I’m on my second thick journal of quotations, a collection of short word-bursts I’ve been gathering for almost two decades, mostly from books but also from magazines, newspapers and the occasional in-person comment.

The selected passages I copy into my journal are topically diverse, but with some consistent themes. One persistent thread has been simple appreciation for a well-turned phrase, even when the subject is of little interest. I have no fascination with automobiles, yet loved Yann Martel’s description of an early 1900’s Renault in his recent novel “The High Mountains of Portugal:”

This is a brand new four cylinder Renault, a masterpiece of engineering. Look at it! A creation that not only shines with the might of logic but sings with the allure of poetry.

Or this imaginative gem, from Simon Winchester”s nonfiction book “Pacific” (2015), describing the cruise industry’s downturn:

The combination of vacant staterooms and low-budget passengers steadily reduced Cunard’s profits to the thinness of the cucumbers in the Britannia lounge’s afternoon tea sandwiches.

I’ve long been intrigued by the power of personal stories, but also cognizant that memory is the friend of good storytelling but not necessarily the best companion for accuracy. These two quotations from recent books perfectly expressed that tension between memory and fact:

Memory is only one version of the truth.
Richard Wright, “A Life with Words,” 2015

If you remember the sweet crunch of an apple you had in your lunch box the first day of school, but an old Instagram photo reveals that it was an orange, which is truer: the taste in your mouth or the picture of a fruit you do not remember?
Camilla Gibb, in an article in Toronto’s Globe and Mail newspaper, 19 September 2015

Like all of us, I’ve endured the demise of relationships, and another theme in my collected passages has been faded love:

At the circus, the worst that can go wrong is a lion kills you. There’s a lot more that can go wrong with a marriage.
John Irving, “Avenue of Mysteries” 2015

You think there will be a time to say goodbye, but people have often gone before you know about it. And I don’t just mean the dying.
Rachel Joyce, “The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy,” 2014

My quotation journals also reveal uncertainty about how to reconcile with the past, letting go of people and events that inhibit us from getting on with our lives. Connie Gault, in her stunning book about prairie life “A Beauty” (2015), captured this most complex challenge in two simple sentences:

She’d seen what happened to people who dwelt on the past. They stranded themselves between whatever had happened and whatever might have been.

Moving on often requires forgiveness, an unusually complex personal challenge. The idea of forgiveness itself is confusing, but Elizabeth Hay found the elusive language to articulate this most difficult of concepts, in her novel “His Whole Life” (2015):

Forgiveness could be considered a kind of movement in one’s chest that made it easier to breathe.

I’ve had an ongoing interest in the activities and atmosphere that lead to clear writing, those locations, times and environments unique for each of us where insights emerge. My own best writing used to happen early in the morning, around 5:00 AM, when I would move to my home office from bed, coffee in hand, and emerge hours later having typed pages of prose that seemed to rarely need much editing.

But lately that’s changed, and my clearest writing happens now in coffee shops, during the afternoons between the office and home, including this blog piece that is being composed at one of my favorite Vancouver coffee shops, Brioche.

Susan Cain addressed café writing in her 2012 book about introverts, “Quiet:”

I wrote most of this book on a laptop at my favorite densely packed neighborhood café. I did this [because] the mere presence of other people helped my mind to make associative leaps.

Cafés historically have been places of conversation. Although today most coffee shop customers are online rather than engaged directly with another person, the shops still retain that flavor of conversing, albeit a mix of face-to-face and electronic. Perhaps that’s the inspiration for Susan Cain’s associative leaps, seemingly disconnected ideas finding each other, stimulated through café submergence in a sea of conversation.

The quotations that make it into my journal may be uniquely interesting to me and of little value to others, but the isolated snippets of language that jump out from the page and get transcribed serve as records of what has been on my mind, highlighting the thinking points that flavor each day.

Quotations are much like a personal chat with the author, shorthand emerging from that intimate relationship between writer and reader.

