The Writer’s Almanac for July 10, 2018

“Psalm 23” from The Bay Psalm Book. Public domain. (buy now)

The Lord to me a shepherd is,
want therefore shall not I:
He in the folds of tender grass,
doth cause me down to lie:
To waters calm me gently leads
restore my soul doth he:
He doth in paths of righteousness
for his name’s sake lead me.
Yea, though in valley of death’s shade
I walk, none ill I’ll fear:
Because thou art with me, thy rod,
and staff my comfort are.
For me a table thou hast spread,
in presence of my foes:
Thou dost anoint my head with oil;
my cup it overflows.
Goodness and mercy surely shall
all my days follow me:
And in the Lord’s house I shall dwell
so long as days shall be.


Today is the birthday of the city of Dublin, founded in 988. The area had been occupied, more or less, since before the Roman invasion of Britain, and it appeared in Ptolemy’s Guide to Geography in the year 140, but the first verifiable settlement came with the Vikings in about 831. They called it “Dyflin,” which came in turn from the Irish Dubh Linn, which means “black pool.” The reason it’s considered to be founded in 988 rather than 831 is because that’s the year the Irish king Mael Sechnaill reclaimed the city for Ireland. It’s also the year he first forced people to pay him taxes, so Dublin’s belonged to the Irish ever since, bought and paid for.

Dublin’s contribution to literature alone has been remarkable. Ireland was one of the first countries to produce writing in the vernacular, and it’s long had a tradition as a nation of scholars. A partial list of writers who are from Dublin, or who adopted it as their home, includes Jonathan Swift, Francis Bacon, Samuel Beckett, George Bernard Shaw, James Joyce, W.B. Yeats, Bram Stoker, Patrick Kavanagh, Oliver Goldsmith, Oscar Wilde, Sean O’Casey, Brendan Behan, John Millington Synge, and Seamus Heaney.

“Dublin University contains the cream of Ireland: Rich and thick.” — Samuel Beckett

“When I came back to Dublin I was court-martialed in my absence and sentenced to death in my absence, so I said they could shoot me in my absence.” — Brendan Behan

“When I die Dublin will be written in my heart.” — James Joyce

“When I die I want to decompose in a barrel of porter and have it served in all the pubs in Dublin.” — J.P. Donleavy


On this date in 1553Lady Jane Grey was crowned Queen of England. Her cousin, Edward VI, was the only son of Henry VIII, who died when Edward was nine years old. Henry had provided for a council of regency to rule until Henry reached adulthood, and the end result was that the unscrupulous Duke of Northumberland controlled the government. When it became apparent that Edward was going to die of tuberculosis at age 15, without leaving an heir, Northumberland convinced him to exclude his sisters, Mary and Elizabeth, and designate his 15-year-old cousin, Jane Grey — who also happened to be Northumberland’s daughter-in-law — as his heir instead.

She wasn’t necessarily a bad choice, from Edward’s point of view — she was beautiful, educated, and most importantly, a staunch Protestant, as he was — but she didn’t really want the crown. She fainted when she was given the news. She ruled for only nine days before being deposed by Edward’s half-sister Mary Tudor, who was the designated heir by act of Parliament and by Henry VIII’s will. Mary had Jane Grey imprisoned in the Tower and she was later executed for treason.


It’s the birthday of Canadian short-story writer Alice Munro (1931) (books by this author), born Alice Laidlaw in Wingham, Ontario. Her father was a farmer who built the family house and raised foxes and mink for their pelts. She married young and had her first child when she was 21. She took writing time wherever she could find it: During her children’s naptimes, and, later, when they were at school. “I used to work until maybe one o’clock in the morning and then get up at six,” she told The Paris Review. “And I remember thinking, You know, maybe I’ll die, this is terrible, I’ll have a heart attack. I was only about 39 or so, but I was thinking this; then I thought, Well even if I do, I’ve got that many pages written now. They can see how it’s going to come out. It was a kind of desperate, desperate race. I don’t have that kind of energy now.”

She often sets her stories in provincial Ontario towns. She says: “The physical setting is perhaps ‘real’ to me, in a way no other is. I love the landscape, not as ‘scenery’ but as something intimately known. Also the weather, the villages and towns, not in their picturesque aspects but in all phases. Human experience though doesn’t seem to me to differ, except in fairly superficial ways, no matter what the customs and surroundings.”


