Thursday, May 16, 2013

Unfamiliar Quotations

-- By Tom Phillips

After falsely and cynically dangling the idea of a one-syllable solution to life’s problems in a recent post, I promised to follow up with “words to live by, whole sentences, unfamiliar quotations.”   
Like most people I have my familiar quotations – e.g. the 23rd Psalm, the Lord’s Prayer -- but I rarely use them.  In my dotage I rely mainly on a small collection of private quotes, proven effective for getting through the day.  None of them shows up in a Google search – these are stray quotations, scraps of poems or conversations, possibly misquoted or misattributed, but tried and true.   So here they are: 

1. “Most mistakes that people make aren’t that important.”   

This humble truth is either a quote or a close paraphrase of the last line of a poem, a lost poem from a little magazine in the 1960s, written by a teacher of mine.  The poem was about a junk store, a bric-a-brac shop full of useless items.  “We should be grateful for these things, because they teach us / Most mistakes that people make aren’t that important.”  The author was Sheldon Zitner, professor of English at Grinnell College.  A Brooklyn native sojourning on the prairie, he later drifted north to the University of Toronto where he became known and loved as a Canadian poet, though he was about as Canadian as a palm tree or a bialy.  When I knew him he was an intense young poet and playwright, and a brilliant teacher of literature.  For Prof. Zitner every class was a performance – a meticulously prepared yet spontaneous demonstration of mastery of the text, with students serving as props, foils, dunces, and occasionally inspired co-teachers.   One day he was holding forth when he suddenly slammed his fist on the desk and apologized to the class.  “I just can’t teach today.”   This came as a surprise to the class, because he seemed as good as ever, but somehow he felt he was having an off-day, and was furious with himself.   He couldn’t abide anything less than brilliance.  The poem may have been an act of kindness to himself – forgiveness for falling short of greatness.  So when I’m furious with myself for missing the mark, I mumble the last line, savoring its calm rhythm, its modest internal rhyme, its soothing sentiment:  “Most mistakes that people make ..”   

2.      “Now is not the time to be in a great hurry.”   

This is from another beloved teacher, Zen Master Soen Nakagawa from Japan.  In the 1970s he would fly in periodically to lead intensive retreats for the Zen Studies Society, bringing wisdom and a zany creativity to the often solemn and plodding practice of us American Zen students.   I loved his teaching and couldn’t wait for the personal interviews he would give every morning and evening at our “Dharma concentration camp” in the Catskills.  His dokusan chamber was on the second floor; we would line up at the foot of the stairs, and go up one by one as he rang a little bell for the next inquirer.  I had so much to say that I would tear up the stairs as if the place was on fire, making a terrible racket.  At this retreat, he led me through my first koan, an agonizing series of steps to the experience of a Zen mind.  The agony was part of the teaching. “You must become desperated,” he assured us, having taken countless students through the same journey.   On the next-to-last day I solved the koan and we had a wonderful relaxed chat.  On the last day, I tore upstairs again.  But this time he sent me back, and made me walk up calmly and quietly.  “Now is not the time to be in a great hurry.”   Many years later I live in one of the world’s busiest cities, among millions of people in a hurry.  But I have this little after-koan as a reminder that when the work is done, it’s time to enjoy the cool of the evening.    

3.      “He knows the heart for the famished cat it is.”   

This is another fragment of a lost poem, also from a little magazine in the 1960s.  All I remember is that one line and the image of a cat foraging in alleyways, desperate for food.  I remember this while walking the streets late at night, with my chronic recurring deficit of unmet needs, “desiring this man’s art, and that man’s scope, with what I most enjoy contented least..”   I can’t remember who “He” is in the poem, except that he knows the heart for the famished cat it is.  That lets me know I’m not the only one, in fact we are legion.  “Everybody’s got a hungry heart,” says the pop song, but I prefer my feline image: not even human, but quivering with life; not just needy but desperately so, famished.      

            4.  “The highest that man can aspire to is wonder.”     

This last one I believe is from Goethe.  It doesn’t appear in a long list of his famous quotes, but it’s of a piece with them.  Wonder is the experience of contemplating things too great to be fully understood, pleasure with a penumbra of awe.  It’s often associated with gazing at the night sky, and this may be how I first experienced it.  But at least for me, this feeling was compromised by a scientific boyhood.  At age eight or so, I learned the names of the planets and the major stars, and could pick out a few constellations.   I learned no more than any eight-year-old, but I became in my wee way like Whitman’s learn’d astronomer, with his charts and diagrams, no longer able to look up “in perfect silence at the stars.”   

Luckily though, civilization and the human mind can never be fully mapped or catalogued.  There are always strange new places, scenes that will bring on that thrill of mild bewilderment.  Dotage is the perfect time to contemplate these realms.  Our time is short and our abilities declining, so we can’t fool ourselves into thinking we can “master” something new.  This is why I like to study languages, like Korean, that I will never be able to speak, and listen to music sung in Arabic, of which I don’t know a word.  My understanding is just enough to generate a sense of wonder.   

I like reading that is partially incomprehensible.  Wonder is missing from most conventional reading, but it’s always there in “Ulysses” and “Finnegans Wake.”  Joyce deliberately creates a universe so full of references that it’s impossible for any reader to get them all.  The ones we don’t get create an aura of mystery around the ones we do.  What is he talking about?  Ideally, we know enough to follow the story, but we’ll never know everything it implies.  Just like life.  We stay sane if we can comprehend what’s around us, but at the same time there is an endless realm beyond. 

Zen Master Soen gave us what he called his lifetime koan: “What is this?”  At any moment we can ask this and conjure up the spirit of wonder, because there is more going on in every moment than we can ever understand.  The founder of Soen’s teaching line, Hakuin Ekaku, had an even briefer, breathtaking lifetime koan.  I saw it in an exhibition of Hakuin’s calligraphy last year at Japan Society, a one-word koan, the character for “death.”  So here I am back with a one-syllable response to life’s problems.  But “death” is not exactly a solution.    

Contemplate that, Freddy.   

If anyone can add any information on the sources of my unfamiliar quotations, please put it in the comments below.  Or add your own favorites, be my guest.    

-- Copyright 2013 by Tom Phillips

1 comment:

  1. My favorite of these is the first as it is a wonderful reminder to us overly analyzing types who constantly feel we've said a wrong thing or made a mistake. I also like the one I have as a signature on my email. I saw it on the wall of a cantor friend's office while I was changing clothes to play for a recital with her. Don't know the source, but I find it helpful in day to day dealings with so many different kinds of people and makes it so much easier for me to eagerly meet new people: "Be kinder than necessary to everyone you meet. For everyone is fighting some kind of battle." Feel free to us it if you want!