Tuesday Dec. 30, 2014

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Living Will

When the doctor called at 3am
to tell me that only a ventilator
could keep my aunt alive at that point,
I stood shivering in the dark kitchen,
thinking about that word, ventilator.

I envisioned a dark shaft of some sort
in an old office building from the fifties,
when my aunt was a young woman.
Then I imagined being in that shaft,
somehow hidden away behind a grill
while an important meeting was going on
in a paneled conference room
full of big shots scribbling things
on yellow legal pads. Millions of dollars
were at stake. Someone’s career,
maybe even their life, depended
on what the important men did or said.

But I was hidden in the ventilator shaft,
safely out of bounds. I stayed
inside that word for as long as I could,
its syllables like four rooms
I could buy some time exploring.
But it was so cold in the dark kitchen,
and the doctor was waiting.

"Living Will" by George Bilgere. © George Bilgere. Reprinted with permission of the author.   (buy now)

It was on this day in 1816 that Percy Bysshe Shelley (books by this author) and Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin (books by this author) were married. They traveled through Europe, then returned to England, by which time Mary was pregnant. She gave birth to a daughter, who was born prematurely and died after two weeks. A year later, in January of 1816, they had a healthy child named William. That summer, they accepted the invitation of Mary's stepsister, Claire, to join her and Lord Byron at Lake Geneva. Claire and Byron were lovers, and Claire and Shelley were also probably lovers off and on during those years. It was during that stay in Switzerland that Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, soon to be Mary Shelley, began her most famous novel, Frankenstein (1818).

It's the birthday of novelist, composer, and poet Paul Bowles (books by this author), born in New York City, New York (1910). Bowles studied briefly at the University of Virginia, choosing the school because Poe had gone there, but he left to study music in Paris. He became a composer, music critic, and poet, writing musical scores for more than 30 plays, many of them on Broadway, and for movies as well.

He did not devote himself to writing until after World War II. His first and most famous novel was The Sheltering Sky (1949), and it was set in Morocco. It helped cause a U.S. literary migration to Tangier, and he became a resident there in 1952.

In 1931, Bowles met Gertrude Stein, who told him he was definitely not a poet and suggested he go to Tangier, Morocco. He did, and he also decided never to write again. He didn't stick to this decision and later sent her a short story. Stein wrote to him and said: "I take back all the harsh things I said about your writing. It makes a picture and that is always good. But it is alright to learn to play Bach in writing too."

Bowles said: "We get to think of life as an inexhaustible well. Yet everything happens only a certain number of times, and a very small number, really. How many more times will you remember a certain afternoon of your childhood, some afternoon that's so deeply a part of your being that you can't even conceive of your life without it? Perhaps four or five times more. Perhaps not even that. How many more times will you watch the full moon rise? Perhaps twenty. And yet it all seems limitless."

It's the birthday of short-story writer, poet, and novelist (Joseph) Rudyard Kipling (books by this author), born in Bombay, India (1865). His father was a British artist who got an appointment to run an art school in Bombay, but after a series of typhoid and cholera outbreaks, Kipling's parents decided to send him back to England for his own safety.

After school, he went off to the northwest corner of India, where the British were fighting a war with Afghanistan. Kipling got a job on an army newspaper, and he also began writing fiction and poetry. After six years of publishing his work, he sold everything he'd written for £250 to a company that began selling paperback editions of his collected works in railway stations around India. Those paperback editions became more successful than anyone had ever expected, and suddenly magazines and newspapers were begging Kipling to write for them. He moved back to London, where he'd become a literary celebrity, but he found the life of a celebrity did not agree with him.

He traveled the world for a few years and finally settled in Vermont. And it was there, in a rented cottage surrounded by snow, that he began to reimagine the India of his childhood, and he wrote the book for which he's best known today, The Jungle Book (1894), about a boy raised by wolves who grows up with the other jungle animals until a tiger forces him to go back and live with people.

Kipling said: "If history were taught in the form of stories, it would never be forgotten."

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