Who They Probably Couldn’t Comprehend Entirely

But the problem with readers, the idea we’re given of reading is that the model of a reader is the person watching a film, or watching television. So the greatest principle is, “I should sit here and I should be entertained.” And the more classical model, which has been completely taken away, is the idea of a reader as an amateur musician. An amateur musician who sits at the piano, has a piece of music, which is the work, made by somebody they don’t know, who they probably couldn’t comprehend entirely, and they have to use their skills to play this piece of music. The greater the skill, the greater the gift that you give the artist and that the artist gives you. That’s the incredibly unfashionable idea of reading. And yet when you practice reading, and you work at a text, it can only give you what you put into it. It’s an old moral, but it’s completely true.

–Zadie Smith

A Perilous And Fearful Effort

All this, I think, was more meaningful and proper than I knew at the time. To a greater extent than is now common, or even possible for most men, I had by my own doing prepared the house I was to bring my wife to, and in preparing the house I prepared myself. This was the place that was more my own than any other in the world. In it, I had made of loneliness a good thing. I had lived days and days of solitary happiness there. And now I changed it, to make it the place of my marriage. A complex love went into those preparations – for Tanya, and for the place too. Working those bright May days, the foliage fresh and full around me, the river running swift and high after rain, was an act of realization: as I worked, getting ready for the time Tanya would come to live there with me, I understood more and more what the possible meanings were. If it had gone differently – if it had followed, say, the prescription of caution: first ‘enough’ money, and then the ‘right’ sort of house in the ‘right’ sort of place – I think I would have been a poorer husband. And my life, I know, would have been poorer. It wasn’t, to be sure, a permanent place that I had prepared; we were going to be there only for the one summer. It was, maybe one ought to say, no more than a ritual. But it was a meaningful and useful ritual…

It would be a mistake to imply that two lives can unite and make a life between them without discord and pain. Marriage is a perilous and fearful effort, it seems to me. There can’t be enough knowledge at the beginning. It must endure the blundering of ignorance. It is both the cause and the effect of what happens to it. It creates pain that it is the only cure for. It is the only comfort for its hardship. In a time when divorce is as accepted and conventionalized as marriage, a marriage that lasts must look a little like a miracle. That ours lasts – and in its own right and its own way, not in pathetic and hopeless parody of some ‘expert’ notion – is largely, I believe, owing to the way it began, to the Camp and what it meant and came to mean. In coming there, we avoided either suspending ourselves in some honeymoon resort or sinking ourselves into the stampede for ‘success.’ In the life we lived that summer we represented to ourselves what we wanted – and it was not the headlong pilgrimage after money and comfort and prestige. We were spared that stress from the beginning. And there at the Camp we had around us the elemental world of water and light and earth and air. We felt the presence of the wild creatures, the river, the trees, the stars. Though we had our troubles, we had them in a true perspective. The universe, as we could see any night, is unimaginable large, and mostly empty, and mostly dark. We knew we needed to be together more than we needed to be apart.

–Wendell Berry, The Long-Legged House (p. 36-37)

The Mind That Is Not Baffled Is Not Employed

There are, it seems, two muses: the Muse of Inspiration, who gives us inarticulate visions and desires, and the Muse of Realization, who returns again and again to say ‘It is yet more difficult than you thought.’ This is the muse of form. It may be then that form serves us best when it works as an obstruction, to baffle us and deflect our intended course. It may be that when we no longer know what to do, we have come to our real work and when we no longer know which way to go, we have begun our real journey. The mind that is not baffled is not employed. The impeded stream is the one that sings.

— Wendell Berry

This Momentous Giving

Lovers must not, like usurers, live for themselves alone. They must finally turn from their gaze at one another back toward the community. If they had only themselves to consider, lovers would not need to marry, but they must think of others and of other things. They say their vows to the community as much as to one another, and the community gathers around them to hear and to wish them well, on their behalf and its own. It gathers around them because it understands how necessary, how joyful, and how fearful this joining is. These lovers, pledging themselves to one another ‘until death,’ are giving themselves away, and they are joined by this as no law or contract could join them. Lovers, then, ‘die’ into their union with one another as a soul ‘dies’ into its union with God. And so here, at the very heart of community life, we find not something to sell as in the public market but this momentous giving. If the community cannot protect this giving, it can protect nothing.

