This talk is like stamping new coins. They pile up, while the real work is done outside by someone digging in the ground.
-Rumi, Trans. Coleman Barks
Lights go out all over the world, but the vision of what was illuminated remains on the retinas and in the mind. Then there are those that illuminate, those that seemingly eschew the need for external light to create their own from the unending propellant of their dignity and common sense. These are the people that you usually want to have dinner with. Unfortunately, time and space are as inflexible as our wishes, with heroes and strangers passing generations before we come into the world. Even if we live during the same eras, there is no saying that we will ever meet. Paul Newman and I occupied the same world for decades, but you never saw me dressing a salad with the man. So close. As those we know, and those we never knew, go through the final stage of life, we may feel regret for the life they’ve left behind and that portion of life they will not create. Of living on this earth, the 13th-century Persian poet Rumi said that “we are pain and what cures pain, both”. Eight centuries earlier the Roman philosopher Boethius, awaiting his torture and death, urged us to remember that we must live every honest moment in goodness; in the clear sight of the judge that sees all. Our brief time on earth is a sweet enslavement that should not be shied away from, but patiently borne until our cosmic deliverance. I can’t hope to prepare myself for death in the ways that Boethius and Rumi seemed to be ready. A date to recall and emulate: December 17th, 1273 was the day that Rumi died – his followers refer to this blessed day as Rumi’s “Wedding Night”.
Dr. Sara Josephine Baker, 1873-1945
Born in New York in 1873, Sara Josephine Baker was a crusader for the health of American children. The good doctor’s work drastically reduced the infant mortality rate in New York. Becoming the first director of the New York City Bureau of Child Hygiene (which was also the first bureau of its type in the United States), Dr. Baker set up a private practice in addition to serving a in a number of government-directed roles. Perhaps best known for determining that Mary Mallon (aka “Typhoid Mary”) was ground zero for the debilitating disease sweeping through New York kitchens, Dr. Baker was also responsible for creating original and crucial health programmes and social policies that shaped the 20th-century landscape of American hygiene.
Into That Good Night
Displaying an innate ability to not only care, but to care with competence, make me wish Dr. Baker was still around. A perceptive woman that recognized that correcting caring for children is by no means a straightforward task, Baker was patient but unflinching in an atmosphere that did not necessary cultivate either trait.
Check out Canadian cartoonist Kate Beaton’s hilarious interpretation of Dr. S. Josephine Baker here.
Find Dr. Baker’s biography on the American National Library of Medicine’s exhibit on groundbreaking female physicians here.
See Dr. Baker’s legacy at the Bureau of Child Care, New York Department of Health and Mental Hygiene
Anton Chekhov, 1860-1904
Prolific to the point of exhaustion, Anton Chekhov was a man of many talents and kindnesses. A playwright and a writer of short stories, Chekhov was the grandson of a self-emancipated serf. The poverty and hardships endured as a child motivated Chekhov’s studies in medicine, as well as his writing (in the beginning he wrote to make ends meet). As a physician he made himself available to see to the needs of peasants, not only their medical needs but also the schooling of their children. A vigilant man, Chekhov undertook a dangerous journey to conduct a census of the settlers and prisoners of Sakhalin Island (I’ve written a post about it here). When cholera hit the Serpukhov district in which he lived, Chekhov immediately raised money to treat the ill-stricken, treating thousands of patients himself, and collecting records for the Serpukhov Sanitary Council on which he sat. The man also wrote some pretty great stories, influencing generations of short story writers.
Into That Good Night
Chekhov died at age forty-four from tuberculosis, in all likelihood precipitated by the extreme exertion with which he lived his life. At times accused of being too objective in his writing, Chekhov insisted on giving his readers credit. The writer insisted that he need not spell out how an audience should feel about the situation he so vividly sketched; that he himself had an obligation to step back from the story and allow the audience to experience a questioning, creative process of their own.
