The Writer’s Almanac for July 8, 2018

“Good-Night” by Percy Bysshe Shelley. Public domain. (buy now)

Good-night? ah! no; the hour is ill
Which severs those it should unite;
Let us remain together still,
Then it will be good night.

How can I call the lone night good,
Though thy sweet wishes wing its flight?
Be it not said, thought, understood—
Then it will be—good night.

To hearts which near each other move
From evening close to morning light,
The night is good; because, my love,
They never say good-night.


It’s the birthday of novelist and short-story writer J.F. Powers, (books by this author) born James Farl Powers in Jacksonville, Illinois (1917). His family was Catholic in a heavily Protestant town. He went to Catholic school, he was a great basketball player, and then he started working odd jobs to support himself and his family during the Great Depression. By the time WWII started, he was unemployed and living in Chicago, but he loved it because he met all sorts of interesting people — jazz singers, political exiles, pacifists.

Powers refused to join the war, and so he was sent to a federal prison in Sandstone, Minnesota. He was paroled to work as an orderly in a hospital in St. Paul, and he wrote fiction at night. In 1947, he published Prince of Darkness,a book of short stories. He continued to write novels and short stories, mostly satire, many of them about priests in small towns in Minnesota. His novel Morte d’Urban (1962) won the National Book Award.


It was on this day in 1819 that John Keats (books by this author) wrote one of his most famous lines: “I love you the more in that I believe you have liked me for my own sake and for nothing else. I have met with women whom I really think would like to be married to a Poem and to be given away by a Novel.” It was part of letter to his beloved Fanny Brawne, a letter that began:

“My sweet Girl—Your Letter gave me more delight than any thing in the world but yourself could do; indeed I am almost astonished that any absent one should have that luxurious power over my senses which I feel. Even when I am not thinking of you I receive your influence and a tenderer nature stealing upon me. All my thoughts, my unhappiest days and nights have I find not at all cured me of my love of Beauty, but made it so intense that I am miserable that you are not with me: or rather breathe in that dull sort of patience that cannot be called Life.”

It was one of the earliest of his famous letters to Fanny Brawne, though the two had met almost a year before, in the autumn of 1818. Keats was in love with another woman, Isabella Jones, at the time, but by late spring of 1819, he’d become devoted to Fanny Brawne.

The two became secretly engaged, but never married, and Keats died of tuberculosis a year and a half later, at the age of 25. She lived for another 45 years after his death. Keats’ now-famous love letters to her were unknown until 1878, when they were first published — more than half a century after he wrote them. 


Percy Bysshe Shelley (books by this authordied at sea off the coast of Italy on this day in 1822, just shy of his 30th birthday. He had been living in Lerici for about four years, and his work was maturing; most of his poems prior to that time had been political in nature, but when he got away from the daily annoyance of British politics, he began to realize that he couldn’t reshape the outside world, so he transferred his idealism to his poetry.

He had sailed from his home in Lerici to Livorno to visit his friend Leigh Hunt. On the return, the seas were stormy, and his schooner sank. Shelley had never bothered to learn to swim, and he drowned. The conservative London newspaper The Courier reported, “Shelley, the writer of some infidel poetry, has been drowned: now he knows whether there is a God or no.” Uncharitable obituaries aside, he was almost immediately re-created as a tragic, otherworldly figure. His widow, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, set the ball in motion when she wrote, “I was never the Eve of any Paradise, but a human creature blessed by an elemental spirit’s company & love — an angel who imprisoned in flesh could not adapt himself to his clay shrine & so has flown and left it.” His friend Edward John Trelawny was even more melodramatic. He organized Shelley’s beach cremation, turning it into a pagan ceremony with wine and frankincense, and later wrote an account of Shelley’s death, which he revised and embellished heavily as years went on. He added conspiracy theories and deathbed confessions — an Italian fisherman admitted he had deliberately rammed the boat, or so Trelawny claimed— and sometimes implied Shelley had committed suicide.

Trelawny reportedly retrieved Shelley’s heart, which had not burned, from the pyre. He presented it to the widow, who was not at the funeral; women were kept away from cremations for their health. She’s said to have kept it the rest of her life, wrapped in a copy of his poem Adonais (1821). As for the rest of his remains, his ashes were interred at the Protestant Cemetery in Rome. His monument is inscribed with the words Cor Cordium — “heart of hearts” — and a few lines from Shakespeare’s The Tempest: “Nothing of him that doth fade / But doth suffer a sea-change / Into something rich and strange.”

From the last stanza of Adonais:
The breath whose might I have invoked in song
Descends on me; my spirit’s bark is driven,
Far from the shore, far from the trembling throng
Whose sails were never to the Tempest given;
The massy earth and sphered skies are riven!
I am borne darkly, fearfully, afar;
Whilst, burning through the inmost veil of Heaven,
The soul of Adonais, like a star,
Beacons from the abode where the Eternal are.


