The Writer’s Almanac for August 8, 2019


She Was a Phantom of Delight
by William Wordsworth

She was a phantom of delight
When first she gleam’d upon my sight;
A lovely apparition, sent
To be a moment’s ornament;
Her eyes as star of twilight fair;
Like twilight’s, too, her dusky hair;
But all things else about her drawn
From May-time and the cheerful dawn;
A dancing shape, an image gay,
To haunt, to startle, and waylay.

I saw her upon nearer view,
A Spirit, yet a Woman too!
Her household motions light and free,
And steps of virgin liberty;
A countenance in which did meet
Sweet records, promises as sweet;
A creature not too bright or good
For human nature’s daily food;
For transient sorrows, simple wiles,
Praise, blame, love, kisses, tears, and smiles.

And now I see with eye serene
The very pulse of the machine;
A being breathing thoughtful breath,
A traveller between life and death;
The reason firm, the temperate will,
Endurance, foresight, strength, and skill;
A perfect Woman, nobly plann’d
To warm, to comfort, and command;
And yet a Spirit still, and bright
With something of angelic light.

 

“She Was a Phantom of Delight” by William Wordsworth. Public domain. (buy now)


On this date in 1929the Graf Zeppelin airship took off from Lakehurst, New Jersey, on a round-the-world flight. It was the first such flight by a passenger aircraft. The trip was partially funded by media mogul William Randolph Hearst; he covered half the cost in exchange for exclusive media rights in the United States and Britain. There were 61 passengers and crew on the historic flight: 60 men and one woman. Lady Grace Drummond-Hay, a journalist, covered the flight for Hearst. She was also the first woman to fly around the world. The trip from Lakehurst to Lakehurst took just over 21 days, including stops.

Graf Zeppelin had a remarkable nine-year career. Before its round-the-world trip, it was also the first commercial passenger flight across the Atlantic Ocean. It flew more than a million miles, safely carried 34,000 passengers, flew a scientific mission over the North Pole. But the age of the giant dirigibles came to an end when Graf Zeppelin‘s sister ship, the Hindenburg, went up in flames in 1937.


It was on this day in 1818 that poet John Keats (books by this authorset sail to London after a six-week walking tour through northern England, Scotland, and Ireland. He and a friend had walked more than 600 miles.

Keats and his friend Charles Brown set off in June. Keats wrote to a friend: “I have many reasons for going wonder-ways: to make my winter chair free from spleen, to enlarge my vision, to escape disquisitions on poetry and Kingston-criticism, to promote digestion and economize shoe leather. I’ll have leather buttons and belt, and if Brown hold his mind, ‘over the hills we go.’ If my books will keep me to it, then will I take all Europe in turn, and see the kingdoms of the earth and the glory of them.”

Keats had spent his life in London. He had never been out of southern England, and had never seen a mountain. Keats was determined to travel light, and he packed a knapsack with a shirt, stockings, a nightcap, towels, a brush and comb, snuff, and one book: a translation of Dante. He had good shoes and a walking stick. Keats and Brown were often mistaken for traveling salesmen.

The two friends set off from Lancaster, and from there they walked through England’s Lake District. Keats went to pay his respects to the famous William Wordsworth, but Wordsworth was not at home, and Keats felt betrayed when he learned that Wordsworth was off campaigning for a conservative politician. Wordsworth’s house, Rydal Mount, was already a tourist attraction and fancier than Keats had imagined. Keats left a note and the men continued walking. Keats felt better after seeing Dove Cottage, the small home where Wordsworth had written most of his great poems earlier in his career.

As they continued north, Keats was amazed at the bleak landscape of mountains and moors. He thought it was beautiful but unsettling. As he walked, he discovered that he was moved by people more than scenery. On June 29, they set off walking at 4 a.m., hiked up the mountain Skiddaw, from which they could see all the way to the Irish Sea and Scotland, and continued to the town of Ireby, where they saw a performance of traditional dancing. Keats wrote: “There was as fine a row of boys and girls as you ever saw; some beautiful faces, and one exquisite mouth. I never felt so near the glory of patriotism, the glory of making, by any means, a country happier. This is what I like better than scenery.”

