Thursday, April 22, 2010

Mark Twain and The Eagles

Yesterday marked the passing of Samuel Langhorne Clemens. As you probably have heard, he came in on the tail of Haley's Comet, November 30th, 1835, and left seventy five years later, on April 21, 1910, the day after its return. Which is pretty cool, I think. I've been a Mark Twain fan for a very long time and have come to love his often acerbic wit. He had his finger on the pulse of human absurdity and was never afraid to tell it like it was. And is.

Lest we feel our current Congress is failing to show any signs of intelligence, divine or otherwise, perhaps we can find some small solace in knowing that story is not new. Twain has been quoted as saying,  "Reader, suppose you were an idiot. And suppose you were a member of Congress. But, I repeat myself."  His feelings towards those who call themselves patriots is equally telling and seems to have stood the test of time: "Patriot: the person who can holler the loudest without knowing what he is hollering about."  Another one of my favorites, though I probably shouldn't admit it, "The trouble ain't that there is too many fools, but that the lightning ain't distributed right."

When I was in college, lo those many years ago, I was fortunate to be able to take an entire class devoted to Mark Twain. I read close to everything he had written and came out of it with a brand new favorite book, Roughing It. It remains to this day among my favorites. I wish I had a copy in front of me so I could quote from it but taken out of context it might lack that flair he had for sarcasm. His description of the waystation the stagecoach stops at as he traveled out west, is, for me, some of the funniest writing ever. Don't know why but it always makes me laugh 'til I cry. There are lines in that book I still like to drop in conversation every chance I get. It doesn't happen often.

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, will always remain one of the greatest books ever written.  I read it out loud to Coleman when he was about ten. Yes, he could read very well for himself but it was a nightly ritual, a chapter or two before bed. He recently wanted to buy a copy and re-read it. That certainly did my heart good. I read out loud to both Coleman and Trevor. It started before they were born. I hope parents still read to their children. Not many things finer.

Twain did not shy away from tough subjects nor was he afraid to do battle with the powers that be. He rode in well armed. He knew that humor comes more often out of sorrow than happy times. And he had more than his fair share of sorrow. He said,  "Against the assault of laughter, nothing can stand."  I was able to see Hal Holbrook in his one man show on Twain several years ago in Albuquerque. I had wanted to see it for some time. What a treat.

Ken Burns did his usual outstanding job with a PBS show on him several years back and a great book to go with it. It is chock full of interesting images and the accompanying text is very well-written, Mark Twain: an Illustrated Biography. If you're a Twain fan at all I'd suggest getting your hands on this book. I sure hope the film comes around to PBS again.

Twain loved cats. He had many lounging around his home and offered this observation: "If a man could be crossed with a cat, it would improve the man, but it would deteriorate the cat."

From A Tramp Abroad: "You may say a cat uses good grammar. Well, a cat does -- but you let a cat get excited once; you let a cat get to pulling fur with another cat on a shed, nights, and you'll hear grammar that will give you the lockjaw. Ignorant people think it's the noise which fighting cats make that is so aggravating, but it ain't so; it's the sickening grammar they use."  

I have a slim volume of the best of his witticisms. I often go there when I need to be reminded that it's important to keep a sense of humor, to find the silliness in the human condition. And silly it can be. Silly and beautiful. At times it seems like we are all just flailing around trying to figure it all out. Well, at least I am. Maybe that's the great gift of the sea for me, to learn how to be still. It might seem rather disparate but I believe everything is connected, so here it is, my real lesson from Mark Twain and perhaps my favorite song by the Eagles, "Learn to Be Still." It has some nice images, and it does show the lyrics, but I suggest, at least once, just close your eyes and listen.

