QUESTIONS IN THE MARGIN

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When I was in college, I once blurted out in a literature seminar class about a Shakespeare tragedy  (Lear, I think):  “But what does it mean for me?”  The professor smiled gently, which meant it was all right for everyone else to laugh, and I never again asked that sort of question.  At least not so nakedly, and certainly not aloud.

Of course, this took place long ago.  Before the beginning of adult life, so to speak. These days, much nearer its ending, I seem to have begun again to make similar queries about my reading. Perhaps the self-centeredness of youth, so long suppressed in the interests of family well-being and societal give-and-take, arises again as obligations and companions become fewer and one finds oneself more and more alone with reading matter and thoughts.  Now I find myself underlining. Occasionally, I even write nearly undecipherable comments in the margin; they are baldly about me in my declining years, irrespective of the thrust of the argument or narrative I am reading, which may be going somewhere else entirely.

***

One:  In a book for the general reader called Stumbling on Happiness, the author — Daniel Gilbert, a psychology professor at Harvard — explains, amusingly, that few people realize psychologists all take a vow that at some point in their professional lives they will publish a book or chapter or article that contains the sentence: “The human being is the only animal that…”  They can finish The Sentence any way they like but also understand that whatever else they may have accomplished professionally, they will be remembered (if at all) for that sentence. He then goes on:

I have never before written The Sentence, but I’d like to do so now, with you as my witness. The human being is the only animal that thinks about the future.  Now let me say up front that I’ve had cats, I’ve had dogs, I’ve had gerbils, mice, goldfish, and crabs (no not that kind), and I do recognize that nonhuman animals often act as though they have the capacity to think about the future. But ….[u]ntil a chimp weeps at the thought of growing old alone, or smiles as it contemplates its summer vacation, or turns down a Fudgsicle because it already looks too fat in shorts, I will stand by my version of The Sentence. We think about the future in a way that no other animal can, does, or ever has, and this simple, ubiquitous, ordinary act, is a defining feature of our humanity.

My question in the margin disregarded the humor.  I demanded of Gilbert: “And what of the human being who can identify no remaining future worth living for? Is weeping all there is?”

***

Two: When Breath Becomes Air is a touching fragment of a book by Paul Kalanithi, a highly promising young neurosurgeon who was diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer just as he was finishing his training and died at the age of 37 while writing his story.  (His wife completed it in an epilogue to the book.)  He describes what confirmed him in his choice of neurosurgery as his specialty in the following passage:

While all doctors treat diseases, neurosurgeons work in the crucible of identity: every operation on the brain is, by necessity, a manipulation of the substance of our selves, and every conversation with a patient undergoing brain surgery cannot help but confront this fact…. At those critical junctures, the question is not simply whether to live or die but what kind of life is worth living. Would you trade your ability — or your mother’s — to talk for a few extra months of mute life? The expansion of your visual blind spot in exchange for eliminating the small possibility of a fatal brain hemorrhage? Your right hand’s function to stop seizures? … Because the brain mediates our experience of the world, any neurosurgical problem forces a patient and family, ideally with a doctor as a guide, to answer this question: What makes life meaningful enough to go on living?

Without having to confront the trauma of brain surgery, Kalanithi’s question nevertheless resonates with me.  As one begins to experience the admittedly much slower but inexorable decline in one’s capacities that accompanies (the trauma of?) aging, it’s difficult sometimes to avoid asking: “What does make life meaningful enough to make one want to get out of bed in the morning if one still can, or at least sit up, and get on with whatever life is left?

***

Three: Somewhat more positive are the views expressed by the late Henning Mankell in a compilation of essays, written while he was dying of cancer, called Quicksand: What It Means to Be a Human Being. (Mankell is best known for his Inspector Wallander mysteries, which have been filmed both in Sweden and by Kenneth Branagh in England; both sets are available on Netflix.)  I haven’t yet read Quicksand, but did read a review of it by Sheena Joughin in The Times Literary Supplement for March 4, 2016. Thinking of life as quicksand is unsettling, but as one grows older seems more and more apt.  The following is from the review:

Quicksand is preoccupied with those who are in life yet set apart from it, as Mankell feels himself to be following his diagnosis.  He visits a church in the town of Slap to gaze at an eighteenth-century family portrait with fifteen children in it.
“What is striking and remarkable about the picture, and perhaps also frightening, is that the artist…painted the children who were already dead.” This is a consolation to Mankell….

He admits that illness has made it hard to read new books, so he returns to those he already loves, most crucially Robinson Crusoe–a story he rewrote as a child and now so important to him because Robinson, despite his isolation, is never really alone: “The reader is always with him, invisible but by his side.”….Writing his way through cancer, Mankell knows he is in an ambiguous place — between life and death, like everyone always — yet still “the same person I had been before….It was possible to live in two worlds at the same time.” Quicksand gives us that rare opportunity too.

I find heartening these observations about the power of the pictures we paint and the literature we write to keep us, in a way, not alone while we live — and still alive afterward. Should we not make pictures or write on then, till the end, leaving some aspect of ourselves still here for those who come after?