It’s the birthday of Marcel Proust (books by this author), born in Auteuil, France, in 1871. His major work is the seven-volume À la Recherche du Temps Perdu (originally translated as Remembrance of Things Past and, more recently, as In Search of Lost Time) (1913-27). It’s Proust’s own life story, told as an allegorical search for truth. The most famous scene in the book occurs early on, when the narrator dips a bit of a madeleine in some tea and experiences a profound sense-memory of his childhood:

No sooner had the warm liquid mixed with the crumbs touched my palate than a shudder ran through me and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary thing that was happening to me. An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, something isolated, detached, with no suggestion of its origin. And at once the vicissitudes of life had become indifferent to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory — this new sensation having had on me the effect which love has of filling me with a precious essence; or rather this essence was not in me it was me. I had ceased now to feel mediocre, contingent, mortal. Whence could it have come to me, this all-powerful joy? […] And suddenly the memory revealed itself. The taste was that of the little piece of madeleine which on Sunday mornings at Combray (because on those mornings I did not go out before mass), when I went to say good morning to her in her bedroom, my aunt Léonie used to give me, dipping it first in her own cup of tea or tisane. The sight of the little madeleine had recalled nothing to my mind before I tasted it. And all from my cup of tea.

That really happened to Proust, although in his case it was a much humbler and less poetic piece of a rusk — a twice-baked, dry biscuit or cracker — rather than a madeleine that triggered the memories.

He had started the book as early as 1905, but he kept setting it aside. Finally, he realized that he had to do two things first: He needed to purge his writing of all his literary influences, which he did by writing a series of parodies for Le Figaro in the styles of Balzac, Flaubert, and others; and he needed to clarify what the novel’s philosophy would be. He accomplished this by writing an essay stating that the artist’s task is to access and revive long-buried memories. He experienced his “rusk epiphany” in January 1909, and he began the novel the following June. He produced the first volume, Swann’s Way, in 1913, publishing it at his own expense after several publishers rejected it; the book begins, “For a long time, I went to bed early.” Proust spent the next decade working on the rest. He was proofreading and copyediting the final three unfinished volumes on his deathbed in 1922.


Today is the birthday of John Calvin (books by this author), born in Noyon, Picardy, France (1509). He experienced a religious epiphany sometime between 1528 and 1533, in his early twenties, when, he said, “God subdued my soul to docility by a sudden conversion.” Calvin embraced Protestantism at a time when that was a dangerous thing to do; in 1534, two dozen Protestants were burned at as heretics in France. He took up a nomadic lifestyle for the next several years, traveling throughout France, Italy, and Switzerland, finally settling in Geneva.

In 1536, Calvin published Institutes of the Christian Religion; it was intended for a general readership and laid out the foundations came to be known as Calvinism, or five principles that spell out the word TULIP:

Total depravity: all people are born sinful.
Unconditional election: God has already chosen those people who will be saved.
Limited atonement: Jesus died to atone for the sins of the elect only.
Irresistible grace: If you are among the elect, you will inevitably repent and become Christian.
Perseverance of the saints: You can never lose your salvation.

Word got around, and he made a name for himself among religious reformers; when he passed through Geneva, the pastor of the city prevailed on him to stay around a while and help with the new church. William Farel, the pastor, wouldn’t take “no” for an answer, and even swore a curse on Calvin if he refused. Calvin stayed for a year and a half, and although Geneva was ripe for religious reform, there was still conflict between Calvin, who wanted to install a theocracy, and those who wanted less drastic reform. Calvin was driven out of the city and went to Strasbourg. He returned three years later, and he spent the rest of his life in Geneva. He wasn’t popular with everyone — some people set their dogs on him, or sent him death threats, or disrupted his sermons — but he persisted in spite of failing health, saying, “What! Would you have the Lord find me idle when He comes?”

 


Good news: The Writer's Almanac is back as a podcast and an email newsletter! Follow TWA on Facebook, sign up for the email newsletter, and check your favorite podcast app for "The Writer's Almanac with Garrison Keillor."