On this day in 1947, the Roswell Daily Record in New Mexico reported that a flying saucer had crashed near Roswell Army Air Field, New Mexico. On July 2, witnesses reported seeing a disc-shaped object flashing through the sky. The next morning, rancher Mac Brazel was moving sheep from one pasture to another when he came upon some strange debris — scraps of metal of varying sizes, very lightweight and very durable — scattered over a couple of hills. A few days later, the Army’s public information officer issued a press release saying that they had recovered a crashed “flying disc.” The Air Force contradicted the statement the following day with a statement of their own, claiming it was a weather balloon.

The incident was forgotten until 1978, when physicist and UFO researcher Stanton Friedman interviewed Major Jesse Marcel, who was involved in the original recovery. It was Marcel’s opinion that the military had recovered an alien spacecraft, and the weather balloon story was just a cover-up. The National Enquirer tabloid took the story national in 1980, conducting its own interview with Marcel. Hundreds of witnesses — very few of them credible — began to come forward, claiming to have seen alien bodies, or heard about secretly conducted alien autopsies. By the time CNN and Time conducted a joint poll in 1997, most of the public believed that aliens had landed at Roswell and the government was covering it up.


It’s the birthday of American columnist and novelist Anna Quindlen (books by this author), born in Philadelphia in 1952. She entered journalism as a copy girl for The New York Times at the age of 18; after she graduated from Barnard, she was hired by The New York Post, and later The New York Times, as a reporter. She became a columnist in 1981, and found her niche writing about political and women’s issues from a highly personal viewpoint. She left the newspaper business in 1995 to become a full-time novelist, although she returned to periodicals in 1999 when she joined Newsweek to write a regular column, “My Turn.”

She told Villanova’s graduating Class of 2000: “Consider the lilies of the field. Look at the fuzz on a baby’s ear. Read in the backyard with the sun on your face. Learn to be happy. And think of life as a terminal illness because if you do you will live it with joy and passion, as it ought to be lived.” 


Today is the birthday of the poet Jean de la Fontaine (books by this author), born in Château-Thierry, in the Champagne region of France (1621). Originally intended for the clergy, he soon found that religion bored him, and he was much more interested in the Parisian social scene. For a while, he took over his father’s post as an inspector of forests and waterways. But he had a knack for charming people, especially rich patrons who supported him while he wrote his famous Fables (1668-1693), several volumes of poems that tell familiar stories such as “The Tortoise and the Hare,” “The City Mouse and The Country Mouse,” and “The Goose That Laid the Golden Eggs.” They are still popular in France today, where they are memorized by schoolchildren and studied by scholars.

In the Fables, La Fontaine wrote, “It is impossible to please all the world and one’s father.”

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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.

Radio
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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

The old man repents of his materialism

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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The old man is learning to dance

I went to a fundraiser for my daughter’s school Saturday and wandered out in search of relief and found myself trapped on the dance floor among demented teens writhing and jerking to the throb of a DJ’s explosive sound unit and there was my girl, in a circle of girls holding hands, bouncing around in a tribal ceremony unknown to me, an old man from the Era of Dance Partners. One more reminder, as if I needed it, that soon I must take the Long Walk out onto the ice pack and not return.

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One more beautiful wasted day

Last Wednesday I was walking briskly toward Penn Station in New York and I tripped and took a nosedive, made a three-point landing, rolled onto my side, and within three seconds, three passersby stopped and asked, “Are you okay?” I said, “Just embarrassed,” and when I started to get up and fell again, a fourth joined them. An old lady my age, a young black guy, a construction worker in an orange helmet, and a teenage girl. I limped east on 34th Street, and turned, and the guy in the helmet was watching me. I waved. He waved back.

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It is a good and pleasant thing not to rant

It’s the details of a story that give it life, not the high moral outlook of the thing, but many people find details confusing: it’s righteousness they crave, righteousness as a rationale for anger, and so you have the current surge in harangues and fulminations and the rarity of true storytelling. It’s just human nature. But it’s sad to see.

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Standing around, watching people suffer

The annual marathon ran by our house in St. Paul Sunday morning, a phalanx of flashing lights of police motorcycles, followed by Elisha Barno of Kenya and other African runners, and later the women’s winner, Sinke Biyadgilgn, and a stream of thousands of others, runners, joggers, walkers, limpers. For the sedentary writer standing on the curb, it’s a vision of hard work I am very grateful not to have undertaken. In the time I’d spend training to run 26 miles and 385 yards, I could write a book. When you finish a marathon, all you have to show for it is a pile of damp smelly clothes.

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Columnist salutes a brother columnist, a red one

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Old man goes to hear an old man sing

A sweet warm fall night, Sunday in New York, and my love and I stood outdoors with friends who, like us, had caught Paul Simon’s farewell show and were still in awe of it, a 76-year-old singer in peak form for two and one-half hours nonstop with his eminent folk orchestra. John Keats died at 25, Shelley at 29. Stephen Crane was 28. Franz Schubert was 31, and each of them had his triumphs, but Simon sustained a career as an adventurous artist and creator who touched millions of people and whose lyrics held up very well in a crowded marketplace.

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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.

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