Friday Nov. 13, 2015

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To My Daughter Teaching Science

They are olive green and elegant, tails curved to a fine point,
these lizards that my daughter cares for so lovingly
in the terrarium in the back of her science classroom in Brooklyn,
miniature dinosaurs, motionless as yogis, fingers

curled around a branch. She has worked long underpaid hours
to create this wonderland while the politicians rail that teachers
are the problem. Gently, she drops a worm on a leaf for the lizards,
says they prefer crickets, then shows me the hissing cockroaches

who hide under bark in another tank. I recoil. “It’s instinct,”
I say. “No,” she tells me, “people all over the world eat insects.”
I remember her as a toddler, teaching songs to her bears;
her voice trilling from her room to fill every corner of the house.

Now my daughter is teaching me; I want to imitate the hooting
of owls, fold paper into birds, twist pipe cleaners into spiders,
sit cross-legged on the colorful rug to look up at my daughter,
lovely with her long hair pulled back, her eyes bright

and intent, as the long days with troubled children,
the attacks from braying critics fade away,
as the lizards on their branch tilt their inscrutable heads
to listen to the strange creatures who surround them.

"To My Daughter Teaching Science” by Dana Robbins from The Left Side of My Life. © Moon Pie Press, 2015. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

It's the birthday of St. Augustine, born in Tagaste, Numidia (354), a part of North Africa that is now Algeria. Augustine argued that no one could possibly be free from sin, because sinfulness is the very nature of humans. He developed the idea of original sin, saying that all humans are born sinful because all humans are descended from Adam and Eve, who committed the first sins.

Augustine used himself as an example of sinfulness by writing The Confessions (c. 400), one of the first memoirs of Western literature. In that book, he described all the sins he had committed in the years of his life before his conversion, everything from crying over a fictional character in a poem, to stealing pears from a neighbor's tree, to his sexual fantasies and exploits. He wrote, "Lord, how loathsome I was in Thy sight. [Lust] stormed confusedly within me. ... The torrent of my fornications tossed and swelled and boiled and ran over." He believed that people could never hope to be innocent, and so their only hope lay in God's forgiveness. His ideas about sin became the doctrine of the Catholic Church. It is because of him that many Christian churches still baptize infants, to cleanse them of the sin they have inherited from their ancestors.

It's the birthday of Robert Louis Stevenson (books by this author), born in Edinburgh, Scotland (1850). He began to suffer from a lung disease at a very early age. He said, "My recollections of the long nights when I was kept awake by coughing are only relieved by thoughts of the tenderness of my nurse." His nurse stayed up with him at night when he couldn't sleep and told him all kinds of stories about ghosts and monsters and pirates. His father was an engineer who specialized in building lighthouses, and Stevenson studied engineering himself until he dropped out of school and became a bohemian, hanging out with seamen, chimneysweeps, and thieves. He wanted to live a life of adventure, to sail the high seas, but his poor health forced him to move to France, where the weather was supposed to be better. One night, he was passing by the window of a house when he looked inside and fell instantly in love with a woman he saw eating dinner with a group of friends. He stared at her for what seemed like hours, and then opened the window and leapt inside. The guests were shocked, but Stevenson just bowed and introduced himself. The woman was an American named Fanny Osborne, and when she traveled back to the United States, he followed her all the way to San Francisco, and finally married her there.

Stevenson and his wife traveled constantly during the years of their marriage, looking for a climate to improve his health. They tried Switzerland, Scotland, France, England, and even New Jersey. Stevenson's health kept declining, people called him "Bag of Bones," but he wrote constantly on trains, in boats, and in his bed, coughing. He once said, "To travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive." They finally settled on the Pacific island of Samoa.

One day in the summer of 1881, Stevenson painted a map of an imaginary island for his stepson, and the map gave him an idea for the novel Treasure Island (1883). He finished it in a few weeks, and was happy to get the £100 payment, never realizing that the book would become one of the most popular adventure stories of all time, with one of literature's most famous villains, the one-legged pirate Long John Silver. A few years later, he wrote The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886) in a single week. Despite his productivity, he believed strongly in the benefits of idleness. He said, "A faculty for idleness implies ... a strong sense of personal identity."

Stevenson's contemporaries saw him as one of the greatest writers of his generation. Henry James considered him an equal, and G.K. Chesterton wrote: "All his images stand out in sharp outline. ... It is as if [the words] were cut out with cutlasses." But with the rise of modern fiction and its emphasis on psychology and emotion rather than action, critics began to look down on Stevenson as merely a children's writer of adventure stories. One of the few modern writers who claimed Stevenson as an influence was Jorge Luis Borges, who said, "If you don't like Stevenson, there must be something wrong with you."

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