You’ve come to the oncologist’s office
to talk about your options.
You view the scans,
forgetting to breathe.
“It’s metastasized.” He frowns,
pointing to where and where.
He ticks off the preferred treatment,
the side effects,
low rates of success.
“It’s your choice,” he says,
closing your folder,
“but we need to start tomorrow.”
You think of yesterday
when you lived in a different universe,
of a waitress,
hand on her hip, asking,
“Hon, you want mustard or mayo
on that sandwich?”
“Choice” by Jo McDougall from The Undiscovered Room. © Tavern Books, 2016. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)
It’s the birthday of poet Pablo Neruda (books by this author), born Neftali Ricardo Reyes Basoalto in Parral, Chile (1904). In 1923, when he was 19, he sold all his possessions in order to publish his first book, Crepusculario (Twilight). Because his father didn’t approve of his writing poetry, he published it under the pen name Pablo Neruda. In 1924, he published Veinte poemas de amor y una canción desesperada, known in English as Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair, which made him famous. Neruda always wrote in green ink, because he believed it was the color of hope.
It’s the birthday of American author, poet, philosopher, abolitionist, tax resister, and transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau (books by this author), born in Concord, Massachusetts (1817). After graduating from Harvard, he worked in his father’s pencil factory. He taught for a time, but resigned because he didn’t want to administer corporal punishment. He opened a school with his brother, John, but John caught tetanus after cutting himself shaving and died in Thoreau’s arms.
He went to work for Ralph Waldo Emerson, the poet and leader of the American transcendentalist movement. Thoreau moved into Emerson’s house and tutored his children. After he accidentally burned down 300 acres of woods near Concord, his friend Ellery Channing told him: “Go out upon that, build yourself a hut, and there begin the grand process of devouring yourself alive. I see no other alternative, no other hope for you.”
On July 4, 1845, Thoreau entered the woods at Walden Pond near Concord, built a small cabin, and spent two years, two months, and two days listening to whip-poor-wills singing, frogs croaking, and owls hooting. He cultivated beans, ate fish, salt pork, and woodchuck, and spent considerable time pondering which pond was more beautiful: Walden Pond, Flint’s Pond, or White Pond. He always left three chairs ready for visitors. It was a grand experiment: to see if simple self-sufficiency could lead to a greater, more objective understanding of society.
It took almost nine years for Thoreau to complete his book on his experience in the woods. He titled the book Walden; or, A Life in the Woods (1854). The book became the foundation for the future movements of ecology and environmentalism. Thoreau developed a penchant for yoga and Hinduism. He contracted tuberculosis, which set his health back, and after spending a rainy evening counting tree rings on a stump, he developed bronchitis and never recovered. On his deathbed, his Aunt Louise asked if he had made his peace with God. Thoreau replied, “I did not know we had ever quarreled.”
In Walden, Thoreau writes: “I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan- like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion.”
On this day in 1389, King Richard II appointed poet Geoffrey Chaucer (books by this author) to the position of Chief Clerk of the King’s Works in Westminster. Chaucer, the middle-class son of a wine merchant, spent his lifetime associated with aristocracy: as an adolescent, he served as a page for a wealthy household and later fought in France with Edward III, who paid the ransom when Chaucer was captured during a siege. The clerkship came with a significant salary — 30 pounds per year — but a heavy workload: Chaucer supervised the building and maintenance of several royal projects, including the Tower of London and Westminster Palace. Chaucer traveled widely as Clerk, which afforded him the opportunity to meet people across a spectrum of social classes: peasants, nobles, and clergy. Their voices are the narrative cornerstone of Chaucer’s greatest work, The Canterbury Tales, the story of group of pilgrims journeying to St. Thomas Becket’s shrine at Canterbury Cathedral.
It’s the birthday of (Gaius) Julius Caesar, born in Rome around 100 B.C. He was the great military leader who managed to capture for the Roman Empire most of what became France and Great Britain.
In a series of dispatches from the battlefield, Caesar became his own war correspondent. Unlike many of the Roman poets and historians of the era, Caesar wrote short descriptive prose that was easy for ordinary people to understand. His stories of military victories turned him into a national hero, but the Roman Senate increasingly saw him as a threat. It passed legislation requiring him to lay down his military command and return to Rome.
But Caesar realized that he had the largest and most battle-tested army in the empire under his command. And if he returned to Rome, his political opponents would end his career. And so, on January 10, 49 B.C., Caesar crossed the Rubicon River with his army, directly challenging the authority of the Senate. The result was a civil war. Though he was outnumbered in many of the major battles, Caesar won the war. And he was extremely merciful with captured military leaders, because he wanted them as his allies. That might have been his biggest mistake, since it was a group of those men he spared that began to conspire against him.
He was an absolute dictator of Rome, with ambitious plans to redistribute wealth and land. But a group of senators, led by Brutus and Cassius, wanted to bring back the old republic. So they organized an assassination on the steps of the Senate.
The Roman republic never returned. Instead, Rome would be ruled by a series of emperors for the rest of the empire’s existence.