Wednesday Mar. 25, 2015

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He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven

Had I the heavens’ embroidered cloths,
Enwrought with golden and silver light,
The blue and the dim and the dark cloths
Of night and light and the half-light,
I would spread the cloths under your feet:
But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.

"He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven" by W. B. Yeats. Public Domain.  (buy now)

In the Christian tradition, today is Annunciation Day, commemorating the announcement to the Virgin Mary by the Angel Gabriel that she would give birth to the Messiah. In ancient Rome, March 25 was the traditional date of the festival known as the Hilaria. The festival honored the Mother Goddess Cybele, and celebrated the resurrection of her lover, Attis. It was the first feast day after the spring equinox, when the days begin to be longer than the nights.

Today is the birthday of American novelist and short-story writer Flannery O’Connor (books by this author), born Mary Flannery O’Connor in Savannah, Georgia (1925). At six, she and her pet chicken, which could walk backward, were featured in a national newsreel. “It was the high point of my life,” O’Connor joked. “Everything after that was an anti-climax.” When she was 15, her father died of lupus, the same disease that would claim her life 24 years later. Bored with her journalism studies at the University of Iowa, she applied to the prestigious writers’ workshop there, surprised when she was accepted. “I didn’t know a short story from an ad in the paper,” she recalled. At Iowa, she dropped “Mary” and became “Flannery” but was still so shy she could not read her stories aloud in workshop. A lifelong Catholic, she wrote in a Southern gothic style, peopling her work with grotesque characters, most often Protestants, who wrestled with unsavory situations and questions of redemption. Her first story, “The Geranium,” was published in 1946 while she was at Iowa and was the seed for her first published novel, Wise Blood (1952). She couldn’t finish Kafka, hated Carson McCullers, and said Ayn Rand, “makes Mickey Spillane look like Dostoevsky.” She spiked her coffee with Coca-Cola, loved peppermint chiffon pie, and once gave her mother a mule for Mother’s Day. Her first bout with lupus sent her permanently to Andalusia, the 544-acre ancestral farm in Milledgeville, Georgia, where she lived with her mother and raised peacocks, emus, ducks, and toucans until her death, at age 39, in 1964. She wrote feverishly, finishing stories between blood transfusions at the hospital and endlessly revising scenes. She wrote 17 versions of a porch scene for a 378-page, still unpublished novel titled Why Do the Heathen Rage. When asked why she wrote, she answered plainly, “Because I’m good at it.”

She said: “When we look at a good deal of serious modern fiction, and particularly Southern fiction, we find this quality about it that is generally described, in a pejorative sense, as grotesque. Of course, I have found that anything that comes out of the South is going to be called grotesque by the Northern reader, unless it is grotesque, in which case it is going to be called realistic. [...] Whenever I’m asked why Southern writers particularly have a penchant for writing about freaks, I say it is because we are still able to recognize one.”

And: “Everywhere I go I’m asked if I think the university stifles writers. My opinion is that they don’t stifle enough of them. There’s many a best-seller that could have been prevented by a good teacher.”

She wrote in a letter to her friend Cecil Dawkins: “I’m a full-time believer in writing habits, pedestrian as it all may sound. You may be able to do without them if you have genius but most of us only have talent and this is simply something that has to be assisted all the time by physical and mental habits or it dries up and blows away. I see it happen all the time. Of course you have to make your habits in this conform to what you can do. I write only about two hours every day because that’s all the energy I have, but I don’t let anything interfere with those two hours, at the same time and the same place. This doesn’t mean I produce much out of the two hours. Sometimes I work for months and have to throw everything away, but I don’t think any of that was time wasted. Something goes on that makes it easier when it does come well. And the fact is if you don’t sit there every day, the day it would come well, you won’t be sitting there.”

It’s the birthday of agricultural scientist and Nobel Peace Prize winner Norman Borlaug, born in Cresco, Iowa (1914). After he received his doctorate from the University of Minnesota, he was sent by the Rockefeller Foundation to direct an agricultural research station in Mexico. There, he began to experiment with breeding a new strain of high-yield “dwarf” wheat. Using Borlaug’s new strain of wheat, Mexican farmers tripled their production between 1944 and 1960. In his acceptance speech for the 1970 Nobel Peace Prize, Borlaug said: “The first essential component of social justice is adequate food for all mankind. Food is the moral right of all who are born into this world.”

It’s the birthday of the feminist writer and activist who said, “A woman without a man is like a fish without a bicycle”: Gloria Steinem (books by this author), born in Toledo, Ohio (1934).

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