Note on Jan. 9, 2013: There are no longer any videos of this available so I have substituted with the lyrics:

It's just another day in paradise
As you stumble to your bed
You'd give anything to silence
Those voices ringing in your head
You thought you could find happiness
Just over that green hill
You thought you would be satisfied
But you never will-
Learn to be still

We are like sheep without a shepherd
We don't know how to be alone
So we wander 'round this desert
And wind up following the wrong gods home
But the flock cries out for another
And they keep answering that bell
And one more starry-eyed messiah
Meets a violent farewell-
Learn to be still
Learn to be still

Now the flowers in your garden
They don't smell so sweet
Maybe you've forgotten
The heaven lying at your feet

There are so many contradictions
In all these messages we send
(we keep asking)
How do I get out of here
Where do I fit in?
Though the world is torn and shaken
Even if your heart is breakin'
It's waiting for you to awaken
And someday you will-
Learn to be still
Learn to be still

Thank you, JB, for reminding me... 


  1. Be Still and, you've really hit the nail on the head. Sometimes I think people are afraid of silence. Don't know why but have given this some thought. I saw the PBS series on Twain. It was fantastic! Also enjoyed how they brought in the old film footage. Twain really came alive, as in, a living person, but, then, he still lives, really! Lovely post, Teresa.

  2. I didn't know about him coming in and leaving with Haley's Comet. How interesting! He was a man filled with wisdom and wit. What a great pair of traits to be blessed with. I need to get myself a book of his quotes.

    Our rector just talked on Tuesday night about the importance of being still and quiet. It seems I'm always in GO mode and always plugged in somewhere - computer, iphone, camera, etc. There are times I make myself leave my iphone in the other room. It's just too much. Kittie's right - silence is kind of scary - at least for me!

  3. Teresa, this is one of the finest pieces you have written. Straight from your heart to the page upon which you type. Huck Finn is the best piece of literature an American has written. It all circulates around Twain, Huck Finn. Roughing It--at A&M grad school, my professor quoted it, made us read sections of it, stating it was great history and literature. Twain's coming upon Virginia City, Nevada, is one of the greatest entries into a city ever written. Yes, Twain had despair but kept laughter going. I didn't know he passed on April 21st. You've really scribbled a great piece here, Teresa. The cats...didn't know that about him. I've just come in from caressing my barn cat that ascends Poprock Hill to our back the little guy.

    That you read to your children...Twain. They have been gifted by their mom.

  4. Kittie, yes, learning to be still, to quiet my mind, is a large part of what I believe I'm here to do...

    Gail, I love that your rector is addressing this. I often go down to the beach and leave my phone and my camera behind. I love having the photos, but I also want to experience it in the moment and really see it with My eyes. For me, it's part of learning to be still.

    Jack, I am so grateful for your words. Mark and your mama passed on the same date.
    Regards to your kitty.

  5. Do you know that I have *never* read anything by Mark Twain? I know! Horrible! But your post makes me want to immediately, and I even stole one of your Twain quotes for my Facebook page today. ;) I knew about the comet thing, I knew he lived a life of challenges and pain, always with dignity and triumph. I read a book in the past year called The Secret History of Dreaming by Robert Moss. Chapter ten is called, "Mark Twain's Rhyming Life" and is devoted to his ability to dream channel and the importance that Twain attributed this gift as it pertained to his writing. It's a fascinating angle on a fascinating, cosmic, man. I think you'd enjoy it. :) Love you Teresa!

  6. Oh, I just love Mark Twain! Thank you for this lovely, insightful tribute!

    Twain's witty quotes alone could fill volumes! But the fact that he left us such classics like Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer is just icing on the cake! Think I'll go pick one up and read a little now...

  7. Kristy, thank you for telling me about the Moss book. It sounds very interesting. A trip to Borders may be in order. : ) Love You!

    Joan, can't begin to tell you how grateful I am for your "letter to my younger self" blog post. Your openness is a gift to all of us.

  8. ..."his finger on the pulse of human absurdity." Perfect. And perfectly true. Ah, Mark Twain. He was spunky. I like spunky. And he was wise.