The Writer’s Almanac for November 19, 2018

What I Can’t Tell My Son
by Maria Mazziotti Gillan

That I wait for his call every Sunday night,
though I pretend to myself that I don’t care.
I have lost the easy way I once had with him,
the nights I sat at the edge of his bed
and we’d talk in the soft dark of his bedroom
until he fell asleep, that time when I felt so close to him
we could have been in one skin.

But now his own children grown, it’s as though
a stranger has come to inhabit his body.
I struggle to find a story that will make him laugh
or some anecdote that will interest him.
I can’t tell my son that I cry often after these calls,
can’t tell him how much I need to hear his voice,
can’t tell him I can still feel his high cheekbones
under my hand, still remember his heavy head leaning
against me as I read to him when he was a child.

I wonder what words he holds back.
Is he sad, too, when he hangs up the phone?
Yet, even these 10-minute phone calls,
these painful, awkward attempts at touch,
even these I do not want to give up,
so that if he were five minutes late with his call, I’d worry
and when the call is over, such loss I feel, such loss,
this son I will never stop loving,
though I am afraid sometimes
that if he were to walk into a room
I would no longer recognize him,
and I do not have the courage to ask him
if these calls are as painful and necessary for him
as they are for me.

What I Can’t Tell My Son by Maria Mazziotti Gillan from What Blooms in Winter. NYQ Books, 2015. Used with permission of the author.


On this date in 1863Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address at the dedication of the Soldiers’ National Cemetery in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. It was four and a half months after the devastating battle, and it was a foggy, cold morning. Lincoln arrived about 10 a.m. Around noon, the sun came out as the crowds gathered on a hill overlooking the battlefield. A military band played, a local preacher offered a long prayer, and the headlining orator, Edward Everett, spoke for more than two hours. Everett described the Battle of Gettysburg in great detail, and he brought the audience to tears more than once. When Everett finished, Lincoln spoke.

Now considered one of the greatest speeches in American history, the Gettysburg Address ran for just over two minutes, fewer than 300 words, and only 10 sentences. It was so brief, in fact, that many of the 15,000 people that attended the ceremony didn’t even realize that the president had spoken, because a photographer setting up his camera had momentarily distracted them. The next day, Everett told Lincoln, “I wish that I could flatter myself that I had come as near to the central idea of the occasion in two hours as you did in two minutes.”

There are several versions of the speech, and five different manuscript copies; they’re all slightly different, so there’s some argument about which is the “authentic” version. Lincoln gave copies to both of his private secretaries, and the other three versions were re-written by the president some time after he made the speech. The Bliss Copy, named for Colonel Alexander Bliss, is the only copy that was signed and dated by Lincoln, and it’s generally accepted as the official version for that reason. The Bliss text, below, is inscribed on the Lincoln Memorial:

“Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

“Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation, so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

“But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate, we can not consecrate, we can not hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”


It’s the birthday of best-selling poet Sharon Olds, (books by this author) born in San Francisco on this day in 1942. Her collections include Satan Says (1980), The Matter of This World (1987), The Sign of Saturn (1991), The Father (1992),  Blood, Tin, Straw (1999),  Strike Sparks (2004), One Secret Thing (2008), Stag’s Leap (2012), and Odes (2016). Since she began publishing in the 1980s, her poems have appeared in more than 100 poetry anthologies.

She grew up in Berkeley, California, where she was brought up as a “hellfire Calvinist,” she said. Though a nonbeliever from a young age, she said that she was greatly influenced by the “great literary art and bad literary art” of her church. Psalms were great art, she said, and hymns were not. She said, “The four-beat was something that was part of my consciousness before I was born.”

She went across the Bay to Stanford for college, where she studied a bunch of different languages, including French, German, Greek, Italian, and Middle English. And then she moved to New York City to do a Ph.D. in literature at Columbia. She wrote her own poems, but she wasn’t happy with them. She felt as though she were imitating the poets she studied for grad school. She was 30 years old, desperately wanting to find her own voice, and had what she calls a “religious experience” wherein she made a deal with the devil on the steps of Columbia’s library. She once described it like this:

“I said to free will or the pagan god of making things, or whoever, let me write my own stuff. I’ll give up everything I’ve learned, anything, if you’ll let me write my poems. They don’t have to be any good, but just mine.” It was in the syntax of her prayer that came an epiphany. She explained: “What happened was enjambment. Writing over the end of the line and having a noun starting each line — it had some psychological meaning to me, like I was protecting things by hiding them. Poems started pouring out of me and Satan was in a lot of them. Also, toilets.”

