Monday Apr. 24, 2017

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What Have I Learned

What have I learned but
the proper use for several tools?

The moments
between hard pleasant tasks

To sit silent, drink wine,
and think my own kind
of dry crusty thoughts.

       —the first Calochortus flowers
       and in all the land,
       it’s spring.
       I point them out:
       the yellow petals, the golden hairs,
       to Gen.

Seeing in silence:
never the same twice,
but when you get it right,

              you pass it on.

“What Have I Learned” by Gary Snyder from No Nature. © Pantheon Books, 1992. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

The Library of Congress was established on this date in 1800. President John Adams signed legislation to move the United States capital from Philadelphia to Washington; included in that legislation was an order to establish a library that would contain “such books as may be necessary for the use of Congress — and for putting up a suitable apartment for containing them therein.” The first catalog listed 964 books and nine maps.

The library was originally housed in the Capitol Building, but was destroyed, along with the Capitol, by British soldiers in 1814. Former president Thomas Jefferson offered to sell his extensive and eclectic library to the government, and they took him up on it. They paid him about $24,000 for his collection of nearly 6,500 books, which he had been building for half a century: “putting by everything which related to America, and indeed whatever was rare and valuable in every science.”

In 1870, Librarian of Congress Ainsworth Rand Spofford established the copyright law, requiring that every copyright applicant send the library two copies of their work. It’s no wonder that the Library quickly outgrew its original home in the Capitol. In 1886, Congress approved the construction of a new building dedicated solely to housing the collection. The Main Building was joined by the Art Deco-style John Adams Building (1939), named to honor the president who established the library. Then came the James Madison Memorial Building in 1980; that same year, the Main Building was renamed the Thomas Jefferson Building.

The library receives about 15,000 new items every workday. Its collection includes 17 million books, and millions of maps, photographs, films, recordings, and drawings, in 470 languages. The Law Library alone — which supplies Congress with information on laws from all over the world — contains 2.8 million volumes.

Today is the birthday of Irish novelist and journalist Clare Boylan (books by this author), born in Dublin (1948). She was the youngest of three girls, and her books all deal in some way with the relationships between mothers and daughters. Her own mother, Evelyn, had married young and worked in domestic service, which was what most young women in her generation did. But Evelyn, who was very intelligent in spite of not having received much formal education, wasn’t at all satisfied with that life. She always regretted not becoming a writer. She pressured Clare to take advantage of all the opportunities that she had been forced by circumstance to pass up. She lived through Clare, really. When she died many years later, Boylan wrote: “I really hope she’s taken flight and is finally in pursuit of her own destiny.”

Writing was one of the passions Evelyn had always encouraged Clare to follow, so when she graduated from the convent school in the 1960s, she took a job with the Irish Press. Female reporters were given all the fluff pieces in those days, but she wrote a series on “derelict women” for the Evening Press that won her a Journalist of the Year prize in 1974. Her first novel, Holy Pictures, was published in 1983.

In 2003, she published Emma Brown, which she described as “the only book I’ve written that didn’t feel lonely to write.” The book is a continuation and completion of an unfinished novel by Charlotte Brontë. Brontë only wrote the first two chapters and then abandoned the project. Boylan wrote a draft that she wasn’t happy with, and then spent a long time retracing Brontë’s footsteps in London until she felt she had sufficient insight into the author and the character. Emma Brown was Boylan’s last book. She died of ovarian cancer in 2006.

