Jul. 25, 2006

Top of My Lungs

by Natalie Goldberg

TUESDAY, 25 JULY, 2006
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Poem: "Top of My Lungs" by Natalie Goldberg from Top of My Lungs. © The Overlook Press. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Top of My Lungs

Even though I am unhappy
I come home singing at the top of my lungs
Shovel off the new snow and shove it on the old
Open the useless screened porch door
and take off my big boots
There are fried eggs
yellow as pearls
The old bed I dive into like a warm whale
The phone ringing
that duck on the wall
And even though I am unhappy
I sleep with the peace of flying angels
And even though I am sad
my wallet's empty
I buy the best soap
And even though my heart is hurting
out of sure will
I come home singing with the last night wind
and the first morning star
and the canary
and the summer that was killed below our house

I walk down to the Rainbow Café
call my Catholic friend Mary to come
have a drink and eat a turkey sandwich
The down coat I wear all winter still has the goose feathers
from a hundred flying birds
They let us smoke at our small table
Mary will always meet me here
They fill your glasses with the most sparking water
for free
and the cold moon rises over the marquee
of the Suburban World theater

So even though I am unhappy
I throw back my old goat throat
and sing slowly
"Oh my darlin' Clementine"
by the beautiful lake in Minnesota
as the pressure of the black night cold
moves in on us from all ten directions
I sing to the moon above the lake
"You are lost and gone forever"
calling the pure beast of loneliness down from the sky
with the old American song haunting city lights
"Dreadful sorry Clementine"
and though the very earth has swelled up
like an elephant with pain
I stand on its back singing
in this sad universe
where one lover leaves another for all time
and nothing to say with your feet on the ground

Literary and Historical Notes:

It was on this day in 1897 that the novelist Jack London left for the Klondike to join the gold rush. He was only twenty-one and had to borrow money from his stepsister for the voyage. Winter came before London could look for gold. He spent the winter in an abandoned fur trader's cabin the size of a tool shed, living on beans and bread. He wrote of that winter, "[It was] a world of silence and immobility. Nothing stirred. The Yukon slept under a coat of ice three feet thick." He read the books he'd brought with him, including Dante's Inferno and Milton's Paradise Lost.

In the spring, London realized that all the good claims had already been made. Instead of looking for gold, he talked to everyone he could and soaked up all their stories. On the way home, he almost died of scurvy, and he barely survived a huge swarm of Alaskan mosquitoes, but he knew he had great material for fiction.

He went on to write about his experiences in books like The Son of the Wolf (1900) and Call of the Wild (1903), and he became one of the most popular writers of his time.

It's the birthday of writer and philosopher Eric Hoffer (books by this author), born in New York City (1902). He spent most of his life working on the docks as a longshoreman, and he wrote philosophy in his spare time, including The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements (1951). Eric Hoffer said, "When people are free to do as they please, they usually imitate each other."

It's the birthday of the painter Maxfield Parrish, born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (1870). During the early twentieth century, he was one of the most popular commercial artists in the United States. He is known for his many illustrations on the covers of magazines and books, paintings of dreamlike landscapes full of beautiful young women.

It's the birthday of Elias Canetti (books by this author), born in Ruse, Bulgaria (1905). He's best known for his novel The Tower of Babel (1935). He grew up in an area of Bulgaria that was so ethnically diverse that his grandfather had to speak seventeen languages in order to succeed as a grocer.

It was on this day in 1814 that a man named George Stephenson made the first successful demonstration of the steam locomotive in Northern England. His engine pulled eight loaded wagons of thirty tons' weight about four miles and hour up a hill.

But though the locomotive was invented in England, it had its greatest impact on the United States, where there was so much wide-open space and so many natural resources to take advantage of. By 1840, the United States had 2,800 miles of railroad track. By 1872 that number had increased to 52,000 miles of railroad track.

Walt Whitman called the locomotive "Emblem of motion and / power—pulse of the continent." But some people weren't too happy about the introduction of the locomotive and the faster pace of life it brought. Henry David Thoreau wrote, "This world is a place of business. What an infinite bustle! I am awaked almost every night by the panting of the locomotive. It interrupts my dreams. There is no Sabbath. It would be glorious to see mankind at leisure for once. It is nothing but work, work, work."

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




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