“You go on by doing the best you can. You go on by being generous. You go on by being true. You go on by offering comfort to others who can’t go on. You go on by allowing the unbearable days to pass and allowing the pleasure in other days. You go on by finding a channel for your love and another for your rage.”

Cheryl Strayed, Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar

After the losses

“We receive and we lose, and we must try to achieve gratitude; and with that gratitude to embrace with whole hearts whatever of life that remains after the losses.”

Andre Dubus, Broken Vessels

(Photograph: Autumn Footbridge by Dave Bonta. Thank you, Mr. Bonta and Flickr.)

The stories he couldn’t tell

“How do you put this man out of his misery?” That was a line that had been floating in my head for weeks. I had been thinking of Bernardo Soares, the introspective bookkeeper in 1930s Lisbon whom Fernando Pessoa created as his alter ego in The Book of Disquiet. Soares spends most of his time walking the streets, sitting at cafés, ruminating over his headaches, insomnia, tedium, his “worthless self,” and “the vast indifference of the stars.” The book is strangely compelling; all that brooding can be addictive. Yet sometimes even I (and you know me, it ain’t easy being me)—yes, even I was getting impatient with that whiny, repetitive voice.  

I wanted Soares/Pessoa to lighten up, get some sun, get laid, get on Tumblr, shut up, or seek professional help already. But he won’t. He doesn’t believe suicide is the answer. Neither is human connection nor divine intervention. Neither atheism nor Christianity, not even the “resignation” of the Buddha. Nothing works for him. Art is mere pretense, like the masked ball that is life. He’s forever moaning: “I’m tired. I had a long day full of idiotic work….” And groaning: “I have no social or political sentiments.” “The idea of travelling nauseates me.” “I hate to read.” “I’m dazed by the sarcastic terror of life….” Worse, “our pain has no value beyond its being a pain we feel.” And: “No one understands anyone else.” This was all too much even for mopey me.

Perhaps it all reminded me of my own “issues.” I was getting antsy, snarky, and miserable because I couldn’t finish writing what I had started about Pessoa. I guess the Disquiet excerpts I had posted would be enough to speak for him. For both of us. I’m the one who should shut up. So I gave up trying to make sense of another man’s pain and loneliness. If I couldn’t tell my story about him, perhaps this is not the time or the way to do it. Again, I just need to let go. Quit worrying. “Be indifferent,” as Pessoa himself would advise. Then, Tuesday morning, I was stunned by the first thing I read on the Internet: “Robin Williams dead at 63 in suspected suicide.”

Part of me is getting sick of the eulogies. That he was a kind and gentle man, sweet and generous and compassionate. Part of me couldn’t get enough of it. We shouldn’t get enough of it. Yes, keep the tributes pouring. Let’s keep thinking of him, thanking him for making us laugh and cry, appreciating the goodness of his life, the greatness of his soul. Let’s keep mourning him. Perhaps that’s one way we could keep reminding ourselves that we’re all vulnerable. Depression, addiction, and suicide are real, ugly, and lethal. These are types or outcomes of mental illness we should not romanticize or be complacent about. This is not the time to be indifferent.

Like many others, I was a kid when I got introduced to Williams in the late 1970s via Mork and Mindy. He was Mork, TV’s funny alien and friend to Pam Dawber, the sweetest girl on the planet. It wasn’t my favorite show, and Mork wasn’t my favorite character. I was more into Charlie’s Angels, Little House on the Prairie, The Love Boat, James at 15 (and at 16), Family, Three’s Company, and The Muppet Show. But like those other characters, Mork made me feel that my fish-out-of-water self could find ways to swim, crawl, or stumble on wherever life put me.

Mork showed me that everyone was weird and sad in some ways. He reminded me that with a little luck and love, we could all laugh, endure, and find human connection no matter how alien or alone we felt. It’s the sort of cheesy nostalgia that makes me think of how simple life used to be. How reassuring it was to watch TV and movies, read books, and enjoy the company of people you could only meet on the screen or on the page. That was how life was supposed to be: there were problems, but people learned to deal with them.

Mork wasn’t supposed to give up trying to understand these unpredictable earthlings. He wouldn’t self-destruct, even as he struggled with his doubts and failures. In nostalgia and denial, I still insist that Williams wasn’t supposed to die this way. Philip Seymour Hoffman, Ned Vizzini, David Foster Wallace, Kurt Cobain, Anderson Cooper’s brother, my friend’s cousin—no, they weren’t supposed to go this way. They were going to stick around for as long as they could. Perhaps that’s exactly what they did.

And I do not mean that as glib resignation. I do not mean to glamorize suicide, addiction, or depression with that list of famous names. I’m not saying it’s OK to harm yourself and give up on life. And I am not in favor of explicit or sensationalized reporting about suicide. I know that even a personal blog like this has a responsibility to those who might be affected by such public issues as mental health. But my response to the things I read and watch can’t be anything but personal. In which case I am bound to write a lot of self-serving, potentially offensive, and ultimately pointless statements.

Still, I wonder if Rebecca Solnit’s story about the resilient Turtle Man would have made any difference to any of these men. Would they have been consoled by her beautiful passage about a “generous world” in which we allow ourselves to cry out for help and to offer help? I wonder if the example of Pessoa, who wrote some of the most depressing pages in literature, would have meant anything to them. After all, here’s a real person who endured what he called “the tragic futility of life” till an illness (cirrhosis of the liver) finally put him out of his misery. I can only hope that the eulogies for Williams, along with the “think pieces” about his depression and addiction, help us find more ways or better reasons to stick around.

