Jean Croker Petke


I find many wonderful metaphors and descriptions in the books I read, but have never created a useful way to hold on to them.  So I’m gathering them here — for myself — and for you.

From Painted Horses by Malcolm Brooks:

Life is what it is. Your life’s work, on the other hand — that you might exercise some control over.

She knew with a sudden clarity that she could complain about her upbringing only so long because at some point the fault would simply become her own.

The tilt of the planet had outrun the legs of winter and dawn climbed early now over the wide lip of the world.

He saw the world with the eye of an artist and so could isolate beauty from the terror of existence.

His nerves felt like a shoelace that wouldn’t stay tied.

The most vicious way she knows to stifle it is with a fine-tuned boredom.

From Anything is Possible by Elizabeth Strout:

Tommy’s mind, which had been spinning, rearranged itself.

it’s blinds drawn like tired eyelids.

Tommy was aware of a sensation like that of a tire becoming flat

Panic, like a large minnow darting upstream, moved ack and forth inside him.

This knowledge entered the room like a large dark bird, its wingspan wide and frightening.

he felt a tiny shudder go through him, as though his soul had a toothache

He was a closed book of a man, he inhabited himself with economy

From Frank Chimera: . . .some advice that you may find handy as you trudge through your inharmonious slog of a life!

From West with the Night by Beryl Markham:

I adjusted my ears to the emptiness of silence.

The walls of my house are without memories, or secrets, or laughter. Not enough of life has been breathed into them — their warmth is artificial; too few hands have turned the window latches, too few feet have trod the thresholds. The boards of the floor, self-conscious as youth or falsely proud as the newly rich, have not yet unlimbered enough to utter a single cordial creak. In time they will, but not for me.

From The Shipping News by E. Annie Proulx:

a place he had never been nor thought to go

Quoyle’s chief failure, a failure of normal appearance

Features as bunched as kissed fingertips

He smelled submission in Quoyle, guessed he was butter of fair spreading consistency

the windows wavery with old glass

Billy seemed stored in an envelope; the flap sometimes lifted, his flattened self sliding onto the table.

The ocean twitched like a vast cloth spread over snakes.

The old life was too small to fit anymore.

From A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman:

the unreserved celebration of mediocrity

From The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri:

feeling as if an errata slip were perpetually pinned to his chest

In so many ways, his family’s life feels like a string of accidents, unforeseen, unintended, one incident begetting another.

From Return Trips by Alice Adams:

gorgeous, brilliant rags of color hung across the sky.

with whom she experienced the wildest reaches of joy, but never the daily, sunny warmth of happiness.

From The Blue Sweater by Jacqueline Novogratz:

A slight, crooked woman with raisin eyes and a walnut face

From Fr. Brett Backus (01-08-17):

a plethora of prickly questions

From The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton:

Better keep on the surface, in the prudent old New York way, than risk uncovering a wound he could not heal.

{he} plunged out into the winter night bursting with the belated eloquence of the inarticulate.

She spoke with the cold-blooded complacency of the aged throwing earth into the grave of young hopes.

Her white teeth shining like a keyboard . . .

the evening swept on, running and running like a senseless river that did not know how to stop

He had to deal all at once with the packed regrets and stifled memories of an inarticulate lifetime.

Perhaps she too had kept her memory of him as something apart; but if she had, it must have been a like a relic in a small dim chapel, where there was not time to pray every day . .

From Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez:

which he felt pass by him like a wind out of yesterday that had nothing to do with his life. But that pestilence so frequently idealized by nostalgia became an unbearable reality . . .

There was no innocence more dangerous than the innocence of age.

She would not waste the rest of her years simmering in the maggot broth of memory.

In summer an invisible dust as harsh  as red-hot chalk was blown into even the best-protected corners of the imagination by mad winds that took the roofs off the houses and carried away the children through the air.

. . .threatened to change him at an age when everything had seemed complete.

Wisdom comes to us when it can no longer do any good.

He was awakened by sadness.

The man who has not memory makes one out of paper.

Old age was an indecent state that had to be ended before it was too late.

His terror of not finding God in the darkness of death.

He allowed himself to be swayed by his conviction that human beings are not born once and for all on the day their mothers give birth to them, but that life obliges them over and over again to give birth to themselves.

a mustache like a housepainter’s brush

She was a ghost in a strange house that overnight had become immense and solitary and through which she wandered without purpose, asking herself in anguish which of them was deader: the man who had died or the woman he had left behind.

The memory of her dead husband was as resistant to the fire as it seemed to be to the passage of time.

And so she thought about him without wanting to.

He was more dead than a dead man.

His old age was not a rushing torrent but a bottomless cistern where his memory drained away.

From Speak, Memory by Vladimir Nabokov:

The ocean seemed to rise and grope in the darkness and then heavily fall on its face. (Intoduction by Brian Boyd)

To avoid hurting the living or distressing the dead, certain proper names have been changed.

I remained keenly interested in the age of my parents and kept myself informed about it, like a nervous passenger asking the time in order to check a new watch.

The following of such thematic designs through one’s life should be, I think, the true purpose of autobiography.

With the thoroughness of a felt eraser wiping out a geometrical problem.

The relentless frost of an unending night

And a tiny looper caterpillar would be there, too, measuring, like a child’s finger and thumb, the rim of the table, and every now and then stretching upward to grope, in vain, for the shrub from which it had been dislodged.

From Snow Falling on Cedars by David Guterson:

The strange thing was, he wanted to like everyone.  He just couldn’t find a way to do it.

From How to Be Lost by Amanda Eyre Ward:

We fell into bed and tangled the sheets.

From Blue Horses by Mary OIiver:

Stay young, always, in the theater of your mind.

We are what we are, you are what you are, love us if you can.

From A Thousand Mornings by Mary Oliver:

And the sea says in its lovely voice:  Excuse me, I have work to do.

I wouldn’t persuade you from whatever you believe or whatever you don’t.

I just listened, my pen in the air.

For some things there are no wrong seasons.  Which is what I dream of for me.

Stillness.  One of the doors into the temple.

The grass singing as it sipped up the summer rain.

Oh the house of denial has thick wall and very small windows and whoever lives there, little by little, will turn to stone.

It’s said that in such a place certain revelations may be discovered.  That what the spirit reaches for may be eventually felt, if not exactly understood.

Not enough is a poor life.  But too much is, well, too much.

[the sea} can lie down like silk breathing

How perfect to be aboard a ship with maybe a hundred years still in my pocket.

The man who has only questions to comfort himself, makes music.

From Lempriere’s Dictionary by Lawrence Norfolk:

Like a pendulum, counting nothing

For the moment, the sky is fine.

His own voice was lurching forward to meet that question,s tumbling and picking itself up and going on with the story

a deep bass rumble in his badly orchestrated thoughts

The night air hung between the hedges thick with damp.

in language that twisted like smoke through candlelight

small islands of memory floated past him in a sea of rain and dark

A bitter wind cut through the first half of February.

The sky’s ragged mouth was closing, sucking violet light out of the river.

He opened the windoes, but the air hung in saturated blocks.

From The Lowlands by Jhumpa Lahiri:

They were similar enough in build to draw from a single pile of clothes.

And so the imperfection became a mark of distinction

He wondered if it was a lack of courage, or of imagination, that prevented him from believing in it.

In a sense they had already parted.

He had stepped out of it as he had stepped so many mornings out of dreams . . .

Small birds with delicate chips that ruptured sleep . . .

Each day, in spite of its growing routine, felt uncertain, improvisational.

The lawn . . .was covered now as if with a sea of rust, the dead leaves scuttling and heaving in the wind.

Narrow sweet shops, where trays of confections were studded with flies.

She was used to the noise as she studied, as she slept; it was the ongoing accompaniment to her life, her thoughts, the constant din more soothing than silence would have been.

The darkness at night was absolute.

Without him she was reminded of herself again.

She believed she was not significant enough to cast a shadow of her own.

His parents’ disapproval threatened to undermine what he was doing, lodged like a silent gatekeeper at the back of his mind.  But without his parents there, he was able to keep pushing back their objection, farther and farther, like the promise of the horizon, anticipated from a ship, that one never reached.

Finally he heard his father clearing his throat, seeming to loosen the secretions of a long silence.

She had a small face, with just enough space for what it contained.

She was aware of holding her body very still, as if posing for a photograph that was never taken.

Like a spare packet of tea she doesn’t need at the moment, she stores away the information, and turns her mind to other things.

From the terrace Bela watched the thin trunks of palm trees bending but not breaking in the maritime wind. The pointed foliage flapped like the feathers of giant birds, like battered windmills that churned the sky.

The reduced elements of his life sat uneasily, one beside the other.

Isolation offered its own form of companionship.

He felt only aware now that he was alone, that he was over sixty years old, and that he did not know where he stood.

It was the restlessness of birds, rearranging themselves.

Older people with pasts they don’t care to discuss

The effort flops like a just-caught fish inside her . . . hope thrashing in the process of turning cold.

She was grateful that the second reality could paper over the first.

Life pouring out of crooked lanes, seated on broken steps.

From The Far Pavilions by M.M. Kaye:

The great iron-studded doors yawned onto darkness.

a rabbit-warren of rooms

but the word spoke itself in the quiver of his voice and the unsteadiness of the hands that flung pebbles into the quiet water

He took refuge in rage, and those who served him suffered accordingly

Her voice died away so softly that it was a long time before Ash realized that he was alone

He had promised to go, and there was nothing left to stay for.

He was not yet twelve years old, but he would never be a child again.


Night falls swiftly in the East, for there is no lingering dusk to soften the transition from daylight to darkness.

Foothills that lay like wrinkled velvet in the moonlight

The fresh breeze of the morning had dwindled to a mere breath of air that whispered among the branches but did not stir the dust below.

drowsy rustle of the leaves

But the afternoon was destined to be a disturbed one.

From Dear Life by Alice Munro:

People’s eyes slid around her and then they went on with their conversations.

She watched for a conversational group that seemed to have a hole in it, where she might insert herself.

His conversation was loud and hectic and there seemed to be danger around him

air like ice

brittle-looking birch trees

deliberate rows of windows

The sort of person who posed questions that were traps you fall into.

Just tidied up the scene and put it away in a closet with her former selves.

She seemed fixed in rosy and timorous youth.

Some people get everything wrong.

Jumping off the train was supposed to be a cancellation.

The road was unpaved but not untraveled.

I said that the only thing that bothered me, a little, was the way there was an assumption that nothing more was going to happen in our lives. Nothing of importance to us, nothing to be managed anymore.

an amazing nest of wrinkles round the mouth.

I went into the washroom and was surprised how much like myself I looked.

His enchantment was so dreary.

The whole house was full of my mother, of her footsteps her voice her powdery yet ominous smell that inhabited all the rooms even when she wasn’t in them.

From Cane River by Lalita Tademy:

Angry, insistent voices pressed past the drizzle and hung on the windless air.

A heavyset man with a doughy face and stubborn stubble.

She could smell the stale breath of bitterness prodding her.

This was the face of slavery.  To have nothing, and still have something more to lose.

From Walking on Water by Madeleine L’Engle:

a lovely kaleidescope of family and friends coming and going

So it is not that all the critics of the new translations [of the 1928 Book of Common Prayer] are against change (though some are) but against shabby language, against settling for the mediocre and the flabbily permissive.

Language…all dwindled and shrivelled.