Wednesday, March 23, 2016

{From My Commonplace} :: Just and Only

I was catching up in my commonplace this week and came upon this passage from Gilead about one of my favorite words to overuse...

"In writing this, I notice that it costs me not to use certain words more than I ought to. I am thinking about the word "just." I almost wish I could have written that the sun just shone and the tree just glistened, and the water just poured out of it and the girl just laughed--when it's used that way it does indicate a stress on the word that follows it, and also a particular pitch of the voice. People talk that way when they want to call attention to a think existing in excess of itself, so to speak, a sort of purity of lavishness, at any rate something ordinary in kind but exceptional in degree. So it seems to me in the moment. There is something real signified by the word "just" that proper language won't acknowledge. I regret that I must deprive myself of it. It takes half the point out of telling the story."

 -- from Marilynne Robinson's Gilead

Besides being a lovely reflection on the simple beauties of life and a careful consideration of the craft of writing, it reminded me of another passage I read this week with the kids in Madam How and Lady Why, which was both extraordinarily funny and wise:

"What is that coming down the hill?

"Oh, only some chalk-carts.

"Only some chalk-carts? It seems to me that these chalk-carts are the very things we want; that if we follow them far enough--I do not mean with our feet along the public road, but with our thoughts along a road which, I am sorry to say, the public do not yet know much about--we shall come to a cave, and understand how a cave is made. Meanwhile, do not be in a hurry to say, 'Only a chalk-cart,' or only a mouse, or only a dead leaf. Chalk-carts, like mice, and dead leaves, and most other matters in the universe are very curious and odd things in the eyes of wise and reasonable people. Whenever I hear young men saying 'only' this and 'only' that, I begin to suspect them of belonging, not to the noble army of sages--much less to the most noble army of martyrs,--but to the ignoble army of noodles, who think nothing interesting or important but dinners, and balls, and races, and back-biting their neighbours; and I should be sorry to see you enlisting in that regiment when you grow up. But think--are not chalk-carts very odd and curious things? I think they are. To my mind, it is a curious question how men ever thought of inventing wheels; and, again, when they first thought of it. It is a curious question, too, how men ever found out that they could make horses work for them, and so began to tame them, instead of eating them, and a curious question (which I think we shall never get answered) when the first horse-tamer lived, and in what country. And a very curious, and, to me, a beautiful sight it is, to see those two noble horses obeying that little boy, whom they could kill with a single kick."

 -- from Kinglsey's Madam How and Lady Why

Obviously, these two selections are talking about different things: one refers to a word that emphasizes the words around it (until it gets overused and loses its effect) and the other refers to a word which de-emphasizes.  Similarly, though, these examples speak to the power of a single simple word to heighten or minimize a point.  They both speak to the importance of language.

What struck me, however, was that only and just can mean both the same thing and the exact opposite:  "Only a chalk-cart" and  "just a chalk-cart" mean the same thing.  But in the Gilead-ic (can that be a word?) sense, just works in another way entirely.

So intriguing.

I'm not going anywhere special with this except to say that reading multiple books at once forges all these small, unexpected connections.  I never thought my fourth grader's earth science text and my Lenten novel would have anything in common!

And I certainly never thought my fourth grader's earth science text would get me thinking about minute linguistic distinctions.  But it did, partly because it's a living book and has that capacity, and partly because when you are a literature-lover, you can't help but pull out the literary bits to fawn over.  That's part of the Science of Relations too. :)

I'll be taking a break from posting for the Triduum, so I wish you a blessed time and will be back here on the blog next week!  (In the meantime, you can probably find me sharing snippets of Holy Week and Easter on Instagram. ;))


  1. I've most definitely thought of this before. One of the reasons I love words in general. Their power can be amazingly beautiful and amazingly ugly. It seems almost a crime when they are used in a boring way. Another reason to use living books for sure.

    I also thought that passage was very Chesterton like. Not the author's tone/style; that was very different from Chesterton. But both authors have a deep way of noticing, and then using words to make us notice too.

    Which also made me think of The Living Page and her thoughts on the vitality of Keeping. How the act of Keeping as we read and keep a Common Place at the same time changes us. So once again words being used to transform us as we not only read them, but think about them, write them, and then they become personal to us. A very deep way of noticing. All starting with words!

    1. "A deep way of noticing" << Yes, that's it exactly, Virginia Lee. I so appreciate getting a peek at the insights of great minds on the mundane, the daily. And capturing those in a commonplace--which in turn spurs connections I wouldn't have made otherwise--is not only a deep educational exercise but also a joy. :)

  2. A wonderful reflection, Celeste! And I agree with Kingsley about watching out for people who use the world "only" a lot like that, I've generally considered it a sign that I am not a kindred spirit to that person. :-)

    I had a conversation recently with a friend about the number of books we read at the same time and she was absolutely flabbergasted by what we do. She couldn't understand why we would, or how we would, or how we could get any depth by so many books being read at the same time. I tried to explain the opportunity for connections, the short readings, the narrations, the discussions... but I wonder if it might be something that has to be tried in order to start to understand the value of it.

    1. Honestly, I felt the same way before I actually started reading in that way. I only had one or two books going at a time at most and I couldn't believe that students would be able to keep track and engage with the books if they were juggling so many. I hear this incredulity often regarding short lessons, too -- how can they "go deep" when they're going so broad and short? But trying it is definitely what made me a believer. :)

  3. 'the ignoble army of noodles' Fabulous phrase. You 'just' might have convinced me to get Madam How and Lady Why. ;-)
    Wonderful connections here.
    I do have one question about your commonplace. I recall you keep four different notebooks for different categories of books. Are you ever reading more than one book from a given category, and if so, how do you do your keeping? Do you try to keep all the quotes from one book together, or do you just record them chronologically as you encounter them?

    1. Kingsley has some anti-Catholic works, obviously, but I am pretty certain your brood would enjoy his style. And his Heroes is fantastic, if you haven't already read that together.

      Yes, I do keep four commonplace books. But within each book, I work chronologically, just as quotes come up in my reading. It would be lovely to have it ordered by book, but I read so many of my books spread out over months (or even years) that it wouldn't be feasible to break it up book-by-book without wasting a lot of pages. I do plan on doing an index in the back once I finish these commonplaces -- so I'll keep a list of the books included and note which pages have quotes from that book on them. That should help a bit with finding quotes later. (And I do use my commonplace for that often -- to find quotes from past reading that I want to reference for some connection or other.) Hope that makes sense!

      I'd love to know: do your older kids keep commonplaces, Kimberlee? If so, I'd love to see!