The Writer’s Almanac for July 13, 2018

“The Sweetest Woman There” by John Clare. Public domain. (buy now)

From bank to bank the water roars Like thunder in a storm
A Sea in sight of both the shores Creating no alarm
The water-birds above the flood Fly o’er the foam and
spray
And nature wears a gloomy hood On this October day

And there I saw a bonny maid That proved my heart’s
delight
All day she was a Goddess made An angel fair at night
We loved and in each other’s power Felt nothing to
condemn
I was the leaf and she the flower And both grew on one stem

I loved her lip her cheek her eye She cheered my
midnight gloom
A bonny rose ‘neath God’s own sky In one perrenial
bloom
She lives ‘mid pastures evergreen And meadows ever
fair
Each winter spring and summer scene The sweetest
woman there

She lives among the meadow floods That foams and
roars away
While fading hedgerows distant woods Fade off to
naked spray
She lives to cherish and delight All nature with her face
She brought me joy morn noon and night In that low
lonely place


It’s the birthday of Nigerian playwright Wole Soyinka, (books by this author) born in Abeokuta, Nigeria (1934). He’s the first African to win the Nobel Prize in literature, which he was awarded in 1986.

His plays include A Dance of the Forests (1963), The Lion and the Jewel (1963), Rites of the Harmattan Solstice (produced 1966), Requiem for a Futurologist (1985), and The Beatification of Area Boy (1996).

He’s been a professor at several British and American universities. And he has long been a pro-democracy activist in his native Nigeria, protesting military dictatorships time and time again. For this, he has spent a lot of time in exile and in prison. Once, just after he got out of jail, someone asked him why he — an aging man nearing 70 — kept doing stuff to get himself put in prison. Soyinka said: “My conviction simply is that power must always be defeated, that the struggle must always continue to defeat power. I don’t go looking for fights. I’m really a very lazy person. I enjoy my peace and quiet. There’s nothing I love better than just to sit quietly somewhere, you know, have a glass of wine, read a book, listen to music.”

But just a few months after that interview — and almost two decades after becoming a Nobel Prize laureate — he led more anti-government protests. He was tear-gassed and arrested, though soon released.

His poetry collections include Poems from Prison (1969) and Mandela’s Earth and Other Poems (1988). A few years ago, he published a memoir, You Must Set Forth at Dawn (2006).

He said, “The man dies in all who keep silent in the face of tyranny.”


There was a blackout in New York City on this date in 1977. Lightning struck three times that night, hitting Con Edison substations and shutting down the power grid. The city went dark at about 9:30 p.m. Kennedy and LaGuardia airports had to be shut down for eight hours, tunnels in and out of the city were closed, and thousands of people had to be evacuated from the subways.

There had been a similar blackout in 1965, and people had faced it with good humor, but in 1977, New York was in the middle of an economic crisis, and unemployment rates were high. There was also a serial killer, who called himself “Son of Sam,” on the loose, and the city was in the grip of a brutal heat wave. It was the worst time for a catastrophic blackout; the city was a powder keg.

In the 25 hours that it took workers to fully restore power, more than 1,600 stores were looted, more than a thousand fires were set, and nearly 3,800 looters were arrested. Damage was later estimated at $300 million.


It’s the birthday of screenwriter and director Cameron Crowe, born in Palm Springs, California (1957). He was a talented student, and his mother pushed him to skip two grades, so he graduated from high school at the age of 15. By that time, he had already transitioned from writing for his school paper to writing for Creem; and then he met the editor of Rolling Stone and started writing for them. In 1973, when he was just 16 years old, Crowe spent weeks on the road with the Allman Brothers and wrote a cover story on them for Rolling Stone.

After a few years he left Rolling Stone and went undercover as a high school student for a writing project. He turned his experience into a book, Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1981), which he then adapted into a screenplay for the film. He wrote and directed Say Anything… (1989) and Jerry Maguire (1996). Then, in 2000, he considered his own life story and instead of writing a memoir, he made the film Almost Famous (2000).


