Saturday Nov. 5, 2016

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Carpe Diem

Night and day
seize the day, also the night —
a handful of water to grasp.
The moon shines off the mountain
snow where grizzlies look for a place
for the winter’s sleep and birth.
I just ate the year’s last tomato
in the year’s fatal whirl.
This is mid-October, apple time.
I picked them for years.
One Mcintosh yielded sixty bushels.
It was the birth of love that year.
Sometimes we live without noticing it.
Overtrying makes it harder.
I fell down through the tree grabbing
branches to slow the fall, got the afternoon off.
We drove her aqua Ford convertible into the country
with a sack of red apples. It was a perfect
day with her sun-brown legs and we threw ourselves
into the future together seizing the day.
Fifty years later we hold each other looking
out the windows at birds, making dinner,
a life to live day after day, a life of
dogs and children and the far wide country
out by rivers, rumpled by mountains.
So far the days keep coming.
Seize the day gently as if you loved her.

“Carpe Diem” by Jim Harrison from Dead Man’s Float. © Copper Canyon Press, 2016. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

Today is the British holiday known as Guy Fawkes Day. Fawkes was born in 1570; he was a tall, well-built man with thick reddish hair and a quick mind. A school friend described him as “pleasant of approach and cheerful of manner, opposed to quarrels and strife … loyal to his friends.” Though he had been born and baptized a Protestant, he converted to Catholicism as a teenager, when his widowed mother remarried a Catholic man named Dionis Baynbrigge. When he was 21, he sold his father’s estate and went off to Europe to fight with Catholic Spain against Dutch Protestants. While he was in Flanders, he was recruited by a member of what would become known as the Gunpowder Plot: a plan devised by English Catholics to blow up the Houses of Parliament and assassinate King James I, who was a Protestant. The group’s leader, Robert Catesby, had heard of Fawkes’ military prowess, particularly his expertise with explosives.

So, on November 5, 1605, Fawkes was attending to the 36 barrels of gunpowder that the conspirators had stashed under the House of Lords. Authorities stormed the cellar, tipped off by an anonymous informant, and arrested Fawkes. They tortured him for two days before he gave up the names of his co-conspirators, at which point he was sentenced to death for treason. Traitors were typically hanged, drawn, and quartered — a grisly and slow death — and Fawkes knew this. So, on the day of his execution, he jumped from the gallows, breaking his neck and dying instantly. To celebrate the foiling of the Gunpowder Plot, the king’s subjects lit bonfires, shot off fireworks, and burned Guy Fawkes and his fellow plotters in effigy.

It’s the birthday of American playwright and actor Sam Shepard (books by this author), born in Fort Sheridan, Illinois (1943), and best known for his bleak, often violent plays that probe the lives of people on the outskirts of American society, like Curse of the Starving Class (1976), Buried Child (1978), and True West (1980).

It’s the birthday of novelist and food writer Diana Abu-Jaber (1960) (books by this author), who writes most often about Arab-American culture in the United States. Abu-Jaber was born in Syracuse, New York, to an American mother and Jordanian father. When she was seven, the family moved to Jordan, and spent two years there, an experience that profoundly affected her later writing.

Her father cooked professionally for decades and Abu-Jaber’s memories of lamb shanks in buttermilk and okra braised in garlic led her to her cooking in a variety of restaurants after college. She later fell into food writing and criticism, which she considers a delicate balance because of the sentiment attached to food. She says, “I think food can be dangerous to write about because if you don’t manage to mediate it somehow, it can be the worst sort of greeting card.”

Abu-Jaber’s novels include Arabian Jazz (1993) and Birds of Paradise (2011), which she wrote with a baby on her lap. She began Birds of Paradise with the mental image of a woman’s back and shoulders and, early on, decided the character would be a baker, but not a very nice one. Abu-Jaber said, “I knew she wasn’t a warm and fuzzy baker but someone with a little ice water in her veins.” She’s written two food memoirs, The Language of Baklava (2005) and Life Without a Recipe (2016), which she likes to say is about “love, death, and cake.”

Arabian Jazz is considered the first novel to bring the Arab-American experience to a wide reading audience in the U.S. About writing Arab-American culture into mainstream literature, she says, “I’ve found that the questions and the search for meaning, for ‘home,’ for tribe — consume me more than trying to crank out one identity or one homeland.”

It’s the birthday of writer Thomas Flanagan (books by this author), born in Greenwich, Connecticut, in 1923. He did not become a novelist until after the age of 50. He’d been a professor of literature in New York and at Berkeley, and a scholar of Irish history. One day, waiting for his wife to pick him up, he had a flash of inspiration for a historical novel in which an Irish poet walked down a road. This became the first chapter of The Year of the French (1979), about Ireland’s failed attempt to revolt against the English in 1798. It won the National Book Critics Circle Award, and Flanagan went on to write other well-received historical novels about Ireland, incorporating real-life figures like Charles Stewart Parnell and Wolfe Tone along with fictional characters.

He spent nearly every summer of his last 40 years in Ireland, and once said, “It is not the romantic, rather sentimental Ireland of many Irish-Americans that I love, but the actual Ireland, a complex, profound, historical society, woven of many strands, some bright and some dark.”

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