She started going to writing workshops at the local YMCA, and eventually she published her first collection of poems, called Satan Says (1980). She later realized that she wrote in the structure of the hymns of her youth, which is what felt comfortable to her, but that she “had to ride over the end of the line” to craft her poems.

When her first book was published, she was a few years shy of 40. Within a decade, she’d released several highly acclaimed, best-selling collections, and she’d also become the director of the Graduate Writing Program at NYU. She was so busy that she decided for one year she would not watch TV, read a newspaper or book, or go hear music, just so that she’d have enough time to do her job and keep writing poetry.

She was poet laureate of New York from 1998 to 2000. She still teaches creative writing at NYU, and she writes poems from her apartment on the Upper West Side, in a rocking chair with a view of the Hudson River. She uses different colored ballpoint pens to compose poems, and sometimes puts stickers on the pages of her drafts, which remind her of the stained glass windows of her religious youth. She said that she loves “odd” or “strange” words. She said: “By the time I see that it’s a poem, it’s almost written in my head somewhere. It’s as if there’s someone inside of me who perceives order and beauty — and disorder. And who wants to make little copies. Who wants to put together something that will bear some relationship to the vision or memory or experience or story or idea or dream or whatever.”

She once described poetry as coming from her lungs, and said that to her, “Poetry is so physical, the music of it and the movement of thought.” She said that over the years, she has noticed that ideas for poems will come to her when she’s dancing or running, and that these ideas seem to come to mind with the act of breathing deeply, with the intake of oxygen. She said, “Suddenly you’re remembering something that you haven’t thought of for years.”

Her advice to young poets is this: “Take your vitamins. Exercise. Just work to love yourself as much as you can — not more than the people around you but not so much less.”

She once said: “I’m not asking a poem to carry a lot of rocks in its pockets. Just being an ordinary observer and liver and feeler and letting the experience get through you onto the notebook with the pen, through the arm, out of the body, onto the page, without distortion.”

And, “Poets are like steam valves, where the ordinary feelings of ordinary people can escape and be shown.”

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Yes, we have now turned the corner

Last week my wife asked me four separate times if I was depressed about something, which I was not, and now, ever since early Sunday morning, I’ve felt mysteriously happy, and I guess that Daylight Saving Time must be the reason. For us in the flat snowy northern tundra regions, turning our clocks forward is the first step toward spring and how can one not rejoice? We await the day when sidewalks are not treacherous and we can escape our squalid hovels and get out and ambulate, and the day in April or May when we can sit outdoors and eat lunch at a plaza and observe the humanity around us. That is where the good life begins, when we escape from Wi-Fi and meet face to face in bright light in our sneakers and T-shirts.

Here in Minnesota, we have two more big snowstorms to endure, the DST storm and then the State High School Basketball Tournament blizzard at the end of the month, and then we’re in the clear. I see younger people out walking even now, but they have headphones on and I worry that they won’t hear the car approaching and will step boldly into the crosswalk while listening to a wealthy pop star screaming that nobody understands her, which would be a wretched way to die, run over by a geezer confused by the stoplight while you are tuned in to the complaints of a multi-multi-millionaire.

It’s been a hard winter, though it was late arriving, and in March I look around my shrinking circle of friends for signs of marital discord. Being cooped up in close quarters can lead to questions — how was I attracted to this (dolt/shrew) and how should I proceed to shed myself of (him/her)? You sit over your organic artisanal oatmeal and your spouse asks if you were aware that the world’s population is 7.6 billion, which you weren’t, and it seems that he or she has read a book about demography and would like to give you the highlights. The combination of demography and oatmeal leads you down into a dark psychological cellar, but how can you say “Shut up” to your mate and not offend her/him? So you stifle yourself and resentment builds and that night, while drying dishes, you drop a precious plate that belonged to your spouse’s grandmother and the spouse stalks out of the room and goes online and Googles “divorce.”

I see no signs of this among the people I know and I’m glad. Divorce is a disaster, even when it is necessary. It is dreadful for children, don’t kid yourself. I am thinking of starting a movement against it, #UsTwo. I may write a book in which I say that forgiveness is the crucial thing in marriage, not justice, not commonality, and that a couple must — not should, but must — go through the ceremonies of affection, the morning embrace, the saying of “I love you” at least fifteen times daily, the touching of the loved one’s shoulders and arm and back whenever within reach, the wholehearted acceptance of the spouse’s irrational whims and impulses. Silence is the enemy. Chitchat is your friend. Small talk is at the center of every long-lived love. Avoid big ideas. Never discuss demography. Now and then put away the oatmeal and have steak and eggs.

