My Earliest Literary Experience

Last week in my fiction workshop, one of the writers remarked in her story, “there was joy in Mudville.” Most of the other writers didn’t know what she was talking about. But I did. It awakened for me my earliest memory of a literary experience. I read plenty of picture books and had them read to me, and I pored over the “A” volume of the World Book Encyclopedia (the volume with the entry for “Animals”) more or less every day, but the first poem I remember ever doing its work on me—a poem with just words, no pictures—was “Casey at the Bat.”

We had a book called The Best Loved Poems of the American People, published by Doubleday in 1936. It looked exactly like the one pictured here (which I just bought).

One evening my father sat me on his lap in the chair where he sat to pay the bills and told me there was a poem he wanted to read me. I don’t think he had ever done such a thing before, and I don’t think he ever did again, for reasons that will soon become apparent.

The poem was “Casey at the Bat,” Ernest Thayer’s baseball ballad from 1888. I’m not sure how old I was. I may have been old enough to read a little, but I wasn’t able to read the poem to myself. And I know I was still little enough to be wearing those snug-fitting pajamas made out of t-shirt material that little boys used to wear. I remember the pajamas. And I remember being a tad perplexed when my father started reading:

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Mercurial, Jovial, Loony: Words from Planets

There are nine planets in our solar system. Or is it eight? I think we’re back up to nine. Doesn’t matter. The ancients had seven “planets.” I put “planets” in quotation marks because the ancients’ list of planets included the sun and the moon (and didn’t include Earth). The word planet derives ultimately from the Greek verb planan, “to wander.” The planets were the heavenly bodies that appeared to wander across the sky, as opposed to the stars, which were (relatively) fixed.

Seven of these wanderers are visible to the naked eye:

  • the moon
  • Mercury
  • Venus
  • the sun
  • Mars
  • Jupiter
  • Saturn

These seven planets, each associated with a god or goddess, were believed to have an influence on human personalities. Those born under the planet Mercury were mercurial, those who were born under the planet Jupiter (Jove) were jovial, etc.

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There Will Be Surprises

Drew Miller, my friend and former Habit Podcast producer/editor, recently told me, “The seeds of hope are in ignorance.”

I’ve been pondering that idea and trying to unpack it, because a) the news of the world has been chipping away at my naturally sunny outlook, and b) willful ignorance, it seems to me, is a huge part of the reason the news of the world is as bad as it is. So how can ignorance be the seedbed of hope?

We live in a culture of catastrophe. More to the point, we live in a culture of catastrophizing—the spinning-up of despair for profit and power. A lot of people make a lot of money by convincing us that the world is going to hell in a hand basket, for real this time. I don’t wish to suggest that we should ignore or downplay the very real societal, political, economic, environmental, and interpersonal dysfunctions that confront us. But the weaponization of our legitimate fears and concerns does not make us better able to address our problems.

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The Gray Havens Feel Sensucht.

Dave and Licia Radford constitute the husband-wife duo, The Gray Havens. Their upcoming album, Blue Flower, is inspired by C. S. Lewis’s autobiography, Surprised by Joy and explores “inconsolable longing” and every human’s homesickness for a place they’ve never been. Most of the album’s songs are available on Spotify.

In this episode, Dave and I talk about the ways that joy is both a spur and a guide for creative work. You might also check out the Blue Flower Podcast, in which Dave talks through the origins of each song on the album.

Looking the World Back to Grace

If you’ve read Anne of Green Gables, you probably remember that scene near the beginning when Matthew Cuthbert is driving Anne Shirley from the train station to Green Gables for the first time. Anne chatters away almost without a pause, and Matthew listens, replying only when asked a direct question, and then only briefly.

Everything Anne sees is a marvel to her. A plum tree in bloom puts her in mind of a bride all in white (in spite of the fact that she has never actually seen a bride all in white). She renames the places whose names seem insufficiently delightful. An avenue of blooming apple trees becomes the White Way of Delight, and Barry’s Pond becomes the Lake of Shining Waters.

“Yes, that is the right name for it,” she says when she christens the Lake of Shining Waters. “I know because of the thrill. When I hit on a name that suits exactly, it gives me a thrill.”

Is this girl a writer, or what?

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Remembering Father Thomas McKenzie

This isn’t going to be a letter about writing. This letter is going to be a tribute to my dear friend Father Thomas McKenzie. He died yesterday, along with his daughter Ella, in a car accident.

Thomas was an Anglican priest, the rector of Church of the Redeemer in Nashville. Church of the Redeemer is not a megachurch, nor did Thomas aspire to be a megachurch pastor—not to my knowledge, anyway. Instead, he tended to the business of a local pastor. Week in and week out, he told the truest story, and he tended to the people who had been entrusted to his care.

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Up-Goer Five and the Ten-Hundred Most Common Words

In a well-known xkcd comic, Randall Munroe explains the Saturn V rocket in a diagram using only the ten-hundred most common words. (He says “ten-hundred” because “thousand” isn’t one of the thousand most common words.) And since “rocket” isn’t one of the ten-hundred most common words, the diagram is called “The Up-Goer Five.” The Up-Goer Five comic was so popular that Munroe made a whole book of such diagrams called The Thing Explainer. In it he explains such things as food-heating radio boxes (microwaves), the other worlds around the sun (the solar system), and the bags of stuff inside you (cells).

Munroe created a writing-checker to help other writers phrase things in the ten-hundred most common words. I’ve been experimenting with another writing-checker that was inspired by Munroe’s but is a little easier to use. This one was created by Theo Sanderson.

Here is my attempt to explain photosynthesis only using the ten-hundred most common words:

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