 

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17 thoughts on “QUESTIONS IN THE MARGIN

  1. James Munro

    “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” Attributed to Faulkner, more probably Freud. True? False? What do you think? – You asked on Twitter.
    Hm.
    I used to think the remark “Time doesn’t pass, we pass through time” was very meaningful, very clever, but recently i realised that it is nonsense, a statement without meaning. It is like Einstein’s example of the station stopping at the train. It is all relative. If one passes, the other passes. Or neither passes, the passage is illusory. Like “now”, which has no existence except as the point of passage, the line demarcating past and future, which like the lines around objects in a drawing have no counterpart in reality.
    I think now we are lost in the Sea of Time, which has no beginning and no end in this universe (eminent scientists are busy discussing what happened before the Big Bang!) but perhaps when we die we get a chance to see this universe, this Sea of Time, from outside, before we are born again and once again forget all about that God’s-eye view.
    I did say “perhaps”!
    But I do believe that this very not-knowing makes death in a sense an adventure – stepping out into the unknown (like the Fool in the Tarot pack) – and something to look forward to when one has little or nothing else to look forward to.
    Didn’t you say once that one of my posts made you cry? This post of yours – yes, this one here, Questions in the Margin – came close to making me cry. Your posts used to be much more upbeat. Make them upbeat again, please! You are a writer – yes, you really are – and you have a responsibility to your readers!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Oh, James! (Jim?) This is a big one.

      (a) I do think the past — or at least one’s account/recollection of the personally important parts of it — does remain present in our minds until we die. (But it all keeps coming back to death, doesn’t it?)

      (b) “Now?” Now is each breath we breathe, which means it’s a succession of “now”s — or, as you say, a passage.

      (c) The Sea of Time? Your “perhaps” is a very big perhaps, and not comforting to me. I may be intellectually narrow-minded but really don’t care about God’s view; even if I were to get a glimpse of it after dying, the glimpse would not console me for having lost myself. (Henning Mankell also said the thing that bothered him most about being dead was that he was going to be dead for so long.) As for being born again — sorry, I don’t think so.

      (d) The adventure of dying? That’s an interesting idea. When I was nine months pregnant with first baby and feared childbirth, I used to tell myself it was going to be an adventure. But I could look about at all the people walking around and think that for each of them some woman had gone through it and survived. It’s true that gazillions of human beings have already died before me, but then what happened to them? And no, don’t tell me about being born again.

      (e) I’m sorry if I made you nearly cry. I’m sorry you find my recent posts too downbeat. They are. That may be why I’ve written fewer of them in the past few months. But crying isn’t always a bad thing. As for the downbeat aspect of them, perhaps it’s an age thing, or the effects of winter, or too many people I know dying off, or the fact that I am stiff and creaky in the morning. There are also other downers going on in my life I’m not yet ready to blog about which have necessarily affected my mood. But I would indeed like to feel more upbeat. And perhaps I will, once the sun comes out again for good. However, that’s not a promise. The posts reach you under a blog-umbrella emblazoned with the words “Getting Old.” And who ever said getting old wasn’t going to be a mixed bag?

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I’ve been thinking a lot about what might make life meaningful for my elderly (and in poor health) mother. After reading your post earlier today, you prompted me to get off my duff and write.

    I’m a huge Henning Mankell fan. I’m making my way through the Wallander books after watching both versions on Netflix. I vastly preferred the Swedish version with Krister Henriksson. I sobbed through the last few episodes. I expect I’ll be as moved by Quicksand.

    Liked by 1 person

    • You should be writing, Ella. You’re an inspiring writer. Especially given your life story so far. And perhaps your mother could try to tell her story too. If she can’t type, she could speak it into a recording device for a professional typist to transcribe. That might give her something to think about every morning.

      I too preferred the Krister Kenriksson version of the televised versions of the Wallander books. (Haven’t actually read the books though.) Quicksand won’t be like them. I understand it’s done as a series of very short, disconnected and discontinuous vignettes. However, most books by dying writers are moving, and I expect this one will be as well. We’ve ordered it and I look forward to reading it, too.

      Like

  3. Rita

    I loved this piece. Surprising, because on the surface it seems sad and depressing, but that was not the feeling I got. It touched me greatly and I envy the fact that you took feelings we all have as we age and expressed them so beautifully.

    I felt very connected. This is your rage against death.
    When I was diagnosed a year ago with Myeloma, I began to realistically confront my own end. We tend to deny that it will happen. At the age of 84, it can now be around the corner for a multitude of reasons. Thanks friend, I really appreciated this blog……. more than you can know.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, dear friend, to you. Rage against death is exactly right. I always feel hesitant about putting something so dark out there, but perhaps it does lighten the darkness somewhat to know there are others who feel the same way we do.

      Like

  4. I liked this article very much, and also many of your previous posts. I am new to the blogging world and feel somewhat like an immigrant trying to negotiate my way through a new country! I, too, started a blog to share my experience of growing older but also, to be honest, to allow me to rant and rave occasionally about the state of the world!!

    You reminded me of the Dylan Thomas poem, with which I am sure you are familiar, but it always seems worth quoting.

    Do not go gentle into that good night,
    Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
    Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

    Sometimes I rage and rave, often I cry and laugh (frequently at the same time). Most days I am supremely grateful to have lived long enough to be “old.” It is good to have traveling companions who are not afraid to tell their stories honestly, whether with humor, anger or joy!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, Maven, I do know the Dylan poem. (I believe I even quoted it in an early post on this blog.) I also do believe you’ll soon become a full-fledged citizen of “the blogging world.” You write well. (This from a strict critic.) There is also a small, select group of “aging” bloggers who will be glad to read your honest stories! Keep at it! And thank you for the kind words. They’re what keep the journey so much better than just bearable 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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