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


 

Garrison's weekly columns

For full list, click here

Old man in his pew among the Piskies

A whole string of perfect summery September days and we sit outdoors eating our broiled fish and cucumber salad and the last of the sweet corn crop while looking at news of people stranded in flooded towns in North Carolina, unable to evacuate because they are caring for an elderly bedridden relative. They stand on their porch, surrounded by filthy floodwater, waiting for rescue, and meanwhile we pass a bottle of Pouilly-Fuissé and look forward to ice cream.

This is why a man goes to church, to give thanks for blessings and to pray for the afflicted, while contemplating the imbalance, us on the terrace, them on the porch. And to write out a check for flood relief.

I go to the church where my wife and I were married twenty-three years ago in New York City. She was raised Episcopalian so I became a Piskie too, out of pure gratitude. Had she been Quaker, I would’ve quaked; had she been Jewish, hand me the Torah, Laura. My evangelical family liked Jeremiah and Ezekiel a lot more than “Blessed are the meek” and if there had been a First Pharisee church in our town, we’d have been there.

Piskies are a mixed lot, lifelongs and newcomers, believers and tourists, and this church has African and Asian elements along with us Anglos in our wingtips and herringbones. After we confess our sins and are absolved, people ramble around the sanctuary shaking hands and hugging, a cheerful and democratic moment, like recess in school. We’ve all been forgiven for our arrogance and carelessness and put that behind us and now have a chance to do better. This is enormously uplifting and then the ushers come along with the collection plates. I scribble:

I say the prayer of contrition
And see my pernicious condition,
And then in an inst-
Ant am cleansed, at least rinsed,
A sinner but a newer edition.

I trust that after I die
I will fly to my home in the sky,
But if it’s not so,
I’ll never know.
I could worry about it, but why?

And onward we go to Communion. The church is practically full and Communion takes awhile and I turn to the Communion hymn and it’s not one of the high Anglican hymns that we’re often obliged to attempt, hymns meant for a choir in white robes with cinctures and ruffled collars, with singers named Alastair, Barnaby, Cecil, and Dorian, after which there will be tea and cakes in the refectory and someone will ask about our summer in Cornwall and we’ll say, “Brilliant. Smashing.”

No, it’s not one of those hymns, it’s Low Church, so low that I associate it with Pentecostals singing in a storefront, or a revival service under a tent. It’s “Give Me Jesus.” It’s a spiritual that’s made its way into bluegrass and Christian rock, and Southern quartets have recorded it and so has Kathleen Battle and it goes:

In the morning when I rise,
In the morning when I rise,
In the morning when I rise,
Give me Jesus.

And “When I am alone” and “When I lay me down to die” — and we Episcopalians of Manhattan are seized by the power of this simple song and sing it with feeling. The music takes hold of you and no matter what was on your mind a moment ago, you give yourself to this song, and then the organ drops out on the third verse and we’re acappella and tears come to your eyes because suddenly you are not a New Yorker anymore, not a white college graduate, but are maybe out in the middle of Nebraska or Oklahoma or North Carolina, surrounded by farmers and truck drivers and their wives, most of whom voted for the real-estate developer, and you’re singing, “You can have all this world, give me Jesus.” My aunts and uncles and cousins are there who didn’t come to the wedding because it was my third marriage, and we’re all singing, “Give me Jesus.” We’re together with people who disapprove of us almost as much as we do of them and we are all singing.

It’s why a man goes to church, to be shaken, and I walked out onto the street and past the deli, the Thai restaurant, the Korean grocery, and headed home to my wife. She was looking at photographs of people stranded in their homes in North Carolina, waiting for help to arrive. Brown floodwater up to the floorboards, woman in a chair, man in the doorway, waiting.

Old man spends Sunday among Lutherans

Back when I did a radio show in Minnesota, I liked to make fun of Lutherans for their lumbering earnestness, their obsessive moderation, their dread of giving offense. I felt obliged to make fun of them because they were the heart of my audience, but now that I’m old and out of the way, I feel obliged to do penance, and so last weekend I traveled to Bayfield, Wisconsin, to speak at an old Norwegian church, Bethesda Lutheran, celebrating its 125th anniversary there on the shore of Lake Superior. I was not paid to do this but I was offered coffee and doughnuts.