On this date in 1916, Sir Ernest Shackleton (books by this author) set out in a lifeboat from Elephant Island to get help for his shipwrecked Antarctic expedition. Shackleton had set sail from London on the Endurance on August 1, 1914, intending to be the first party to cross the continent of Antarctica. Four months later, the ship encountered pack ice — large masses of ice that are not attached to land — for the first time. They crossed the Antarctic Circle in January 1915, but the ship was soon trapped in the ice pack. The crew had no control over the vessel’s movements, and they drifted aimlessly along with the ice for more than nine months. Eventually, the Endurance was so damaged by the ice that Shackleton ordered his men to abandon ship. Each man was allowed to bring two pounds of personal items from the ship, with two exceptions: photographer Frank Hurley’s photographic plates, and crewmember Leonard Hussey’s banjo. They set up camp on an ice floe, where they watched their ship gradually sink into the frigid waters. They camped on the ice for several months, hoping that they would hit a lucky current and drift northward to safety, but finally, in April 1916, Shackleton and some of the men set off in three lifeboats. They landed on Elephant Island, which was uninhabited. A few days later, Shackleton set off in one of the lifeboats, the James Caird, to South Georgia Island, where there was a whaling station. In August, he finally arrived at the ice camp and rescued the survivors, one of whom later wrote, “I felt jolly near blubbing for a bit & could not speak for several minutes,” when he saw Shackleton’s ship appear on the horizon.

It is the birthday of American novelist and short-story writer Judy Budnitz (books by this author), born in Atlanta, Georgia (1973). Her 1998 debut book, Flying Leap, was published when she was only 24. Budnitz’s stories have been described as “modern fables or fairy tales” in the vein of Franz Kafka. Her characters are ordinary people placed in extraordinary circumstances that stretch the bounds of reality. Her most recent collection is Nice Big American Baby, published in 2005.

Her novels include Last Resorts (1984), Home Rule (1992), and the autobiographical Beloved Stranger (1999) — based on an incident in which her 75-year-old father lost his mind. Her short stories are collected in A Nail on the Head (1983), Concerning Virgins (1990), and That Bad Woman (1995). She edited the anthology The Agony and the Ego (1994), in which writers contributed thoughts on the creative process of writing, and also the anthology The Literary Companion to Cats (1994).

It’s the birthday of English novelist Anthony Trollope (books by this author), born in London in 1815.

Many of Trollope’s novels originated from daydreams that he had as a child. He invented stories that he would carry on in his mind for months at a time. He later recalled: “I was of course my own hero. I was a very clever person, and beautiful young women used to be very fond of me. I was a very much better fellow than I have ever succeeded in being since.”

When Trollope was 19, he began working as a clerk for the post office, eventually being placed in Ireland as a postal surveyor. In addition to his literary achievements, he is credited with inventing the modern British mailbox. It was in Ireland that he began writing novels, churning them out regularly at a rate of three books every two years. He would write 1,000 words an hour before breakfast; he said, “A small daily task, if it be really daily, will beat the labors of a spasmodic Hercules.” He wrote realistic novels about the daily life of ordinary people, including The Warden (1855), Barchester Towers (1857), and Framley Parsonage (1861).

On this day in 1916, the Easter Rebellion began on the streets of Dublin. The British police extinguished the rebellion a few days later. Called “the poet’s rebellion,” it was led by six patriotic poets and men of letters, including Patrick Pearse and James Connolly. They organized a group of about 400 dissidents, dressed in makeshift uniforms and carrying antiquated rifles, to march through Dublin’s main streets to the imposing General Post Office at the center of the city. They barged inside and read their “Proclamation of Independence” to a baffled crowd. It read, in part: “In the name of God and of the dead generations from which she receives her old tradition of nationhood, Ireland, through us, summons her children to her flag and strikes for her freedom. … The Irish Republic is entitled to … the allegiance of every Irishman and Irishwoman … cherishing all of the children of the nation equally and oblivious of the differences carefully fostered by an alien government, which have divided a minority from the majority in the past.”

The rebellion seemed hopelessly unsuccessful until the British government valorized many of the rebels by executing them a few weeks later. The Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw wrote, “It is absolutely impossible to slaughter a man in this position without making him a martyr and a hero, even though the day before he may have been only a minor poet.” The executions set in motion a movement for Irish nationalism, and in 1921 Ireland finally achieved independence from Great Britain — except for the six northernmost counties of the island that comprise Northern Ireland.

William Butler Yeats wrote a poem called “Easter 1916” where he said,

“All changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.”

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