Sometimes when I’m reading a passage the words dance right off the page and into my heart. At other times, I may read pages and pages or even entire books without having this happen at all. When it does I’m grateful. It’s the reason I read. It may be a description of a place I’ve never been or a place I love. A bit of conversation. A few words of wisdom often passed along by the author in the guise of a wild or lovable or eccentric character. So, my favorite books are full of dogeared pages and underlines and stars and sticky notes. I selected a few at random from my shelves, checked out the sticky notes, and found the words that had first “danced” off the page…
The following is from the poem “Ithaka” by Constantine P. Cavafy. Selected by the Brazilian film director Walter Salles for inclusion in the anthology, Poems That Make Grown Men Cry: 100 Men On the Words that Move Them, edited by Anthony and Ben Holden. It’s always good to be reminded that the journey is at least as important as the destination.
“Keep Ithaka always in your mind.
Arriving there is what you are destined for.
But do not hurry the journey at all,
Better if it lasts for years,
so you are old by the time you reach the island,
wealthy with all you have gained on the way,
not expecting Ithaka to make you rich.”
These two short passages are from Euphoria by Lily King, a novel inspired by the events in the life of the anthropologist Margaret Mead. The first quote is a lovely image from Papua New Guinea and the second is something to consider when we think we have all the answers.
“We passed through a long swath of fireflies, thousands of them flashing all around us, and it felt like soaring through stars.”
“What’s the point of anyone’s search for answers? The truth you find will always be replaced by someone else’s. Someday even Darwin will look like a quaint Ptolemy who saw what he could see but no more.”
The Old Gringo, a novel by Carlos Fuentes, loosely based on the mystery surrounding the disappearance of the journalist Ambrose Bierce, has been called “a dazzling novel” and “a perfect little gemstone” with the “fierce magic of a remembered dream.” It was easy to flip through this book and find my underlines. Here are two:
“…a journey is painful for the one who has to remain behind, but more beautiful than it can ever be for the traveler.”
“There are people whose external reality is generous because it is transparent, because you can read everything, accept everything, understand everything about them: people who carry their own sun with them.”
I pick up Billy Collins when I leave for an appointment or a trip or when I have only a few minutes for a cup of tea before I have to do some chore. His slim collections of poetry on my bookshelf are full of colorful sticky notes to mark my favorites. These words are from a poem titled, “A Question About Birds” in the collection, Aimless Love: New and Selected Poems.
“I am going to sit on a rock near some water
or on a slope of grass
under a high ceiling of white clouds,
and I am going to stop talking
so I can wander around in that spot…
through a forest of speckled sunlight…
and listen to the songs of birds.”
There’s a special place on my bookshelf, too, for Paulo Coelho. When I started reading Manuscript Found in Accra I decided not to underline or draw stars or fold over corners of pages. I would have ruined the book as there are so many little bits of wisdom scattered throughout. Instead, I kept a notebook. It was tough to make a decision, but here are a few…
“Scars speak more loudly than the sword that caused them.”
“Do one thing: Live the life you always wanted to live…. The angels say: Now!”
“…to those who believe that adventures are dangerous, I say, try routine; that kills you far more quickly.”
“It is the imperfect that astonishes and attracts us…. A sunset is always more beautiful when it is covered with irregularly shaped clouds because only then can it reflect the many colors out of which dreams and poetry are made.”
“Time and life have given me plenty of logical explanations for everything, but my soul feeds on mysteries.”
Every now and then I take down Cynthia Ozicks’s Metaphor and Memory, open a page — any page — and read with satisfaction. A few days ago I read, again, “The Shock of Teapots,” a lovely essay about the nature of travel. It’s still relevant more than two decades after publication.
“Travel returns us in just this way to sharpness of notice…what we remember from childhood we remember forever — permanent ghosts, stamped, imprinted, eternally seen. Travelers regain this ghost-seizing brightness, eeriness, firstness.”
“Nothing shakes the heart so much as meeting — far, far away — what you last met at home…a battered old stoop or the shape of a door appears beautiful…”
I had never read José Saramago until this past weekend. I bought this tiny book, The Tale of the Unknown Island, at a used book sale a few years back. It’s been sitting on my shelf. It took less than an hour to read. José Saramago won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1998. The “creative punctuation” took a bit of getting used to, but the words were clear…
“My belief was that, with sailing, there are only two true teachers, one is the sea and the other the boat, And the sky, you’re forgetting the sky, Yes, of course, the sky, The winds, The clouds, The sky, Yes, the sky.”
“If you don’t step outside yourself, you’ll never discover who you are.”
“…this is the way fate usually treats us, it’s there right behind us, it has already reached out a hand to touch us on the shoulder while we’re still muttering to ourselves, It’s all over, that’s it, who cares anyhow.”
Have a great weekend…step outside yourself, hold on to words that dance, embrace the mysteries!