 1831, he took a solar eclipse as a sign from God that the time for revolt was at hand, and began to prepare, declaring, “I should arise and … slay my enemies with their own weapons.” Beginning on August 22, he and his followers killed between 55 and 65 white people in two days. On August 23, they fought and lost a battle with state and Federal troops. Turner escaped, but was captured on October 30. At his trial, he admitted to leading the rebellion but pleaded “not guilty.” He was executed on November 11.

It’s the birthday of Wallace Stevens (books by this author), born in Reading, Pennsylvania (1879). He wanted to be a journalist, but after a couple years of writing for a New York paper, he decided that he would fulfill his father’s desires and go to law school. After graduating, he took a job with the Hartford Accident and Indemnity Company, where he was in charge of inspecting surety claims. He would remain at the job for the rest of his life.

Each day, he walked the two miles between his office and upper-middle class home, where he lived with his wife and daughter, and during these walks to and from work, he composed poetry. He said, “It gives a man character as a poet to have this daily contact with a job.” He would only let people walk with him if they didn’t talk. He never ate lunch, except for once a week “to break up the monotony” — and on that day, he would always go to a place near his Hartford, Connecticut, office.

He claimed that “poetry and surety claims aren’t as unlikely a combination as they may seem. There’s nothing perfunctory about them for each case is different.”

His first collection of poems, Harmonium, was published when he was 43 years old. Though the volume received only lukewarm praise at first, it later became considered a modernist classic. In 1955, just months before he died, he received both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award for his volume Collected Poems.

In his book Opus Posthumous, Stevens writes, “After one has abandoned a belief in god, poetry is that essence which takes its place as life’s redemption.” And he wrote, “The whole race is a poet that writes down / The eccentric propositions of its fate.”

Today is the birthday of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi (books by this author), best known as Mahatma Gandhi, a religious and political leader born in western India in 1869. When Gandhi was 13 years old, he married Kasturbai Makanji, a girl of a similar age, according to his father’s arrangement. During their turbulent marriage, the couple sought to end British colonial rule in India and raised four sons.

Gandhi’s early life did not suggest a sensational future. He grew up a mediocre student without strong faith, a timid child afraid of the dark, ghosts, thieves, and snakes. In 1888, he traveled to England to study law. He spent most of the sea journey hiding in his cabin, horribly shy and embarrassed that he did not understand British table manners. During the next three years, he became fluent in English and for a short time dressed fashionably and studied French, elocution, and dancing, though he swiftly turned to the ascetic lifestyle for which he is known.

Gandhi and his family lived in South Africa from 1893 to 1914. His political awakening happened in part because of the racism he encountered there. In the first days of his arrival, he was thrown from a train because a white passenger refused to share a compartment with an Indian. In South Africa, he came into his own as a lawyer, an activist, and a visionary. He also adopted a strict moral code and argued that individual moral reform was essential to political change. In 1906, at the age of 37, Gandhi took a vow of celibacy, so that he might better embrace all humanity as his family.

He returned to India in 1915, hoping to reject colonial rule in favor of loose government and close-knit rural communities. He abhorred materialism and metropolitan culture and as a result was criticized by many of his countrymen, who felt that rejecting modern life was not a good way to end colonial rule.

Gandhi is best remembered not for playing a large role in Indian independence, but for his pacifist approach to resistance. Moral reform was central to his philosophy. He subtitled his autobiography “Experimenting with Truth,” and Truth — with a capital T — was his primary pursuit, coupled with nonviolence, both inherent to Hindu tradition. Gandhi was reluctant to define Truth, especially for others. Truth, to him, was too complex to fully understand or verbalize. True religion, he claimed, existed in each individual’s journey to find Truth, regardless of the particular religious path chosen.

His pacifism stemmed from his definition of Truth, since he was morally opposed to forcing his own Truth on others, especially by using violence. He argued that evil means inevitably yielded evil results. Gandhi rejected arguments that nonviolent resistance was weak, claiming that superior fortitude, strength, and resolve were required when practicing pacifism. As for individual reform, he advocated reducing material desires in order to channel strength inward.

When colonial rule ended in 1947, the nation was divided according to religious lines into India and Muslim Pakistan. Scholars have criticized Gandhi for overemphasizing individual morality and rejecting modernism, calling his approach impractical and idealistic. Yet he remains a touchstone for those seeking justice without the use of force.

The most famous pacifists of the 20th century both died by violence: Martin Luther King Jr., who was assassinated in 1968, and Gandhi, King’s inspiration for pacifist resistance. Gandhi was assassinated in New Delhi on January 30, 1948, by a young Hindu who blamed him for the country’s division, despite Gandhi’s emphasis on unity. A martyr after his death, Gandhi was considered the father of a new India. He said, “An eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind.”

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