Only a few yellow flowers have survived the original bouquet, but now there’s a happy new arrangement.
I think we, humans, are like this too. It’s not what we don’t have, but what we’ve still got, and maybe more importantly what we’ve gained, that we can work with. We can re-arrange. Re-make our selves.
Find a bigger pot to grow in. Unbound our root systems. Take in better nutrients. As we get older, have the wisdom to know what nurtures, what satisfies, what makes for a better self, follow that course.
(and btw, how to stop! our selves from going down the wrong path is something that for many of us we should have learned long ago — like with Mr. Rogers, but didn’t. Or only partly learned it.)
We can keep learning and keep letting go of the old stuff that once served a purpose, got us this far, but now is no longer working — whether that’s our diet, our activities, how we view the world, the relationships we maintain, or any old attitude.
After I returned from France a year and a half ago, I became acutely aware of my need for beauty in a way I hadn’t before. Before I’d been content to feel critical of what I didn’t consider beautiful, or bathe (drown?) myself in feelings of deprivation when I felt the lack of beauty.
I was starving for beauty and decided to keep an eye out for it. Lo and behold, it started showing up in the oddest, unexpected places — my kitchen sink, or just any old moment, wherever I found my self standing with open eyes. To confirm the beauty I thought I was witnessing, I started photographing it (with my iPhone). The confirmation was there. Food scraps, dying flowers, etc.
Books have also shown up (belatedly, though I’ve always read, albeit slowly, and often ploddingly).
Maria Popova with her brilliant Brain Pickings showed up. Geez, can that young woman ever write brilliant book reviews! This one — on Insomniac City by Bill Hayes — gobsmacked me a couple of weeks ago. I immediately bought the book. I’ll let her book review stand in lieu of writing a long one myself, because it is so gorgeous and wholly satisfying, almost like a tiny book itself.
Still I can’t resist singing a few praises for this book. Because I — like everyone I know, or have had real conversations with (deeper than pleasantries) — loved Oliver Sacks. In a way that loved should read love because of his timeless quality and the things we love him for. I haven’t read all his books, but I read Island of the Colorblind and A Leg To Stand On, both of which brought me into a fascination of his way of being in and understanding the world, observing it deeply while experiencing it intimately, and always with such great humanity and humility. I also read most of his last autobiographical memoir, On The Move. I seriously LOVED his last few essays after he became aware he was going to die. And yet, there was a way his being in the world, as a person, as a friend, eluded me. Truthfully I didn’t spend a lot of time thinking about this. It was just the way it was. I was grateful for what he had given us.
It was with this book — Insomniac City – new york, oliver, and me by Bill Hayes — that I finally felt the joy of a certain knowing of Oliver Sacks in his own breadth and depth. As witnessed through the eyes of his lover and partner, Bill Hayes — a relationship that didn’t start until Sacks was well into his seventies, the last five or so years of his life.
On the front flap, it says, [this] “…book is a meditation on grief and a celebration of life”. If it was only that, that would have been enough. Beyond that, it is the personal — but never intrusively personal — nature of this book that is a such a treasure. It is the lucid storytelling, the sweet, daily kinds of revelations that show us the character of Oliver Sacks, and also of the author. Personally, as someone who has lived alone for so long myself, it made me happy that Oliver had such a gift of a true partner for the last years of his life.
I am always a slow reader, but now I am happily reading slowly, savoring, not wanting this story to end.
Another book I read recently is a short, small (only in physical size) book by the young, brilliant, and now deceased Stanford neurosurgeon, Paul Kalanithi, called When Breath Becomes Air.
Hayes book is a happier one (though equally profound) and while Kalanithi’s book is truly heartbreaking, its beauty and wisdom is the sort that redeems everything, that offers a clear window into insight and understanding — one’s own future death, for instance. If you’ve ever thought to break through your own fears, this might be the book for you, as he takes you along his own eyes-wide-open, loving, and courageous path. Also knowing Paul Kalanithi — if only through the medium of a book — feels like a deep honor and a blessing.
But really, both. Really, read both. Because seriously beauty is everywhere. While it’s the ugly that is currently on parade in our public lives — and we do need to confront it — we also need to balance that great grief and ugliness with great beauty. Shift your gaze away from the ugly long enough each day (every hour if you can) to find the beauty. It will move you beyond enduring life to loving it.