Saturday, February 14, 2015


"When I was a child, I loved old people. My New Hampshire grandfather was my model human being. He wasn't old. He was in his sixties and early seventies when I hayed with him, only seventy-seven when he died, but of course I thought he was old. He was a one-horse farmer - Riley was his horse - with an old-fashioned multiple farm. He raised cattle and sheep and chickens, with hives for bees and a sugarhouse for boiling sap into maple syrup. He worked every day all year, mostly from five a.m. to seven or eight at night - milking, lambing, fencing, logging, spreading manure, planting, weeding, haying, harvesting, each night locking up chickens against foxes. Summers I helped with farm work and listened to him reminisce. All year he walked rapidly from one task to another, in his good nature smiling a private half smile as he remembered stories, or recited to himself the poems he had memorized for school.


After a life of loving the old, by natural law I turned old myself. Decades followed each other - thirty was terrifying, forty I never noticed because I was drunk, fifty was best with a total change of life, sixty began to extend the bliss of fifty - and then came my cancers, Jane's death, and over the years I traveled to another universe. However alert we are, however much we think we know what will happen, antiquity remains an unknown, unanticipated galaxy. It is alien, and old people are a separate form of life. They have green skin, with two heads that sprout antennae. They can be pleasant, they can be annoying - in the supermarket, these old ladies won't get out of my way - but most important they are permanently other. When we turn eighty, we understand that we are extraterrestrial. If we forget for a moment that we are old, we are reminded when we try to stand up, or when we encounter someone young, who appears to observe green skin, extra heads, and protuberances."

- from Essays After Eighty by Donald Hall (US Poet Laureate, 2006-2007)

Saturday, February 07, 2015

Seasons of Grief

It's amazing how cyclical life is, and how trenchantly we become ourselves.


It's been ten years since my grandfather died. We had been very close and his passing away was the first time in my life that somebody I loved had died. It made me realize how permanent death is. I also realize now that while we recognize a loved one by their physical features, it is the soul that we actually love. Washing his body for the burial, I felt like I was touching a stranger.


A few weeks ago, a man brought his child in to the clinic for me to see. He was a quiet little boy, nervous about being at the doctor's but also quick to smile. His father told me he was depressed. For the past several months he had been sad and crying easily. He would get irritable with his friends, or yell at his mother. The parents were distraught by this because he was usually such a delightful child. They told me all this had started shortly after his grandfather had passed away. They were buddies.

At the mention of his grandfather, the boy seemed to withdraw into himself. When I asked him what was making him sad, he said he missed his grandfather. The simplicity of the statement struck me. His grief was so obvious and clear to him. He was crying as he talked about his grandfather. I could feel the pain throb inside him. 

I told him about my grandfather, that he had died ten years ago and that I still missed him. He and my grandmother had loved me with an extravagance I didn't realize until they were gone. Although it's been many years, I still feel their presence with me, in the way I do things, the choices I make. I told the child that it was ok to feel sad but also that I wanted him to meet with a grief counselor. Sometimes we don't understand the ways in which we are sad until we actually talk about it. Looking up at his father, I saw that his eyes too were moist. We set up appointments with a therapist. I told Dad that I would be happy to help the child get better. 

Thursday, December 25, 2014

A Ba-gelle

"As a child in Nigeria, I once read an American novel in which a character ate something called a "bagel" for breakfast. I had no idea what a bagel was, but I thought it sounded very elegant, and very exotic. I pronounced it "ba-gelle." I desperately wanted to have a ba-gelle. My family visited the US for the first time when I was nine, and at the airport in New York, I told my mother that, as a matter of the gravest urgency, we had to buy a ba-gelle. And so my mother went to a cafe and bought one. Finally, I would have a ba-gelle. Now you can imagine my disappointed surprise when I discovered that this ba-gelle, this wonderful, glorious ba-gelle, was really just a dense doughnut. I should say I've come to like bagels, but I love to tell this story because I think it illustrates how wonderful books are at enlarging our imaginations. So even though a bagel ended up not being some sort of exquisite confection, the moments in which I thought it was were well worth it, because my imagination soared in delight. And there was also something comforting and instructive in that discovery of a bagel, in the demystifying ordinariness of a bagel - the realization that other people, like me, ate boring food."

- Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Tuesday, November 04, 2014

An Observation

"We can hardly avoid thinking that the majority of the persons we meet have stronger characters than we. We cannot observe others making choices; we only know what, in fact, they do, and how, in fact they behave. Provided their actions are not criminal, their behavior not patently vicious, and their performance of their job in life reasonably efficient, they will strike us as strong characters. But nobody can honestly think of himself as a strong character because, however successful he may be in overcoming them, he is necessarily aware of the doubts and temptations that accompany every important choice. Unless he is a crook or has made an utter mess of his life, he will recognize the truth of Cesare Pavese's observation: "We can all do good deeds, but very few of us can think good thoughts."

- W. H. Auden

Monday, October 27, 2014

One's Own Best Self

"Michel de Montaigne describes the great friendship of his youth with Etienne de la Boetie as one in which a perfect communion of the spirit made the "soul grow refined." In the 1790s, Samuel Taylor Coleridge worshipped an idea of friendship that embodied the same ideal. Living at a time when persons of sensibility yearned for communion of the spirit, its frequent failure to materialize in friendship made Coleridge suffer, but the pain did not threaten his faith, even when he lost the friendship that defined all others.

Coleridge and Wordsworth met in 1795, when they were, respectively, twenty-three and twenty-five years old. Wordsworth - grave, thin-skinned, self-protective - was even then steadied by an inner conviction of his own coming greatness as a poet; Coleridge, on the other hand - brilliant, explosive, self-doubting to the point of instability - was already into opium. Anyone except them could see that they were bound to come a cropper. In 1795, however, a new world, a new poetry, a new way of being was forming itself, and at that moment both Wordsworth and Coleridge, each feeling the newness at work in himself, saw proof of its existence reflected in the person of the other.

The infatuation lasted a little more than a year and a half. At the end of that time, the chaos within Coleridge doubled its dominion; the pride in Wordsworth stiffened into near immobility. The person each had been for nearly two years - the one who had basked in the unbroken delight of the other - was no more. It wasn't exactly that they were returned  to the persons they had been before; it was only that never again would either feel his own best self in the presence of the other.

One's own best self. For centuries this was the key concept behind any essential definition of friendship: that one's friend is a virtuous being who speaks to the virtue in oneself. How foreign is such a concept to the children of the therapeutic culture! Today we do not look to see, much less affirm, our best selves in one another. To the contrary, it is the openness with which we admit to our emotional incapacities - the fear, the anger, the humiliation - that excites contemporary bonds of friendship. Nothing draws us closer to one another than the degree to which we face our deepest shame openly in one another's company. Coleridge and Wordsworth dreaded such self-exposure; we adore it. What we want is to feel known, warts and all - the more warts, the better. It is the great illusion of our culture that what we confess to is who we are."

- Vivian Gornick, Letter from Greenwich Village

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