Beneath The Surface


And although I, like her, always tried to see beneath the surface, on the basis of a fundamental yet unstated tenet that what lay beneath was the truth or the reality, and, like her, always sought meaning, even if it were only to be found in an acknowledgment of meaninglessness, it was actually on the glittering and alluring surface that I wanted to live, and the chalice of meaninglessness I wanted to drain — in short I was attracted by all the town’s discos and nightspots…How could I explain that to Hilde?

I couldn’t, and didn’t. Instead I opened a new subdivision in my life. ‘Booze and hopes of fornication’ it was called, and it was right next to ‘insight and sincerity’, separated only by a minor garden-fence-like change of personality.

— Karl Ove Knausgaard, Dancing in the Dark (My Struggle, Book 4), p. 23

The Virtues Of Passivity

I said that, on the contrary, I had come to believe more and more in the virtues of passivity, and of living a life as unmarked by self-will as possible. One could make almost anything happen, if one tried hard enough, but the trying — it seemed to me — was almost always a sign that one was crossing the currents, was forcing events in a direction they did not naturally want to go, and though you might argue that nothing could ever be accomplished without going against nature to some extent, the artificiality of that vision and its consequences had become — to put it bluntly — anathema to me. There was a great difference, I said, between the things I wanted and the things I could apparently have, and until I had finally and forever made my peace with that fact, I had decided to want nothing at all.

— Rachel Cusk, (pp. 170-171) Outline

Seeing What Was Really There

…And in fact one of the things that happened to me on that holiday, and I believe has not changed since, was that I began to feel for the first time that I was seeing what was really there, without asking myself whether or not I was expecting to see it. When I think back to the time before, and especially to the years in my marriage, it seems to me as though my wife and I looked at the world through a long lens of preconception, by which we held ourselves at some unbreachable distance from what was around us, a distance that constituted a kind of safety but also created a space for illusion. We never, I think, discovered the true nature of the things we saw, any more than we were ever in danger of being affected by them; we peered at them, at people and places, like people on a ship peer at the passing mainland, and should we have seen them in any kind of trouble, or they us, there would have been nothing whatever either one of us could have done about it.

— Rachel Cusk, (p. 119) Outline

The Principle Of Progress


In his marriage, he now realized, the principle of progress was always at work, in the acquiring of houses, possessions, cars, the drive towards higher social status, more travel, a wider circle of friends, even the production of children felt like an obligatory calling-point on the mad journey; and it was inevitable, he now saw, that once there were no more things to add or improve on, no more goals to achieve or stages to pass through, the journey would seem to have run its course, and he and his wife would be beset by a great sense of futility and by the feeling of some malady, which was really only the feeling of stillness after a life of too much motion, such as sailors experience when they walk on dry land after too long at sea, but which to both of them signified that they were no longer in love. If only we had had the sense, he said, to make our peace with one another then, to start from the honest proposition that we were two people not in love who nonetheless meant one another no harm; well, he said, his eyes brimming again, if that had been the case I believe we might have learned truly to love one another and to love ourselves. But instead we saw it as another opportunity for progress, saw the journey unfolding once more, only this time it was a journey through destruction and war, for which both of us demonstrated just as much energy and aptitude as always.

— Rachel Cusk, (pp. 99-100) Outline

A Magic River

I said that when my sons were the ages of those two leaping boys, they were so intimate it would have been hard to disentangle their separate natures. They used to play together from the moment they opened their eyes in the morning to the moment they closed them again. Their play was a kind of shared trance in which they created whole imaginary worlds, and they were forever involved in games and projects whose planning and execution were as real to them as they were invisible to everyone else: sometimes I would move or throw away some apparently inconsequential item, only to be told that it was a sacred prop in the ongoing make-believe, a narrative which seemed to run like a magic river through our household, inexhaustible, and which they could exit and reenter at will, moving over that threshold, which no one else could see, into another element. And then one day the river dried up: their shared world of imagination ceased, and the reason was that one of them — I can’t even recall which one it was — stopped believing in it. In other words, it was nobody’s fault; but all the same it was brought home to me how much of what is beautiful in their lives was the result of a shared vision of things that strictly speaking could not be said to exist.
I suppose, I said, it is one definition of love, the belief in something that only the two of you can see, and in this case it proved to be an impermanent basis for living. Without their shared story, the two children began to argue, and where their playing had taken them away from the world, making them unreachable for hours at a time, their arguments brought them constantly back to it. They would come to me or to their father, seeking intervention and justice; they began to set greater store by facts, by what had been done and said, and to build the case for themselves and against one another. It was hard, I said, not to see this transposition from love to factuality as the mirror of other things that were happening in our household at the time. What was striking was the sheer negative capability of their former intimacy: it was as though everything that had been inside was moved outside, piece by piece, like furniture being taken out of a house and put on the pavement. There seemed to be so much of it, because what had been invisible was now visible; what had been useful was now redundant. Their antagonism was in exact proportion to their former harmony, but where the harmony had been timeless and weightless, the antagonism occupied space and time. The intangible became solid, the visionary was embodied, the private became public: when peace becomes war, when love turns to hatred, something is born into the world, a force of pure morality. If love is what is held to make us immortal, hatred is the reverse. And what is astonishing is how much detail it gathers to itself, so that nothing remains untouched by it. They were struggling to free themselves from one another, yet the very last thing they could do was leave one another alone. They fought over everything, disputed ownership of the most inconsequential item, were enraged by the merest nuance of speech, and when finally they were maddened by detail they erupted into physical violence, hitting and scratching one another; which of course returned them to the madness of detail again, because physical violence entails the long-drawn-out process of justice and law. The story of who had done what to whom had to be told, and the matters of guilt and punishment established, though this never satisfied them either; in fact it made things worse, because it seemed to promise a resolution that never came. The more its intricacies were specified, the bigger and realer the argument grew. Each of them wanted more than anything to be declared right, and the other wrong, but it was impossible to assign blame entirely to either one of them. And I realized eventually, I said, that it could never be resolved, not so long as the aim was to establish the truth, for there was no single truth any more, that was the point. There was no longer a shared vision, a shared reality even. Each of them saw things now solely from his own perspective: there was only point of view.