It was on this day in 1798 that William Wordsworth (books by this author) began to write “Lines composed a few miles above Tintern Abbey on revisiting the banks of the Wye during a tour, 13 July 1798,” a poem better known as “Tintern Abbey.” Wordsworth said: “No poem of mine was composed under circumstances more pleasant for me to remember than this. I began it upon leaving Tintern, after crossing the Wye, and concluded it just as I was entering Bristol in the evening, after a ramble of 4 or 5 days, with my sister. Not a line of it was altered, and not any part of it written down till I reached Bristol.”

In “Tintern Abbey,” he wrote:
These beauteous forms,
Through a long absence, have not been to me
As is a landscape to a blind man’s eye:
But oft, in lonely rooms, and ‘mid the din
Of towns and cities, I have owed to them
In hours of weariness, sensations sweet,
Felt in the blood, and felt along the heart;
And passing even into my purer mind,
With tranquil restoration: — feelings too
Of unremembered pleasure: such, perhaps,
As have no slight or trivial influence
On that best portion of a good man’s life,
His little, nameless, unremembered, acts
Of kindness and of love.


Today is the birthday of the English poet John Clare (books by this author), born in Helpston, Northamptonshire, (1793) to a poor rural family. His father was a thresher, and his mother was a shepherd’s daughter. Clare was small, probably due to malnutrition, and never grew taller than five feet. He did get some schooling, in between working on the family’s farm, and at age 27, he published his first book: Poems Descriptive of Rural Life and Scenery (1820). Despite his success, he felt that he didn’t fit in with other poets of the day, like Byron, Keats, and Coleridge because they were educated and hadn’t had to work. But he didn’t fit in back home either because people were suspicious of his accomplishments and afraid that he would use their words in his poems.

In 1837, Clare entered High Beach Asylum. He had suffered from depression and heavy drinking for some time. During his stay there, he would quote other poets’ works and claim he’d written them. When he was corrected, he would reply: “It’s all the same. I’m John Clare now. I was Byron and Shakespeare formerly.” He escaped after four years and walked home; five months later, he was committed to the Northampton General Lunatic Asylum, where he spent the rest of his life and wrote many of his best poems, including his most famous, “I Am!,” which begins:

I am — yet what I am none cares or knows;
My friends forsake me like a memory lost:
I am the self-consumer of my woes —
They rise and vanish in oblivious host,
Like shadows in love’s frenzied stifled throes
And yet I am, and live — like vapours tossed

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A great task lies before us, but first we sleep

Small sorrows speak; great sorrows are silent. My current small sorrow is a daily flood of junk e-mail — cheap insurance, health nostrums, hernia repair, free loans, travel discounts, an app to find out if your spouse is unfaithful — a stream of crap generated in Orlando. In tiny print at the bottom is “If you wish to unsubscribe, click here,” and I click there and the stuff keeps coming, an infestation of electronic cockroaches.

Meanwhile the great sorrow, the troubled state of our democracy, hangs in the air, the beloved country riven by dishonesty and invincible ignorance.

So I’m taking a vacation from the news. There’s a red tide of it daily and a person needs to think his own thoughts and partake in the joys of every day, so I don’t click on the news icons on my toolbar. It’s very satisfying, like looking at the gin bottle on the shelf and not putting it to your lips and draining it, but living your life instead.

At the moment, my house is in chaos because we’re moving from a big roomy house to a smallish apartment, which has brought us face to face with decades of materialism. We now see that we own a great deal of stuff that (1) we don’t use, (2) we have no attachment to, and (3) we need to rid ourselves of. Truckloads of stuff have gone out the door and there is yet more.

My particular problem is the compulsive purchase of books. Shelves of heavy tomes, classics of Western civilization, dozens of dictionaries, atlases, the complete works of great authors, two bookcases of biographies, enough books to occupy all my waking hours until I am four hundred and one years old. I bought them myself, bag by bag, out of the lust for breadth of knowledge and now I am loading them into boxes and hauling them to the car.