Keats was unimpressed by the food on their trip. He wrote in a letter: “We dined yesterday on dirty bacon dirtier eggs and dirtiest Potatoes with a slice of Salmon.” In Scotland they subsisted almost entirely on oatcakes and whiskey — Keats hated the oatcakes but enjoyed the whiskey. Also in Scotland, Keats made a pilgrimage to Alloway, the birthplace of the poet Robert Burns. He thought the Ayrshire countryside was stunning, and declared that the River Doon was “the sweetest river I ever saw.” He stood on the Brig o’ Doon, a bridge Burns wrote about in his poems, and enjoyed a large pinch of snuff. He found Burns’s Cottage and drank whiskey with the custodian, who told Keats countless stories about Burns and would not stop talking (or drinking) while Keats wrote a sonnet. Keats could only understand a few words the custodian said, and described him as “a mahogany-faced old jackass.”

Keats and Brown continued through Scotland, with a brief detour into Northern Ireland. They averaged 10 miles a day, but that included days of rest, and many days they walked 20 miles or more. On August 2, they hiked to the top of Ben Nevis, the tallest peak in the British Isles. Keats’s health had been questionable before the trip, and now he had developed a bad cold — the strenuous exercise through damp bogs made things worse. A doctor advised him to quit the walking tour, so on this day in 1818 he headed back to London, while Brown continued on walking another 1,200 miles. In a one-year span following the walking tour, Keats wrote “Hyperion,” “The Eve of St. Agnes,” “To Autumn,” “Ode on a Grecian Urn” and “Ode to a Nightingale.” Keats died of tuberculosis less than three years after his walking tour.


It’s the birthday of Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings (books by this author), born in Washington, D.C., on this day in 1896. She’s best known for her book The Yearling (1938), which was the best-selling novel in America in 1938 and won the Pulitzer Prize the following year.


It’s the birthday of poet Sara Teasdale (books by this author), born in St. Louis (1884). She grew up in a wealthy family. Her parents paid for the publication of her first book, Sonnets to Duse and Other Poems (1907). She received enough positive feedback to continue writing, and she eventually became a well-loved poet. Her collection Rivers to the Sea (1915) was a best-seller, and Love Songs (1917) won several major awards, including the award that would become known as the Pulitzer Prize.

Despite her success, Teasdale remained insecure and convinced that she was frail. Her marriage to a wealthy St. Louis businessman fell apart. In 1931, an old suitor, the poet Vachel Lindsay, killed himself. Teasdale was devastated. In 1933, she committed suicide with an overdose of sleeping pills; later that year her collection Strange Victory was published.

A modest proposal for a day of forgiveness

Memorial Day gives us a long weekend and marks the beginning of summer, but I remember back in my Boy Scout youth attending a service at a military cemetery and listening to a chaplain talk about men who willingly gave their lives for their country, and heard Taps played by a bugler in the distance. It was moving. Since then, however, we became aware of men who didn’t give their lives — their lives were taken from them by their country fighting a misbegotten war it didn’t know how to stop.

Even in the Good War, WWII, in 1945, preparing for the invasion of Japan, men had no enthusiasm for giving their lives. A friend of mine was in the invasion force, stationed on Okinawa, and was glad when the A-bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. “We were cannon fodder and we knew it,” he told me. “The death toll in an American invasion would’ve been in the millions. It took a nuclear horror to break their will. What a relief not to have to do it by hand-to-hand combat.”

We spent lives heavily in Vietnam and lost the war and now we wonder, “What in God’s name was it for?” Vietnam is a major trading partner, cruise ships stop in Hanoi, Da Nang, and Ho Chi Minh City. My nephew lives in Hanoi and works in a bank there. I could call him and FaceTime if I could figure out the time difference.

I can imagine that FaceTime, YouTube, Instagram, Google, by making the world smaller, might lead to an epoch of relative international peace, and Memorial Day might become a museum piece, and if so, we might consider a Marital Memorial Day, when we honor our divorced and bring some peace to our personal lives. The current divorce rate is around 40% and that is a sorrowful thing, and just as the VFW honors the war dead, knowing how easily the living and the dead might have traded places, so we should acknowledge that marriages crash and burn for reasons not understood and blame should be withheld and peace restored.

To live all the days of your life with your best-informed critic is a heroic venture and it’s worth honoring. Respect your failures and you will more fully enjoy your success.

