Feb. 11, 2004

The Almanac of Last Things

by Linda Pastan

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Poem: "The Almanac of Last Things," by Linda Pastan, from Carnival Evening: New and Selected Poems 1968-1998 (W.W. Norton).

The Almanac of Last Things

From the almanac of last things
I choose the spider lily
for the grace of its brief
blossom, though I myself
fear brevity,

but I choose The Song of Songs
because the flesh
of those pomegranates
has survived
all the frost of dogma.

I choose January with its chill
lessons of patience and despair--and
August, too sun-struck for lessons.
I choose a thimbleful of red wine
to make my heart race,

then another to help me
sleep. From the almanac
of last things I choose you,
as I have done before.
And I choose evening

because the light clinging
to the window
is at its most reflective
just as it is ready
to go out.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of novelist and travel writer Pico Iyer, born to Indian parents in Oxford, England (1957). He once described himself as "a global village on two legs." After college, he spent a year working in a Mexican restaurant in the U.S., disguising himself as a Mexican. Then he and a friend went on a trip from California through Central America to Bolivia. He later said, "It's a great thing to take a journey like that when you're seventeen or eighteen because you're relatively reckless and you don't really know what the dangers are. And then once you've done it, anything seems possible."

He went to graduate school at Harvard, and during the summers he got a job writing for a budget travel guidebook. He traveled around England, France, Italy, and Greece, living on almost no money and sleeping in the gutters and under bridges. He covered a different town each day, walking its streets and taking notes in the morning and afternoon and writing it up in the evening.

After graduating he got a job working for Time magazine. He sat in a cubicle all day and wrote articles about places like the Philippine jungles and the Andes Mountains, from reports he got from other writers. He finally got fed up with office work and took a vacation to Southeast Asia. He fell in love with the place and decided to take a six-month leave of absence. He spent the first three months traveling through ten Southeast Asian countries and the next three months writing the draft of his first book, Video Nights in Katmandu (1988). He's since published six more books, including his latest, the novel Abandon: A Romance (2003).

Iyer said, "The less conscious one is of being 'a writer,' the better the writing. And though reading is the best school of writing, school is the worst place for reading. Writing should . . . be as spontaneous and urgent as a letter to a lover, or a message to a friend who has just lost a parent . . . and writing is, in the end, that oddest of anomalies: an intimate letter to a stranger."

It's the birthday of novelist Sidney Sheldon, born in Chicago (1917). He's the author of popular novels such as The Sky is Falling (2001) and The Other Side of Midnight (1990). Each of his seventeen novels has hit number one on the New York Times bestseller list, and they've sold over 300 million copies worldwide.

It's the birthday of writer Joy Williams, born in Chelmsford, Massachusetts (1944). She's known for her sharp humor in novels such as Breaking and Entering (1988) and The Quick and the Dead (2001). She went to college and grad school in the Midwest, but she wrote her first novel, State of Grace (1973), while living by herself in a trailer in Florida. While she was there, she became interested in the history and ecology of the Florida Keys, and she went on to write a guidebook about the area.

Joy Williams said, "The writer trusts nothing he writes—it should be too reckless and alive for that, it should be beautiful and menacing and slightly out of control. . . . Good writing . . . explodes in the reader's face. Whenever the writer writes, it's always three or four or five o'clock in the morning in his head."

And she said, "A writer starts out . . . wanting to be a transfiguring agent, and ends up usually just making contact, contact with other human beings. This, unsurprisingly, is not enough. . . . Writers end up writing stories--or rather, stories' shadows--and they're grateful if they can, but it is not enough. Nothing the writer can do is ever enough."

It's the birthday of writer and activist Lydia Maria Child, born in Medford, Massachusetts (1802). She wrote anti-slavery tracts, appeals on behalf of Native American rights, and essays on the status of women in society—but she also wrote novels, short stories and poetry. She's the author of the first historical novel published in the United States, Hobomok: A Tale of Early Times (1824), about an Indian who befriends a group of settlers in Salem, Massachusetts.

On Thanksgiving Day, her mother used to bake spicy pumpkin pies and Indian puddings and set them out in her kitchen for anyone in the town who wanted one. It was these memories that inspired Child to write the classic holiday song "Over the River and Through the Woods."

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




  • “Writers end up writing stories—or rather, stories' shadows—and they're grateful if they can, but it is not enough. Nothing the writer can do is ever enough” —Joy Williams
  • “I want to live other lives. I've never quite believed that one chance is all I get. Writing is my way of making other chances.” —Anne Tyler
  • “Writing is a performance, like singing an aria or dancing a jig” —Stephen Greenblatt
  • “All good writing is swimming under water and holding your breath.” —F. Scott Fitzgerald
  • “Good writing is always about things that are important to you, things that are scary to you, things that eat you up.” —John Edgar Wideman
  • “In certain ways writing is a form of prayer.” —Denise Levertov
  • “Writing is a socially acceptable form of schizophrenia.” —E.L. Doctorow
  • “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” —E.L. Doctorow
  • “Let's face it, writing is hell.” —William Styron
  • “A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.” —Thomas Mann
  • “Writing is 90 percent procrastination: reading magazines, eating cereal out of the box, watching infomercials.” —Paul Rudnick
  • “Writing is a failure. Writing is not only useless, it's spoiled paper.” —Padget Powell
  • “Writing is very hard work and knowing what you're doing the whole time.” —Shelby Foote
  • “I think all writing is a disease. You can't stop it.” —William Carlos Williams
  • “Writing is like getting married. One should never commit oneself until one is amazed at one's luck.” —Iris Murdoch
  • “The less conscious one is of being ‘a writer,’ the better the writing.” —Pico Iyer
  • “Writing is…that oddest of anomalies: an intimate letter to a stranger.” —Pico Iyer
  • “Writing is my dharma.” —Raja Rao
  • “Writing is a combination of intangible creative fantasy and appallingly hard work.” —Anthony Powell
  • “I think writing is, by definition, an optimistic act.” —Michael Cunningham
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