Colette’s Lovely Ode to Her Mother on Mother’s Day

earthly paradiseOur relationship to our mother is almost always complicated.  It can be as arduous as a trek up a mountain or as effortless as a stroll through the French countryside.  It can be loving, turbulent, affectionate, estranged, doting or impossible to please.  It can be fortified by time, diminished by resentment, magnified by tenderness, undone by rejection, bound by magnanimity, spoiled by neglect, buoyed by boundless love, or blighted by strife.

This profound relationship between mother and child is what great French writer Colette explores in Earthly Paradise, her stunning autobiography which Robert Phelps called a “vivid, year-by-year revelation of a long, eager, courageous life.”  A rare writer who can glimpse the transcendent in the mundane, Colette finds as much poetry in the concrete details of the physical as in the philosophical.  In her signature lush, evocative prose, Colette pays tribute to her mother, a passionate woman whose fervor for flowers comes to symbolize her unceasing commitment to growth.  Much like the flowers she lovingly tends, her mother possesses an instinct to blossom and- even in old age- refuses to wither.  Despite her own personal failings, Colette finds consolation in the fact that she was born of such a remarkable mother:

Whenever I feel myself inferior to everything about me, threatened by my own mediocrity, frightened by the discovery that a muscle is losing its strength, a desire its power, or a pain the keen edge of its bite, I can still hold up my head and say to myself: ‘I am the daughter of the woman who wrote that letter- that letter and so many more that I have kept.  This one tells me in ten lines that at the age of seventy-six she was planning journeys and undertaking them, but that waiting for the possible bursting into bloom of a tropical flower held everything up and silenced even her heart, made for love.  I am the daughter of a woman who, in a mean, close-fisted, confined little place, opened her village home to stray cats, tramps, and pregnant servant girls.  I am the daughter of a woman who many a time, when she was in despair at not having enough money for others, ran through the wind-whipped snow to cry from door to door, at the houses of the rich, that a child had just been born in a poverty-stricken home to parents whose feeble, empty hands had no swaddling clothes for it.  Let me not forget that I am the daughter of a woman who bent her head, trembling, between the blades of a cactus, her wrinkled face full of ecstasy over the promise of a flower, a woman who herself never ceased to flower, untiringly, during three quarters of a century.’”

A Calendar of Wisdom: Leo Tolstoy on the Treasure of a Small, Selected Library

“What a great treasure can be hidden in a small, selected library!” transcendental philosopher a calendar of wisdomRalph Waldo Emerson once marveled when contemplating the miracle of books.  “A company of the wisest and the most deserving people from all the civilized countries of the world, for thousands of years can make the results of their studies and their wisdom available to us.”  For Emerson, libraries were more than dusty receptacles of an outmoded past- a collection of classics was a potent distillation- in the words of Matthew Arnold- “of the best that’s been thought and said.”  To read a great book was to be guided by the most enlightened of teachers.  

It is this idea that books offer invaluable insight into life that inspired Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy to embark on A Calendar of Wisdom, a delightful daily devotional meant to “nourish the soul.”  Though not nearly as well-known as his masterpieces War and Peace or Anna Karenina, Tolstoy considered A Calendar of Wisdom to be his most important contribution to the world.  His mission?  To collect a “circle of reading” in which ordinary men could seek counsel from history’s most extraordinary thinkers.  “What,” he meditated in his diary, “can be more precious than to communicate every day with the wisest men in the world?”  On March 15, 1884, Tolstoy first articulated his idea for a reflection book:

“I have to create a circle of reading for myself: Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, Lao-Tzu, Buddha, Pascal, The New Testament.  This is also necessary for all people.”

 A year later in a letter to his assistant Vladimir Chertkov, Tolstoy shared the vision for his ambitious project to amass “one wise thought for every day of the year”:

“I know that it gives one great inner force, calmness, and happiness to communicate with such great thinkers as Socrates, Epictetus, Arnold, Parker. … They tell us about what is most important for humanity, about the meaning of life and about virtue. … I would like to create a book…in which I could tell a person about his life, and about the Good Way of Life.”  

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Tolstoy would spend the next fifteen years assembling a diverse array of thinkers from a wide range of religious, philosophical, and cultural backgrounds.  Turning through A Calendar of Wisdom, you’re just as likely to encounter Jesus as Buddha.  On one page, you might discover a thoughtful Stoic meditation; on another, an ancient Persian proverb.  Whereas some entires contain the stunning revelations and lush lyricisms of a poet, others spotlight an elevating piece of scripture.  Artists and writers, poets and philosophers: all converge to bring their immeasurable wisdom to the modern reader.  