I thought it’d be painful, the defenestration of my library, but it is exhilarating — to feel the burden of my pretensions lighten as I drop my long-running impersonation of an educated man and return to being just another elderly barefoot peasant, one who loves his fireplace on a chilly November night and a warm supper with his good wife across the table and some light gossip and then the great pleasure of undressing in the dark and slipping in under the covers and lying next to her and taking her hand. I do not take the complete essays of Michel de Montaigne to bed with me; I would rather have her.

I think it was Montaigne who said that the best sign of wisdom is cheerfulness. I read that when I was in college, at a time when we ambitious literati felt that the true sign of brilliance was agony and desperation, and so we attempted to impersonate it though we were children of privilege — even I, the postal worker’s son, had the great luxury of an inexpensive college education, financed by me washing dishes in the cafeteria, a liberal arts education that encouraged me to imagine myself as an artist, a novelist. And so I surrounded myself with books.

I think it was also Montaigne who said that you cannot be wise on another man’s wisdom. I could reach for my phone and Google it and get the exact words but I don’t want to let go of her hand. She has spent a busy month clearing out the house and playing viola in the pit at the opera. I was away from home most of last week and she was plagued by insomnia, and now she is falling asleep. A month ago I was an intellectual striving to make intelligent comment on the new world of 2018 and now I am an elderly peasant whose physical presence helps his beloved to sleep. Some would see this as a loss of status; I do not. I lie in the marital bed, her hand relaxes, which makes me happy, and I turn out the light. I imagine myself back to 1948 and Uncle Jim’s farm. He lifts me up onto Prince’s back who is hitched to the hayrack along with Scout. My face is against his mane, my arms around his neck. Off we trot to the meadow to rake up hay, the harness jingling, Uncle Jim clucking to the horses, the sweetness of new-mown grass in my nostrils, and that is all there is, there is no more.

What happened Sunday, in case you missed it

Church was practically full last Sunday, with a few slight gaps for skinny fashion models but otherwise S.R.O., and everyone was in an amiable mood what with several babies present for baptism, and then the organ rang out the opening hymn, the one with “teach me some melodious sonnet sung by flaming tongues above” in it, an exciting line for us Episcopalians who rarely get into flaming stuff, and I sang out from the fifth pew near some babies and their handlers, some of whom weren’t familiar with this famous hymn of Christendom, though later, around the baptismal font, they would pledge to renounce the evil powers of this world and bring up the child in the Christian faith, but their ignorance of “Come thou fount of every blessing” suggested that they might bring up the child to play video games on Sunday morning, but what the hey, God accepts them as they be and though with some reluctance so must we, and I’m sorry this sentence got so long.

I was brought up evangelical and got baptized when I was 15, the morning after a hellfire sermon in which the evangelist suggested strongly that our car was likely to be hit by a fast train on our way home and we’d all be killed and ushered into eternity to face an angry God. I was the third child in a family of six and the thought that my five siblings and two parents would lose their lives on my account weighed heavily and so in the morning, as a life-saving measure, I asked to be baptized, and Brother John Rogers led me into Lake Minnetonka, I in white trousers and white shirt, he in a blue serge suit, shirt and tie, and immersed me in the name of the Holy Spirit. I have been careful crossing railroad tracks ever since.

Our church sent around a questionnaire a month ago, asking, “Why do you come to church?” and I still haven’t filled it out. For one thing, I go because I read stories in the newspapers about declining church attendance and I hate to be part of a trend. For another, church is a sanctuary from thinking about myself, my work, my plans for the week, my problems with work, my view of DJT and my PSA and most recent MRI, my lack of exercise, other people’s view of me, myself, and I, and frankly I’m sick of myself and so would you be if you were me. My mind drifts during the homily — the acoustics amid Romanesque splendor are truly lousy — and my thoughts turn to my beautiful wife and our daughter and various friends and relatives, Lytton and Libby, Bill Hicks the fiddler, Peter Ostroushko, Fiona the Chinese exchange student, and I pray for them. I pray for solace and sustenance in their times of trial and I ask God to surprise them with the gift of unreasonable joy. I pray for people caring for parents suffering from dementia and people caring for children who are neurologically complicated. I pray for the whales, the migrating birds, the endangered elephants.

