Under The Wide And Starry Sky

Oliver Sacks (1933 – 2015)

I cannot pretend I am without fear. But my predominant feeling is one of gratitude. I have loved and been loved: I have been given much and I have given something in return; I have read and traveled and thought and written. I have had an intercourse with the world, the special intercourse of writes and readers.

Oliver Sacks

In My Dreams

by Stevie Smith

In my dreams I am always saying goodbye and riding away,
Whither and why I know not nor do I care.
And the parting is sweet and the parting over is sweeter,
And sweetest of all is the night and the rushing air.

In my dreams they are always waving their hands and saying goodbye,
And they give me the stirrup cup and I smile as I drink,
I am glad the journey is set, I am glad I am going,
I am glad, I am glad, that my friends don’t know what I think.


I was watching the documentary on Oliver Sacks on American Masters on PBS this week and remembering my enjoyment of reading his regular magazine columns in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s.   I have read most of his books that he wrote and have always enjoyed the humanity he brought to his unique perspective on the intersection  of neurology and the individual.   What his final book, a biography, along with the documentary reveals, is his own humanity and the events that shaped him as a person, a scientist and as a writer.  

What is remarkable about the documentary is that it peels back a protective layer of privacy into his personal life and creative writing process that I wasn’t aware during the decades that I read his work.   Oliver Sacks writing is very much the product of a team that surrounds him, from a long time collaboration with a ghost writer/editor, his publisher, fellow writers who shared feedback and encouragement, other scientists, but most importantly his patients, whose stories and lives and diseases he chronicles with the focus always on the person, not just their physical manifestations of their illness.  Oliver Sacks ideas on consciousness, creativity, memory and writing are remarkable in the their simplicity in some ways with his awareness  on what makes us the same, not how we are each dissimilar, while recognizing that each and every one of us have a unique story, a singular life to live. 

There will be no one like us when we are gone, but then there is no one like anyone else, ever. When people die, they cannot be replaced. They leave holes that cannot be filled, for it is the fate – the genetic and neural fate – of every human being to be a unique individual, to find his own path, to live his own life, to die his own death.

Oliver Sacks
 

This pandemic has forced many to think about our mortality and our lives.  We have had to re-invent the ways in which we work and interact with the world, ways we see ourselves as productive, ways in which we relax,  entertain ourselves.  It has drawn a very harsh boundary around what we think of as our inner circle and the rest of the world.  I fear that at a time that this worlds need to to band together collectively more than ever to solve nearly insurmountable problems that these past 18 months will forever alter the path of three generations of global human thought for most individuals in the wrong direction; away from an idea of shared sacrifice for the collective good and towards an over protective individualism.  I fear that in our forced isolation of social distancing, the world has become a world of outsiders, people are something to be avoided and if we are not careful, feared.  This new pandemic mindset of avoidance and individualism is one more rung on the ladder of challenges we shall have to overcome and climb over.   I am reminded by Oliver Sacks example to look at the humanity of each individual not our collective and individual pathologies.  See each other as singular gifts while mirroring back to us the parts of us that we see in ourselves.  To err is to be human and to be ill is to be mortal.  Can we take something good from this pandemic, an acceptance of illness as an inseparable part of being alive and focus on a supportive form of community that helps each of us on our journey. 


Requiem

by Robert Louis Stevenson (1850 – 1894)

Under the wide and starry sky,
    Dig the grave and let me lie.
Glad did I live and gladly die,
    And I laid me down with a will.

This be the verse you grave for me:
    Here he lies where he longed to be;
Home is the sailor, home from sea,
    And the hunter home from the hill

Too Far Out

Stevie Smith (1902 – 1971)

Not Waving But Drowning

by Stevie Smith
 
Nobody heard him, the dead man,   
But still he lay moaning:
I was much further out than you thought   
And not waving but drowning.
 
Poor chap, he always loved larking
And now he’s dead
It must have been too cold for him his heart gave way,   
They said.
 
Oh, no no no, it was too cold always   
(Still the dead one lay moaning)   
I was much too far out all my life   
And not waving but drowning.
 

I  recently traveled to Colorado in March where the sun shone every day for 9 days in a row, only to return to the coldest, cloudiest, dreariest April I can remember in Minnesota.  It has made the wait for spring intolerable.  Its not my imagination.  Hostas’ that had been given some encouragement by several 60 plus degree days in March have re-entered hibernation, shivering at the surface of the ground, waiting for May to venture forth further.  We shall all have to be patient; robins, flowers and people, snow flakes falling for the third day in a row outside my window, out of what feels like spite by Mother Nature this late in April. 

I think many of us have felt like we are drowning at times this past year,  while pretending to our family and friends that we were waving.  The problem with this image of drowning is its a myth, its not based on reality.  Its the way people who can swim picture that those that can’t must look like when they are in trouble.   Most drowning victims go down like a stone, silently, the first mouthful of water a liquid muzzle that stifles any call for help.  No hands waving above the surface, their hands below the water line wildly trying to swim ineffectively, with only a couple of ripples remaining after they disappear.   It is with such ease that many people drown that onlookers are shocked when they realize what has happened. 

Several April’s ago, I was reading the Sunday paper and there was a headline on a three inch column in the Star Tribune that caught my attention; Man drowns in Bob Lake.  The short article was more public safety than news column, a reminder on the need for life jackets while boating, particularly in the spring when water temperatures are cold and the risk of drowning increases.  The authorities had been called several days before when a dog, cold but alive, was recovered floating aimlessly in a canoe on Bob Lake. Steven Tickle’s body was recovered a short time later.  Mr. Tickle had been a long time resident of Edina and loved by his family.   It was ruled accidental. 

Sipping my coffee that morning, this poem took shape.  I was drawn to the idea of a stranger writing a requiem for a man he never met, a fellow canoeist.  For anyone that has ever canoed and attempted to exit a canoe in the middle of the lake without tipping it, the circumstances brings questions to one’s mind.  After a bit of thought the poem became a discussion between a man and his death.  I decided it was something I hope someone might do for me someday.   

Thinking about it made me ponder; what kind of death would be appealing to me?   A private, quick one, while I am still active and enjoying my life, sounds like it would be at the top of my list, about 25 years from now, or let’s make it 30.  Cold water is anesthetizing.   In some ways there are things appealing in the mystery of Tickle’s death; the solitude of the lake, the peacefulness of a canoe, the suddenness of it.  My mind was drawn to acceptance of a man and his undoing.   


Love I Leave Behind

by T. A. Fry

Bob Lake swallowed Tickle,
Took Tickle fast with ease.
Nary laugh or giggle,
As Tickle coughed and wheezed.

Bob Lake said to Tickle;
“Below this surface rest.
Hope may spring eternal.
But Death’s at my behest.”

Tickle swallowed Bob Lake,
Knew it was his end.
For it was, too late to take,
Caution as his friend.

Tickle said to Bob Lake;
“Tell love I leave behind.
Life’s been grand for goodness sake,
And your waters kind.”