My wife is cheerful and I am dour and when people see us on the street, they think, “How good of that young woman to get her uncle out of the Home and into the fresh air.” But we get along very well thanks to our observance of the formalities. The touch on the shoulder, the sudden turning to the other and saying, “I’m in love with you,” and meaning it. If she looks at me over the oatmeal tomorrow and says that Bernie Sanders has won her heart, it honestly won’t matter to me one bit. If she is lured into some exotic cult that wears pointy hats and worships cats and never walks in threes, I’m OK. We are solid.

The world is not as it once was and we know that. The homegrown tomato has almost disappeared from America in favor of species bred for long shelf life so they can be trucked up from Ecuador in the winter, tomatoes that bounce if you drop them because they are bred with genes of tennis balls, and so you no longer bite into a tomato and feel euphoria, but if you are loved and if spring comes soon, you’re going to be OK. It’s just ahead. We’ll sit outdoors and drink coffee and the sun will shine on us, I promise.

I'm only going to say this once

One by one, Democrats are stepping into the arena for the 2020 campaign, and their appeals for donations flutter into my inbox, and I do not envy the young staffers assigned to write importuning letters. To project noble ideals and crisis and chumminess in 250 words is a tough assignment, especially when you know that the first two sentences are all I’ll read.

Twelve hats are in, more on the way, some serious, most delusional. Hotel business in Iowa and New Hampshire will be steady all year and then on Super Tuesday, March 3, the truth will dawn. The stumblers and pretenders, the gasbags and long-shot gamblers, will quietly disappear, and two or three contenders will head into the spring and summer.

It is presumed they’ll be running against the weak incumbent but after the Cohen hearing, one doubts that. D.T. is accepted by everyone over the age of ten, even those who love him, as a dishonest sleazeball with ADD issues, and with Democrats conducting hearings from now till the election, he is going to be in the news more or less nonstop as a national embarrassment. Republicans at last week’s hearing could only heckle Cohen; none of them stood up for his boss and said what a great American he is. His best hope is that Bernie Sanders be the Democrats’ nominee: that’s a race D.T. can win in a walk. America doesn’t want an angry president; wacko is bad enough.

If Joe Biden enters the lists and emerges next March as the front-runner, D.T. will issue a brief statement that, having made the country great again and now wishing to spend quality time with his family, he will retire to Mar-a-Lago and work on his short game. Maybe Sean Hannity will accept the nomination in his place. America is not ready for a man who parts his hair that high on his head. Biden will win and restore normalcy.

The remarkable thing about the Cohen hearing was how unremarkable it was, the whole wretched epic of corruption and dishonesty and egomania. And the remarkable thing about D.T. is how little real damage the grifter has accomplished. We all imagined that the Presidency was a superhuman responsibility, the light burning late in the Oval Office, the great man bearing the world on his shoulders, and now it turns out that a clown with a hair fetish who doesn’t know schist from Shinola can occupy the chair and life goes on much as before. Electricity is flowing, there is milk and butter in the stores. If Justice Ginsburg resigns soon, we will have a Supreme Court straight out of 1857. But your Wi-Fi will still work.

There is a general awareness that we cannot continue trashing the planet as we’ve done, but the crisis grows slowly and AOC can’t promote it to emergency simply by saying so. We don’t want to ride the bus and turn off lawn sprinklers until God sends a prophet in a pillar of fire to scare us, not just a bunch of Ph.Ds. So the Green New Deal, though insightful, is not a winner.

The Mueller report will not usher D.T. out of office. He is a crook and a liar but we’ve known that for two years. Mueller will only add details. The Republican Party is not going to usher him out; he owns them.

What will win for Democrats is a candidate who is presidential. Even people who expect to vote for D.T. are embarrassed by him. Nobody imagines that he represents anything admirable about America. Obama was a good orator. W. was likable. Clinton loved politics. Bush was a war hero. Reagan was genuine. Carter was a man of faith. Ford was a true patriot. Nixon was a master of his craft. Ike was Ike. Each man had biographers who found things to admire. D.T. is as transparent as cellophane, one of the most unloved presidents in our history.

The American electorate wants this man to disappear into the back pages and the Democrats owe it to us to make that happen. This is no time for a great leap forward. It is time for him to go so that journalists can go back to writing nonfiction and Congress can get back into business. Let’s put a woman in charge in 2024. First, let’s have an old white guy with thin hair throw the rascal out.

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