“In examining disease, we gain wisdom about anatomy and physiology and biology. In examining the person with disease, we gain wisdom about life.” -Oliver Sacks
Wouldn’t you know? I just finished reading the remarkable memoir of Dr. Oliver Sacks. It’s called “On the Move”. You may have seen this great movie called “Awakenings” #topten, starring Robert DeNiro and Robin Williams. It is based on one of Dr. Sacks’ collection of case studies of the same name. That book came out in 1973, and I think the Hollywood movie was 1990. Robin Williams played the Dr. Sacks part, although I think they changed his name, among other things. This is reasonable, I mean whenever you adapt a piece of non-fiction, you have to shape it into a narrative. The cool thing was that Dr. Sacks was able to spend a lot of time on set with the actors and director Penny Marshall, and was able to advise them on what was accurate and truthful to his own experiences. He knew that it wasn’t his movie, or even his story, but he could contribute in the places where he could and he seemed happy with the result.
After I saw that movie in the theatre in grade 10, it left a real impression on me. If you haven’t seen it, I won’t spoil it for you, but I still think of some of the lines and it still has the best last line of any movie in my memory. That movie, and Dr. Sacks’ writing, formed a bit of a template for my own life in my late teens and early 20’s. It’s not that I was ever going to be a neurologist, but I just liked the way he could take something complicated, dry and clinical and breathe life and humanity into it. Over the years, I’ve read his books with awe and wonder, and felt that he somehow figured out the secret to a good life. Robin Williams summarizes things in this lovely moment in the film.
A couple of years ago he wrote this opinion piece when he was turning 80. It’s great. I love the fact that into his 80’s, he has embraced social media, and you can follow him on Twitter @oliversacks if you like.
“Dangerously well’— what an irony is this: it expresses precisely the doubleness, the paradox, of feeling ‘too well” The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat. I unwittingly paraphrased this sentiment last month after going for my annual check up. I told a friend that if I was any better “I’d be dangerous.” We’ll see about that.
I’m resisting the urge to just fill the rest of this post with quotations from him. Here’s one more:
“Music can lift us out of depression or move us to tears – it is a remedy, a tonic, orange juice for the ear. But for many of my neurological patients, music is even more – it can provide access, even when no medication can, to movement, to speech, to life. For them, music is not a luxury, but a necessity.” Musicophilia
One of the things that struck me about his memoir was how the act of writing for him was an essential part of working out ideas, getting thoughts sorted; real therapy. He mentioned how he started journaling when he was 14 and now has over 1000 of them. He rarely goes back and reads them.
I could totally relate, I wasn’t much older than him, 16? 17?, before I started keeping a journal too, and I can really get what he meant about the therapeutic part of writing things out.
Since I started this blog (almost 5 years ago, if you can believe it!), I haven’t written in my journals as much. I seem to “scratch that itch” by forcing my thoughts out on all you people. Sorry. Blog writing is different from journal writing, though. That’s obvious. I can structure things a little better, I can edit before posting, I can hyperlink to other sites, I can add pictures, video, and even though I try to avoid this, there is inevitably a bit of self-censoring going on when I know that people I love and respect might eventually read this. There’s also a bit of the needy requirement for me to say, “Look at this thing I made! I made this! What do you think? Do you like it?”
There’s no such feedback or awareness with my journal writing, just a place for me to start by writing superficial things: the weather, what I did that day, what I just ate, who I saw, and then something magical happens: some vein opens and then I am off to deeper, almost subconscious places when my mind detaches as my hand moves. I don’t expect the writing to make sense to anyone, not even to me all the time, so that’s why I really dislike when people read them uninvited. They may very well get the wrong idea of what’s going on inside me. It’s a process, not an end product. I sometimes wonder why I even keep them when I am done. I don’t even know where they all are, to be honest. I’m sure there is a pile in some boxes in my Mom’s basement somewhere, maybe to be found by my daughter years from now. I just hope she doesn’t draw unfair conclusions as to who her Dad was based on those journals alone. One day, maybe I’ll have the courage to let her know about this blog…
Maybe journaling is no different than people writing longish letters home a generation ago. Letters our fathers might have written to our grandparents when they were off to university. Letters we might have written one time to friends and pen pals on the other side of the world. Letters that, once written, were gone and out there in the universe. And then that pit of the stomach feeling of wondering what the other person thought when they finally received them, in a different time zone, on a different continent. Letters than maybe were more for us than for them, if that makes any sense at all. I was delighted to see that Oliver Sacks also wrote lengthy letters to his parents and his dear Auntie Lem, and they seemed to be extensions of his own inner monologue slightly shaped to suit his intended audience.
The lasting impression I took away from this book last night was the call to write more, whether it be in my journal, on this blog, emails to friends, postcards from exotic places I hope to visit. Just write more, for me mostly. For my own good.
But as things work out, this is my last day at work for a couple of weeks. I am very much looking forward to a vacation in the mountains. A vacation that will probably, (hopefully!), involve some reading, lots of fresh air, good food, and a chance to reconnect with my journaling self. And maybe to forget a bit of the stress left behind.
It will also mean a sort of “forced break” from “onlineness”. Wifi in the mountains is unreliable, and I won’t have the opportunity to blog about much of anything until I return to “regular life” in August. I just noticed how similar the word “onlineness” looks to the word “loneliness”. Am I reading too much into this?
None of us know how long we have here. Everything is temporary. I am reminded of this now and again, maybe even more frequently now that I am into my 40s. We might as well try to enjoy it, (to paraphrase Jann Arden). Let’s not waste any more time. Is that possible? Can we at least TRY? The recent past has been pretty stressful for a number of reasons. Reasons that I haven’t really blogged about, because I try to keep things on the lighter side here. This is part of my “self censoring” that I do. I try to post things that I think are either interesting or entertaining, or both at the best of times. Even better if they have a healthy dose of humour injected into them. I haven’t found a way to really inject humour into some of these events over the past little while, so the less said the better, maybe? I’ll save the gnashing of teeth for my journal. Of course, I’ll contradict myself next with a post that is neither entertaining, interesting or humorous, but that’s just part of my charm. It’s why you keep coming back, am I right?
To sum up, here’s a quote from a wonderful piece Sacks wrote earlier this year, when he found out that his cancer was terminal and he only had a few months left to live. The whole piece is beautifully written and I urge you to read it. When I first read it, back in February, I just started sobbing in my office at work. Luckily, I was alone, and I had a box of Kleenex nearby. Dr Sacks has been an unwitting guidepost for me all through my adult life, and I admire and respect his work and the life he has led. I don’t really expect to make it to 80 myself. Mind, you: at 19 I didn’t think I’d ever see 30 so you never know what life has in store. But in any case, whether I’m around for years to come (until you are SICK of me!), or whether I leave you wanting more, it doesn’t mean that I should complain or despair. We need to make the most of things, see life as an adventure, as Dr. Sacks does, and embrace the saying (and hashtag!) ONWARD. And also to remember, like Ram Dass said, that “we’re all just walking each other home.”
Let us begin.
“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 writers and readers.”