“Time put things in their place.”

Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude

Gabriel García Márquez (1927–2014)
“Florentino always kept the notebook in which his father wrote love poems, some of them inspired by Tránsito Ariza, its pages decorated with drawings of broken hearts. Two things surprised him. One was the character of his father’s handwriting, identical to his own although he had chosen his because it was the one he liked best of the many he saw in a manual. The other was finding a sentence that he thought he had composed but that his father had written in the notebook  long before he was born: The only regret I will have in dying is if it is not for love.”

— from Love in the Time of Cholera
(Photograph by Ben Martin. Thank you, Mr. Martin and Vogue.)

Gabriel García Márquez (1927–2014)

“Florentino always kept the notebook in which his father wrote love poems, some of them inspired by Tránsito Ariza, its pages decorated with drawings of broken hearts. Two things surprised him. One was the character of his father’s handwriting, identical to his own although he had chosen his because it was the one he liked best of the many he saw in a manual. The other was finding a sentence that he thought he had composed but that his father had written in the notebook  long before he was born: The only regret I will have in dying is if it is not for love.”

— from Love in the Time of Cholera

(Photograph by Ben Martin. Thank you, Mr. Martin and Vogue.)

“… her soul brightened with the nostalgia of her lost dreams. She felt so old, so worn out, so far away from the best moments of her life that she even yearned for those that she remembered as the worst, and only then did she discover how much she missed the whiff of oregano on the porch and the smell of the roses at dusk, and even the bestial nature of the parvenus. Her heart of compressed ash, which had resisted the most telling blows of daily reality without strain, fell apart with the first waves of nostalgia. The need to feel sad was becoming a vice as the years eroded her. She became human in her solitude.”

Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude

The house became full of love

 “The house became full of love. Aureliano expressed it in poetry that had no beginning or end. He would write it on the harsh pieces of parchment that Melquíades gave him, on the bathroom walls, on the skin of his arms, and in all of it Remedios would appear transfigured: Remedios in the soporific air of two in the afternoon, Remedios in the soft breath of the roses, Remedios in the water-clock secrets of the moths, Remedios in the steaming morning bread, Remedios everywhere and Remedios forever. Rebeca waited for her love at four in the afternoon, embroidering by the window. She knew that the mailman’s mule arrived only every two weeks, but she always waited for him, convinced that he was going to arrive on some other day by mistake. It happened quite the opposite: once the mule did not come on the usual day. Mad with desperation, Rebeca got up in the middle of the night and ate handfuls of earth in the garden with a suicidal drive, weeping with pain and fury, chewing tender earthworms and chipping her teeth on snail shells. She vomited until dawn. She fell into a state of feverish prostration, lost consciousness, and her heart went into a shameless delirium. Ursula, scandalized, forced the lock on her trunk and found at the bottom, tied together with pink ribbons, the sixteen perfumed letters and the skeletons of leaves and petals preserved in old books and the dried butterflies that turned to powder at the touch.”

— from One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez, translated from the Spanish by Gregory Rabassa (Avon Books, 1971)

(Image by dabacahin.)

“Things have a life of their own …. It’s simply a matter of waking up their souls.”

Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude

A shower of blossoms

“Years later, when he tried to remember what the maiden idealized by the alchemy of poetry really was like, he could not distinguish her from the heartrending twilights of those times. Even when he observed her, unseen, during those days of longing when he waited for a reply to his first letter, he saw her transfigured in the afternoon shimmer of two o’clock in a shower of blossoms from the almond trees where it was always April regardless of the season of the year.”

— from Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel García Márquez

(Photograph: Almond Blossom Studies, circa 1895, by A. J. Campbell. Thank you, Museum Victoria.)

“What did you expect?” he murmured. “Time passes.”

Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude

Calling out to the world

I saw Jimmy Carter recently on the David Letterman show. The 39th President of the U.S. is now 89 years old. He looked a bit hunched during the interview, but he was calm, cheerful, and smart. He was also feisty or solemn when the moment called for it. Of course, when you’re talking with Mr. Letterman, you’d better be everything you could be to hold your own. A few days later I found out, sadly, that the TV host and comedian, who is now 67, had announced he’d be retiring from his show next year. And so time passes. As the great Wendell Berry puts it, “I know I am getting old and I say so.” This poet, novelist, essayist, farmer, and environmental activist will be 80 in August. Yes, these great old men know so. And I’m fortunate to be reading their words or listening to their conversations, these men who know what it takes to stick around for so long, so well.

I didn’t care much about Mr. Carter when I was young. I didn’t think much about his politics or his religion. Why bother with the world out there while my teenage brain was crammed with movies and books? (My midlife brain is still crammed with movies and books, but we’ll have more of that story some other time.) Even in my younger years, though, I was vaguely aware that at some point Mr. Carter received the Nobel Peace Prize. So the man must have been quite a cool dude. And I was glad to be reminded of that as I watched him on TV promoting his new book, A Call to Action. He’s calling out to the world to stop discrimination and violence against women and girls. He’s doing that—and more—at 89. He looks healthy. He sounds hopeful that the world is still listening. And he’s still writing books that matter. Whatever his politics or religion is, I’d be so grateful if I could get that old and look that good and still care that much. 

Jimmy Carter
“When asked to name my favorite poet, I usually answer, ‘Dylan Thomas.’ The reasons are many—his love of nature, his sense of awe at the mystery of existence, and, as much as anything, the sheer beauty of his verse. Thomas was in love with words, fascinated by their music as well as their meaning. Perhaps I like him so much because for much of my life I too have experienced the importance of words. As a young child, I listened to the advice of my father and mother. I also learned to pray and to read and memorize passages from the Bible, marveling at the wisdom contained in Holy Scripture. In high school, I absorbed the good words of my beloved teacher Miss Julia Coleman, including one saying that stuck with me so thoroughly that I quoted it during my presidential inauguration address: ‘We must adjust to changing times but hold still to unchanging principles.’ This saying, which has been one of the guiding lights of my life, exemplifies the great power and beauty of words when thoughtfully chosen and effectively expressed.”
— the first paragraph of Mr. Carter’s introduction to The Best American Spiritual Writing 2008, edited by Philip Zaleski
(Photograph by Chris Stanford. Thank you, Mr. Stanford and The Observer.)

Jimmy Carter

“When asked to name my favorite poet, I usually answer, ‘Dylan Thomas.’ The reasons are many—his love of nature, his sense of awe at the mystery of existence, and, as much as anything, the sheer beauty of his verse. Thomas was in love with words, fascinated by their music as well as their meaning. Perhaps I like him so much because for much of my life I too have experienced the importance of words. As a young child, I listened to the advice of my father and mother. I also learned to pray and to read and memorize passages from the Bible, marveling at the wisdom contained in Holy Scripture. In high school, I absorbed the good words of my beloved teacher Miss Julia Coleman, including one saying that stuck with me so thoroughly that I quoted it during my presidential inauguration address: ‘We must adjust to changing times but hold still to unchanging principles.’ This saying, which has been one of the guiding lights of my life, exemplifies the great power and beauty of words when thoughtfully chosen and effectively expressed.”

— the first paragraph of Mr. Carter’s introduction to The Best American Spiritual Writing 2008, edited by Philip Zaleski

(Photograph by Chris Stanford. Thank you, Mr. Stanford and The Observer.)

“Poetry is, in a way, a kind of spiritual practice.”

