Saturday Nov. 26, 2016

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Country Roads

It was one of those days
when the sun poured gold
into the air, and flecks of
light floated in shafts that
fell through the branches
of yellow leaf and green.

We’d had dinner at a place
on the edge of a lake, and
now we were going back
to town. There was a simple
way to get there, but she
didn’t take it. Instead, we

drove the country roads
with the corn rows flicking by,
each one visible for a half
second, then gone. “Hello,
hello, hello,” they said, then
“Good-bye, bye, bye, bye.”

The soybeans, we agreed,
had turned burgundy overnight,
but it was the cornfields we
watched, as if we were waiting
for the waters to open, as if
we might cross over Jordan.

“Country Roads” by Joyce Sutphen from After Words. © Red Dragonfly Press, 2013. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

It's the birthday of novelist Marilynne Robinson (books by this author), born in Sandpoint, Idaho (1943). In college, she studied American literature, and she was interested in how the early American writers used extended metaphors. In graduate school, she no longer had time to work on fiction, but occasionally she would write down metaphors on scraps of paper, and she put them all in a drawer. Eventually, she sorted through all those scraps, and to her surprise, they seemed to fit together. So she started writing a novel, at night while her two young sons slept. Housekeeping (1980) is the story of two sisters in a town called Fingerbone, Idaho; their mother commits suicide and their aunt, an eccentric drifter, moves back to town to take care of them. Housekeeping got good reviews but didn't sell very well.

Robinson got a teaching fellowship at the University of Kent in England. She was alarmed to learn about a nuclear facility that was dumping toxic waste into the Irish Sea, while local children suffered from unusually high rates of cancer. She wrote Mother Country: Britain, the Welfare State, and Nuclear Pollution (1989), criticizing Britain for not caring enough. She said: "I began what amounted to an effort to reeducate myself. After all those years of school, I felt there was little I knew that I could trust, and I did not want my books to be one more tributary to the sea of nonsense that really is what most conventional wisdom amounts to."

She went back to teaching at the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop, and she immersed herself in reading. For years, she read journals and books about the early days of Iowa. Observing the qualities of the Iowans around her, she said, "I immersed myself in the world of very tactful people." She published a book of essays about theology. Then, almost 25 years after Housekeeping, Robinson published a second novel, called Gilead (2004). Set in 1956, the novel is a series of letters from a dying 76-year-old Congregationalist pastor in the town of Gilead, Iowa; the letters are all written to his seven-year-old son. A few years later, she published a third novel, Home (2008), a companion book to Gilead.

In Gilead, she wrote: "Sometimes I have loved the peacefulness of an ordinary Sunday. It is like standing in a newly planted garden after a warm rain. You can feel the silent and invisible life. All it needs from you is that you take care not to trample on it. And that was such a quiet day, rain on the roof, rain against the windows, and everyone grateful, since it seems we never do have quite enough rain. At times like that I might not care particularly whether people are listening to whatever I have to say, because I know where their thoughts are."

She said: "I have spent my life watching, not to see beyond the world, merely to see, great mystery, what is plainly before my eyes. I think the concept of transcendence is based on a misreading of creation. With all respect to heaven, the scene of the miracle is here, among us."

It's the birthday of cartoonist Charles Schulz (books by this author), born in Minneapolis, Minnesota (1922). His parents left school after third grade, and his father was a barber who supported the family on 35 cent haircuts. Every Sunday, Schulz and his father read the "funny pages" together, and the boy hoped to become a cartoonist someday. But he had a tough time in school — he felt picked on by teachers and other students. He was smart enough to skip ahead a couple of grades, but that only made it worse. He wished someone would recognize his artistic talent, but his cartoons weren't even accepted by the high school yearbook.

After high school, he was drafted into the Army; his mother died of cancer a couple of days before he left. When he came home, he moved in with his father in the apartment above the barbershop. He got a job teaching at Art Instruction, a correspondence course for cartooning that he had taken as a high schooler. There he fell in love with a red-haired woman named Donna Mae Johnson, who worked in the accounting department. They dated for a while, but when he asked her to marry him, she turned him down and soon after married someone else. Schulz was devastated, and remained bitter about it for the rest of his life. He said: "I can think of no more emotionally damaging loss than to be turned down by someone whom you love very much. A person who not only turns you down, but almost immediately will marry the victor. What a bitter blow that is."

Schulz started publishing a cartoon strip called L'il Folks in the local paper, the St. Paul Pioneer Press, but they dropped it after a couple of years. Schulz sent some of his favorite L'il Folks cartoons to the United Features Syndicate, and in 1950, the first Peanuts strip appeared in national newspapers. The first strip introduced Charlie Brown, and Snoopy made an appearance two days later. The rest of the Peanuts characters were added slowly over the years: Linus, Lucy, Schroeder, Pig Pen, Peppermint Patty, and many more. Throughout the years, the object of Charlie Brown's unrequited love is known simply as The Little Red-Haired Girl.

Peanuts was eventually syndicated in more than 2,500 newspapers worldwide, and there were more than 300 million Peanuts books sold, as well as 40 TV specials, four movies, and a Broadway play.

Charles Schulz said: "My whole life has been one of rejection. Women. Dogs. Comic strips."

And he wrote: "Nothing takes the taste out of peanut butter quite like unrequited love."

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