Nov. 7, 2011
How separate we are
under our black umbrellas—dark
planets in our own small orbits,
hiding from this wet assault
of weather as if water
would violate the skin,
as if these raised silk canopies
could protect us
from whatever is coming next—
December with its white
enamel surfaces; the numbing
silences of winter.
From above we must look
like a family of bats—
ribbed wings spread
against the rain,
swooping towards any
It's the birthday of the Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky (books by this author), born in the Ukraine (1879). He was one of the leaders of the ruthless civil war that overthrew the Russian Czar and established the communist state. Later, he opposed the dictator Josef Stalin and became an enemy of the Soviet government. In his later years, he wrote many books about Russian history and Marxist ideas. In 1924 he wrote Literature and Revolution, a book that discusses art's relationship to politics. Trotsky said, "Learning carries within itself certain dangers, because out of necessity one has to learn from one's enemies."
Today is the birthday of evangelist Billy Graham, born on a dairy farm near Charlotte, North Carolina (1918).
At age 16 he made a "decision for Christ" at a revival meeting led by a traveling preacher. He attended Bob Jones University for a semester but was unhappy and transferred to Florida Bible Institute. It was on the 18th green of a golf course near that school that he says he received his calling to preach. He would canoe across the river next the green to an island, where he'd practice preaching to the "birds, alligators, and cypress stumps."
He transferred to Wheaton College in Illinois, where he met his wife, Ruth Bell, the daughter of Presbyterians who had been medical missionaries in China. He became pastor of the First Baptist Church in Western Springs, Illinois and he decided to rename it the "Village Church," trying to appeal to people from other denominations. At first, he earned the nickname "Preaching Windmill" because from the pulpit he spoke fast and loud and flailed his arms. He began city wide campaigns to convert people and he held "Youth for Christ" rallies all over the nation. In Los Angeles in 1949, he set up circus tents and held a series of revival meetings, which went on for eight weeks, despite initially being scheduled for just three. He received great coverage by numerous national newspapers, at the command of William Randolph Hearst, who had sent a telegram to his editors with the instructions "Puff Graham." Graham also appeared on the cover of the cover of TIME magazine a few years later.
He crusaded against communism and even preached behind the Iron Curtain, in several Eastern European locations, sending a plea for peace. He opposed segregation, becoming friends with Martin Luther King, Jr. He's been called by the New York Times the "de facto Presidential chaplain" because he has advised in some fashion every U.S. President since Truman. He refused to join the religious right's Moral Majority, saying: "I'm for morality, but morality goes beyond sex to human freedom and social justice. We as clergy know so very little to speak with authority on the Panama Canal or superiority of armaments."
It was on this day in 1917 that the Russian Revolution took place, led by Vladimir Lenin, who had been in exile in Switzerland, plotting to overthrow the Russian government. In April 1917, he crossed the border back into Russia for the first time in ten years and went underground. He had to sneak through the streets in a disguise to attend a meeting of the Bolsheviks in late October, but he persuaded a majority of his party to launch an armed takeover of the country. The coup met almost no resistance on this day in 1917, and the next day, Lenin was elected chairman of the Council of the new Soviet Government. Overnight, he had gone from a fugitive in hiding to the leader of the largest country in the world.
It's the birthday of French writer Albert Camus, born in Mondovi (now Dréan), Algeria in 1913. His father died in World War I when Camus was an infant, and his mother moved her two sons to a working-class neighborhood of Algiers. There, the Camus boys grew up in poverty in a cramped apartment, with no bathroom, heat, or plumbing. His mother was illiterate, partially deaf, and had trouble speaking; she worked in a factory and as a housecleaner to support her children. Camus was a smart boy, and some of his teachers helped him get a scholarship to a good school. In high school, he was an excellent athlete as well as student, but he contracted tuberculosis at the age of 17, a disease he struggled with for the rest of his life.
Despite the poverty and the tuberculosis and everything else working against him, Camus became a prominent writer and thinker. His novels include L'étranger (1942, The Stranger), La Peste (1947, The Plague), and La Chute (1956, The Fall). In December of 1957, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature. In his speech, he said: "I have not been able to learn of your decision without comparing its repercussions to what I really am. A man almost young, rich only in his doubts and with his work still in progress, accustomed to living in the solitude of work or in the retreats of friendship: how would he not feel a kind of panic at hearing the decree that transports him all of a sudden, alone and reduced to himself, to the center of a glaring light?" He was 44 years old.
About two years later, on January 4, 1960, Camus died in a car crash. He had used some of the money from his Nobel Prize to buy a house in the village of Lourmarin, in Provence. The countryside of Provence, with its view of the mountains, reminded Camus of Algeria. He had been holed up in Lourmarin since mid-November, working on various projects, including his latest novel. He wrote to his lover Catherine Sellers: "The solitude here is devastating, because in wintertime the empty village is closed, and the countryside bare, and except for lunch, I don't see anyone all day. These are good conditions for work, and in fact I am working, but dull and continuous anguish is still there. I look at the fine landscape or the blank page, and I am discouraged about the road that must still be traveled."
As the weeks went by and he continued to write, work became easier. Camus' wife, Francine, and their twin daughters, Catherine and Jean, came to Lourmarin for Christmas, as did several friends. They were all relieved to find Camus in good spirits, feeling positive about his writing. On December 28th, 1959, one week before he died, Camus sent a letter to his friend and mentor, the writer Jean Grenier. He wrote: "Since November 15 I have retreated here to work, and in fact I have worked. For me, working conditions have always been those of the monastic life: solitude and frugality. Except for frugality, they are contrary to my nature, so much so that work is violence I do to myself. But this is necessary. I will be back in Paris at the beginning of January and then will leave again, and I really think that this commuting is the most efficient way to reconcile my virtues and vices, which ultimately is the definition of knowing how to live. This country, in any case, does not cease to be beautiful and rewarding for me, and I have found peace here."
Camus had purchased a train ticket to Paris, planning to accompany his wife and daughters there after Christmas. But his good friend Michel Gallimard, the nephew of his publisher, offered to give him a ride back to Paris in his swanky Facel Vega, an expensive sports car that was owned by the likes of Ava Gardner, Tony Curtis, and King Hassan II of Morocco. Camus took Gallimard up on the offer, and they set out on January 3, with Gallimard's wife and daughter. The next day, the car swerved off the road and hit a tree. Camus was killed instantly, and Michel Gallimard died a few days later; his wife and daughter survived. No one is sure what caused the car to go out of control — there is a new theory that the KGB wanted Camus dead and tampered with the tires — but it was probably just too sporty of a car to be traveling on an icy road that wasn't very well maintained.
After the crash, police found the contents of Camus's briefcase scattered all over. They found photos, a copy of Othello and a book by Nietzsche, a diary, and the manuscript of his unfinished novel. The manuscript was very rough, written messily and oftentimes without punctuation, but Camus's wife typed it up, and many years later his daughter Catherine edited and finalized it. Le Premier Homme (The First Man) was finally published in 1995.
Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®