A Game We Play

THERE IS A game we play sometimes. If we could somehow meet one of the great ones of history, which one would we choose? Would it be Shakespeare, maybe, because nobody knew better than he the Hamlet of us and the Ophelia of us, nobody knew better than he this mid-summer night's dream of a darkly enchanted world. Or maybe it would be Abraham Lincoln, with feet no less of clay than our own feet, but whose face, in those last great photographs, seems somehow to have not only all of human suffering in it but traces of goodness and compassion that seem almost more than human. Or maybe it would be Saint Joan, the Maid of Orleans, whose very weakness was her strength, her innocence her armor, lighting up the dark skies of the fifteenth century like a star. But the great ones of the world, if you and I were to meet them, would have nothing to give us but their greatness, nothing to ask of us but our admiration; and we would go to such a meeting full of awe to be sure but knowing more or less what to expect. In the saints and heroes of the past, we would find someone greater than we are, more human, more complete, but cut from the same cloth as we are after all, someone who was as often lost, as full of doubt, as full of hope, waiting no less than you and I wait for we're not sure what to deliver us at last. 

-Originally published in A Room Called Remember 


To receive daily Quote of the Day emails, sign up here.

Saying Grace

THERE IS A restaurant in a city somewhere, a sort of quick-lunch place with no tablecloths on the tables, just the ketchup and mustard jars on the bare wood. It seems to be raining outside. An elderly man with a raincoat and umbrella has turned at the door. Another man glances up as he sits there smoking a cigar over a newspaper and the remains of his coffee. Two teenagers sit at a table, one of them with a cigarette in his mouth. They are all looking at the same thing, which is an old woman and a small boy who are sharing a table with the teenagers. Their heads are bowed. They are saying grace. The people watching them watch with dazed fascination. The small boy's ears stick out from his head like the handles of a jug. The old woman's eyes are closed, her hair untidy under a hat that has seen better days. The people are watching something that you feel they may have been part of once but are part of no longer. Through the plate-glass window and the rain, the city looks dim, monotonous, industrial. The old woman and the boy are saying grace there, and for a moment the silence in the place is fathomless. The watchers are watching something that they've all but forgotten and will probably forget again as soon as the moment passes. They could be watching creatures from another planet. The old woman and the boy in their old-fashioned clothes, praying their old-fashioned prayer, are leftovers from a day that has long since ceased to be. 

It is not fashionable to praise Norman Rockwell overmuch, that old master of nostalgia and American corn, but we have to praise him at least for this most haunting and maybe most enduring of all his Saturday Evening Post covers which touches on something that I think touches us all. It was some thirty years ago that he painted it, but the likeness remains fresh and true to this day, and of course it is a likeness of us and of a world not unlike the one the Seventy-fourth Psalm describes. 

-Originally published in A Room Called Remember


To receive daily Quote of the Day emails, sign up here.

Our Own Story

THE WORDS INSCRIBED on the Statue of Liberty where it stands on Bedloe's Island in New York harbor are familiar to all of us: 

Give me your tired, your poor,  

Your huddled masses yearning to be free,  

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.  

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed, to me;  

I lift my torch beside the golden door.  

It is not great poetry, perhaps, and many a cynical word could be spoken about how the golden door that the goddess of liberty lights with her torch turned out for many to be the door to a wretchedness greater than any they had left behind on the teeming shores of their homelands. But nevertheless I think the old words have power in them still, if we let them, to move us, to touch us close to where we live. And the reason they have such power, I believe, is that one way or another they are words about us. Whether we're rich or poor, whether our forebears came to this country on the Mayflower or a New England slave ship or a nineteenth-century clipper or in a twentieth-century jet, those huddled masses are part of who all of us are, both as individuals and as a people. They are our fathers and mothers. They are our common past. Yet it goes farther and deeper than that. They are our past, and yet they are also ourselves. In countless ways, both hidden and not so hidden, it is you and I who are the homeless and tempest-tossed, waiting on our own Ellis Islands for the great promise to be kept of a new world, a new life, which we haven't yet found. We are the ones who yearn to breathe free. We stand not merely like them but in a sense with them beside the golden door. To read the story of our immigrant forebears as it is summarized on the base of the old statue is to read our own story, and maybe it is only when we see that it is our own story that we can really understand either it or ourselves.  

-Originally published in A Room Called Remember


To receive daily Quote of the Day emails, sign up here.

No Miracle Happens

IN DOSTOEVSKI'S NOVEL The Brothers Karamazov there is an extraordinary scene where the old monk Father Zossima dies. They lay him out in his coffin in the chapel, and all of the monks wait around to see a miracle—for the body to give off the fragrance of a rose, maybe, or his dead face to flicker with a holy light. But no miracle happens, and not only does no miracle happen, but as time goes by something else happens instead. After a while the body shows signs of decomposition, and gradually—though at first the monks try not to notice it—the chapel is filled with the stink of death. No miracle happens, but decay and death happen, the stench of dust returning to dust; and the one who loved the old man most—Alyosha, the youngest of the brothers—stands ready to give the whole thing up as a bad joke, to give up all hope of miracle, to give up his life, to give up if not God himself then the dusty world that hides God from our sight. Then he has this dream. 

He is keeping vigil at the old man's coffin while one of the monks reads the story of the Wedding at Cana over it, and when he falls asleep, the dream comes. It is a dream about Cana. There are the guests, there are the young couple sitting, the wise governor of the feast, and suddenly there is old Zossima too—a little thin old man with tiny wrinkles on his face, and of all the things he could be doing, what he is doing in that dream is laughing, laughing at that great feast like a child. And when Alyosha wakes up, he does something that he himself does not fully understand. He tears out of the chapel and rushes down into the monastery yard. He hears inside himself the words, "Water the earth with the tears of your joy and love those tears" and suddenly he gets down on all fours and kisses the earth with his lips; and when he gets up, he's no longer a teary wreck of a boy but a "champion," Dostoevski writes—some kind of crazy champion and hero.  

-Originally published in A Room Called Remember


To receive daily Quote of the Day emails, sign up here.

Something Dimly Seen

I REMEMBER A spring or so ago walking with a friend through a stand of maple trees at sugaring time. The sap buckets were hung from the trees, and if you were quiet, you could hear the sap dripping into them: all through the woods, if you kept still, you could hear the hushed drip-dropping of the sap into a thousand buckets or more hung out in the early spring woods with the sun coming down in long shafts through the trees. The sap of a maple is like rainwater, very soft, and almost without taste except for the faintest tinge of sweetness to it, and when my friend said he'd never tried it, I offered to give him a taste. I had to unhook the bucket from the tap to hold it for him, and when he bent his head to drink from it, I tipped the bucket down to his lips, and just as he was about to take a sip, he looked up at me and said, " I have a feeling you ought to be saying some words." 

Well, my friend is no more or less religious than the next person, and we'd been chattering on about nothing in particular as we walked along until just at that moment as I tipped the bucket to his lips, he said what he said, and said it partly as a joke. He had a feeling I should be saying some words, he said, as I tipped the bucket to his lips so he could taste for the first time the taste of the lifeblood of a tree. And of course for a moment those unsaid words fell through the air of those woods like the shafts of sun, and it was no joke because the whole place became another place or became more deeply the place it truly was; and he and I became different, something happened for a second to the air around us and between us. It was not much and lasted only for a moment before it was gone. But it happened—this glimpse of something dimly seen, dimly heard, this sense of something deeply hidden. 

-Originally published in A Room Called Remember 


To receive daily Quote of the Day emails, sign up here.