Bayfield is an old fishing and lumbering town whose main industry now is tourism. The town has tried to kill off tourism by raising the price of rooms to a Manhattan level but people still come from near and far to look at the lake. I myself would rather look at Lutherans, so I did that instead.

Bethesda is a handsome classic wooden church, high-pitched roof and steeple. You’d find it in Grant Wood and in New England landscape paintings. The sanctuary seats about 100 skinny people, or about eighty Lutherans, and it was full for the 8:30 a.m. service. The good people had put my favorite hymns in the service, “Sweet Hour of Prayer” and “Children of the Heavenly Father,” “Nearer, My God, To Thee,” and “Shall We Gather at the River,” and they sang them beautifully, as Lutherans do. Harmony is fundamental to their faith. You may disagree with them on doctrine but if you can sing alto or tenor, you’re okay.

They assigned me to read the Epistle at the service, and I noted that they’d chosen a passage from 1 Peter: “Rid yourselves, therefore, of all malice, and all guile, insincerity, envy, and all slander,” thereby paying me back for forty years of satire on the radio. I took it to heart, as one should. Envy and insincerity I’m certainly guilty of, malice and slander not so much, and guile — I don’t think so. “Guile” infers craftiness and smarts, and I plead innocent there.

They did give me a chance to speak in my own defense, which was only right, since I’d flown out from New York for the service. I began by correcting them: a pastor had said they were celebrating the 125th anniversary of “Christian worship and witness in Bayfield” and I reminded them that French Catholic missionaries such as Father Jacques Marquette, S.J., had preceded them by 200 years. They took this in good grace.

And then I said what I had come to say, which was that I love them, sincerely. They believe in kindness as a prime virtue and they believe in service to others, doing their part, chipping in, pulling their oar. Bethesda is a small church, only forty-five members, and a lady told me after the service, “We could merge with other churches, but the beauty of a small church is that everyone has to do their part, you can’t leave it to the others.”

They are a warm, accepting people. A note on the bulletin said, “We acknowledge that we worship on the traditional grounds of the Anishinaabe and we honor their elders both past and present.” And the service began with the lighting of sacred tobacco by an Ojibwe elder who played a solo on his wooden flute. He was welcomed and so was I.

I told them they remind me of my aunts who were the important people in my upbringing. I had eighteen of them. We were staunch fundamentalists, not Lutherans, and it was a time when women took a back seat, but my aunts were loving people, merciful, given to kindness, and lovingkindness triumphs over power.

There was coffee and ice cream afterward and extensive commingling, a beautiful Sunday on the shore. I talked with a couple who spend their summers taking wheelchair kids on canoe trips into the Boundary Waters and with a sailor who’d sailed from Bayfield to Norway and said, “When the weather’s rough, you depend on your boat to take care of you,” and I met old people my age who are caring for incapacitated spouses. I was glad I’d made the trip. They feel like family. I could’ve stayed all day but I had a plane to catch. So I stood in their midst and sang, “Wise men say, only fools rush in” and they all joined in and now they know. I can’t help falling in love with Lutherans.

A Prairie Home Companion An Evening of Story and Song Love & Comedy Tour Solo The Gratitude Tour
Schedule

October 14, 2018

Sunday

7:00 p.m.

Burlington, VT

Burlington, VT

October 14, 2018

Garrison makes a special appearance at the Burlington Book Festival, giving advice to writers.

7:00 p.m.

November 3, 2018

Saturday

5:00 pm and 8:00 pm

Minneapolis, MN

Minneapolis, MN

November 3, 2018

Garrison Keillor performs with duet partner Lynne Peterson and longtime collaborator & pianist Richard Dworsky.

5:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m.

November 15, 2018

Thursday

5:30 p.m.

Bremerton, WA

Bremerton, WA

November 15, 2018

A solo performance with Garrison Keillor at the Admiral Theatre.

Doors at 5:30 p.m.

November 17, 2018

Saturday

7:30 p.m.

Manchester, NH

Manchester, NH

November 17, 2018

A solo performance with Garrison Keillor at the Palace Theatre.

