Mar. 25, 2011

Lenten Dissent

by Cherie Lashway

There once was a logger, named Paddy O'Connell,
Who at lunch during Lent, found himself at McDonalds,

And had just settled down to his Big Mac and fries,
When along came his priest, much to both their surprise.

The priest said to Paddy, "Just what are you eating?
In this season of Lent, I sure hope you're not cheating."

Paddy said to the Father, "I'll tell you no lies.
I'm enjoying a Big Mac, along with some fries."

The priest said to Paddy, "I see no repentance.
Because of this sin, you will have to do penance.

"By Friday or sooner, I say that you should,
For our fireplace, deliver a cord of chopped wood."

Now our timberman, Paddy, an overworked man,
Did think to himself, "I don't think that I can."

But early on Friday, our priest, he heard shoveling,
And looked out the window at Paddy not groveling.

And saw with confusion, dismay and disgust,
That the wood bin was now almost filled with saw dust.

He called down below, barely hiding his ire:
"Hey Paddy, your penance was wood for the fire!"

To which Paddy said, rising up from his work,
While wiping his brow and concealing a smirk:

"I've brought you a cord, like you said that I should,
But if burger be meat, well then sawdust be wood!"

"Lenten Dissent" by Cherie Lashway. Reprinted with permission of the author.

It was on this day in 1811, exactly 200 years ago, that 18-year-old Percy Bysshe Shelley (books by this author) was expelled from Oxford University because he refused to deny authorship of a pamphlet called The Necessity of Atheism.

Shelley had been at Oxford less than a year — he entered the university in April of 1810. Soon after arriving at Oxford, he was sitting by himself in the dining hall, and a classmate named Thomas Jefferson Hogg sat down next to him. Hogg was intrigued by Shelley, who was alone and eating slowly and deliberately, so he struck up a conversation with him. They got into a fierce debate about the merits of German literature (Shelley argued for it, Hogg against), and they talked until they were the only ones left in the dining hall, and then all the way back to their dorms. It was only then that both Hogg and Shelley admitted to each other that neither of them actually knew anything about German literature. And with that, they became good friends.

Hogg described Shelley in those days: "His figure was slight and fragile, and yet his bones and joints were large and strong. He was tall, but he stooped so much that he seemed of low stature. ... His complexion was delicate and almost feminine, of the purest red and white; yet he was tanned and freckled by his exposure to the sun, having passed the autumn, as he said, in shooting. His features, his whole face, and particularly his head, were, in fact, unusually small; yet the last appeared of a remarkable bulk, for his hair was long and bushy, and in fits of absence, and in agonies (if I may use the word) of anxious thought, he often rubbed it fiercely with his hands, passed his fingers quickly through his locks unconsciously, so that it was singularly wild and rough. ... His features were not symmetrical (the mouth, perhaps, excepted), yet was the effect of the whole extremely powerful. They breathed an animation, a fire, an enthusiasm, a vivid and preternatural intelligence, that I never met with in any other countenance. ... But there was one physical blemish that threatened to neutralize all his excellence. 'This is a fine, clever fellow!' I said to myself, 'But I shall never be able to endure his voice' ... intolerably shrill, harsh, and discordant; of the most cruel intention. It was perpetual, and without any remission; it excoriated the ears."

Despite Hogg's issues with Shelley's voice, they became inseparable. They spent the afternoons and evenings together, talking and debating. Shelley was more interested in talking with Hogg or reading on his own than listening to teachers — it is said that Shelley only attended one lecture during his time at Oxford. In the early months of 1811, Shelley and Hogg harnessed their talent for controversy and debate and they wrote a pamphlet called The Necessity of Atheism. The pamphlet laid out the lack of evidence for the existence of God, and suggested that God was just a projection of human ideas. The pamphlet was anonymous, signed "Thro' deficiency of proof, an atheist." In February, Shelley advertised the upcoming pamphlet all over Oxford, and once it was published he distributed it in Oxford and London, and sent copies to bishops, professors, and heads of the college.

It was a small pamphlet — six inches by four inches, and only 13 pages — and no one considers it among Shelley's best writing. Neither is it the work of a diehard atheist — the argument was mostly that since there was no really convincing argument in favor of God, it was safer to assume there was no God. But atheism was still a taboo subject, and no one in authority was impressed. It didn't take the Oxford officials long to figure out who had written it, and on this day in 1811 they called both Shelley and Hogg to official meetings and asked them whether they had written the pamphlet. They refused to either affirm or deny being the authors, and so they were promptly dismissed from Oxford. It is still unknown how much of a role Hogg played in writing the pamphlet — scholars have suggested everything from his writing the preface to writing the entire first draft.

Three days after his expulsion, Shelley wrote a letter to his father explaining the situation: "We found to our surprise that (strange as it may appear) the proofs of an existing Deity were as far as we had observed, defective. We therefore embodied out doubts on the subject, and arranged them methodically in the form of 'The Necessity of Atheism,' thinking thereby to obtain a satisfactory, or unsatisfactory answer from men who had made Divinity the study of their lives. — How then were we treated? not as our fair, open, candid conduct might demand, no argument was publicly brought forward to disprove our reasoning, and it at once demonstrated the weakness of their cause, and their inveteracy on discovering it, when they publicly expelled myself and my friend ... I know too well that your feeling mind will sympathize too deeply in my misfortunes. I hope it will alleviate your sorrow to know that for myself I am perfectly indifferent to the late tyrannical proceedings at Oxford."