“Write a story of how a young man, the son of a serf, a former grocery boy, chorister, high school lad and university student, who was brought up to respect rank, to kiss priests’ hands, to revere other people’s ideas, to give thanks for every morsel of bread, who was whipped many times, who without rubbers traipsed from pupil to pupil, who used his fists and tormented animals, who was fond of dining with rich relatives, who was hypocritical in his dealings with God and men gratuitously, out of the mere consciousness of his significance – write how this youth squeezes the slave out of himself drop by drop, and how, waking up one morning, he feels that in his veins flows no longer the blood of a slave but that of a real man…”
-Letter to a friend, Anton Chekhov
Václav Havel, 1936-2011
For those that love a good dissident-to-president story, Václav Havel takes the trdelník. Born to a bourgeoisie family, Havel roused the consciences of those within and outside the Czech borders in the face of the oppressive prevailing Communist government. Jailed for his active opposition to the abusive government (and once for the heinous crime of standing in the street), after his release Havel continued to publish works that revealed and decried the hypocrisy of the Communist government that made the Czech people fear for their lives and their livelihoods. Havel was catapulted to international recognition when he was enthusiastically proclaimed the first president of post-Communist Czechoslovakia in 1989. Despite political tensions throughout his presidency, Havel has been honoured frquently, receiving many awards and honourary doctorates. Among these awards, the Gold Medal of The World Congress of Slovaks (1990), the Prize for Democracy (1990), the Onassis Prize for Man and Mankind (1994), and the Franz Kafka Award (2010).
Into That Good Night
A life-long smoker, Havel died of lung cancer in 2011. Primarily a lover of theatre democracy, and Czechoslovakia, perhaps the best recommendation that can be given to Havel is that he never sought power, but with his every action he attempted to award it to his countrymen, even when it was most dangerous. Until the end of his life Havel maintained the dignity and beliefs he preserved throughout his time in jail. When the German Quadriga Award went to Vladimir Putin in 2011, Havel immediately returned the Quadriga Award he had been presented with two years prior.
“Even as animal beings, we confront death from morning to night, for is not the care we take of ourselves each day – from breakfast, through keeping a watchful eye on traffic lights, to going to be at night – essentially a single, uninterrupted war with death? What links us to all other creatures – the instinct for self-preservation – is nothing more, after all, than an all-out effort to resist death and postpone it for as long as possible. And the second instinct we share with the other animals, the reproductive instinct, is again only another way of confronting death: we resist it not only as individuals but as a species (in preserving the species we are trying to defend something of ourselves as well against death). Can anything be more emphatically and integrally present in our lives than something we struggle against every second, something we constantly defy in our most ordinary actions, something we deny daily with the full weight of our existence.”
-Letters to Olga, Václav Havel
Find the Václav Havel Official Web Site here.
Find The Guardian obituary for Václav Havel here.
Find the New York Times obituary for Havel here.
Find the Wall Street Journal’s brief obituary here.
Find Radio Praha’s biography on Have here.
Havel’s speech to the Forum for Creative Europe via Youtube (parts one and two)
Kate McGarrigle, 1946-2010
Quebec-born singer-songwriter Kate McGarrigle made family a priority, including the large group of musicians that became her blood. By the end of her life in 2010, Kate McGarrigle had accumulated a body of work that reflected a rare talent for blending experimentation and tradition. Implementing a copious collection of instruments, their own voices were the most touching of all. Kate and Anna’s experiences, from their greatest elation to their deepest regret, were generously catalogued in their musical anthology. Perhaps the greatest recommendation for the McGarrigle Sisters was how they made every effort to work with artists they admired; this effort was returned ten-fold, with musicians such as Joan Baez, Mary Black, Judy Collins, Emmylou Harris, Maria Muldaur, and Linda Ronstadt. In recognition for their contributions to Canadian music Kate and Anna were awarded the Order of Canada and the Lifetime Artistic Achievement Award from the Governor General.
Into That Good Night
After Kate succumbed to cancer in 2010, her friends and family took comfort in the music that she and Anna had created over thirty years. Upon departing from his mother’s funeral, singer Rufus Wainwright was grateful for the worldwide support and condolences he and the rest of the McGarrigle clan received. Embraced for their sincerity, sweetness, and independence, Kate and Anna McGarrigle will remain Canadian treasures because they nurtured these traits throughout their lives. We’ll always have the Log Driver’s Waltz.
