Feb 28, 2009

Fare Thee Well, Friend

Bill Holm passed away on February 25, 2009. His great warrior spirit will be a contentious wake-up call in the placid hereafter. Those who have avoided aspirations toward heaven, feeling it might be too dull, can now aim higher without fear.

Bill Holm was a life-long Minnesotan of Icelandic descent. He was an educator: he taught throughout his life, sharing his passion with students in Minnesota, China, Iceland. He was a gifted author of essays and poetry. Bill spent large amounts of time abroad, teaching, learning and writing about his experiences and insights. He was a devoted lover of Bach and an accomplished pianist; a Renaissance man whose intellectual curiosity might manifest itself in essays on log houses or genealogy, horses or cemeteries. Bill's anger at political and social injustice was ever ready to come out in conversation or essay; he never settled for complacency or the status quo.

My passion for Iceland can be directly traced to one of Bill Holm's books: Coming Home Crazy: An Alphabet of China Essays. I happened upon it at 17.5 Cafe, a used bookstore/coffee shop. Seldom has $6.50 led to so much enjoyment: this book was the beginning of Iceland on the Brain for me, which I can date to early 2002. When I read Coming Home Crazy for the first time, I was intrigued by the chapter "I for Iceland." Holm used the visit of his Icelandic friend Wincie to introduce Iceland, and to discuss differences and commonalities in China and Iceland. He was particularly eloquent in describing language and books:

...Chinese and Icelanders share an archaic impractical language, and an old literature. They are tribes of poets...That poetry gets them through the poverty with at least part of a soul intact and gives them insufferable pride, self-centeredness, even arrogance, that they also share.

After reading this chapter I wondered: what kind of books do Icelanders write? My love of Iceland began with its literature, which I was inspired to read by Bill Holm.

Bill's friends and admirers loved his warm, compassionate humor. A great example of this is a chapter in Eccentric Islands entitled "Iceland, 1999." Part of this chapter tells the story of a trip that Bill, his friend Wincie and her Reykjavik choir took to Sigulfjordur. Bill read this same story on a Prairie Home Companion show--broadcast from Reykjavik--in May of 2006. You can listen to the broadcast here. Be prepared to laugh and to cry.

My family and I met Bill while vacationing in Iceland during the summer of 2006. We went to Hofsos, where, since 1999, Bill had spent his summers in his small fisherman's cottage that he called Brimnes. Here, too, he taught an annual writers workshop. We went to Hofsos in the hopes of meeting Bill, and to visit Drangey Island. It was a great highlight of the trip that we were able to do both. Bill was just completing his book, Windows of Brimnes, while we were there. This past summer I sent him my copy to autograph. He received it on the birthday that he shared with my youngest son, and he sent back a card with the book, saying that he had just completed a book of Brimnes poems. I will remember Bill's birthday each coming August as we celebrate Peter's.

Of the many articles I have read about Bill Holm these past few days, my favorite was a description of the following tribute from Garrison Keillor:

Holm was an occasional guest on A Prairie Home Companion radio show...The program's host, Garrison Keillor, called Holm a great man.
"And unlike most great men, he really looked like one. 6 foot 8 inches, big frame, and a big white beard and a shock of white hair, a booming voice, so he loomed over you like a prophet and a preacher, which is what he was," said Keillor.
"I wish I'd been there to catch him as he fell," Keillor continued. "I hope his Icelandic ancestors are waiting to welcome him to their rocky corner of heaven. I hope his piano goes to someone who will love it as much as he did. I hope that people all across Minnesota will pick up one of his books and see what the man had to say."
by Melanie Sommer, Minnesota Public Radio,
Marianne Combs, Minnesota Public Radio
February 26, 2009

I know that people all across the world will continue to pick up his books and read them. Live on, Bill.

See all Iceland Fever posts on Bill Holm here.


Shannon said...

Oh how sad! I didn't even see this news last week. Now I will treasure my copy of Eccentric Islands all the more. (and thank you again for sending it to me - it is a lovely read!!!)

Rose said...

Glad you like it, Shannon. Don't know how many times I've read it, but I always enjoy it!

Professor Batty said...

It's nice to be able to re-read the story of your meeting with Bill. He was a true inspiration.