Saturday July 8, 2017

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Walking Home

Everything dies, I said. How had that started?
A tree? The winter? Not me, she said.

And I said, Oh yeah? And she said, I’m reincarnating.
Ha, she said, See you in a few thousand years!

Why years, I wondered, why not minutes? Days?
She found that so funny—Ha Ha—doubled over—

Years, she said, confidently.
I think you and I have known each other a few lifetimes, I said.

She said, I have never before been a soul on this earth.
(It was cold. We were hungry.) Next time, you be the mother, I said.

No way, Jose, she said, as we turned the last windy corner.

“Walking Home” from Magdalene by Marie Howe. Copyright © 2017 by Marie Howe. With permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.  (buy now)

It was on this day in 49 B.C. that the Parisii, a tribe of Celtic fisherman, first set foot in what would become the magnificent city of Paris. The Parisii settled on the banks of the Seine and formed a town that became known as Lutetia, which meant “Midwater-Dwelling.” They mostly lived in thatched wooden huts, but they were smart, and fierce, and had their own coinage with their name on it, and began successfully trading with other European settlements. They built bridges, a fort, and minted coins. We mostly know about them from Julius Caesar’s Commentaries on the Gallic Wars (52 B.C.), which detailed the sacking and pillaging of Lutetia by the Roman army in 52 B.C. Rather than give up their town, the Parisii burned it to the ground. The Romans won, though, and brought with them such modern conveniences as a theater, baths, a forum, and even a temple.

Remnants of the Parisii and the early town of Lutetia were first discovered in the 19th century when the medieval streets were torn up to accommodate Baron Haussmann’s redesign of the city of Paris.

Today marks the anniversary of the first public reading of the Declaration of Independence in 1776.

In Philadelphia, the site of the first reading, the Liberty Bell rang out to call citizens to the occasion. Militia officer John Nixon made the proclamation from the garden of the Pennsylvania State House, atop a platform that had originally been constructed for observation of the transit of Venus in 1769. According to a classic Harper’s magazine account, many attended and celebrated the reading: “At evening bonfires were lighted, the houses were illuminated, and it was not until a thunder-shower at midnight compelled the people to retire that the sounds of rejoicing were hushed.”

The Independence National Historical Park in Philadelphia hosts annual reenactments of the first public reading by John Nixon. National Park Rangers and professional actors join visitors to relive the historical moment from over 200 years ago.

It’s the birthday of columnist and best-selling novelist Anna Quindlen (books by this author), born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (1953). She grew up in the suburbs, in a middle-class, Irish-American family. Her dad was a management consultant and her mom took care of the kids. She said, “I sometimes joke that my greatest shortcoming as a writer is that I had an extremely happy childhood.”

She went on to Barnard College, and for her thesis she wrote a collection of stories and published one of them in Seventeen magazine. She wanted to be a fiction writer. But straight out of college she got hired by the New York Post, and a few years later, by the New York Times.

 She started out as a City Hall and general assignment reporter, and eventually she started her own column, called “Life in the 30s.” And in 1990, she started the regular column “Public and Private,” which made her just the third woman in the history of the Times to write a regular column for the op-ed page. She wrote about raising her kids, religion, her parents’ deaths, and her marriage, at the same time that she wrote about national politics and cultural trends. She said, “Anybody who tries to convince me that foreign policy is more important than child rearing is doomed to failure.” “Public and Private” was nationally syndicated, and some of these columns were collected into a best-selling book, Thinking Out Loud (1993). In 1992, she won a Pulitzer Prize for commentary.

She was so successful that a lot of people thought she was in line to be deputy editor of the paper. But then, in 1995, she quit. She really wanted to write fiction, and she had been trying all along — during her tenure at the Times, she managed to publish two novels, Object Lessons (1991) and One True Thing (1994). But she was also raising kids, and she didn’t have enough time for her family or enough time to write. So she quit to become a full-time writer, and since then she’s published eight novels, including Blessings (2002), Rise and Shine (2006), and most recently, Miller’s Valley (2016).

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, but the town was heavily Protestant, and Powers wrote about a similar town in his first novel: “Protestants were very sure of themselves there. If you were a Catholic boy you felt that it was their country, handed down to them by the Pilgrims, George Washington, and others, and that they were taking a risk in letting you live in it.” 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, many of them about Catholic priests in Minnesota. He continued to write novels and short stories, mostly satire, many of them about priests in small Minnesota towns. His books never sold very well, even though they got great reviews and his novel Morte d’Urban (1962) won the National Book Award.

It was on this day in 1822 that poet Percy Bysshe Shelley drowned (books by this author). He had spent the past four years traveling around Italy with his wife, and it was during this period that he wrote almost all of his most famous poems, including Prometheus Unbound (1820). He was living in La Spezia, on the west coast of Italy, at the time of his death.

Shelley had just bought a schooner two months earlier. The boat was twenty-four feet long, with twin masts, and it was called Don Juan, after the poem by his friend Lord Byron. He often spent mornings sitting on the boat as it lay anchored in the bay, reading and writing as he bobbed up and down with the waves. He worked on his last poem, "The Triumph of Life," which begins:

As in that trance of wonderous thought I lay
This was the tenour of my waking dream.
Methought I sate beside a public way

Thick strewn with summer dust, & a great stream
Of people there was hurrying to & fro
Numerous as gnats upon the evening gleam,

All hastening onward, yet none seemed to know
Whither he went, or whence he came, or why...

When the weather was nice, Shelley started taking his boat on short outings, and he was looking forward to making a few longer trips with his wife during the summer. He wrote in a letter to a friend, "[My boat] is swift and beautiful, and appears quite a vessel. . . . We drive along this delightful bay in the evening wind, under the summer moon, until earth appears another world."

On July 1, Shelley and his friend Edward Williams left from La Spezia to Pisa. They started their return trip on July 7, and on this day, July 8, 1822, Shelley set off from Livorno to La Spezia, a trip of about fifty-five miles. There was a storm approaching from the southwest, and most of the Italian boats came into the harbor, but Shelley wanted to make it back that evening.

Shelley's friend Captain Roberts watched them sail away from a lighthouse, and as the storm got worse he began to grow worried. He took a large boat out to sea and offered to take Shelley and Williams on board, but Shelley refused the offer. A sailor said through a speaking trumpet, "If you will not come on board for God's sake reef your sails or you are lost." According to the sailor, Williams tried to lower the sails but Shelley grabbed him by the arm and wouldn't let him. The boat sank in the Gulf of Spezia later that evening.  When Shelley's body washed up on shore ten days later, a copy of Keats's poems was found in his back pocket.

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®