The MMD should be held in the spring and there should be a lighthearted lunch with exes and their families. You sit next to your ex and toast each other’s health and catch up on the latest and recognize that you launched a romance out of hopeful idealism and though it crashed, the impulse was admirable.

You’re done with the yelling, the door slamming, the lawyers. Sit down and be decent, look each other in the eye, forgive. This would be more valuable in the real life of our country than the patriotic speech and Taps and the rifle salute.

The pandemic has brought husbands and wives closer together than ever and in some states, angry men have stormed state capitols demanding that the bonds be loosened, even at the risk of death. In quarantine, men quickly realize that they married women who possess powerful corrective impulses — who rush to clean up things even before they’re spilled, who straighten and adjust and set things right that men have left askew. Women will edit your sentences as you speak, and if you pause, she will finish the sentence for you. Men are grateful for women’s corrections but it can be exhausting to be held to high standards 24/7 and so, in order to escape supervision, men take up fishing. Fishing makes no sense whatsoever, to go to great trouble and expense to catch inferior game fish when for a fraction of the dough, you can buy salmon or tuna and broil it briefly and have something fabulous. That’s why so few women fish. Men fish because women don’t. For the same reason, they go hunting, go to blues clubs, sit in crowded sports bars and play video games. These things have been shut down by the pandemic. That is why armed men have threatened the woman governor of Michigan.

A Marital Memorial Day would be a small step toward civility in this anger-riven country. The country needs to calm down and learn to speak gently. Once we do MMD, then perhaps Democrats and Republicans will be able to talk to each other. If you can make peace with a well-informed critic, what’s the harm in talking to an ignorant one?

Some self-isolating thoughts about hair

Jenny cut my hair yesterday out on the balcony in the sun and she kept laughing as she did, which doesn’t instill confidence to hear your haircutter laugh, but at least the hair stays out of my eyes and the worst part (she says) is in back, and we’re in isolation so who cares, and at my age I’m not applying for a job, so it’s rather immaterial. If I wanted to do something wild with my hair, dye it deep purple with bright green stripes, now would be the time to do it, but I lack the motivation to be colorful. I’m a writer and an observer and you can’t see the world clearly if other people are staring at you: it’s see or be seen.

Hair was crucial in the 10th grade, 1958, when you had greasers like Trump and jocks with crewcuts and farmboys had shaggy hair and we cool guys aimed for an Ivy League look. My dad cut his sons’ hair and he was a carpenter and not so keen about fashion. I told him, “Short on top but with a part, a little longer in back.” Coolness was the point of it, blue button-down shirts, khaki pants, loafers, white socks, but now I have no clue about what’s cool, if anything is, and coolness is no longer a factor in my life. I’m old. The first section of the paper I turn to is the obituary section. People I know keep showing up there.

I went away to the U aiming to be a writer so I majored in English, not knowing how much I’d come to hate it. I wanted to be F. Scott Fitzgerald and my teachers were his mortician. The English Department was across the street from the Institute of Technology and we writers loved to look down on the engineers. They wore the wrong color shirts with plastic pocket protectors and high-water pants with belts hitched way up under their rib cage and half-rim horn-rimmed glasses and short nerdy hair whereas we had long majestic hair and we wrote dark incomprehensible poetry. If I ever felt miserable about having to write a paper about Dryden or Coleridge or Milton, I just crossed the street and mingled with engineers, their slide rules in a holster on their belt, a race of dullards without a single amazing and original thought, and it gave me the arrogance I was looking for.

I think of this now as I consider what engineers have given the world, such as this little gizmo the size of half a sandwich that is always near me, a telephone that is also a camera, encyclopedia, newspaper, calendar, compass, weather monitor, phone book, and twenty other things I’m not aware of. Quiet studious men from the world of numbers changed the world in some wonderful ways. Bill Gates does not appear to spend a great deal of time worrying about his hair. Mark Zuckerberg has hair like a skullcap. Facebook is my link to family and friends. The nerds who invented Google gave a great gift us old people who forgot what “postmodern” means and can’t remember the year Rod Carew set a record for stealing home base and Google will find it for you: he stole home seventeen times. Seven times in 1969 alone.

Nineteen sixty-nine was an enormous year in my life. I was 27 and had a baby boy and needed to get serious and instead of finishing a novel that nobody would want, I got a job in radio doing the early morning shift and I shifted from tragic self-awareness to humor because that’s what people needed on a dark winter morning and that was when I started to feel useful and that’s when you find your vocation. And hair has nothing to do with it.