Jimmy Carter, from his introduction to The Best American Spiritual Writing 2008

All are chasing God

“The spiritual writer … acts in service to something higher, purer, truer than himself. In a sense, of course, everyone does; Eliade correctly observed that ‘even beneath its radically desacralized forms, Western culture camouflages magico-religious meanings that our contemporaries, with the exception of a few poets and artists, do not suspect.’ Don Juan chasing skirts, eccentric collectors chasing Lepidoptera, nuclear physicists chasing the quark: all are chasing God. This is true also of those who chase reality through the artistic manipulation of words. Every mystery novel points toward the mystery of existence; every erotic tale, the divine lover; every poem, the language of paradise. In spiritual writing, however, the implicit becomes explicit, eschatology lifts its veil, and—following Coleridge—ignorance gives birth, after a mighty labor, to adoration. Spiritual writing, whether storytelling, confession, exposition, memoir, manifesto, argument, scholarship, poetry, or any of its other myriad forms, becomes the literary equivalent of puja, of self-effacing devotion and service. This shared sense of service binds together the writings in this and every volume of the series. How could it be otherwise? In a thousand years, all the words we will write will be dust; only the good they may have done will continue to bear fruit.”

— from Philip Zaleski’s foreword to The Best American Spiritual Writing 2008, edited by Mr. Zaleski (Houghton Mifflin, 2008)

(Image by dabacahin.)

Philip Zaleski: “Is it possible to be a spiritual writer without being a religious writer?”

[ … ] The question usually goes: is it possible to be spiritual without being religious? Adapting this to the purpose of this series, I’d like to ask: is it possible to be a spiritual writer without being a religious writer? The answer is: yes, but it’s not easy. The reason is that spiritual openness—a willingness to stand in front of the great questions of the universe, especially the ur-question, Why is there something rather than nothing?—leads, as if in conformity to cosmic law, to awe, and awe to devotion, and devotion to worship. Coleridge put it nicely: “In wonder all philosophy began, in wonder it ends … but the first wonder is the offspring of ignorance: the last is the parent of adoration.” We see the same pattern in every culture, every era: the soul, facing mystery, opens to the transcendent, turning for expression to prayer, ritual, and sacrifice. This is why almost all great spiritual writers, from Augustine to Rumi to Basho, work within traditional religious structures, using the rich and supple vocabulary and grammar of these structures to record the twists and turns of the inner life.

— from Mr. Zaleski’s foreword to The Best American Spiritual Writing 2008

Wendell Berry

VII.

I know I am getting old and I say so,
but I don’t think of myself as an old man.
I think of myself as a young man
with unforeseen debilities. Time is neither
young nor old, but simply new, always
counting, the only apocalypse. And the clouds
—no mere measure or geometry, no cubism,
can account for clouds or, satisfactorily, for bodies.
There is no science for this, or art either.
Even the old body is new—who has known it
before?—and no sooner new than gone, to be
replaced by a body yet older and again new.
The clouds are rarely absent from our sky
over this humid valley, and there is a sycamore
that I watch as, growing on the river bank,
it forecloses the horizon, like the years
of an old man. And you, who are as old
almost as I am, I love as I loved you
young, except that, old, I am astonished
at such a possibility, and am duly grateful.

— from “Sabbaths 2005” (originally published in Shenandoah), in The Best American Spiritual Writing 2008

(Photograph by Guy Mendes. Thank you, Mr. Mendes and Business Lexington.)

“Understanding has its own timetable and comes when I’m not looking for it.”

John Coats, from “Who Am I?” (originally published in Portland), in The Best American Spiritual Writing 2008

Illumination

“The final bridge you cross before coming to the mausoleum is called the Bridge of Ignorance, because it is believed that when you issue forth into the vicinity of Kobo Daishi, you are in a world of illumination. Two lights in the Hall of Lanterns are said to have been burning continuously for almost a thousand years, and the very presence of light is all the more potent for the crowding dark all around. ‘When you are living in a world of typhoon, of fire and lightning,’ the Swiss monk had told me (Koyasan has been assaulted at least four times by major fires), ‘you are living in the second. You don’t wait for anything. You go out and use the day right now.’ ”

Pico Iyer, from “The Magic Mountain” (originally published in Condé Nast Traveler), in The Best American Spiritual Writing 2008

(Photograph: Six Lanterns, Garan, Koyasan, Japan, 2003, by Michael Kenna. Thank you, Mr. Kenna and Condé Nast Traveler.)