And then the homily’s over and we confess our sins and are forgiven and everyone shakes hands and goes forward for Communion, a small wafer and a swallow of wine. Then a blessing and a closing triumphant hymn as the clergy and deacons process down the aisle and then I go home.

It’s an hour and a half with no iPhone, no news. Last week is erased, bring on Monday. The babies will grow up to be impatient with orthodoxy and eager to be other than whatever their parents are, but it was holy water they were splashed with, not Perrier, and who knows but what they might wander back into church one day and appreciate the self-effacement it provides.

Man does not live by frozen pizza alone. Sunday does not need to be like Saturday or Monday. Turn down the volume, dim the bright flashing lights of ambition, look into your heart, think about the others, one by one. As part of the service, you get to reach around, right, left, forward, back, and say a blessing on them all (“The Peace of God be with you”) and when else do you get to do that? Not in the produce section of the supermarket. People need to be blessed. Shouting and sarcasm and insult have not worked, so move on. God loves you, reader. Bless you for coming this far. Go in peace.

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

December 2, 2018

Sunday

7:30 p.m.

New York, NY

New York, NY

December 2, 2018

A mini Prairie Home reunion featuring Garrison Keillor, Rob Fisher, Fred Newman, and Heather Masse and Christine DiGiallonardo.

December 16, 2018

Sunday

5:00 p.m. & 8:00 p.m.

Minneapolis, MN

Minneapolis, MN

December 16, 2018

Garrison Keillor returns to Crooner’s with singer Christine DiGiallonardo & pianist Richard Dworsky. Shows at 5:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m.

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Writing

A great task lies before us, but first we sleep

Small sorrows speak; great sorrows are silent. My current small sorrow is a daily flood of junk e-mail — cheap insurance, health nostrums, hernia repair, free loans, travel discounts, an app to find out if your spouse is unfaithful — a stream of crap generated in Orlando. In tiny print at the bottom is “If you wish to unsubscribe, click here,” and I click there and the stuff keeps coming, an infestation of electronic cockroaches.

Read More

What happened Sunday, in case you missed it

Church was practically full last Sunday, with a few slight gaps for skinny fashion models but otherwise S.R.O., and everyone was in an amiable mood what with several babies present for baptism, and then the organ rang out the opening hymn, the one with “teach me some melodious sonnet sung by flaming tongues above” in it, an exciting line for us Episcopalians who rarely get into flaming stuff, and I sang out from the fifth pew near some babies and their handlers, some of whom weren’t familiar with this famous hymn of Christendom, though later, around the baptismal font, they would pledge to renounce the evil powers of this world and bring up the child in the Christian faith, but their ignorance of “Come thou fount of every blessing” suggested that they might bring up the child to play video games on Sunday morning, but what the hey, God accepts them as they be and though with some reluctance so must we, and I’m sorry this sentence got so long.

Read More

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Standard Time returned in a cold rain on Sunday but no matter. I’m an old man and every day is beautiful. My past is gone, my future is shrinking, and so when I open my eyes in the morning and don’t see angels bending over me, I’m grateful for another day on Earth. There will be no cold rain in Heaven and I will miss that and the chance to complain about it. I went in the bathroom when I awoke and closed the door so that if I fell down with a massive heart attack, I wouldn’t wake my wife, and I put my pants on, left leg first, then the right, not leaning against the wall, for the sheer excitement of it. Some mornings it’s like mounting a bucking horse. And then downstairs to the coffeepot and back to work on my memoir.

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Columnist salutes a brother columnist, a red one

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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.

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