— Rachel Cusk, (pp. 80-83) Outline

The Fourth Sign of the Zodiac

I know, you never intended to be in this world.
But you’re in it all the same.

so why not get started immediately.

I mean, belonging to it.
There is so much to admire, to weep over.

And to write music or poems about.

Bless the feet that take you to and fro.
Bless the eyes and the listening ears.
Bless the tongue, the marvel of taste.
Bless touching.

You could live a hundred years, it’s happened.
Or not.
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 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

Hear the poet read this poem at On Being

How Was It?


It has frequently been remarked, about my own writings, that I emphasize the notion of attention. This began simply enough: to see that the way the flicker flies is greatly different from the way the swallow plays in the golden air of summer. It was my pleasure to notice such things, it was a good first step. But later, watching M. when she was taking photographs, and watching her in the darkroom, and no less watching the intensity and openness with which she dealt with friends, and strangers too, taught me what real attention is about. Attention without feeling, I began to learn, is only a report. An openness — an empathy — was necessary if the attention was to matter. Such openness and empathy M. had in abundance, and gave away freely… I was in my twenties and early thirties, and well-filled with a sense of my own thoughts, my one presence. I was eager to address the world of words — to address the world with words. Then M. instilled in me this deeper level of looking and working, of seeing through the heavenly visible to the heavenly invisibles…

Somewhere in my writings I have described how M., unfailing, whenever I came home from a walk in the woods or the fields, would say “How was it?” and how dear this questions was to me. Reading in her journals this last year and half I came upon the following entry:
Mary has just returned with yellow flowers
and a wet Luke who has been swimming in the 
ponds. I always ask her for news. What does
that mean, what news am I looking for? Good,
I imagine. What I means is news of humans.
Mary comes home with fox news, bird news,
and her loving friends the geese Merlin and 
Dreamer, who are going to become parents
under Mary’s eyes once again. How many years
has she been watching them? They come 
running to her. That’s Mary’s news.
I don’t think I was wrong to be in the world I was in, it was my salvation from my own darkness. Nor have I ever abandoned it — those earthly signs that so surely led towards epiphanies. And yet, and yet, she wanted me to enter more fully into the human world also, and to embrace it, as I believe I have. And what a gift to read about her wish for it, who never expressed impatience with my reports of the natural world, the blue and green happiness I found there. Our love was so tight.
— Mary Oliver, Our World (pp. 71-73)

Simply To Witness

Beholding establishes a sacred relationship… To behold is not to fix, change, judge, or even want. It is simply to witness — to embrace with our awareness. In beholding the self, we witness a miraculous manifestation of divine energy living right inside us, with all its hopes and fears, joys and tears. This witnessing is the “heart to heart.” It brings us to the sacred. It is the essential realization that must be present for any real healing to occur.

— Anodea Judith, Eastern Body, Western Mind: Psychology and the Chakra System As a Path to the Self (p. 232)


Befriend All Of That Ancient Stuff We Carry Around

If we were to make a list of the people we don’t like–people we find obnoxious, threatening or worthy of contempt–we would find much about ourselves that we can’t face. If we were to come up with one word about each of the troublemakers in our lives, we would find ourselves with a list of descriptions of our own rejected qualities. We project these on the outside world. The people who repel us unwittingly show us aspects of ourselves that we find unacceptable, which otherwise we can’t see. Traditional lojong teachings say it another way: other people trigger the karma we haven’t worked out. They mirror us and give us a chance to befriend all of that ancient stuff we carry around like a backpack full of granite boulders.

— Pema Chödrön, Comfortable with Uncertainty: 108 Teachings on Cultivating Fearlessness and Compassion (p. 163)