— Wendell Berry, Sex, Economy, Freedom & Community: Eight Essays

The Only Place Where We Can Be Sure Of Meeting


And the terrible thought that arises from this is that everyone has such disabilities. Their inner, private, secret black holes which they expend so much energy on trying to hide. And that the world is full of inner cripples bumping into one another. Yes, behind all the attractive and less attractive, though at least normal and non-frightening faces we confront. Not psychologically or spiritually or psychically, but in a conscious manner, physiognomically. Defects in thoughts, consciousness, memory, perception and comprehension…

Why do you think normality is so sought after if not for this very reason? It’s the only place where we can be sure of meeting. But even there we don’t meet. Arne Næss once described how, when he knew was going to meet an ordinary, normal person, he would make a supreme effort to be ordinary and normal while this normal person, from his side, presumably exerted himself to the utmost to reach Næss. Yet they would never meet, according to Næss, the chasm that existed between them could not be bridged. Formally, yes, but not in reality.

– Karl Ove Knausgaard, A Man in Love: My Struggle Book 2, page 430

I was, In A Way, Too Free

I knew, sitting there, that I might be a real nihilist, that it wasn’t always just a hip pose. That I drifted and quit because nothing meant anything, no one choice was really better. That I was, in a way, too free, or that this kind of freedom wasn’t actually real — I was free to choose ‘whatever’ because it didn’t really matter. But that this, too, was because of something I chose — I had somehow chosen to have nothing matter. It all felt much less abstract than it sounds to try to explain it. All this was happening while I was just sitting there, spinning the ball. The point was that, through making this choice, I didn’t matter, either. I didn’t stand for anything. If I wanted to matter — even just to myself — I would have to be less free, by deciding to choose in some kind of definite way. Even if it was nothing more than an act of will.

David Foster Wallace, The Pale King

Eating Reverently


The world’s largest religion began with a meal. There was a large enough room for the people invited. There was a jug of water. There were bowls and loaves of bread and cups and vessels of wine. There were prayers and speeches; there was a song and an argument. The night before he was killed, Jesus ate supper with his friends. One might argue that there was born a sacrament so central to Christianity, that the Church itself was born that night. The Eucharist, many Christians believe, reenacts both that meal and the sacrifice Jesus made on humankind’s behalf—offering forgiveness and collapsing the divide between God and humanity. For Christians, during communion, all distances are crossed, all boundaries blurred. Life unites with death; spirit with body; meaning with fact; the profane with the sacred; the host with the guest. But also, as perhaps non-Christians more likely observe, the ritual is simply bread and wine. There might be a tablecloth or a candle, there might be a prayer, but the bread comes from the same place as does our morning toast, baked by the same young baker who works at the bakery down the street….

The approach we take to feeding one another in our individual homes, the manner in which we gather around the table, the unspoken dividing and sharing of responsibilities, the inarticulate daily habits, are all bound by ritual and rich with ceremony. Like religious practices, these details reveal hidden graces and express our repeating and consistent gratitude. They can reflect the general peace of a household, or be the cause of divide and discord. These “ways of doing things” are not without controversy because they are specific and savory. Just like religious sacraments, their power to include, to ground and form our identities, to draw an imaginary line around our households, is as profound as their power to exclude. In our house, we are unified by the way we give and receive acts of comfort, the timings of our comings and goings, the type of milk we buy, the type of cereal. At their most basic, these housekeeping details are a simple system of kindnesses holding together the fabric of our families. At their most complicated, they are an intricate web of histories and beliefs, as paradoxical and tangled and esoteric as any religion. To grow bored of our tables and foods, therefore, would not only be sad and unhealthy, it would be, in every sense of the word, irreverent.

–Nikaela Marie Peters in Kinfolk

Summer Morning

I implore you,
it’s time to come back
from the dark,

it’s morning,
the hills are pink
and the roses
whatever they felt

in the valley of night
are opening now
their soft dresses,
their leaves

are shining.
Why are you laggard?
Sure you have seen this
a thousand times,

which isn’t half enough.
Let the world
have its way with you,
luminous as it is

with mystery
and pain—
graced as it is
with the ordinary.

–Mary Oliver

Swimming, One Day in August

It is time now, I said,
for the deepening and quieting of the spirit
among the flux of happenings.

Something had pestered me so much
I thought my heart would break,
I mean, the mechanical part.

I went down in the afternoon
to the sea
which held me, until I grew easy.

About tomorrow, who knows anything.
Except that it will be time, again,
For the deepening and quieting of the spirit

–Mary Oliver