Thursday, July 30, 2009

Favorite Passages: Tao Te Ching

Lately, I've been feeling a little down. Life hasn't quite turned out to be what I imagined it would be at the age of 22, and I have to keep reminding myself that it's all going to turn out to be okay. During times like this, when I find myself too preoccupied with the bad and not the good in life, I turn to the Tao Te Ching. I first read the Tao Te Ching in March, and it has proven to be an extremely important part of my life. The philosophy of Taoism, which promotes following the natural "way" of life, comforts me greatly, and I have continued to study it over the last five months. Reading my favorite verses from the Tao Te Ching always puts me at ease.

Probably my single favorite passage comes from "Verse 29." Its simple poetry and message gives me great comfort in times of hardship or self-doubt. I hope maybe it can do the same for some of you.

From: Tao Te Ching, Verse 29

Allow your life to unfold naturally
Know that it too is a vessel of perfection
Just as you breathe in and breathe out
Sometimes you're ahead and other times behind
Sometimes you're strong and other times weak
Sometimes you're with people and other times alone

To the sage
all of life is a movement toward perfection
So what need has he
for the excessive, the extravagant, or the extreme?

Happy Reading, Everyone!

Sunday, July 26, 2009


In honor of the 23rd birthday of a close friend and most-faithful fellow reader, I decided to read Jane Austen's Persuasion. My friend often raves about it, and I decided to check it out of the library on a whim last week after visiting her several days earlier. And thank God I did. As of late, I've been a little depressed and cranky. Persuasion cheered me right up. The book is absolutely wonderful, and I would recommend it to Austen faithful and newcomers alike. The romance between Anne Elliot and Captain Wentworth is full of surprising and welcome little moments, and anyone who can read the letter towards the end of the novel and not be moved might just be a tad bit heartless.

Not to give the entire book away, but that part with the letter is such a great scene. I kicked my feet in excitement when I figured out that Captain Wentworth had been writing it to Anne while in the same room as her. For some reason, the writing of the letter in such close proximity to Anne made it twice as poignant.

This is a pretty short entry. I loved Persuasion, and I want to thank my birthday friend for talking about it so fervently in the last year. It never ceases to make me happy that such terrific friends and lovely books exist in this world.

And, because it is so lovely, I've included the infamous letter here:

I can no longer listen in silence. I must speak to you by such means as are within my reach. You pierce my soul. I am half agony, half hope. Tell me that I am not too late, that such precious feelings are gone for ever. I offer myself to you again with a heart even more your own than when you almost broke it, eight years and a half ago. Dare not say that man forgets sooner than woman, that is love has an earlier death. I have loved none but you. Unjust I may have been, weak and resentful I have been, but never inconstant. You alone have brought me to Bath. For you alone, I think and plan. Have you not seen this? Can you fail to have understood my wishes? I had not waited even these ten days, could I have read your feelings, as I think you must have penetrated mine. I can hardly write. I am every instant hearing something which overpowers me. You sink your voice, but I can distinguish the tones of that voice when they would be lost on others. Too good, too excellent creature! You do us justice, indeed. You do believe that there is true attachment and constancy among men. Believe it to be most fervent, most undeviating, in
I must go, uncertain of my fate, but I shall return hither, or follow your party, as soon as possible. A word, a look, will be enough to decide whether I enter your father's house this evening or never.

Happy Reading, everyone!

Book Mentioned: Persuasion, by Jane Austen

Monday, July 20, 2009

Favorite Passages: The Graveyard Book, by Neil Gaiman

For those of you who followed this blog in its previous incarnation, you know how much I love the children's book, The Graveyard Book, by Neil Gaiman. The book is an absolute joy to read, but it's also heartbreaking in its portrayal of leaving childhood behind. I just finished re-reading the book, and it was just as moving and fun and lovely as the first time I read it four months ago. I had a hard time deciding what passage to put here, as there are many that I love, particularly in the moments between the protagonist, Bod, and his mysterious guardian, Silas. I chose this passage because it illustrates the way regret and longing and loss play into an intriguing children's tale. But most of all, I chose it because of the way it shows the relationship between Silas and Bod without ever resorting to sentimentality or dishonesty. I hope you all get a chance to read this wonderful book someday.

