The Writer’s Almanac for September 5, 2018

Dislocation by Marge Piercy from The Crooked Inheritance. © Alfred A. Knopf, 2006. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It happens in an instant.
My grandma used to say
someone is walking on your grave.

It’s that moment when your life
is suddenly strange to you
as someone else’s coat

you have slipped on at a party
by accident, and it is far
too big or too tight for you.

Your life feels awkward, ill
fitting. You remember why you
came into this kitchen, but you

feel you don’t belong here.
It scares you in a remote
numb way. You fear that you—

whatever you means, this mind,
this entity stuck into a name
like mercury dropped into water—

have lost the ability to enter your
self, a key that no longer works.
Perhaps you will be locked

out here forever peering in
at your body, if that self is really
what you are. If you are at all.


It was on this day in 1958 that the novel Doctor Zhivago, by Boris Pasternak (books by this author), was published in the United StatesDoctor Zhivago isset during the Russian Revolution and World War I, and it tells the story of Yuri Zhivago, a doctor and poet, and his love for a woman named Lara. Pasternak worked on his novel for decades, and finished it in 1956. He submitted the book for publication, but although Pasternak was a famous writer by then, his manuscript was rejected —the publishers explained that Doctor Zhivago was not in line with the spirit of the revolution, too concerned with individualism.

An Italian journalist visited Pasternak at his country house and convinced the novelist to let him smuggle a copy of Doctor Zhivago out of the country to the leftist Italian publisher Giangiacomo Feltrinelli. Pasternak is said to have declared as he handed over the manuscript: “You are hereby invited to watch me face the firing squad!” He was not executed, but when the upcoming publication was announced in Italy, Soviet authorities were furious, and forced Pasternak to send Feltrinelli telegrams insisting that he halt publication of the novel. One of them said: “I have come to the profound conviction that what I wrote cannot be regarded as a finished work,” and in another Pasternak called his novel “in need of serious improvement.” But Feltrinelli was not fooled, and continued with publication. Soon enough, Feltrinelli received a private, scribbled note from Pasternak begging him to continue. Pasternak wrote: “I wrote the novel to be published and read. That remains my only wish.”

Feltrinelli published Doctor Zhivago, and helped get it published all over the world. The Soviet Union’s attempts to stop its publication only made it more interesting to readers. When it was first published in Italy in November of 1957, the first printing of 6,000 copies sold out within the first day. Doctor Zhivago was published in the United States on this day in 1958, and even though it wasn’t published until September, it was the best-selling book of 1958. It quickly became a bestseller in 24 languages.

Pasternak was awarded a Nobel Prize in 1958, and when he first head of the award, he sent a telegram to the Swedish Academy that said: “Immensely thankful, touched, proud, astonished, abashed.” Two days later, Soviet authorities forced him to write again, this time to say he would refuse the prize. Pasternak died two years later, in 1960, and Doctor Zhivago was not published in the Soviet Union until 1988.

Doctor Zhivago begins: “On they went, singing ‘Rest Eternal,’ and whenever they stopped, their feet, the horses, and the gusts of wind seemed to carry on their singing. Passers-by made way for the procession, counted the wreaths, and crossed themselves. Some joined in out of curiosity and asked: ‘Who is being buried?’—’Zhivago,’ they were told.—’Oh, I see. That’s what it is.’—’It isn’t him. It’s his wife.’—’Well, it comes to the same thing. May her soul rest in peace. It’s a fine funeral.'”


It’s the birthday of Ward Just (books by this author), born in Michigan City, Indiana (1935). He’s the author of more than a dozen books of fiction, including The Congressman Who Loved Flaubert (1973), The American Blues, (1984) The American Ambassador (1987), and Jack Gance (1989).

But long before he started writing fiction, he was a journalist. He came from a family of serious journalists — his dad, and his grandfather before him, published the town newspaper. He himself started working as an investigative reporter for the family newspaper when he was just 13 years old. A few years later, when he was about to graduate from high school, his managing editor fired him for wearing shorts to work — which he deemed to be a lack of respect for the newspaper business. But they hired him back after he dropped out of college and returned home to be a full-time journalist.

By the time he was 24, he was writing features for Newsweek magazine, and then he was writing for The Washington Post. He went to Saigon to cover the Vietnam War, where he was seriously wounded by shrapnel from a grenade. He came back to the States to recover, and he wrote a book called To What End: Report from Vietnam (1968), and then he quit journalism and launched into fiction.

His 1997 novel Echo House was a finalist for the National Book Award, and his 2004 novel An Unfinished Season was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.

His book Exiles in the Garden (2009) begins:

“Especially when he was alone Alec Malone had the habit of slipping into reverie, a semiconscious state not to be confused with dreams. Dreams were commonplace while his reveries presented a kind of abstract grandeur, expressionist canvases in close focus, untitled. … The reveries had been with him since childhood and he treated them like old friends paying a visit.”


It’s the birthday of journalist and activist Jonathan Kozol (books by this author), born in Boston (1936). He worked as public school teacher in Boston and has written many books about the sad state of public education in this country, and about how segregated our schools still are, all based on his own experiences in classrooms and working in poor neighborhoods. His books include Savage Inequalities: Children in America’s Schools (1991) and Amazing Grace: The Lives of Children and the Conscience of a Nation (1995), about kids in the Mott Haven neighborhood of the South Bronx.

Kozol said, “Pick battles big enough to matter, small enough to win.”


It was on this day in 1957 that Jack Kerouac’s book On the Road was published (books by this author), based on the trip he took across the country 10 years before. He began his journey in New York where he rode a trolley to the edge of Yonkers, and wanted to hitchhike, but got to Route 6 at the Connecticut border in the middle of a big rainstorm. No cars picked him up so he gave up, went back to New York, and bought a bus ticket to Chicago. He started hitchhiking there, and he stayed at YMCA’s and cheap motels. He crossed the Mississippi, and in Omaha he saw his first cowboy. He rode on the back of a flatbed truck with a group of hobos.

He knew he wanted to write about all of his experiences, and finally in April of 1951, Kerouac sat down at his kitchen table, wound a continuous roll of paper into a typewriter, tuned his radio to an all-night jazz station, and in 20 days had the first draft to his novel. He told the story of his adventures with his friend Neal Cassady, changed Cassady’s name to Dean Moriarty and his own name to Sal Paradise.

 


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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.

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
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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

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A man watching his own heartbeat

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Old man in the grandstand, talking

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My weekend in Manhattan: a memoir

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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

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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

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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

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