I write this on a laptop hooked up to a printer with an instruction manual written by engineers for other engineers, people who whizzed through college courses that to me were a solid brick wall, so it’s unreadable for me. Imagine if all your cookbooks were in French and you had to call one of your few Francophones in order to make pancakes. But never mind. Thank you, Nerdland, for the laptop and the phone. I could live without them but it wouldn’t be nearly so much fun. I apologize for looking down on you for your bad hair.

A few words while I wait for her to come in

I married a perfectionist and am glad for it especially during this pandemonium or pandora or veranda or whatever it is we’re going through these days, even my dream life is clearer, more detailed than in normal times, which now are only a memory, those evenings when we ate dinner in a crowded restaurant and sat in the tenth row of a theater and packed into a crowded train to go home.

She is a violinist, dedicated since her teen years to perfection, practicing many hours a day so that she could play in a string section and not stand out as an individual. I am a struggling writer for whom individual identity is crucial. She sat in an orchestra wearing black like all the others, suppressing the urge to wear a tiara with flashing red and green pulsating lights. I sat in a café, in a red T-shirt, corduroy jacket, jeans, boots, smoking a Gauloise, a Panama hat on the table, writing on a yellow legal pad, something original. It was a café (actually a cafeteria) patronized by engineering students and I was the only Gauloise/Panama person there. The others lived in a world of correct answers and I lived in a forest of wild surmise.

Had I not married the violinist, I’d be in a hospital, trying to breathe, having refused to self-isolate because I hate the term, I prefer the term “drift.” But thanks to her attention to detail, we live with our daughter in a clean apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan and haven’t ventured outdoors, except to step out on the balcony, for two months. She is more sociable than I — most musicians are, having a common exclusive language — and so she misses the street life more than I do, but she studied up on the situation — a strange and dangerous contagion, an elderly and careless husband — and saw what needed to be done. And so I find myself in a quiet room with an empty schedule, an ideal life for a writer.

If I taught Creative Writing now, I wouldn’t be encouraging wild originality, I’d be teaching people to keep an orderly house and a spotless kitchen, hang up your clothes, and defend against interruption. A cluttered desk is a prison cell; a life of confusion is a dungeon.

The argument these days between Opening the Doors and Maintaining Quarantine is the argument between ignorance and knowledge and ordinarily I’d go with ignorance but I have a manager who is in for the long haul. She misses her work, playing in a pit, two feet away from two other players, a soprano and a tenor onstage singing Puccini passionately and projecting thousands of saliva droplets with every fricative, but she knows that people shouldn’t die from opera, only in it, so life is rearranged.

And so, when she wakes up in the morning and appears in the doorway of my quiet room, I hold out my arms and she sits on my lap and puts her head on my shoulder. We live day by day. All the big bets are off. The calendar is empty. The canvas chairs on the balcony that I was always too busy to sit in now have occupants. I look at the planter with the herbs my violinist has planted, an orchestra of mint and marjoram, cilantro, basil and rosemary, who will wind up in a stir-fry or what we in Minnesota used to call “hotdish” before we went to college. It’s the middle of May, a chilly spring, you can count the warm days on your left hand. But if the sun shines, even the low 50s are good enough.

Old man in a black winter coat looking out on the rooftops of New York, and a slim blond with violin scars on her jaw, and we talk about the boxes of useless unused stuff in closets that should be dealt with, and it brings to mind a fit of shelf-clearing years ago, an old unread book I opened and found, pressed between the leaves, a piece of yellowed handstitching: “Elizabeth Crandall is my name And America is my nation. Providence is my home And Christ is my salvation When I am dead and in my grave and all my bones are rotten, if this you see, remember me, when I am quite forgotten. 1845.” A fellow writer, long gone, and the thought isn’t original but the stitching is perfect. The perfection is stunning.

A simple lunch outdoors, a major occasion

Spring is here at last in our northern latitude and that is the news that transcends all other news. It arrived Sunday and we observed it by enjoying our first outdoor meal on our New York balcony, sitting in the shade of a potted tree, with two vegan-leaning friends and in their honor there were no 32-ounce prime ribs, but rather a green salad and a bean salad, both excellent, and oatmeal cookies. The sun shone down and we heard a finch singing nearby who apparently is thinking of moving in with us and raising a family so we must now buy some thistle seeds, which finches like and pigeons do not. We prefer finches, they sing, and they’re beautiful in the morning light. Pigeons are just rats with wings.

