I have always loved a good quote. In my family quoting from things, anything, is how we communicate. We’ll quote anything from random picture books (“fank you, Mitzi”) to Teddy Roosevelt (“The prize goes to the man in the arena”). I’m not sure whether to blame my mom or my dad. Or to thank them.
When I was in 7th or 8th grade I started keeping a quote book. It would be years down the road before I realized that many writers had done this before me, and what I was creating was called a commonplace book. But I thought I was pretty original.
In this first book are little gems like: “A great deal of love given to a few is better than a little given to many” (Thomas Jefferson). Now knowing Jefferson the way I do (a little better than when I was 13), I doubt he ever said this. Oh internet, how you lie!
Or these lines from Longfellow: “Let us, then, be up and doing / with a heart for any fate; / still achieving, still pursuing / Learn to labor and to wait.” If only I could have known how many times I would hear those lines in my teaching life. “The Psalm of Life” is the first poem we memorize in sixth grade, and I hear it over and over and over. I can’t say that I really like it, but if it compels anyone to “get up and go” then it’s done its job.
The quotes in the first book, which spans the ages of 13-19, are very earnest and serious. There’s a lot of Lewis and a lot of political philosophy. I had a weakness for founding fathers and the ancients during these years. Probably because I’d never read them in depth.
The second and third quote books take a more literary turn, opening with poems by Carl Sandburg and Louise Glück. Lots of Shakespeare. Lots of poetry. I’ve copied many longer passages that I want to remember or at least turn to quickly. One of my favorite stories is “Babette’s Feast” by Isak Dinesen. And I love it chiefly for this passage:
“Mercy and truth, my friends, have met together,” said the General. “Righteousness and bliss shall kiss one another… Man, my friend,” said General Loewenhielm, “is frail and foolish. We have all of us been told that grace is to be found in the universe. But in our human foolishness and short-sightedness we imagine divine grace to be finite. For this reason we trouble…. We tremble before making our choice in life, and after having made it again tremble in fear of having chosen wrong. But the moment comes when our eyes are opened, and we see and realize that grace is infinite. Grace, my friends, demands nothing from us but that we shall await it with confidence and acknowledge it in gratitude. Grace, brothers, makes no conditions and singles out none of us in particular; grace takes us all to its bosom and proclaims general amnesty. See! that which we have chosen is given us and that which we have refused is, also and at the same time, granted us. Ay, and that which we have rejected is poured upon us abundantly. For mercy and truth have met together, and righteousness and bliss have kissed one another.”
Read the story. It is of course about mercy and grace and a wonderful feast (food writing at its best). It’s also about Lutherans getting shaken up out of their routine. There’s nothing better than Lutherans getting a little shaken up!
Yesterday I started my fourth commonplace book. I opened up the crisp new page (new being relative since I bought the journal in Charlottesville, VA nearly two years ago) and wrote a line from a letter John Steinbeck wrote his son: “If it is right, it happens–The main thing is not to hurry. Nothing good gets away.” He’s giving his son advice about being in love, but this applies to anything. To teaching, friendships, anything but really great bargains, which I why I went right back to the junk store to buy a wicker chair and gigantic brass pot. But that’s another post.