Brief Thoughts on Marginalia, God, and Mary Oliver

Photo by Joanna Kosinska on Unsplash

A few years ago, I bought a used book from my favorite local bookstore. The book sat on my shelf for quite a while before I got around to opening it. (The story of my life.) When I finally did, I saw a note scrawled inside the faded blue front cover. One of my favorite things about buying used books isn’t only their prices, but their histories. I love to see what previous owners have underlined or what words they’ve written in the margins. It makes me feel connected to people I’ve never met and probably never will. Inside this particular book, a woman named Lois wrote a note to her nephew Mark. The book was a gift for him. She told him, “Enter in, struggle, and know you are loved.”

Those eight words captivated me. I read them over and over again. Even though this note was written to someone else quite a few years ago, it was as if the words were meant for me. Whoever Aunt Lois is, her advice here is excellent and important.


As a person who loves control, I hate that I can only control a small portion of what goes on around me. There’s a line in Anne Lamott’s novel Bird by Bird in which the narrator is talking to God:  “I’ll be responsible for everything on this side of my palm. You be in charge of the outcome of everything else.” I’m learning, though, that God isn’t just interested in the outcome of the everything else, whatever that might be; He wants my palm and the fist it turns into, grasping the hopes and fears and plans I am holding onto for dear life. Sometimes all life is for me is control, comfort, and safety. But even in my weakest moments, I know those three things feel incredibly good, but are not ingredients to a life lived with hope, risk, and courage.

When this truth frustrates me or makes me feel even wearier than I already am, I remember Mark’s Aunt Lois and the words she wrote: “Enter in, struggle, and know you are loved.” It’s one thing to exist, but another to truly live. And to truly live, I believe we must enter in. We must enter in, not as adults who have it all together, but as children who are full of wonder and not the least bit daunted by mystery. Lois knew that entering in would lead to struggle, and I know this too. It isn’t always easy to try, to see meaning in uncertainty or challenges. But what helps is the final part of her advice: know you are loved. Entering in and struggling are so much easier when I am certain of this last bit. Knowing I am loved helps me be a little braver, a little more vulnerable, a little more alive. And for me, that’s the goal: being a little more alive. I don’t want to merely exist; I want to live. As Mary Oliver famously wrote:

When it’s over, I want to say: all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.

When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.
I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,
or full of argument.

I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.

I write this as a reminder to the Type A, control-freak part of myself who loves sticky notes, planners, and calendars a little more than she probably should. I write this a challenge to myself to take the advice of a random woman named Lois, the advice I received in a book on sale for $2.99. Sometimes we find the truth we so desperately need to hear in places we weren’t even looking. That truth is one of the most beautiful truths I know and it leads to the best part of uncertainty: pleasant surprises along the way that change us for the better.


Have you ever found a great note written inside an old book?


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