In 1904, Tolstoy would finally publish the first edition of his day book under the title Thoughts of Wise Men.  Between 1904-1907, he worked diligently on an expanded second edition, which included not only a compendium of quotes organized by universal themes such God and morality, love and law, perfection and work, but a compilation of Tolstoy’s own thoughts in his own words.  Tolstoy later revised and simplified the third edition in hopes of making his “circle of reading” more accessible to the masses.  “To create a book…for millions of people,” he believed, “was incomparably more important and fruitful than to compose a novel of the kind which diverts some members of the wealthy classes for a short time, and then is forever forgotten.”  Though widely read in pre-revolutionary Russia, Tolstoy’s final masterwork was eventually banned and sadly sunk into oblivion under communism.

It wasn’t until the fall of the Berlin Wall that A Calendar of Wisdom remerged from behind the iron curtain.  Only re-released in post-soviet Russia in 1995, it quickly sold a staggering 300,000 copies before being translated into English.  The book begins with a few thoughts on the importance of learning only what is edifying and essential:

“Better to know a few things which are good and necessary than many things which are useless and mediocre.”– Ralph Waldo Emerson

“The difference between real material poison and intellectual poison is that most material poison is disgusting to the taste, but intellectual poison, which takes the form of cheap newspapers or bad books, can unfortunately sometimes be attractive.”– Leo Tolstoy 

Later, Tolstoy and the transcendentalists he so admired contemplate the definition of genuine knowledge.  Man may have an obligation to respect his intellectual heritage but-they argued- he must still establish his own opinions with his individual intellect:

“Knowledge is real knowledge only when it is acquired by the efforts of your intellect, not by memory.  Only when we forget what we were taught do we start to have real knowledge.”– Henry David Thoreau 

“A scholar knows many books; a well-educated person has the knowledge and skills; an enlightened person understands the meaning and purpose of his life.”– Leo Tolstoy

“We are like children who first repeat the unquestionable ‘truth’ told to us by our grandmothers, then the ‘truth’ told to us by our teachers, and then, when we become older, the ‘truth’ told to us by prominent people.”– Ralph Waldo Emerson

“A man should use that spiritual heritage which he has received from the wise and holy people of the past, but he should test everything with his intellect, accepting certain things and rejecting others.“- Leo Tolstoy 

In another entry, Henry George warns we must purge ourselves of our preconceptions if we are to apprehend reality:

“We should be ready to change our views at any time, and slough off prejudices, and live with an open and receptive mind.  A sailor who sets the same sails all the time, without making changes when the wind changes, will never reach his harbor.”– Henry George

Besides noting the ways rigid narrow-mindedness can hinder the quest for truth, many of Tolstoy’s thinkers remark on the revolutionary power of kindness:

“Nothing can make our life, or the lives of other people, more beautiful than perpetual kindness.”– Leo Tolstoy 

“For a truth to be heard, it must be spoken with kindness.  Truth is kind only when it is spoken through your heart with sincerity.  You should know that when a message you convey to another person is not understood by him, at least one of the following things is true: what you have said is not true, or you have conveyed it without kindness.  The only way to tell the truth is to speak with kindness.  Only the words of a loving man can be heard.”– Henry David Thoreau 

In an age where we worship convivial chatter and affable sociability, we’ve forgotten the value of silence.  When we’re careless with our words and unleash anger and hostility, we most often cause irreversible harm and suffer regret:

“Only speak when your words are better than silence.”– Arabic proverb 

“For every time you regret that you did not say something, you will regret a hundred times that you did not keep your silence.”– Leo Tolstoy 

“If you lose your temper, count to ten before you do or say anything.  If you haven’t calmed down, then count to a hundred; and if you have not calmed down after this, count up to a thousand.”– Thomas Jefferson

“A gunshot wound may be cured, but the wound made by a tongue never heals.”– Persian wisdom 

Mindless gossip, malicious rumors,  nasty insults hurled in anger: thoughtlessness with words is an indefensible abuse of man’s greatest power.  Just as it’s wrong to weaponize language to belittle and wound, it’s unforgivable to squander hours in idleness and refuse to work:

“It is a sin to not be engaged in work, even if it is not necessary for you to make your living.”– Leo Tolstoy 

“Nothing can make a person feel more noble than work.  Without work, a person cannot have human dignity.  It is because of this that idle people are so much concerned by the superficial, outer expression of their own importance; they know that without this, other people would despise them.”– Leo Tolstoy 

 “It seems to us that the most important work in the world is the work which is visible, which we can see: building a house, plowing the land, feeding cattle, gathering fruits,” Tolstoy once observed, “and that the work which is invisible, the work done by our soul, is not important but our invisible work…is the most important work in the world.”  It was his hope that this trove of quotes would help generations of readers with the pressing work of bettering themselves.  A breathtaking treasury spanning centuries of human thought, A Calendar of Wisdom is a must-have for anyone who wants to enlarge their soul.