7:30 p.m.

Radio
The Writer’s Almanac for September 21, 2018

The Writer’s Almanac for September 21, 2018

It’s the birthday of prolific horror writer Stephen King (Portland, Maine, 1947), who said, “The road to hell is paved with adverbs.”

Read More
The Writer’s Almanac for September 20, 2018

The Writer’s Almanac for September 20, 2018

It’s the birthday of one of the greatest editors of the 20th century, Maxwell Perkins (1884). His first big success at Scribner’s was his decision to publish a manuscript by a young man named F. Scott Fitzgerald called This Side of Paradise.

Read More
The Writer’s Almanac for September 19, 2018

The Writer’s Almanac for September 19, 2018

On this day in 1982, computer scientist Scott Fahlman suggested on an online bulletin board that the users type a colon, a hyphen, and a closing parenthesis when their post was intended as a joke. 🙂

Read More
The Writer’s Almanac for September 18, 2018

The Writer’s Almanac for September 18, 2018

It was on this day in 1851 that the first edition of The New York Times was published. Its original name was The New-York Daily Times, and each copy cost one cent.

Read More
A Prairie Home Companion: September 22, 2007

A Prairie Home Companion: September 22, 2007

With special guests, mixologists of soul, folk and jazz, Lake Street Dive, blues bombshell Hilary Thavis, vocalist Molly Dean, and sound effects man Steve Kramer.

Read More
The Writer’s Almanac for September 17, 2018

The Writer’s Almanac for September 17, 2018

Today is the birthday of Ken Kesey (1935), author of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

Read More
The Writer’s Almanac for September 16, 2018

The Writer’s Almanac for September 16, 2018

It’s the birthday of Curious George creator H. A. Rey, who escaped Paris on a pair of bicycles with wife and collaborator Margret Rey just before the Nazi invasion in June 1940.

Read More
The Writer’s Almanac for September 15, 2018

The Writer’s Almanac for September 15, 2018

It was on this day in 1835 that the passengers and crew of the HMS Beagle, including 26-year-old Charles Darwin, reached the Galapagos Islands.

Read More
The Writer’s Almanac for September 14, 2018

The Writer’s Almanac for September 14, 2018

George Frideric Handel completed the Messiah oratorio on this date in 1741. It was originally written for the Easter season, but became a Christmastime favorite.

Read More
The Writer’s Almanac for September 13, 2018

The Writer’s Almanac for September 13, 2018

On this date in 1848, railroad worker Phineas Gage survived having an iron rod driven through his skull. His friends noticed dramatic changes in his personality, and Gage became a famous patient in neuroscience.

Read More
Writing

Old man in his pew among the Piskies

A whole string of perfect summery September days and we sit outdoors eating our broiled fish and cucumber salad and the last of the sweet corn crop while looking at news of people stranded in flooded towns in North Carolina, unable to evacuate because they are caring for an elderly bedridden relative. They stand on their porch, surrounded by filthy floodwater, waiting for rescue, and meanwhile we pass a bottle of Pouilly-Fuissé and look forward to ice cream.

This is why a man goes to church, to give thanks for blessings and to pray for the afflicted, while contemplating the imbalance, us on the terrace, them on the porch. And to write out a check for flood relief.

Read More

Old man spends Sunday among Lutherans

Back when I did a radio show in Minnesota, I liked to make fun of Lutherans for their lumbering earnestness, their obsessive moderation, their dread of giving offense. I felt obliged to make fun of them because they were the heart of my audience, but now that I’m old and out of the way, I feel obliged to do penance, and so last weekend I traveled to Bayfield, Wisconsin, to speak at an old Norwegian church, Bethesda Lutheran, celebrating its 125th anniversary there on the shore of Lake Superior. I was not paid to do this but I was offered coffee and doughnuts.

Read More

Old man alone on Labor Day weekend

Our long steamy dreamy summer is coming to an end and it’s time to stop fruiting around and make something of ourselves. You know it and I know it. All those days in the 90s when we skipped our brisk walk and turned up the AC and sat around Googling penguins, Szechuan, engine, honorable mention, H.L. Mencken.

