A copyist’s journal, updated at whim.


My crimes overtook me

and I could not see —

more numerous than the hairs of my head —

and my heart forsook me. …

LORD, to my help, hasten.

I am lowly and needy. …

My help, he who frees me You are.

My God, do not delay.

Robert Alter, translator, Psalm 40 (in The Book of Psalms: A Translation With Commentary, 2007)


I chant a Cold Mountain gatha after zazen

after dinner I sip valley-mist tea

and when something lingers I can’t express

I cross the ridge to gather a basketful of vine buds

. . .

trying to become a buddha is easy

but ending delusions is hard

how many frosty moonlit nights

have I sat and felt the cold before dawn

Shih-wu (1272–1352), from “Mountain Poems,” translated by Red Pine (in The Zen Works of Stonehouse: Poems and Talks of a 14th-Century Chinese Hermit, 1999)


Meanwhile, a silence on the cross,

As dead as we shall ever be,

Speaks of some total gain or loss …

W. H. Auden, “Friday’s Child,” 1958

“We are approaching a completely religionless age,” Bonhoeffer wrote, “people as they are now simply cannot be religious anymore. Even those who honestly describe themselves as ‘religious’ aren’t really practicing that at all; they presumably mean something quite different by ‘religious.’” The rickety scaffolding of Protestantism had tumbled finally to the ground in the wake of the German church’s complicity with the Nazis; every attempt “to force it once again” into the shape of a powerful institution “will only delay its inescapable reckoning.” Religion as it had been lived before was obsolete. …

“If religion is only the garb in which Christianity is clothed—and this garb has looked very different in different ages—what then is religionless Christianity?” …

Bonhoeffer’s answers revealed a faith chastened by history, mindful of its failures and misuses. … [The] Christian witness shall be limited to prayer and righteous action. “All Christian thinking, talking, and organizing must be born anew, out of that prayer and action.” … These are not post-theistic ruminations, the kind made popular by the Death of God theologians and their merry riffs on the prison texts; rather, they are a sober assessment of the gospel’s political captivity—and how to escape it.

Charles Marsh, Strange Glory: A Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, 2014


The conception of human rights … broke down at the very moment when those who professed to believe in it were for the first time confronted with people who had indeed lost all other qualities and specific relationships—except that they were still human. The world found nothing sacred in the abstract nakedness of being human. …

The survivors of the extermination camps, the inmates of concentration and internment camps, and even the comparatively happy stateless people could see … that the abstract nakedness of being nothing but human was their greatest danger. …

This mere existence, that is, all that which is mysteriously given us by birth and which includes the shape of our bodies and the talents of our minds, can be adequately dealt with only by the unpredictable hazards of friendship and sympathy, or by the great and incalculable grace of love, which says with Augustine, “Volo ut sis (I want you to be),” without being able to give any particular reason for such supreme and unsurpassable affirmation.

Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism, 1951/1968


One of the great liabilities of history is that all too many people fail to remain awake through great periods of social change. Every society has its protectors of the status quo and its fraternities of the indifferent who are notorious for sleeping through revolutions. But today our very survival depends on our ability to stay awake, to adjust to new ideas, to remain vigilant and to face the challenge of change. The large house in which we live demands that we transform this worldwide neighborhood into a worldwide brotherhood. Together we must learn to live as brothers or together we will be forced to perish as fools.

Martin Luther King Jr., Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?, 1967

To save what can be saved so as to open up some kind of future—that is the prime mover … It demands only that we reflect and then decide, clearly, whether humanity’s lot must be made still more miserable in order to achieve far-off and shadowy ends. …

For my part … I must state that I will never again be one of those, whoever they be, who compromise with murder, and that I must take the consequences of such a decision. …

Yes, it is fear and silence and the spiritual isolation they cause that must be fought today. And it is sociability (‘le dialogue’) and the universal intercommunication of men that must be defended. … there is no reason why some of us should not take on the job of keeping alive, through the apocalyptic historical vista that stretches before us, a modest thoughtfulness which, without pretending to solve everything, will constantly be prepared to give some human meaning to everyday life. The essential thing is that people should carefully weigh the price they must pay.

All I ask is that, in the midst of a murderous world, we agree to reflect on murder and to make a choice. … I have always held that, if he who bases his hopes on human nature is a fool, he who gives up in the face of circumstances is a coward.

Albert Camus, “Neither Victims nor Executioners” (1946),  translated by Dwight Macdonald (in Neither Victims nor Executioners: An Ethic Superior to Murder, 1986)


Ah, yes … impermanence. But this is never a reason to let compassion and focus slide, or to pass off the sufferings of others because they are merely impermanent beings.

Gary Snyder, “After Bamiyan” (in Danger on Peaks, 2004)

In Sung China,

two monks friends for sixty years

watched the geese pass.

. . .

Almost swallowed by the vastness of the mountains,

but not yet.

As the barely audible

geese are not yet swallowed;

as even we, my love, will not entirely be lost.

Jane Hirshfield, “The Heart’s Counting Knows Only One” (in The Lives of the Heart, 1997)


You have to let everything go

buddhahood has to go too

each thought becomes a demon

opening your mouth invites trouble . . .

Shih-wu (1272–1352), from “Mountain Poems,” translated by Red Pine (in The Zen Works of Stonehouse: Poems and Talks of a 14th-Century Chinese Hermit, 1999)

When you see clearly, there’s nothing at all;

there are no people, there are no buddhas.

