Apr. 26, 2008

Prayer Chain

by Tim Nolan

My mother called to tell me
about an old classmate of mine who

was dying on the parish prayer chain—
or was very sick—or destitute—

or it had not worked out—the marriage—
or the kids were all on drugs—and

all the old mothers were praying intensely
for all the pain of their children

and for life—they were praying for life—
in their quiet rooms—sipping decaf coffee—

I bet they've been praying for me at times—
so I'll find my way—so I won't rob a bank—

I'll take them—the mystical prayers of old mothers—
it matters—all this patient and purposeful love.

"Prayer Chain" by Tim Nolan. Reprinted with permission by the author.

It's the birthday of novelist Bernard Malamud, (books by this author) born in Brooklyn, New York (1914). He grew up in Brooklyn in a household where both Yiddish and English were spoken. He wrote a few stories in college, but after he graduated he was too preoccupied with finding a job to start writing seriously. It was the middle of the Depression and he was struggling just to earn enough money to eat and pay the rent. He said, "I would dream of new suits."

In 1940, he got a job as a clerk in the U.S. Census Bureau. He spent mornings checking drainage ditch statistics, but as soon as that work was done he would crouch over his desk and write short stories on company time. Eventually, he got a few stories published in magazines and he got a job as a professor at Oregon State College.

It was while he was working there that he published his first novel, The Natural (1952), about a talented baseball player who is dragged down by his own desires and obsessions. He was inspired to write the novel after reading biographies of Babe Ruth and Bobby Feller. It was a huge success and he went on to publish many more novels.

Malamud said, "I ... write a book, or a short story, at least three times—once to understand it, the second time to improve the prose, and a third to compel it to say what it still must say."

And he said, "The purpose of the writer is to keep civilization from destroying itself."

It's the birthday of the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius, born in Rome (AD 121). He rose through the ranks of the Roman Senate and became emperor when in AD 161. He wrote a philosophical work called Meditations, and he's one of the few Roman emperors who is known as much for his writing as he is for his reign.

Before Aurelius came to power, the Roman Empire was experiencing incredible prosperity. It was the period known as the Pax Romana, a time of peace that lasted nearly two hundred years. The Roman Empire was the largest it would ever be, stretching from Scotland to the Arabian desert. The richest people lived in great villas with central heating systems. The historian Tacitus wrote that it was a time of "rare happiness ... when we may think what we please, and express what we think."

But almost as soon as Marcus Aurelius became emperor, Rome encountered a series of disasters. There were plagues, famines and wars. He was almost constantly trying to defend the Roman Empire against invaders; in the north his armies battled the Germans, and in the east they battled the Parthians.

In the midst of all this chaos, Marcus Aurelius consoled himself by keeping a kind of diary filled with philosophic meditations. He studied the Stoic philosophers, who believed in detaching yourself from everything in the universe that's outside of your power to control.

His Meditations was first printed in Zurich in 1559.

It was on this day in 1937 that German bombers attacked and destroyed the city of Guernica, Spain, in the Basque part of the country. It was the first time in the history that a city was completely destroyed from the air.

The bombing inspired the Spanish painter Pablo Picasso to make his famous painting Guernica, which was first shown at the Paris World's Fair in 1937. When the painting was finally shown in Spain in 1981—six years after the death of Spain's Fascist dictator, Francisco Franco—it had to be displayed behind bulletproof glass.

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
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  • “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
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  • “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
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  • “Writing is my dharma.” —Raja Rao
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