Commonplace Book - Winter 2014

Humility

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By Anne Matthews

December 6, 2013


 

 

In reality, there is, perhaps, no one of our natural passions so hard to subdue as pride. Disguise it, struggle with it, beat it down, stifle it, mortify it as much as one pleases, it is still alive, and will every now and then peep out and show itself.

—Benjamin Franklin, Autobiography, 1793


It is not easy to look radiant, but Wilbur threw himself into it with a will. He would turn his head slightly and blink his long eye-lashes. Then he would breathe deeply. And when his audience grew bored, he would spring into the air and do a back flip with a half twist. …

Some of Wilbur’s friends in the barn worried for fear all this attention would go to his head and make him stuck up. But it never did. Wilbur was modest; fame did not spoil him.

—E. B. White, Charlotte’s Web, 1952


Power always thinks it has a great soul, and vast views, beyond the comprehension of the weak.

—John Adams, letter to Thomas Jefferson, February 2, 1816


Floating on the reredos, the wall behind the altar, was a shadowy tangle of vegetation, carved into airy thinness. Organic forms, in an organic medium. My steps slowed and stopped. I stared. The sickness came over me. It seemed one of the wonders of the world. The traffic noise on Piccadilly went silent, and I was at the still center of the universe. A tingling in the palms of the hands, a loosening in the solar plexus. I looked and my tongue seemed to be moving over carved ivory, cool and smooth. Don’t ask. I haven’t a clue. It’s what I still feel in the presence of great limewood carving. Somehow I was taking in the thing with body and mind at once, Yeats seeing the Winged Victory of Samothrace and sensing it in the soles of his feet, or reading the Odyssey and feeling the salt wind blowing.

—David Esterly, The Lost Carving: A Journey to the Heart of Making, 2012


Negroes,
Sweet and docile,
Meek, humble and kind:
Beware the day
They change their mind!

—Langston Hughes, “Warning,” One-Way Ticket, 1949


Of all the people I know, Sid Lang best understands that my marriage is as surely built on addiction and dependence as his is. He tells me what under other circumstances would infuriate me—that he takes some satisfaction in my ill luck, that it gives him comfort to see someone else in chains. He says too that he would not be unchained if he could, and he knows I wouldn’t either. But what he doesn’t understand is that my chains are not chains, that over the years Sally’s crippling has been a rueful blessing. It has made her more than she was; it has let me give her more than she would ever have been able to give me healthy; it has taught me at least the alphabet of gratitude.

—Wallace Stegner, Crossing to Safety, 1987


Private faces in public places
Are wiser and nicer
Than public faces in private places.

—W. H. Auden, The Orators, 1932


I often feel drawn to the Hudson River, and I have spent a lot of time poking around the part of it that flows past the city. I never get tired of looking at it; it hypnotizes me. I like to look at it in midsummer, when it is warm and dirty and drowsy, and I like to look at it in January, when it is carrying ice. … There are five ice barges out there, the last of a fleet that used to bring natural ice down to New York City from the old icehouse section along the west shore of the river, between Saugerties and Coxsackie. They have been in the flats since 1910, they are waterlogged, and they sit like hippopotamuses in the silt.

—Joseph Mitchell, “The Rivermen,” The New Yorker, April 4, 1959


I put on the shapeless black coat I had bought for Betty and threw a shawl over the gray wig. I pulled on sensible black wool gloves and picked up the square black pocketbook. Glancing in the mirror, I realized that only a few inches of the real me were visible, just below the glasses. … In the ensuing months, Betty slipped unobtrusively in and out of Felidia, Aquavit, Lutèce, and Gramercy Tavern. My most useful disguise, she usually went with a group, sitting silently at the table like somebody’s poor old aunt, brought along out of duty or as an act of kindness. Betty never looked at a wine list and when confronted with the menu tended to say, “You order for me, dear. You know much more about food” in a voice so soft it was barely audible. Since she never paid a bill she had no need for credit cards, and she continued to be as anonymous as a shadow.

—Ruth Reichl, Garlic and Sapphires: The Secret Life of a Critic in Disguise, 2005


Lax suddenly turned around and asked me the question:

“What do you want to be, anyway?”

I could not say, “I want to be Thomas Merton the well-known writer of all those book reviews in the back pages of the Times Book Review,” or “Thomas Merton the assistant instructor of Freshman-English at the New Life Social Institute for Progress and Culture,” so I put the thing on the spiritual plane, where I knew it belonged and said:

“I don’t know; I guess what I want is to be a good Catholic.”…

Lax did not accept it.

“What you should say”—he told me—“what you should say is that you want to be a saint.”

A saint! The thought struck me as a little weird. I said: “How do you expect me to become a saint?”

“By wanting to,” said Lax simply.

—Thomas Merton, The Seven Storey Mountain, 1947


When down to dust we glide
Men will not say askance,
As now: “How all the country side
Rings with their mad romance!”
But as they graveward glance
Remark: “In them we lose
A worthy pair, who helped advance
Sound parish views.”

—Thomas Hardy, “The Conformers,” Time’s Laughingstocks, 1909


We are all worms, but I do believe that I am a glow-worm.

—Winston Churchill, to Violet Asquith, 1907


Anne Matthews is a contributing editor of the SCHOLAR.


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