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John Locke advised that his readers keep a commonplace book, a document where quotes, proverbs, and ideas would be gathered in an unrestricted way. This is my commonplace book. It is full of quotes and ideas that I find compelling and continue to return to.
Thus the sum of things is ever being reviewed, and mortals dependent one upon another. Some nations increase, others diminish, and in a short space the generations of living creatures are changed and like runners pass on the torch of life.
[N]one of us can ever express the exact measure of our needs, or our ideas, or our sorrows, and human speech is like a cracked kettle on which we beat out tunes for bears to danice to, when we long to move the stars to pity.
-Flaubert, from Madame Bovary
Caesar was too old, it seems to me, to amuse himself by going off to conquer the world. Such entertainment was good for Augustus or Alexander. They were young men and difficult to restrain. But Caesar should have been more mature.
For beauty is nothing but the beginning of terror which we are barely able to endure, and it amazes us so, because it serenely disdains to destroy us.
-Rainer Maria Rilke
Start a huge, foolish project,
It makes absolutely no difference
what people think of you.
As each of us considers himself sufficiently capable of practicing justice, each of us naturally thinks that a system under which he yielded power would be a reasonably just one. This is the temptation Christ underwent at the hands of the devil. Men are continually succumbing to it.
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about your despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting --
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.
Mary Oliver, "Wild Geese"
There is no shortage of good days. It is good lives that are hard to come by. A life of good days lived in the senses is not enough. The life of sensation is the life of greed; it requires more and more. The life of the spirit requires less and less; time is ample and its passage sweet. Who would call a day spent reading a good day? But a life spent reading -- that is a good life.
Man is neither angel nor beast, and unfortunately whoever wants to act the angel acts the beast.
For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives
In the valley of its making where executives
Would never want to tamper, flows on south
From ranches of isolation and the busy griefs,
Raw towns that we believe and die in; it survives,
A way of happening, a mouth.
I do not admire the excess of a virtue like valor, unless I see at the same time an excess of the opposite virtue, as with Epaminondas, who posessed extreme valor and extreme kindenss. For otherwise it is not rising but falling. We do not show greatess by being at one extreme, but by touching both at the same time and filling everything in between.
Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean-
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don't know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
With your one wild and precious life?
-Mary Oliver, "The Summer Day"
Instructions for living a life. Pay attention. Be astonished. Tell about it.
Man is only a reed, the weakest thing in nature, but he is a thinking reed. The whole universe does not need to take up arms to crush him; a vapor, a drop of water, is enough to kill him. But if the universe were to crush him, man would still be nobler than what killed him, because he knows he is dying and the advantage the universe has over him. The universe knows nothing of this. Our dignity consists, then, in thought. It is from this we must raise ourselves, and not from space and duration, which we could not fill. Let us labor, then, to think well. This is the principle of morality.
You could live a hundred years, it's happened.
I am speaking from the fortunate platform
of many years,
none of which, I think, I ever wasted.
Do you need a prod?
Do you need a little darkness to get you going?
Let me be as urgent as a knife, then,
and remind you of Keats,
so single of purpose and thinking, for a while,
he had a lifetime.
Mary Oliver, from "The Fourth Sign of the Zodiac"
This is what you shall do: Love the earth and sun and the animals, despise riches, give alms to every one that asks, stand up for the stupid and crazy, devote your income and labor to others, hate tyrants, argue not concerning God, have patience and indulgence toward the people, take off your hat to nothing known or unknown or to any man or number of men, go freely with powerful uneducated persons and with the young and with the mothers of families, read these leaves in the open air every season of every year of your life, re-examine all you have been told at school or church or in any book, dismiss whatever insults your own soul; and your very flesh shall be a great poem and have the richest fluency not only in its words but in the silent lines of its lips and face and between the lashes of your eyes and in every motion and joint of your body.
-Walt Whitman, from Leaves of Grass
The greatest wealth is to live content with little, for there is never want where the mind is satisfied.
Truth is so obscure in these times, and falsehood so well established, that, unless we loved the truth, we could not know it.
Writing: a way of leaving no space for death, of pushing back forgetfulness, of never letting oneself be surprised by the abyss. Of never becoming resigned, consoled: never turning over in bed to face the wall and drift asleep as if nothing had happened, as if nothing could happen.
-Cixous, from Coming to Writing
Only art penetrates the seeming realities of this world. There is another reality, the genuine one, which we lose sight of. This other reality is always sending us hints, which without art, we can't receive.
To live in this world
you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it
against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go.
I beg you, to have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don't search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.
-Rainer Maria Rilke
To believe your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men, - that is genius. Speak your latent conviction, and it shall be the universal sense; for the inmost in due time becomes the outmost,-- and our first thought is rendered back to us by the trumpets of the Last Judgment.
-Ralph Waldo Emerson
Maybe it is the nothingness that is real and our entire dream is nonexistent, but in that case we feel that these phrases of music, and these notions that exist in relation to our dream, must also be nothing. We will perish, but we have for hostages these divine captives who will follow us and share our fate. And death in their company is less bitter, less inglorious, and perhaps less probable.
-Marcel Proust, from Swann's Way
I died from minerality and became vegetable;
And From vegetativeness I died and became animal.
I died from animality and became man.
Then why fear disappearance through death?
Next time I shall die
Bringing forth wings and feathers like angels;
After that, soaring higher than angels -
What you cannot imagine,
I shall be that.