If Shelley thought his father would be sympathetic, he was wrong — Timothy Shelley wrote "Impious" on his copy of The Necessity of Atheism and got in a heated fight with his son. Hogg was there when the elder Shelley showed up to discipline his son, and Hogg said that Timothy was "scolding, crying, swearing, and then weeping again: no doubt he went on strangely ... Shelley was sitting at that moment, as he often used to sit, quite on the edge of his chair. Not only did he laugh aloud, with a wild, demonical burst of laughter, but he slipped from his seat, and fell on his back at full length on the floor." Timothy Shelley followed up his visit with a letter expressing his own Christian faith, condemning his son's "criminal and improper acts," and demanding that the younger Shelley return to his boyhood home and be tutored by instructors handpicked by his father. If his son refused, he wrote, "I am resolved to withdraw myself from you, and leave you to the punishment and misery that belongs to the wicked pursuit of an opinion so diabolical and wicked as that which you have dared to declare, if you shall not accept the proposals." Shelley had no intention of taking back anything, and after a series of progressively more insulting letters back and forth, Shelley grandly announced that he was cutting himself off from his father. A few months later, he eloped with a 16-year-old named Harriet Westbrook.

It's the birthday of the fiction writer who didn't want a biography written about her because, she said, "Lives spent between the house and the chicken yard do not make exciting copy." That's Flannery O'Connor, (books by this author) born in Savannah, Georgia (1925). When she was five years old, she trained a chicken to walk backward, and a newsreel company came her house to make a film about it, which was shown all over the country. She said, "I was just there to assist the chicken but it was the high point in my life. Everything since has been anticlimax."

She spent much of her life on her family farm in Milledgeville, Georgia, raising poultry and writing novels and short stories: Wise Blood (1952), The Violent Bear It Away (1960), A Good Man Is Hard to Find (1955), and Everything That Rises Must Converge (1965). This last book of short stories was published after her death in 1964, at the age of 39, from complications of lupus.

She said, "When we look at a good deal of serious modern fiction, and particularly Southern fiction, we find this quality about it that is generally described, in a pejorative sense, as grotesque. Of course, I have found that anything that comes out of the South is going to be called grotesque by the Northern reader, unless it is grotesque, in which case it is going to be called realistic. ... Whenever I'm asked why Southern writers particularly have a penchant for writing about freaks, I say it is because we are still able to recognize one."

And, "Everywhere I go I'm asked if I think the university stifles writers. My opinion is that they don't stifle enough of them. There's many a best-seller that could have been prevented by a good teacher."

And, "I don't deserve any credit for turning the other cheek as my tongue is always in it."

She wrote in a letter to her friend Cecil Dawkins: "I'm a full-time believer in writing habits, pedestrian as it all may sound. You may be able to do without them if you have genius but most of us only have talent and this is simply something that has to be assisted all the time by physical and mental habits or it dries up and blows away. I see it happen all the time. Of course you have to make your habits in this conform to what you can do. I write only about two hours every day because that's all the energy I have, but I don't let anything interfere with those two hours, at the same time and the same place. This doesn't mean I produce much out of the two hours. Sometimes I work for months and have to throw everything away, but I don't think any of that was time wasted. Something goes on that makes it easier when it does come well. And the fact is if you don't sit there every day, the day it would come well, you won't be sitting there."

From the archives:

It's the birthday of young adult novelist Kate DiCamillo (books by this author), born in Philadelphia (1964). During her childhood, she caught pneumonia every winter and had to go to the hospital. When she was three years old, her father came to visit her at the hospital with a gift: a little wooden village for her to play with. He gave her the pieces of the village, and he made up a story about the chicken, the farmer, the house, and the church. She later said of that moment: "Something opened up inside me. There was the weight of the wooden figures in my hands, the smell of my father's overcoat, the whole great world hiding, waiting in the purple dusk outside my hospital room. And there was the story — the story."

She became obsessed with stories after that, and because she was sick for so much of her childhood, she did a lot of reading. Eventually her parents moved to Florida, in the hopes that the weather would improve her health, which it did. She said, "I spent the rest of my childhood running around barefoot, swimming in the lakes and the ocean and the Gulf of Mexico, sitting high in the branches of a jacaranda tree and reading, reading, reading."

After she graduated from college, DiCamillo said: "I talked incessantly about being a writer and read books about writing and imagined, in great detail, my life as a writer. I did everything except write... Finally I sat down and thought very seriously about exactly what it took to be a writer. I came to the conclusion that one thing, absolutely, was required: writing."

So DiCamillo began setting herself a quota of two pages of writing every single day. She published a few short stories in literary journals, but most of her work was rejected. And then she moved to Minnesota and took a job for a book wholesaler, filling orders for bookstores and libraries. She worked in the children's book section, and for the first time she began to take children's literature seriously.

That first winter in Minnesota was one of the coldest on record, and DiCamillo missed her hometown in Florida. She also desperately wanted a dog, but her apartment didn't allow them. So she started writing a story about a stray dog that helps a 10-year-old girl adjust to life in a new town in Florida, and that became DiCamillo's novel Because of Winn-Dixie (2000), which won a Newbery Medal and became a best-seller. It begins: "My name is India Opal Buloni, and last summer my daddy, the preacher, sent me to the store for a box of macaroni-and-cheese, some white rice, and two tomatoes and I came back with a dog."

DiCamillo's other books include The Tiger Rising (2001), The Tale of Desperaux (2003), and, most recently, Bink and Gollie (2010).

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
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