“He wrapped himself in quotations – as a beggar would enfold himself in the purple of Emperors.”
— Rudyard Kipling
Slowly but surely, the words are claiming the wall.
Muhammad Ali watches from one point, Saint Paul from another. Novelists share space with masters of social media. It’s a small crowd right now, but I know how quickly it will grow, piling wit onto wisdom onto timeless endurance.
I ought to know. We’ve been here before.
And as before, it’s more comforting than a few rows of taped computer paper has any right to be.
“In the garden of literature, the highest and the most charismatic flowers are always the quotations.”
— Mehmet Murat ildan
It started, as it often does, with Heather’s health. My wife is a lovely, funny, creative and tough-minded person. But she also tends to attract chronic illness the way a car accident attracts rubberneckers. Years ago, before we met, it was Crohn’s disease. A couple of years after we married, ankylosing spondylitis came along for the ride. Endometriosis used to be part of the mix, and we’ve never been quite sure if lupus was milling about in the crowd or not.
Lately, as some of you have read here, there’s been something new. We’re still pinning down all the details – which is a bloodless way of saying that we’ve been going through a lot of sleepless nights and painful days trying to figure out what in blue blazes is going on.
One morning I had just checked in with my boss to mention that I was going to have to work from home – again – in order to help Heather through the day. She sent back her best wishes for the struggle – and a few words from Muhammad Ali for comfort.
“The fight is won or lost far away from witnesses,” the words read, “behind the lines, in the gym and out there on the road, long before I dance under those lights.”
And all of a sudden, I remembered.
“Have you ever observed that we pay much more attention to a wise passage when it is quoted, than when we read it in the original author?”
— Philip Gilbert Hamerton
The last time something like this happened, back in Kansas, Heather had had to spend far too much time in the bathroom. (Having Crohn’s in combination with severe back pain will tend to do that.) So, to make life a little more bearable – or at least entertaining – I started to paper the opposite wall with quotes.
Like many writers, I’ve always been a fan of the well-chosen word, whether from prophets or Muppets. A good quote is a quick moment in life when your mind suddenly blinks and then laughs, or winces, or nods “Yes – yes, that’s exactly how it is.” They’ve decorated my college papers, my desks, even my email at work.
And now, they decorated my bathroom. Heather found the first one and I quickly gave it a lot of brothers and sisters. Soon, you couldn’t drop a hand towel without coming across the latest aphorism or wisecrack.
Now, we seemed to be in a similar place. Maybe it was time for a similar remedy. This particular illness was keeping her confined to bed for much of the day, so I picked a readily visible bedroom wall and went to work.
Some space went to encouragement. (“We must live lives of unstoppable hope.” – Stant Litore.)
Some was claimed by humorous sympathy. (“I’m not clumsy. It’s just that the floor hates me, the tables and chairs are bullies, and the wall gets in the way.” – Liza Mahone.)
And some, inevitably, went to doctor snark. (“I firmly believe that if the whole materia medica could be sunk to the bottom of the sea, it would be all the better for mankind and all the worse for the fishes.” – Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr.)
I don’t know. Maybe it’s not doing anything but using up ink and Scotch tape. But maybe, in its own small way, it helps. It’s a way to bring life over the walls, to remind us that someone’s been there before, that there’s more to think about than “Ow, ow, ow.”
Maybe, to borrow from Miguel de Cervantes, these “short sentences drawn from long experience” are better medicine than we know. I hope so. I really do.
Sticks and stones can break our bones. But words can maybe heal us.