Read More

A man watching his own heartbeat

I lay on a couch at a clinic last week, watching my echocardiogram on a screen, and made a firm resolution, the tenth or twelfth in the past couple years, to buckle down and tend to business, fight off distraction and focus on the immediate task, walk briskly half an hour a day, eat green leafy vegetables, drink more liquids, and finish the projects I’ve been working on for years. Seeing your heartbeat is a profound moment.

Read More

Old man in the grandstand, talking

I drove through a Minnesota monsoon last week — in the midst of cornfields, sheets of rain so heavy that cars pulled off the road — in other words, a beautiful summer storm, of which we’ve had several this year, as a result of which we are not burning, as other states are. Life is unjust, we do not deserve our good fortune, and so it behooves us to be quiet about it.

Read More

My weekend in Manhattan: a memoir

A string of blazing summer days in New York City and after the sun went down, perfect summer nights, diners in sidewalk cafes along Columbus Avenue, dogs walking their owners, and my wife walking me. “You need to get out and move around,” she says. “It’s not healthy to sit at a desk all day.” And she is right. I am stuck on a memoir I’m writing, pondering the wrong turns of my early years. How much do you want to know? Are you sure?

Read More

My annual birthday column, no extra charge

It is a beautiful summer, says I, and I cannot offhand recall any that were beautifuler, not that I am unaware of human suffering, I am aware. I have elderly friends my age who are facing dismal prognoses and friends who are sunk in the miseries of divorce and I feel for all of them but does this mean I can’t feel fresh and eager and be crazy about my wife? No, it does not.

I like to impress her, which I did on Sunday. I went cheerfully to a vegan restaurant with her — me, a cheeseburger guy, a slider guy if the truth be told — and ordered a cucumber soda, toasted tofu slices, and a kale salad big enough to feed a goat. I ate it all. She was impressed.

The world is falling apart around us, but that’s no reason to be unhappy. The world has been falling apart for thousands of years. Nevertheless, one can accentuate the positive and eat out of the goat’s feed trough. Get over yourself. Pretend to be thrilled by tofu.

Read More

An ordinary weekend in July, nothing more

I went for a walk in the rain Saturday under a big black umbrella, which I chose over the kittycat one as being more age-appropriate, seeing as I turn s-s-s-s-s-s-s-seventy-six in a week. Cat kitsch is for teen girls, not grandpas. A black umbrella, black shoes, jeans, white shirt, tan jacket with black ink stains on the lining. I’m a writer, I carry pens, they leak. So what?

A walk under an umbrella is a form of meditation, and rain always makes me happy. I grew up out in the country and rain meant that I could stay in and read a book and not have to go to Mr. Peterson’s farm and hoe corn. Hoeing corn was the most miserable work I’ve ever done. Nothing I’ve done since even comes close. That, to me, is the definition of the good life, to have something so miserable in your distant past that you can recall in moments of distress and think, “Well, at least this is not as bad as that.”

Read More

Up at cabin, leave paper on porch

I am having a beautiful summer and I don’t know why — after all, I am a liberal Democrat obliged to be concerned about the oppressed, the underpaid, the critical shortage of honeybees, greenhouse gases, plastic waste on the ocean floor, meanwhile right-wingers in giant pickups with Confederate decals on the bumper and rifles in a gun rack in the cab go merrily along without a twinge of guilt, and now apparently so do I.

Read More

Feeling odd about feeling this good

I am having a beautiful summer and I don’t know why — after all, I am a liberal Democrat obliged to be concerned about the oppressed, the underpaid, the critical shortage of honeybees, greenhouse gases, plastic waste on the ocean floor, meanwhile right-wingers in giant pickups with Confederate decals on the bumper and rifles in a gun rack in the cab go merrily along without a twinge of guilt, and now apparently so do I.

Read More

Two options for staying in touch:

  • Subscribe to the “Garrison Keillor” list to receive a weekly email including his latest column, excerpts from Garrison’s books, news about upcoming shows and projects, plus links to performances, TWA & APHC merchandise, and poetry features.
  • Subscribe to “The Writer’s Almanac” list to receive a DAILY email that includes the classic “on this day in history” section, a poem, and a link to listen to that day’s episode.

Prairie Home Productions News


Get In Touch
Send Message