Thursday

Jan. 31, 2013

Paradise

by Louis Jenkins

January finally drags into February and one fumbles with
numb fingers at the ordinary knots and hooks of life. People
are irritable, difficult. Some days you want to stay in bed
with the covers over your head and dream of paradise. A
place where the warm sea washes the white sand. There
are a few palm trees on the higher ground, many brightly
colored fish in the lagoon, waves breaking on the reef
farther out. No one in sight. Occasionally an incredibly
large, split-second shark darkens the clear water. Sea birds
ride the wind currents, albatross, kittiwake, ... and pass
on. Day after day, sea wind and perfect sky .... You make a
big heap of driftwood on the beach.

"Paradise" by Louis Jenkins, from Just Above Water. Reprinted with permission of poet. (buy now)

It's the birthday of Thomas Merton (books by this author), born in Prades, France (1915). Merton was a Trappist monk, but he was also the author of more than 50 books, 2,000 poems, and a personal diary that spanned much of his lifetime.

Merton decided to write his master's thesis on William Blake, and he found himself deeply influenced by Blake. He converted to Christianity, and in 1941 he entered a Trappist abbey in Kentucky, where he remained for most of his life. In his diary from this time, Merton wrote, "Going to the Trappists is exciting. I return to the idea again and again: 'Give up everything, give up everything!'" Merton had become well-known throughout the world, in part because of his writing, in particular his autobiography The Seven Story Mountain (1948).

It's the birthday of short-story writer and novelist John O'Hara (books by this author), born in Pottsville, Pennsylvania (1905). He was a newspaper reporter who started writing fiction on the side and went on to become one of the most popular serious writers of his lifetime, writing many best-selling novels, including Appointment in Samarra (1934) and A Rage to Live (1949). Most critics consider his best work to be his short stories, which were published as the Collected Stories of John O'Hara (1984). He published more than 300 stories in The New Yorker magazine.

It's the birthday of musicologist Alan Lomax (books by this author), born in Austin, Texas (1915). His father, John Lomax, was also a musicologist and wrote books like Cowboy Songs and Frontier Ballads (1910) and Songs of the Cattle Trail and Cow Camp (1918). Alan went to the University of Texas and then to Harvard to study philosophy, but after his mother's death he dropped out of Harvard to accompany his dad on one of his folk song-collecting missions. He loved it so much that he decided to make it his life's work.

The Lomaxes went to the Louisiana State Penitentiary, where they met Huddie William Ledbetter, better known as Lead Belly. Lomax wrote: "I'll never forget: He approached us all the way from the building where he worked, with his big twelve-string guitar in his hand. He sat down in front of us and proceeded to sing everything that we could think of in this beautiful, clear, trumpet-like voice that he had, with his hand simply flying on the strings. His hands were like a whirlwind, and his voice was like a great clear trumpet. You could hear him, literally, half a mile away when he opened up."

Alan and John Lomax headed up the Library of Congress "Archive of American Folk Song," recording and preserving thousands of songs. Alan was particularly interested in doing more extensive interviews with their subjects, and he recorded the oral histories of musicians like Lead Belly, Woody Guthrie, Jelly Roll Morton, Muddy Waters, and Vera Hall. For the rest of his life, Lomax continued to record folk artists, champion folk music, and publish books, which include American Ballads and Folk Songs (1934), Mister Jelly Roll (1950), Folk Song Style and Culture (1968), and The Land Where the Blues Began (1993).

It's the birthday of Norman Mailer (books by this author), born in Long Branch, New Jersey (1923). He was studying engineering at Harvard when he was drafted into the Army in 1944. He served in the Philippines and Japan. After his discharge, he moved to New York City and spent 15 months writing a novel about the war. It was The Naked and the Dead (1948), and it became the definitive literary novel about World War II, and made Norman Mailer famous at the age of 25. He went on to win two Pulitzer Prizes: for The Armies of the Night (1968) and for his non-fiction novel The Executioner's Song (1979).

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

 









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