Quotations: We find them at odd times in odd places, and are struck by a truth or insight. Or we seek them out to help us express ourselves better by using someone else’s words when failed by our own. They can be found in handy collections for easy access, or happened upon and saved—torn from a page or jotted in a notebook, or even copied and pasted in electronic form. Sometimes we commit them to memory, waiting for the right moment to utilize them.
Somehow they help us make sense of things, or offer a better way to explain something, or add something concrete to something felt, or imagined. “Words are but the vague shadows of the volumes we mean,” wrote Theodore Dreiser. “Little audible links, they are, chaining together great inaudible feelings and purposes.”
See what I just did? Enlisted a quote from a respected writer to help make my case, pulled from an ever-expanding collection that resides in a laptop file labeled simply, “Quotes.” Sometimes I scan them with a purpose or need in mind. Other times, like today, I just wander the collection at random to see what chain of words, to use Dreiser’s phrase, prods me, stops me, forces me somewhere, maybe some place I don’t really want to go. Like this one, for example, from The Dying Animal by Phillip Roth, that seems to set the tone for this particular perusal:
“Think of old age this way: it’s just an everyday fact that one’s life is at stake. One cannot evade knowing what shortly awaits one. The silence that will surround one forever. Otherwise it’s all the same. Otherwise one is immortal for as long as one lives.”
Thankfully, you can depend on Woody Allen to have a dissenting viewpoint from Roth: “I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work. I want to achieve it through not dying.”
In his memoir, Off to the Side, Jim Harrison sees things a bit differently: “Life is so short you want to remember all of it, bad and good. It moves so quickly you easily forget that it is utterly unforgiving.”
Novelist John Dufresne keeps it simple, but drives home the point of how quickly life can indeed slip away from us, when he writes in Love Warps the Mind a Little: “You lose a wallet or keys or something and you notice in a second. But your life can go missing and you don’t even know it.”
Then Dufresne hits me again, and I begin to see an unsettling trend: “I think about when I’ll die—in my sleep, at seventy-two, or before I finish this sentence. And wonder what will happen after I die. What I mean is, what will I be missing? The existence of existence and the existence of nonexistence. When I think about this at night. I can’t sleep.”
The great English essayist William Hazlitt answers, wondering why we should even worry about ceasing to exist: “Perhaps the best cure for the fear of death is to reflect that life has a beginning as well as an end. There was a time when we were not: this gives us no concern—why then should it trouble us that a time will come when we shall cease to be?”
Maybe in the here and now, we should be more troubled by the pain of a broken heart, according to Paul Auster. In his novel, Man in the Dark, he explains: “Betty died of a broken heart. Some people laugh when they hear that phrase, but that’s because they don’t know anything about the world. People die of broken hearts. It happens every day, and it will go on happening to the end of time.”
But better not to even get started into the realm of love. So, veering away from the too serious before things get out of hand, you can always count on the incomparable Kurt Vonnegut to brighten the picture, observing, “Be patient. Your future will soon come to you and lie down at your feet like a dog who knows and loves you no matter what you are.”
At last also are the calls to embrace life as it comes and make the most of it. Kafka put it this way: “Youth is happy because it has the ability to see beauty. Anyone who keeps the ability to see beauty never grows old.” And George Sand brings exquisite, simple splendor to the act of living, admonishing us, “Try to keep your soul young and quivering right up to old age.”
Only Buddha can follow that, offering these peaceful, calming words: “We are shaped by our thoughts; we become what we think. When the wind is pure, joy follows like a shadow that never leaves.”
To that, amen.
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