And perhaps, just perhaps, somewhere and sometime I’ve written something exquisite enough to make it into a reader’s journal.

It is, after all, the most human of traits to seek meaning in the world around us, and the most human of traits to share those insights. What better way to end than a Margaret Atwood quotation from her beautiful 2003 book about writing, “Negotiating with the Dead:”

Perhaps I have reached the age at which those who have been through the wash-and-spin cycle a few times become seized by the notion that their own experience in the suds may be relevant to others.


I’d love to hear from you, especially with a favourite quotation or two:


Mark and dancers

Bees, dance, playgrounds and children’s books came together unexpectedly in Toronto last week, along with synchrony, the idea of simultaneous occurrence or motion.

The children’s book was not so much the book as its author JonArno Lawson, whom I met at the Governor-General’s Literary Awards in December. His and illustrator Sydney Smith’s winning book was “Sidewalk Flowers,” which I recommend highly for children and adults alike.

I was delighted that JonArno was free one night while I was in Toronto, as he is a most engaging dinner companion. At one point he told me about a remarkable bit of playground research he’d uncovered, conducted by a student of the American anthropologist and cross-cultural researcher Edward T. Hall. JonArno subsequently sent me a few pages from Hall’s 1983 Book “The Dance of Life,” that described the study.

As Hall wrote, “He began to notice one very active little girl who seemed to stand out from the rest. She was all over the place. My student noticed that whenever she was near a cluster of children the members of that group were in sync not only with each other but with her. Many viewings later, he realized that this girl, with her skipping and dancing and twirling, was actually orchestrating movements of the entire playground!”

Hall went on to describe how the pattern of movement was like the beat of music, with the playground’s children dancing to its silent rhythm. There was no music, however. Rather, the kids were tapping into some subconscious rhythm of play they perceived in a non-audible way.

I immediately thought of bees, and the transcendent spirit of the hive by which the colony collective seems to skip and dance and twirl within the hive much like Hall’s children on the playground.

There is a rhythm to each colony, a beat of activity set by a few individual bees. All might be quiet in the hive until a scout forager returns, dancing vigorously to inform her nestmates of the distance and direction to a field of nectar or pollen-yielding flowers. Potential foragers follow the dance and then fly out themselves, returning with nectar or pollen or both, and performing their own dances that excite other workers.

It all begins with that first scout setting the beat, but soon the pace of the hive has escalated, with some workers accepting and processing the incoming nectar, some packing pollen into cells, and still others following the now-numerous dances and then flying out to forage.

The colony appears in simultaneous motion, a synchronous blending of tasks that creates a palpable rhythm, each bee responding to the beat with different tasks while staying true to the inflections of the collective.

JonArno also suggested that perhaps human dancers resemble bees in our capacity to pace dance to a subtle rhythm-setter. We’ve all been at parties where we might be dancing fluidly among many partners, but there’s usually someone who is influencing the entire dance floor’s pace without being an obvious leader.

I experienced this intersection between bee and human dance most intensely when I was part of two dance projects with Vancouver’s LINK Dance Foundation. I’d never performed on stage with dancers before, but what struck me as most profound was how aware we were of each other without any direct look or other signals. Rather, each segment from each dance had its rhythm subtly conducted by a different performer’s individual beat, with understated leadership shifting between dancers as the piece progressed.

Whether we are well tuned to the playground’s beat or the synchronicity of dance, the pace of human life is remarkably influenced by subtle cues beneath our conscious awareness.

Hall wrote about our perception of that subliminal beat: “I have come to the conclusion that the human species lives in a sea of rhythm, ineffable to some, but quite tangible to others. This explains why some composers really do seem to be able to tap into that sea and express for the people the rhythms that are felt but not yet expressed as music. Poets do this too . . .”

As do bees, themselves composers and poets of their own colony’s cadence, another reminder of the remarkable lessons to be gleaned by those who listen to the rhythm of the hive.


I’d love to hear from you: