Saturday Jan. 14, 2017

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The text of today’s poem is not available online.

“Sunrise” by Mary Oliver from New and Selected Poems. © Beacon Press, 1992. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

It's the birthday of Albert Schweitzer (books by this author), born in Kaysersberg, in the province of Alsace-Lorraine (1875). He was a theologian, a musical prodigy, an author, and a philosopher, an expert on Bach, Goethe, and Kant. When he was 21, he made a plan: for the next nine years, he would devote himself to science, art, and religion. But once he turned 30, he would spend the rest of his life serving humanity. And so, on his 30th birthday, he decided to become a medical missionary to Africa.

Although Schweitzer had a good career as a professor of theology and a Bach scholar, he entered medical school when he was 30 years old. His wife, Hélène, trained as a nurse at the same time, so that she could help him with his work. On Good Friday, 1913, they set sail for French Equatorial Africa to set up a hospital in Lambaréné, Gabon. He designed the hospital, helped to build it, and paid for it himself out of money he had earned giving concerts. In the early days, the building was little more than a chicken coop, and it was hard work clearing the thick jungle. They had only just gotten started when World War I broke out, and the Schweitzers — who were German citizens — spent four months as prisoners of war. They were sent back to a French prison in 1917, and when the war ended, Schweitzer took up his old life — teaching, preaching, and giving organ recitals — until he could return to Africa again in 1925. After eight years, the jungle had taken over the grounds, so Schweitzer moved the hospital site a couple of miles away, on a better plot of land.

The hospital was rustic, even dirty, by Western standards. Most of the work was done by the light of kerosene lamps because there was no electricity except in the operating rooms. There were no phones and no radios. Patients were encouraged to bring in family members to cook and care for them. Schweitzer extended his reverence to animal and insect life as well; he was a vegetarian and wouldn't even kill ants or mosquitoes. Animals were allowed to roam about freely, and a hippo once invaded the vegetable garden.

In 1952, Schweitzer was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. He used the prize money to expand his hospital, adding a treatment center and housing for lepers. His Nobel lecture, called "The Problem of Peace," remains one of the best speeches ever given. In it, he said: "What really matters is that we should all of us realize that we are guilty of inhumanity. The horror of this realization should shake us out of our lethargy so that we can direct our hopes and our intentions to the coming of an era in which war will have no place." He campaigned against nuclear weapons for the rest of his life.

Today is the birthday of the woman The New Yorker called "a forgotten American literary treasure." That's Emily Hahn (books by this author), born in St. Louis, Missouri (1905), known to family and friends as "Mickey."

In college, she changed her major to Engineering after an advisor told her that a woman's brain was "incapable of grasping mechanics or higher mathematics." The male students and faculty discouraged her, but in 1926, she became one of the first women to get an engineering degree from the University of Wisconsin at Madison. She went to work for a mining company in St. Louis, but they would only let her do menial office tasks, so she left after a year.

Hahn was always on the move — one of her catchphrases was "Nobody said not to go." After college, she and a friend dressed as men and drove across the United States in a Model-T Ford. She wrote letters home to her brother-in-law, which were later published in The New Yorker. That began a career with the magazine that would last almost 70 years. She was also a tour guide in New Mexico, worked for the Red Cross in the Belgian Congo, lived with a tribe of Pygmies for two years, and crossed Africa on foot.

At 30, Hahn moved to Shanghai, where she lived in a red-light district and worked as the China correspondent for The New Yorker. She had an affair with the poet Sinmay Zau, and took up smoking opium. She once said: "I always wanted to be an opium addict," and eventually she became one. It took two years of regular smoking, but she persisted. And then she kicked the habit through hypnosis.

In 1941, she gave birth to a daughter, the result of her affair with Charles Boxer, who was the head of British army intelligence in Hong Kong. Hahn and Boxer were married four years later and had another daughter together. The family settled in England, but after five years of domesticity, Hahn was on the move again. She got a place in New York City and made frequent visits to her husband and children back in Dorset.

And through all of this, she wrote: 54 books and more than 200 articles for The New Yorker. Her books all got good reviews, but she was hard to pigeonhole, because her style flowed from genre to genre. Her very first book, Seductio ad Absurdum (1930), was a comic look at men's wooing techniques. She wrote about her travels throughout Asia, including her wartime romance with Boxer, in China to Me (1944). She wrote many biographies and a few novels. She wrote books about diamonds, and the Philippines, and apes. And just a couple of months before her death, she published her first poem in The New Yorker. It was called "Wind Blowing."

When Emily Hahn died in 1997, at the age of 92, her granddaughter Alfia Vecchio Wallace gave her eulogy. In it, Wallace said: "Chances are, your grandmother didn't smoke cigars and let you hold wild role-playing parties in her apartment. Chances are that she didn't teach you Swahili obscenities. Chances are that when she took you to the zoo, she didn't start whooping passionately at the top her lungs as you passed the gibbon cage. Sadly for you, your grandmother was not Emily Hahn."

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