I keep a book of quotations. It looks exactly like any other journal, but it’s for a different kind of journaling. Journaling with the words of other writers, if you will. Here I scribble down quotations from all kinds of books: poetry, theology, memoir, literary theory, fiction, you name it. I write down anything I want to remember.
Sometimes I use these quotations later, in my own writing or maybe just in conversation. But, it isn’t really about utility. It’s about beauty. Language can be so beautiful it stuns. However, I am generally reading so much, so quickly that I need a way to hold on to those beautiful bits that I just can’t bear to let wash down the stream of words, words, words.
The purple fabric cover of my book of quotations has caught my eye this morning. Cracking its cover and skimming its pages, I rediscover this gem from George MacDonald.
In his classic fantasy Phantastes, first published in 1858, he writes words worth remembering:
” . . . I went on my silent path beneath a round silvery moon. And a pale moon looked up from the floor of the great blue cave that lay in the abysmal silence beneath. Why are all reflections lovelier than what we call the reality? – not so grand or strong, it may be, but always lovelier? Fair as is the gliding sloop on the shining sea, the wavering, trembling, unresting sail below is fairer still. Yea, the reflecting ocean itself, reflected in the mirror, has a wondrousness about its waters that somewhat vanishes when I turn towards itself. All mirrors are magic mirrors. The commonest room is a room in a poem when I turn to the glass. . . . In whatever way it may be accounted for, of one thing we may be sure, that this feeling is no cheat; for there is no cheating in nature and the simple unsought feelings of the soul. There must be truth involved in it, though we may but in part lay hold of the meaning. Even the memories of past pain are beautiful; and past delights, though beheld only through clefts in the grey clouds of sorrow, are lovely as Fairy Land. . . . The moon . . . is the lovelier memory or reflex of the down-gone sun, the joyous day seen in the faint mirror of the brooding night . . . .”
What do you see in the photo above?
Because we live in a world which privileges cold, hard facts, I imagine that each of us would claim to see only a reflection. The camera isn’t showing us the real things, the actual palm trees and beach balls.
I begin to wonder: is the reflection, the mirror image, actually less real? Less true?
I flip through the pages of an old photo album. I remember the pain and pleasure of those days, and I discover that MacDonald is right, those memories, the good and bad, are glossed with loveliness. Should I distrust this loveliness? Should I insist that the distance of years has distorted reality?
Perhaps the haze of beauty which covers my memories reveals the truth about my life in a way that immediate, lived experience cannot. Yes, pain is real and terrible, but it may be that in the mirror reflection of memory we can glimpse something important that is beyond our comprehension in the moment.
When pain is part of a good and beautiful story it can be transformed. It can become moonlight.
Yes, I love the direct, unmediated happiness of sunshine. Still, I am grateful for the subtle beauty and the reflected glory that belong only to moonlight.