home • favorite poems • commonplace book • more
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
Instructions for living a life. Pay attention. Be astonished. Tell about it.
There is no justice in love, no proportion in it, and there need not be, because in any specific instance it is only a glimpse or parable of an embracing, incomprehensible reality. It makes no sense at all because it is the eternal breaking in on the temporal. So how could it subordinate itself to cause or consequence?
-Marilynne Robinson, from Gilead
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"
Miracle consists in a relation to fact. All things can and must be explained scientifically and be assigned their cause in the world of phenomena; in this sense, all things are natural, occur according to certain laws. But insofar as pure deism is impossible--every phenomenon, besides being understood scientifically, can also be perceived by someone as a miracle. In this sense, all things are miraculous; all things can be perceived as a direct creation of God's beneficence.
-Pavel Florensky, from "Superstition and Miracle"
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.
[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
Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me bring love.
Where there is offense, let me bring pardon.
Where there is discord, let me bring union.
Where there is error, let me bring truth.
Where there is doubt, let me bring faith.
Where there is despair, let me bring hope.
Where there is darkness, let me bring your light.
Where there is sadness, let me bring joy.
O Master, let me not seek as much
to be consoled as to console,
to be understood as to understand,
to be loved as to love,
for it is in giving that one receives,
it is in self-forgetting that one finds,
it is in pardoning that one is pardoned,
it is in dying that one is raised to eternal life.
-Prayer of Saint Francis
Man is neither angel nor beast, and unfortunately whoever wants to act the angel acts the beast.
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
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.
I am, somehow, less interested in the weight and convolutions of Einstein's brain than in the near certainty that people of equal talent have lived and died in cotton fields and sweatshops.
-Stephen Jay Gould
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"
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
The greatest wealth is to live content with little, for there is never want where the mind is satisfied.
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.
The business man who assumes that this life is everything, and the mystic who asserts it is nothing, fail, on this side and that, to hit the truth. "Yes, I see, dear: it's about halfway between," Aunt Juley had hazarded in the earlier years. No; truth, being alive, was not halfway between anything. It was only to be found by continuous excursions into either realm, and though proportion is the final secret, to espouse it at the outset is to ensure sterility.
-Forster, from Howard's End
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.
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.
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.
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
Let us imagine that we are reading [poetry] or, even better, the words of some mystic, such as Isaac the Syrian, and we try conscientiously to understand the experiences described, but we approach the words with reflection. What will we see then? Nothing, except that which is known to the scientific worldview now -- that is, nothing except physiological and empirico-psychological processes. The mystical experiences will fall apart into optical, thermal, acoustic, muscular, and general-somatic sensations and into naked assertions of the specialness of this complex of sensations. However, the latter, that is, the pretension to specialness of experience, will remain completely unjustified and will even clearly contradict the total fragmentation of the described processes into "ordinary" sensations. This analysis is right in its own way, but that is the case precisely because science does not have the means to capture mystical experiences, and instead of them it catches concomitant processes -- what remains in the hands is not the essense, but foam; not the pearl, but mud. But as soon as we approach the work in a different way and look at it directly, its supra-terminological content is revealed to the spirit: in simple words, in terminologically insignificant words, something infinitely dear and fragrant, like a baby's half-forgotten smile, awakes and looks out at us -- he has just opened his clear little eyes and is stretching his little arms from his bed towards the pillar of golden dust that has broken through the curtain.
-Pavel Florensky, from "The Empyrean and the Empirical"
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"
Truth is so obscure in these times, and falsehood so well established, that, unless we loved the truth, we could not know it.
We are all of us more mystics than we believe or choose to believe – life is complicated enough as it is, after all. We have seen more than we let on, even to ourselves.
Through some moment of beauty or pain, some sudden turning of our lives, we catch glimmers at least of what the saints are blinded by; only then, unlike the saints, we tend to go on as though nothing has happened. To go on as though something has happened, even though we are not sure what it was or just where we are supposed to go with it, is to enter the dimension of life that religion is a word for.
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
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