Nov. 26, 2010

25th High School Reunion

by Linda Pastan

We come to hear the endings
of all the stories
in our anthology
of false starts:
how the girl who seemed
as hard as nails
was hammered
into shape;
how the athletes ran
out of races;
how under the skin
our skulls rise
to the surface
like rocks in the bed
of a drying stream.
Look! We have all
turned into

"25th High School Reunion" by Linda Pastan, from Carnival Evening 1968-1998: New and Selected Poems. © W.W. Norton & Company, 1999. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of novelist Marilynne Robinson, (books by this author) born in Sandpoint, Idaho (1943). The town of Sandpoint was small, in the mountains, and it was a powerful place for young Marilynne. She said, "I was aware to the point of alarm of a vast energy of intention, all around me, barely restrained, and I thought everyone else must be aware of it." And she said: "Growing up in the West, in the mountains where, at least when I was a child, being an independent person was very highly valued, and what that meant was, of course, cultivating an interior life that could sustain you, that dignified you. I wrote an essay a long time ago that sort of disappeared, but the word 'lonely,' when I was a little kid, had a very strong positive connotation. It was an experience to be sought, and it took me a while to learn that this was not common wisdom."

She went off to college in Rhode Island, where she studied American literature, and then to the University of Washington to get her Ph.D. And while she was working on her dissertation, she practiced writing in the style of the great 19th-century American writers as a way to further connect with her work. So she wrote down metaphors, just as a writing exercise. But when she finished her dissertation, she read through all her metaphors and realized that they worked together. So with her set of metaphors as a guide, she set out to write a novel, Housekeeping, the story of two sisters raised by relatives in a small town in Idaho. She showed the manuscript to a friend of hers, who was also a writer, and he showed it to his agent, who told Robinson that she wanted to represent her. But, said the agent, it might be hard to find a publisher for it. Right away, Farrar, Strauss & Giroux picked it up — but, they said, it would probably never get reviewed. When Housekeeping was published in 1980, it was written up in The New York Times by Anatole Broyard, who wrote: "You can feel in the book a gathering voluptuous release of confidence, a delighted surprise at the unexpected capacities of language, a close, careful fondness for people that we thought only saints felt." It got great reviews, was nominated for the Pulitzer, and won a PEN/Hemingway Award.

After that, Marilynne Robinson took a 25-year break from novels. She wrote nonfiction, and she taught — for many years she has been a teacher at the Iowa Writers' Workshop. She said: "I accepted a grant from the American Academy that was supposed to support me for five years without teaching. I lasted about a year and a half before I nearly went crazy. Teaching is a distraction and a burden, but it's also an incredible stimulus. And a reprieve, in a way. When you're trying to work on something and it's not going anywhere, you can go to school and there's a two-and-a-half-hour block of time in which you can accomplish something."

And then, finally, she published her second novel, Gilead(2004). Gileadis set in 1956, and the whole novel is an extended letter from John Ames, a dying pastor in his 70s, to his young son. John recounts his own life and thoughts, and those of his father and grandfather, both Congregationalist pastors in Gilead, Iowa, where John still lives. John's grandfather was an abolitionist, a radical who joined forces with John Brown to combat slavery in Kansas, and his father was a pacifist who could not accept his own father's violence. Gileadwon the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award. And relatively soon after, at least for Robinson, she published a third novel, Home (2008), a companion to Gilead,this time focused on the old age of Ames' best friend, the Reverend Robert Boughton, and his troubled relationship with his grown son, Jack, the only one of his eight children who has never fit into the family's charitable but sometimes small-minded Christian life.

Her most recent book is nonfiction, Absence of Mind (2010), in which she criticizes the narrow-mindedness of scientists who are unwilling to consider religion, or any sort of metaphysical thinking, in their understanding of the world. She wrote, "Reality consistently exceeds the expectations of science."

She said, "I have this sense of urgency about what I want to get done and I discipline myself by keeping to myself."

And, "A mystical experience would be wasted on me. Ordinary things have always seemed numinous to me. One Calvinist notion deeply implanted in me is that there are two sides to your encounter with the world. You don't simply perceive something that is statically present, but in fact there is a visionary quality to all experience. It means something because it is addressed to you. This is the individualism that you find in Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson. You can draw from perception the same way a mystic would draw from a vision."

And, "To think that only faultless people are worthwhile seems like an incredible exclusion of almost everything of deep value in the human saga. Sometimes I can't believe the narrowness that has been attributed to God in terms of what he would approve and disapprove."

It was on this day in 1864 that Charles Dodgson, better known as Lewis Carroll, (books by this author) gave his young friend Alice Liddell a hand-printed version of his book Alice's Adventures Underground. He inscribed it: "A Christmas Gift to a Dear Child, in Memory of a Summer Day." It was a reference to a long boat trip on the Isis River the summer before, when Dodgson had first told 10-year-old Alice and her sisters Lorina and Edith the story of a little girl and her magical adventures underground. The version that he presented to Alice Liddell had 37 illustrations that he drew himself.

It's the birthday of cartoonist Roz Chast, (books by this author) born in Brooklyn (1954). When she was a kid, she would read comic books in secret because her parents disapproved of them. But they did subscribe to The New Yorker,and when she was eight she discovered that it also had comics of a sort, and she fell in love with Charles Addams and his dark and funny cartoons. She started drawing her own, and after she went off to college and studied art, she went to the New Yorker offices and dropped off some of her cartoons. Sure enough, they liked her style, and published her first cartoon in July of 1978, when she was 23 years old. She has been publishing in The New Yorker ever since, she estimates about 500 cartoons — although far more have been rejected than accepted.

She often says that she likes the places where anxiety and humor come together. She said: "Anxiety has just always been a part of my life. I cannot even imagine what a life without it would be. You make that decision to get out of bed in the morning, and you know that before you get back into bed at night, you're just going to have all kinds of things you're going to have to deal with. You just hope that it's not so crippling that you don't get out of bed."

And she said: "I like drawing interiors, I like drawing people. I don't like drawing trees particularly. I like drawing tea sets. I like drawing machinery. I like drawing the backs of television sets because you can put all these lines and dials in there and make it look like you really know what's going on back there. But really, I have no idea."

From the archives:

It's the birthday of the cartoonist Charles Schulz, (books by this author) born on this day in St. Paul, Minnesota (1922). When he was two days old, an uncle nicknamed him "Sparky," after a horse in a comic strip. Young Charles loved the comics, and every Sunday he and his dad read through all the funnies in six different newspapers. He was a shy, awkward kid, he skipped two grades, and he didn't have many friends. He got a C+ in a correspondence school art class, and even his high school yearbook wouldn't publish his drawings. But he decided to be a cartoonist anyway.

In 1947, when Schulz was 24, he started publishing a weekly comic strip called Li'l Folks in the St. Paul Pioneer Press. It featured a boy who loved Beethoven, a beagle dog, and a boy named Charlie Brown. He got $10 a week for his comic. In 1949, he asked the paper for two things: a pay increase, and to have Li'l Folks moved from the women's section to the comics section. The Pioneer Press denied both his requests, so he quit. He hadn't gotten any of his original artwork back, but he regularly cut out his strips from the paper, so he took his best clips and sent them to the United Features Syndicate. And on October 2, 1950, Peanuts made its national debut, complete with Charlie Brown, Snoopy, and the Beethoven-loving Schroeder, along with Linus, Lucy, Sally, and Woodstock. In December of 1999, Schulz announced that he was going to retire for health reasons, and his last Peanuts strip was set for February 13, 2000. He died on February 12th.

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