Saturday Nov. 7, 2015

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Last Day on Earth

If it’s the title of a movie you expect
everything to become important—a kiss,
a shrug, a glass of wine, a walk with the dog.

But if the day is real, life is only
as significant as yesterday—the kiss
hurried, the shrug forgotten, and now,

on the path by the river, you don’t notice
the sky darkening beyond the pines because
you’re imagining what you’ll say at dinner,

swirling the wine in your glass.
You don’t notice the birds growing silent
or the cold towers of clouds moving in,

because you’re explaining how lovely
and cool it was in the woods. And the dog
had stopped limping!—she seemed

her old self again, sniffing the air and alert,
the way dogs are to whatever we can’t see.
And I was happy, you hear yourself saying,

because it felt as if I’d been allowed
to choose my last day on earth,
and this was the one I chose.

"Last Day on Earth” by Lawrence Raab from Mistaking Each Other For Ghosts. © Tupelo Press, 2015. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

Russia’s Bolshevik Revolution began on this date in 1917. It ushered in the first Marxist government in the world, and it eventually led to the formation of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics — the USSR. The Bolshevik Revolution was also known as the October Revolution, because Russia was still using the old-style Julian calendar, and the date under that calendar was October 25.

Russia was in bad shape in 1917. The czar, Nicholas II, was increasingly unpopular.

The military — poorly equipped and poorly run — was suffering crippling losses to Germany in World War I. Food was scarce, and what little there was became subject to sky-high inflation. Food riots and labor strikes broke out in Petrograd, and set off the first revolution of 1917, the February Revolution (which took place in March). Troops from the Petrograd garrison were ordered to put down the unrest, but many of them defected to the side of the protestors. Czar Nicholas was forced to step down. The provisional government that succeeded him gave people a brief taste of democracy, but the main cause of the unrest — Russia’s involvement in World War I — remained unchanged, so things didn’t improve.

Vladimir Lenin, who had been living as an exile and fugitive for 10 years, led the revolution. He had sneaked back across the border about six months earlier, and he rallied the Russian people with his slogan “Peace, land, and bread!” Lenin convinced the leaders of the rapidly growing Bolshevik Party to vote for an armed uprising, and gave the order for the workers’ militia to seize all government buildings. Unlike the February Revolution, this one was virtually bloodless; the military was away fighting World War I, the czar’s palace was almost deserted, and there was almost no resistance from the Russian people, who were ready for a change. Later, the Soviet propaganda machine revised the official story and turned it into a glorious, heroic battle.

Today is the birthday of the Algerian-born French writer Albert Camus (books by this author), born in Mondovi (1913). His father died early in World War I, and his mother, who was half deaf, took work as a cleaning woman to support the family. For most of his childhood, Camus and his older brother lived alongside his mother, grandmother, and a paralyzed uncle in a two-room apartment in the working-class section of Algiers.

Camus went on to university and steeped himself in the French classics, blossomed intellectually, and got involved in revolutionary politics. He worked for an Algerian newspaper as a journalist in the run-up to the Second World War, and was an influential editor for the left-wing French paper Combat during the German occupation. He rejected the political orthodoxy of Communism, frustrating his colleagues, and was a lifelong opponent of capital punishment. During the war, he published his first novel, The Stranger (1942), which explored themes of alienation and paralleled Camus’ place as an Algerian-born Frenchman, or pied-noir, often resented by both cultures. His second novel, The Plague (1947), was an attempt to transcend nihilism and the negativity of his contemporaries like Sartre, whom he admired.

Camus continued to write philosophical novels, such as 1951’s The Rebel, and was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature in 1957. He died just two years later in an auto accident along with his publisher — an unfinished manuscript of his scattered into a nearby ditch. It was recovered and published in 1995 as The First Man.

It was on this day in 1805 that Lewis and Clark first saw the Pacific Ocean on their great overland expedition that began at St. Louis the year before. They were near the mouth of the Columbia River, not far from today’s town of Astoria, Oregon. They wrote in their journal: “Great joy, we are in view of the ocean which we have been so long anxious to see, and the roaring or noise made by the waves breaking on the rocky shores may be heard distinctly.” They built Fort Clatsop there, a log stockade 50 feet square, and spent the winter in it, before heading back to St. Louis.

It’s the birthday of Canadian songstress and painter Joni Mitchell (1943), born Roberta Joan Anderson in Fort Macleod, Alberta, Canada, to a grocer and a schoolteacher. Raised on rock and roll radio broadcasts out of Texas, she bought a baritone ukulele for $36 because she couldn’t afford a guitar. Eventually, she did buy a guitar, complete with a Pete Seeger instruction booklet, but she dumped the booklet after only a few tries. “I didn’t have the patience to copy a style that was already known,” she said. Her fingers were also affected by a bout of childhood polio; Mitchell had to devise alternate ways of playing and tuning her guitar.

After a year at art school in Calgary, Mitchell found herself in Toronto, working at department stores during the day and playing in coffeehouses at night for $15 a week, “singing long tragic songs in a minor key.”

She married, moved to Detroit and then to New York City, where she found the folk scene heavily weighted toward men. She didn’t despair, though: her songs were being covered by folk artists like Judy Collins and Tom Rush, and by 1966, she was performing at the Newport Folk Festival. Mitchell was an unknown when she walked on the stage. She sang “Chelsea Morning” and “Michael from Mountains,” and when she was through, the audience was dead silent. Then they broke into applause and gave her a standing ovation. Mitchell was 23 years old.

Mitchell’s albums Ladies of the Canyon (1970) and Blue (1971) are considered seminal albums of the 20th century and even inspired the musician Prince, who went to a Joni Mitchell concert in Minnesota when he was 15. He wrote her fan mail with little hearts on the paper.

On songwriting, Mitchell says: “I do a lot of night-writing. I need solitude to write. I used to be able to write under almost any condition, but not anymore because I have to go inside myself, so far, to search for a theme.”

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