From: The Graveyard Book, by Neil Gaiman
Chapter Five: "Danse Macabre"

“Silas. What’s a Macabray?”

Silas’s eyebrows raised and his head tipped to one side. “Where did you hear about that?”

“Everyone in the graveyard is talking about it. I think it’s something that happens tomorrow night. What’s a Macabray?”

“It’s a dance,” said Silas.

“All must dance the Macabray,” said Bod, remembering. “Have you danced it? What kind of dance is it?”

His guardian looked at him with eyes like black pools and said, “I do not know. I know many things, Bod, for I have been walking this earth at night for a very long time, but I do not know what it is like to dance the Macabray. You must be alive or you must be dead to dance it – and I am neither.”

Bod shivered. He wanted to embrace his guardian, to hold him and tell him that he would never desert him, but the action was unthinkable. He could no more hug Silas than he could hold a moonbeam, not because his guardian was insubstantial, but because it would be wrong. There were people you could hug, and then there was Silas.

His guardian inspected Bod thoughtfully, a boy in his new clothes. “You’ll do,” he said. “Now you look like you’ve lived outside the graveyard all your life.”

Bod smiled proudly. Then the smile stopped and he looked grave once again. He said, “But you’ll always be here, Silas, won’t you? And I won’t ever have to leave, if I don’t want to?”

“Everything in its season,” said Silas, and he said no more that night.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

The Inauguration of Favorite Passages: Mark Doty's "Tiara"

Hello everyone! Because it is difficult to constantly write about books I'm reading when I only have so many hours per week to read anyway, I am instituting a new feature here to be called "Favorite Passages." Every couple days or so, I will be posting my favorite passages from literature - poems, snippets of dialogue, an amazing paragraph, etc. I might also include a backstory about said passages, and I also encourage you to post some of your favorite literary passages in the comments section. I will still be updating about all my reading experiences, but this will hopefully make the days between entries seem easier to take.

I have chosen Mark Doty's poem "Tiara" as my inaugural selection because I am currently reading a book of selected poems by Doty, and I honestly believe there is no better writer of poem-endings out there than him. A professor read me this poem during a meeting a few months ago, and it has stuck with me ever since. When he finished the poem, I actually gasped from being so moved by the beautiful and surprising end. I hope you enjoy it - and trust me, it's better when read aloud:

Tiara, by Mark Doty

Peter died in a paper tiara
cut from a book of princess paper dolls;
he loved royalty, sashes

and jewels. I don't know,
he said, when he woke in the hospice,
I was watching the Bette Davis film festival

on Channel 57 and then -
At the wake, the tension broke
when someone guessed

the casket closed because
he was in there in a big wig
and heels, and someone said,

You know he's always late,
he probably isn't here yet -
he's still fixing his makeup.

And someone said he asked for it.
Asked for it -
when all he did was go down

into the salt tide
of wanting as much as he wanted,
giving himself over so drunk

or stoned it almost didn't matter who,
though they were beautiful,
stampeding into him in the simple,

tavishing music of their hurry.
I think heaven is perfect stasis
poised over the realms of desire,

where dreaming and waking men lie
on the grass while wet horses
roam among them, huge fragments

of the music we die into
in the body's paradise.
Sometimes we wake not knowing

how we came to lie here,
or who has crowned us with these temporary,
precious stones. And given

the world's perfectly turned shoulders,
the deep hollows blued by longing,
given the irreplaceable silk

of horses rippling in orchards,
fruit thundering and chiming down,
given the ordinary marvels of form

and gravity, what could he do,
what can any of us ever do,
but ask for it?

