Commonplace Book - Autumn 2007


By Anne Matthews | September 1, 2009


When I came to the Creek, and knew the old grove and farmhouse at once as home, there was some terror, such as one feels in the first recognition of a human love, for the joining of person to place, as of person to person, is a commitment to shared sorrow, even as to shared joy.

—Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, Cross Creek, 1942

Every inch of that trail was dear to me, every delicate curve about the old pinon roots, every chancy track along the face of the cliffs, and the deep windings back into shrubbery and safety. The wild-currant bushes were in bloom, and where the path climbed the side of a narrow ravine, the scent of them in the sun was so heavy that it made me soft, made me want to lie down and sleep. I wanted to see and touch everything, like home-sick children when they come home. When I pulled out on top of the mesa, the rays of sunlight fell slantingly through the little twisted pinons,—the light was all in between them, as red as a daylight fire, they fairly swam in it. Once again I had that glorious feeling of being on the mesa, in a world above the world.

—Willa Cather, The Professor’s House, 1925

I had been rather extravagant at Cambridge, and to console my father, said, “that I should be deuced clever to spend more than my allowance whilst on board the ‘Beagle’”; but he answered with a smile, “But they tell me you are very clever.” . . . That my mind became developed through my pursuits during the voyage is rendered probable by a remark made by my father, who was the most acute observer whom I ever saw, of a sceptical disposition, and far from being a believer in phrenology; for on first seeing me after the voyage, he turned round to my sisters, and exclaimed, “Why, the shape of his head is quite altered.”

—Charles Darwin, Autobiography, 1887

The troops assembled on the wharf and were met at the Aotea Quay gates with all the ceremony pertaining to the return of a war party in pre-pakeha days. Anania Amohau, a returned original member of the battalion, pranced and leapt towards Colonel Henare as between them the ancient ceremony of the wero was enacted. As this was a peaceful mission the challenge was not accepted and Amohau gave way, though he still eyed the newcomers very carefully. Then followed the women raising the mourning chant, the tangi, for the men of the race who would never return; they were garlanded with greenery and beat their breasts with green twigs. Before the men could mingle with their people they had to be cleansed from the blood of their enemies and the tapu of the warrior removed by appropriate ceremony. Hakas and action songs by the Ngati Poneke Maori Club preceded welcoming speeches by local chiefs and former commanding officers and a fitting reply in Maori and English by Colonel Henare. Then the troops moved into the quay shed and sat down to a real Maori meal. Trains throughout the afternoon carried the Maori soldiers to a hundred welcoming maraes. The 28th (Maori) Battalion had ceased to exist.

—Joseph F. Cody, “28 Maori Battalion,” The Official History of New Zealand in the Second World War, 1939–1945, 1956

Last winter I went down to my native town, where I found the streets much narrower and shorter than I thought I had left them, inhabited by a new race of people, to whom I was very little known. My playfellows were grown old, and forced me to suspect that I was no longer young.

—Samuel Johnson, letter to Joseph Baretti, 1762

I lay crying against Papa’s shoulder for a long time. My tears seeped drop by drop into the coarse wool of his overcoat. I seemed to smell the pungent scent of tobacco mingling with the smell of mud and sweat. I seemed to see him in the breaks between heavy labor. . . . I dared not think anymore, I dared not. My powers of imagining suffering were limited after all. But he actually lived in a place beyond the powers of human imagination. Minute after minute, day after day, oh God, a full twenty years. . . .

“Lanlan, look.” He drew a beautiful necklace from his pocket.

“I made this just before I left there from old toothbrush handles. I wanted to give you a kind of present, but then I was afraid you wouldn’t want this crude toy.”

“No, I like it.” I took the necklace, moving the beads lightly to and fro with my finger, each of these wounded hearts. . . . Impulsively I pulled up his arm and laid my head on his shoulder.

—Bei Dao, “The Homecoming Stranger,” Waves, 1990 (trans. Bonnie S. McDougall & Susette T. Cooke)

Peter never stopped running or looked behind him until he got home to the big fir-tree. He was so tired that he flopped down upon the nice soft sand on the floor of the rabbit-hole, and shut his eyes. His mother was busy cooking; she wondered what he had done with his clothes. It was the second little jacket and pair of shoes that Peter had lost in a fortnight. I am sorry to say that Peter was not very well during the evening. His mother put him to bed, and made some camomile tea; and she gave a dose of it to Peter! “One tablespoon to be taken at bed-time.” But Flopsy, Mopsy and Cotton-tail had bread and milk and blackberries, for supper.

—Beatrix Potter, The Tale of Peter Rabbit, 1902

O quid solutis est beatius curis,
cum mens onus reponit, ac peregrino
labore fessi uenimus larem ad nostrum,
desideratoque acquiescimus lecto?

What greater bliss than when, cares all dissolved,
the mind lays down its burden, and, exhausted
by our foreign labors we at last reach home
and sink into the bed we’ve so long yearned for?

Gaius Valerius Catullus, Carmen 31, c. 55 b.c. (trans. Peter Green)

I can remember the bare wooden stairway in my uncle’s house, and the turn to the left above the landing, and the rafters and the slanting roof over my bed, and the squares of moonlight on the floor, and the white cold world of snow outside, seen through the curtainless window . . . the powdery snow used to sift in, around the sashes, and lie in little ridges on the floor and make the place look chilly in the morning and curb the wild desire to get up—in case there was any. . . . It was a very satisfactory room.

Samuel L. Clemens, The Autobiography of Mark Twain, 1906–7

A year from the day he disappeared, he walked into the house, looking much older, and his first words were, “I’m too tired to talk about it.” He made them a drink, and ate a good dinner, and went to bed at the usual time, without having asked a single question about her, about how she had managed without him, or offering a word of apology to her for the suffering he had caused her. He fell asleep immediately, as usual, and she put the light out. I will never forgive him, she said to herself, as long as I live. And when he curled around her, she moved away from him without waking him and lay on the far side of the bed. And tried to go to sleep and couldn’t, and so when he spoke, even though it was hardly louder than a whisper, she heard what he said. What he said was, “They’re all there. All the days and all the nights of our life. I don’t expect you to believe me,” he went on, “but—” To his surprise she turned over and said, “I do believe you,” and so he was able to tell her all about it. . . .

She waited for him to go on and when he didn’t, she thought he was trying to say something that was too difficult to put into words. And then she heard his soft regular breathing and realized he was asleep. In the morning I will hear the rest of it, she thought, and fell asleep herself, much sooner than she usually did. But in the morning he didn’t remember a thing he had told her, and she had great trouble making him understand that he had ever been away.

William Maxwell, All the Days and Nights, 1995

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