Spring, glorious spring. It is the Resurrection of Our Lord, a time of transcendence, and tomorrow I shall have my hair cut by my wife, beauty parlors being closed here still, not that beauty is what I’m after, just respectability. Sunshine is the cure for a good deal of what ails us — we know this now after six weeks of lockdown. I sit in the kitchen and agonize about the economy, politics, the demise of the performing arts, and then around noon I step outside and sit in the sun and suddenly I am not a citizen or a consumer or a performer, I am a mammal, along the lines of a muskrat or raccoon, a mammal who owns an apartment with a balcony where I am safe from predators and food is delivered to me regularly — in other words, a zoo mammal.

We discussed this over Sunday lunch, whether we will, when the All-Clear sounds, return to our busy lives, fly hither and yon, attend meetings, eat at restaurants, and we all thought, “Maybe not. Maybe the raccoon life is what we wanted all along.” Thoreau built him a cabin in the woods and raised beans and wrote, “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” I think he could’ve done better in an apartment building with a doorman. In his cabin by Walden Pond, Henry was pestered by curious townspeople who wanted to know what he was out there for. A doorman guards against interruptions. Henry said, “Life is frittered away by details.” A pandemic reduces those details to the basics.

What we’re missing is a lawn and as a Minnesotan I miss that. Mowing was my first useful occupation and it organized my mind: you could think dreamy thoughts but still you kept to the lines. Going back and forth, back and forth, on a rectangular lot was what led me to be a writer: it’s really the same thing, except at the end, instead of a bag of clippings, you have an essay.

I went away to college to escape from lawn mowing and to become a writer, and then I fell in love with a girl whose parents owned a house with an extensive corner lot, and I courted her father by mowing it. I was twenty, my writerly pretensions competed with the pretensions of others, and lawn mowing brought me down to earth, and rather than launch a novel that struggles with man’s fate and maybe woman’s too, I set out to do what I’m doing now, writing in gratitude for a spring day.

We spent three hours at lunch Sunday and not once did we talk about the guy with the hairdo. We talked about children, about the goodness of our lives, about the odd beauty of a prayer healing in the Episcopal church. You associate prayer healing with men in cheap suits who handle snakes and whoop and yell, but in the Church of the Wing Tips it’s a simple moment when you go forward and a deacon hears your concern and lays hands on you and prays. It is sweet and mysterious. We attend church online now and pray for the sick and those in need, of whom we all know many. It is a deliberate and essential part of life, prayer.

Meanwhile, we sat in the spring sunshine and were healed of humorlessness and narcissism and anxiety about the Dow Jones. And now I pray for you in Arizona and Texas and Florida, languishing in 100-degree heat. Come north. Life is good.

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The Writer’s Almanac for Saturday, May 30, 2020

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It was on this day in 1431 that Joan of Arc was burned at the stake in Rouen, France at the age of 19. About 500 years later, she was canonized as a Catholic saint.

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The city I love is burning, people living in dread, as the result of having tolerated a police force that has its own code and doesn’t live by our ideals.

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So much is strange in this lockdown but the overriding fact, to a Minnesotan, is that it’s summer at last, we’re eating outdoors, and we’re all in this together.

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A blissful day in isolation, part of it on the terrace snoozing in the sun, mostly indoors working on the novel.

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A modest proposal for a day of forgiveness

Memorial Day gives us a long weekend and marks the beginning of summer, but I remember back in my Boy Scout youth attending a service at a military cemetery and listening to a chaplain talk about men who willingly gave their lives for their country, and heard Taps played by a bugler in the distance. It was moving. Since then, however, we became aware of men who didn’t give their lives — their lives were taken from them by their country fighting a misbegotten war it didn’t know how to stop.

Even in the Good War, WWII, in 1945, preparing for the invasion of Japan, men had no enthusiasm for giving their lives. A friend of mine was in the invasion force, stationed on Okinawa, and was glad when the A-bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. “We were cannon fodder and we knew it,” he told me. “The death toll in an American invasion would’ve been in the millions. It took a nuclear horror to break their will. What a relief not to have to do it by hand-to-hand combat.”

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