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

A Transcendent Reading Experience

This last Friday, a couple friends and I went to an outdoor concert inspired by the Indianapolis Symphony. A three-piece string ensemble called Time for Three played as the sun sank down behind the stage. At one point during the concert, as the strings vibrated across the small hills where we sat, I turned and watched the shadows of small children race down a hill as the sun moved in blues and pinks and oranges behind them. It was a beautiful moment, and sitting there on a blanket with two of my closest companions, listening to music and watching nature unfold, I felt extremely lucky to be alive. Life would be meaningless if it weren’t for these kinds of small strokes of time – these little moments of transcendence. I could honestly say that night that if I died the next morning, I wouldn’t regret having ever lived any second of my life, not if it all culminated in such moments of extreme bliss.

It is fitting, then, that at such a realization of transcendent happiness, I was reading a book about that exact idea: dying without regret at living, making sense of life in its tiniest moments and gestures. The novel Gilead, by Marilynne Robinson, really helped me make sense of that moment at the concert. It’s a book that explores the ideas of grace and dying and life and love without ever trying to make a big statement or change the world. In fact, it’s probably one of the quietest novels I’ve ever read. Not only that, but it was probably the most beautiful book I have ever encountered.

When Robinson’s book came out several years ago, it won many awards and made headlines. Robinson had written one highly-acclaimed novel 20 years before (Housekeeping, which I also read and liked), and this was her first work of fiction since then. I thought the book sounded a little dull. I knew it was about a dying preacher in a small town writing a letter to his small son, and I wanted nothing to do with any of it: the religion, the deathbed-confessional-thing, the soft writing. At the time, I was into postmodernism and wordplay. But since then, I’ve grown older and wiser. I appreciate one slight, beautifully wrought sentence to a witty rejoinder; I prefer a paragraph describing what it feels like to baptize an infant to a clever meta-commentary. After six years of maturing as a reader and 22 years of living as a human being, I was finally ready to really conquer Gilead.

The book is very simple. The narrator, the Reverend John Ames, 76 years old, knows he is dying of a heart condition. So he sets down a diary of sorts for his small son, so that the boy might understand the father and family he’d never know Meanwhile, during the coarse of the diary’s writing, John Ames’s best friend’s son comes to visit. This man, Jack, bothers Ames quite a bit, and the second half of the book explores their strangled relationship and eventual reconciliation. It’s a book about fathers and sons, about heaven and earth and how those two things are often one. It is a book about a life coming to a beautiful and poignant end.

In my opinion, Gilead is nothing short of a miracle. It’s absolutely incredible – from its meandering but purposeful form, to its delicate and careful prose, to its struggling and beloved characters – this is a book meant to be taken in slowly and purposefully. The writing is lovely: simple, direct, and meaningful. I was often surprised by the way Robinson’s style moved and flowed. At one moment, I’d be reading a delightful description of a tree, and at the next, the narrator would make a devastating proclamation about life or death in a single sentence. The religious persuasion of the characters never gets in the way; in the end, this is not at all a book about Christianity. It’s about the total sum of grace in our lives. It’s a book about life itself being a transcendent experience separate from heavenly reward. With Gilead, Robinson composed one of the most emotionally moving reading experiences of my life.

Tears flowed freely down my cheeks for the last twenty pages of Gilead. When I finally closed the book, I had to sit and stare out the window for several moments, trying to understand what I had just encountered. The book is a beautiful work of art, and it is one of my favorite books I have ever read. I cannot recommend Gilead highly enough.

As a bonus, here’s one lovely passage from the book:
There are two occasions when the sacred beauty of Creation becomes dazzlingly apparent, and they occur together. One is when we feel our mortal insufficiency to the world, and the other is when we feel the world’s mortal insufficiency to us. Augustine says the Lord loves each of us as an only child, and that has to be true. “He will wipe the tears from all faces.” It takes nothing from the loveliness of the verse to say that is exactly what will be required.

Book Mentioned: Gilead, by Marilynne Robinson