The myriad worlds are like so much foam on the sea,

old worthies and great sages merely flashes of lightning. . . .

Yung-chia (d. 713), from “Song of Realizing the Way,” translated by Nelson Foster (in The Roaring Stream: A New Zen Reader, 1996)


Faint wind rustles reeds and cattails;

I open the hatch, expecting rain — moon floods the lake.

Boatmen and water birds dream the same dream

. . .

Life passes swiftly, hedged by sorrow;

how long before you’ve lost it — a scene like this? . . .

Su Tung-p’o (1037–1101), “On a Boat, Awake at Night,” translated by Burton Watson (in Selected Poems of Su Tung-p’o, 1994)

… I do not know any more now

than you did then about what you

were asking as I sit at night

above the hushed valley thinking

of you on your river that one

bright sheet of moonlight in the dream

of the waterbirds and I hear

the silence after your questions

how old are the questions tonight

W.S. Merwin, “Letter to Su Tung-p’o” (in The Shadow of Sirius, 2008)


It is true that we have to love our neighbor, but, in the example that Christ gave as an illustration of this commandment, the neighbor is a being of whom nothing is known, lying naked, bleeding, and unconscious on the road. It is a question of completely anonymous, and for that reason, completely universal love. …

We are living in times that have no precedent, and in our present situation universality, which could formerly be implicit, has to be fully explicit. It has to permeate our language and the whole of our way of life.

— Simone Weil to Father Perrin, May 26, 1942 (in Waiting for God, 1951)


Then he looked up at his disciples and said: ‘Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled. Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh. Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. …

‘But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry. Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep. …

‘But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you.’

Jesus of Nazareth, The Gospel According to Luke, 6:20–31 (NRSV)

If I could do it, I’d do no writing at all here. It would be photographs; the rest would be fragments of cloth, bits of cotton, lumps of earth, records of speech, pieces of wood and iron, phials of odors, plates of food and of excrement. Booksellers would consider it quite a novelty; critics would murmur, yes, but is it art; and I could trust a majority of you to use it as you would a parlor game.

A piece of the body torn out by the roots might be more to the point.

As it is, though, I’ll do what little I can in writing. Only it will be very little. I’m not capable of it; and if I were, you would not go near it at all. For if you did, you would hardly bear to live.

James Agee, Preamble, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, 1941


Please try to remember that what they believe, as well as what they do and cause you to endure, does not testify to your inferiority but to their inhumanity and fear. … There is no reason for you to try to become like white people and there is no basis whatever for their impertinent assumption that they must accept you. The really terrible thing, old buddy, is that you must accept them. And I mean that very seriously. You must accept them and accept them with love. For these innocent people have no other hope. They are, in effect, still trapped in a history which they do not understand; and until they understand it, they cannot be released from it. … [A]nd, by a terrible law, a terrible paradox, those innocents who believed that your imprisonment made them safe are losing their grasp of reality. But these men are your brothers — your lost, younger brothers. And if the word integration means anything, this is what it means: that we, with love, shall force our brothers to see themselves as they are, to cease fleeing from reality and begin to change it. … We cannot be free until they are free.

James Baldwin, “My Dungeon Shook,” The Fire Next Time, 1963


At that time all the royalists turned into republicans and all the millionaires of Paris turned into workers. The phrase which corresponded to this imaginary abolition of class relations was fraternite, general fraternization and brotherhood. This pleasant abstraction from class antagonisms, this sentimental reconciliation of contradictory class interests, this fantastic transcendence of the class struggle, this fraternite was the actual slogan of the February revolution. The classes had been divided by a mere misunderstanding…. The Paris proletariat revelled in this magnanimous intoxication of brotherhood.

MarxThe Class Struggles in France: 1848–50 (in The Political Writings, Vol. II: Surveys From Exile, 2019)

They [the peasant convicts] were coarse, ill-natured, cross-grained people. Their hatred for the gentry knew no bounds, and therefore they received us, the gentlemen, with hostility and malicious joy in our troubles. They would have eaten us alive, given the chance. …

Men, however, are everywhere men. In four years in prison I came at last to distinguish men among criminals. Believe me, there are deep, strong, beautiful characters among them, and what a joy it was to discover the gold under the coarse, hard surface. And not one, not two, but several. It is impossible not to respect some of them, and some are positively splendid.

Dostoevsky to his brother Mikhail, upon release from prison in Siberia, February 1854 (quoted by Joseph Frank in Dostoevsky: A Writer in His Time, 2010)


… for God’s sake, when we have demolished all a priori dogmas, do not let us think of indoctrinating the people in our turn … I wholeheartedly applaud your idea of bringing all shades of opinion to light. Let us have a good and honest polemic. Let us set the world an example of wise and farsighted tolerance, but simply because we are leaders of a movement let us not instigate a new intolerance. Let us not set ourselves up as the apostles of a new religion, even if it be the religion of logic or reason.

Pierre-Joseph Proudhon to Karl Marx, 1846 (quoted by Peter Marshall in Demanding the Impossible: A History of Anarchism, 2010)

What confuses you is that my arguments and my approach are different from what you are used to; in other words, the trouble is that I am independent. By which I mean, on the one hand, that I do not belong to any organization and always speak only for myself, and on the other hand, that I have great confidence in Lessing’s selbstdenken [independent thinking for oneself], for which, I think, no ideology, no public opinion, and no ‘convictions’ can ever be a substitute.

Hannah Arendt to Gershom Scholem, 1963 (in The Jewish Writings, 2007)