Favorite Quotes from Hannah Coulter by Wendell Berry

I love books. All kinds of books. Some books prove especially meaningful in specific seasons. Some books are timeless. There are books you read slowly, chipping away over time, and there are books you want to read in one sitting. Some books you never finish. Some books you read once. And some books you’ll read many times over a lifetime.

While my favorite non-fiction book frequently changes, I’d have to say Hannah Coulter is my favorite piece of fiction. I’ve read or listened to it three times in the last four years. It’s the story of one woman’s life as she looks back and remembers belonging to a place and a people, held together by life’s threads of love and loss, grief and gratitude. It covers the span from the 1920s and ends in the new millennium.

As I’m writing a book on thanksgiving, this story helped me as the reader see what it looks like to receive all of life with gratitude, as given and a miracle. I hope to write more about its themes and key elements, but here are some of my favorite quotes.

“Time doesn’t stop. Your life doesn’t stop and wait until you get ready to start living it.” (44)

“And so I learned about grief, and about the absence and emptiness that for a long time make grief unforgettable.” (7)

“I was grateful because I knew, even in my fear and grief, that my life had been filled with gifts.” (52)

“You can’t give yourself over to love for somebody without giving yourself over to suffering.” (171)


“You have had this life and no other. You have had this life with this man and no other. What would have it been to have had a different life with a different man? You will never know. That makes the world forever a mystery, and you will just have to be content for it to be that way.” (109)

“Kindness kept us alive…Love held us. Kindness held us.” (50, 51)

“I began to know my story then. Like everybody’s, it was going to be the story of living in the absence of the dead. What is the thread that holds it all together? Grief, I thought for a while. And grief is there sure enough, just about all the way through. From the time I was a girl I have never been far from it. But grief is not a force and has no power to hold. You only bear it. Love is what carries you, for it is always there, even in the dark, or most in the dark, but shining out at times like gold stitches in a piece of embroidery.” (51)

“And so I have to say that another of the golden threads is gratitude. All through that bad time, when Virgil’s absence was wearing into us, when ‘missing’ kept renaming itself more and more insistently as ‘dead’ and ‘lost forever,’ I was yet grateful. Sometimes I was grateful because I knew I ought to be, sometimes because I wanted to be, and sometimes a sweet thankfulness came to me on its own, like a singing from somewhere out in the dark. I was grateful because I knew, even in my fear and grief, that my life had been filled with gifts.” (52)

“We had made it past hard changes, and all of us were changed, but we were together.” (80)

“I gnaw again the old bones of the fear of what is to come, and griever with a sisterly grief over Grandmam and Mrs. Feltner and the other old women who have gone before. Finally, as a gift, as a mercy, I remember to pray, ‘Thy will be done,’ and then again I am free and can go to sleep.” (83)

“The chance you had is the life you’ve got. You can make complaints about what people, including you, make of their lives after they have got them, and about what people make of other people’s lives, even about your children being gone, but you mustn’t wish for another life. You mustn’t want to be somebody else. What you must do is this: ‘Rejoice evermore. Pray without ceasing. In every thing give thanks.’ I am not all the way capable of so much, but those are the right instructions.” (113)

“And so you have a life that you are living only now, now and now and now, gone before you can speak of it, and you must be thankful for living day by day, moment by moment, in this presence. But you have a life too that you remember. It stays with you. You have lived a life in the breath and pulse and living light of the present, and your memories of it, remembered now, are of a different life in a different world and time. When you remember the past, you are not remembering it as it was. You are remembering it as it is. It is a vision or a dream, present with you in the present, alive with you in the only time you are alive.” (148)

Speaking about her husband going missing in action (presumably dead) in war.
“The pleasures that came then had a way of reminding you that they had been pleasures once upon a time, when it seemed that you had a right to them. Happiness had a way of coming to you and making you sad. You would think, ‘There seems to have been a time when I deserved such a happiness and needed it, like a day’s pay, and now I have no use for it at all.’ How can you be happy, how can you live, when all the things that make you happy grieve you nearly to death?” (49)

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