Kate & Anna McGarrigle, Love Over and Over
Kate & Anna McGarrigle, Heartbeats Accelerating
Kate & Anna McGarrigle, I Eat Dinner
Kate & Anna McGarrigle, Complainte Pour Ste. Catherine
Kate & Anna McGarrigle, Talk To Me Of Mendocino
McGarrigle sisters & friends, Heart Like a Wheel
McGarrigle sisters & friends, Hard Times
Kate & Anna McGarrigle profiled on “The Fifth Estate,” April 1977
Kate & Anna McGarrigle profiled on “The Journal,” December 1990
Find the CBC’s obituary for McGarrigle here
George Friedrich Philip, Freiherr von Hardenberg, aka Novalis, 1772-1801
An 18th-century German romantic poet, Novalis’s life was brief but influential. Novalis was born into the German aristocracy and, although he was by profession a mine inspector of a saltworks, he studied rhetoric and ancient literature in the tradition of his pedigree. The young baron fell in love and became secretly engaged to the 12-year old Sophie von Kühn. When Sophie died of tuberculosis two years later Novalis was devastated. Winning the “Dante Aligheri Award for Excellence in Eulogizing Hot Minors,” Novalis penned the sensational Hymns to the Night. Noting the affect the recent expert German translations of Shakespeare’s works must have had on Novalis, translator Dick Higgins called the language of Hymns to the Night “the most resolutely modernist style of its time”. In the poetry and prose of the work Novalis expresses the pain and hope he feels; that he knows will disappear in the mystical union that necessitates death.
Into That Good Night
After reading Hymns to the Night it almost feels wrong to wish Novalis alive, so strong was his faith that he would find eternal peace after his death. It might be more fitting for a poet to never know the growth of grey hair, but, for God’s sake, there was still so much left to think and write; so much salt left to mine!
“Once, when I poured out bitter tears, when, I dissolved in pain, scattered, and I was standing alone at the barren mound which hid the figure of my life in its narrow, dark space – alone, as no one could be more alone, driven by unspeakable anxiety – strengthless, with just one thought left of need. – As I looked around for help, could not move forwards and not backwards, and hung onto the fleeting, extinguished life with infinite craving: – then came from blue distances – from the heights of my old blessedness, a twilight shiver – and with one stroke my birth’s bond ripped – Light’s chains. There the earthly splendor fled and my sadness with it – misery flowed into a new, unplumbed world – You, Night-inspiration, heaven’s sleep, came over me – the region lifted gently up; over the region my released and newborn spirit floated. The hill became a cloud of dust – through the cloud I was the transfigured features of my beloved. In her eyes rested the forever – I took her hands, and my tears were a glittering and unrippable bond. Years by the thousands flew off to the distance, like storms. In her embrace I wept overjoyed tears at the new life. – It was the first and the only dream – and only since then I’ve felt an unchangeable, eternal faith in the heaven of night and its Light, the beloved.”
-Hymns to the Night, III, Novalis – Trans. Dick Higgins
Encyclopedia Britannica’s entry on Novalis
Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on Novalis
Full-text of George MacDonald’s translation of Hymns to the Night
Home to the International Novalis Society, the Novalis House-Museum, and the Research Centre on Early Romanticism (of more use to those that can read German)
St. John’s Water Dog
Brought to Canada from England, these fine canine specimens were far less shaggy than their Newfoundland dog brethren and they excelled in tracking down game. Extinct since about the 1980’s, the St. John’s water dog was, perhaps unsurprisingly, the fisherman of dogs, being hearty and great swimmers. Many a Newfoundland fisherman had a St. John’s water dog to thank for catching a cod that had wriggled free of his line or for helping to pull a water-logged net ashore. Related to lots of modern retrievers, as well as the Newfoundland dog, the St. John’s water dog was also taken to England, where it was bred with other breeds of retrievers.
Into That Good Night
Maybe it’s just because I haven’t owned a dog for a long time, or maybe it’s because it draws some eerie parallel to the cod fishing industry taking the mother of all beatings, but the death of a fishing dog strikes me as some sad stuff, let alone the death of an entire dog breed. Pour out a toilet bowl for that “good boy”.
If you want to hear about something even sadder than an extinct dog, find out more about over-fishing here.