The night before I found out about the actor’s death, I began reading Stephen Grosz’s The Examined Life: How We Lose and Find Ourselves. In the first chapter, the author-psychoanalyst writes about a patient named Peter who fakes his suicide because he has other (true) stories that were too difficult or painful to tell. Grosz says: “I believe all of us try to make sense of our lives by telling our stories, but Peter was possessed by a story that he couldn’t tell. Not having the words, he expressed himself by other means.”

We will never know the stories that Robin Williams couldn’t tell his family and friends, his fans, or those who could have given him the help he needed. But we can always find comfort in the characters he gave us. The empathetic alien in Mork and Mindy, the generous genie in Aladdin, the father/nanny in Mrs. Doubtfire, the mad homeless widower in The Fisher King, the doctor in Awakenings, the therapist in Good Will Hunting, the loner in One-Hour Photo, the teacher in Dead Poets Society. Thank you, Mr. Williams, for all the stories you told us to keep us far and safe from our misery.

Robin Williams (1951–2014)

“One of the premises set early on in Mork and Mindy was that Mork had no emotions. He didn’t fool any of us for a second. His clipped alien-speak notwithstanding, Williams played him as all emotion: delight, confusion, warmth, amazement, glee. His emotions cascaded over him, and he struggled to wrestle and understand them — which, of course, was another thing kids identified with in him. When Mork began to fall in love with Mindy, he was the only one surprised that he had it in him. As he would eventually report back to his alien mentor Orson, ‘Love doesn’t make sense. That’s why Earthlings think it’s so wonderful.’

I am, I realize, sketching only a tiny corner of the career that Williams made for himself. But it was that performance as space-alien Mork — more human than any of us, Orkan though he was — that made me, and millions of others, feel like he belonged to us, even as he belonged to the universe. RIP.”

— James Poniewozik, from “Memories of Mork” (Time)

(AP photo of Robin Williams as Mork, released by ABC in 1978. Thank you, Time.)

“We don’t read and write poetry because it’s cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race. And the human race is filled with passion. And medicine, law, business, engineering—these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love—these are what we stay alive for. To quote from Whitman: ‘Oh me! Oh life! of the questions of these recurring, / Of the endless trains of the faithless, of cities fill’d with the foolish, / … / … What good amid these, O me, O life? / Answer. / That you are here—that life exists, and identity, / That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.’ That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse. What will your verse be?”

Robin Williams as Mr. John Keating in Dead Poets Society

In a generous world

“… it’s okay to sometimes experience not knowing what to do next, to run into a barrier. It’s okay to realize that life has a mysterious quality to it, it has an element of uncertainty, it’s okay to realize that we do need help, that calling out for help is a very generous act because it allows others to help us and it allows us to be helped. Sometimes we’re calling out for help. Sometimes we’re offering help, and then this hostile world becomes a very different place. It is a world where there is help being received and help being given, and in such a world this compelling determined world according to me loses some of its urgency and desperation. It’s not so necessary in a generous world, in a world where help is available, to be so adamant about the world according to me.”

Rebecca Solnit, from A Field Guide to Getting Lost

(Photograph by Stéphane Suisse. Thank you, Mr. Suisse and Behance.)

“Maybe if I really paid attention to my life I’d notice that I don’t know what’s going to happen this afternoon and I can’t be fully confident that I’m competent to deal with it. Maybe we’re willing to let in that thought. It has some reasonableness to it, I can’t exactly know, but chances are, possibilities are, it’s not going to be much different than what I’ve usually experienced and I’ll do just fine, so we close up that unsettling possibility with a reasonable response. The practice of awareness takes us below the reasonableness that we’d like to think we live with and then we start to see something quite fascinating, which is the drama of our inner dialogue, of the stories that go through our minds and the feelings that go through our heart, and we start to see in this territory it isn’t so neat and orderly and, dare I say it, safe or reasonable. So in the practice of awareness, which has gone on for centuries after centuries and millennium after millennium, human beings have asked themselves, Hmmmm, how do I engage this process in a way that I don’t become too frightened by what it might unfold or too complacent by avoiding it? This is the delicate work of awareness.”

Rebecca Solnit, from A Field Guide to Getting Lost

And then you walk on

“And one day I was out on the street right out here and I heard this voice go help … help … help … and it was the Turtle Man [a blind man who sold candy that looked like chocolate turtles], and he was standing over there on the corner. He needed to cross the street and his way of crossing the street was to stand on the curb and say help and just say help until someone came along and helped him across the street. I didn’t watch him, but I assume that at each street crossing this was how the Turtle Man negotiated the crossing: he just stood there and said help, help.

So I thought, Isn’t that really amazing? What an amazing life. You walk along and you reach a barrier and you stop and you just call out help. You don’t know who you’re talking to, you don’t know who’s around if anyone, and you wait, and then somebody turns up and they help you across that barrier, and then you walk on knowing that pretty soon you’re going to meet another barrier and you’re going to have to stop again and cry out help, help, help, not knowing if anyone’s there, not knowing who it will be that will turn up to help you across the next barrier.”

— from A Field Guide to Getting Lost by Rebecca Solnit

(Photograph: Echoes by Peter Tandlund. Thank you, Mr. Tandlund and Blurb.)

“I pass times, I pass silences; formless worlds pass by me.”

Fernando Pessoa, The Book of Disquiet

Fernando Pessoa (1888–1935)

“I am, in large measure, the selfsame prose I write. I unroll myself in sentences and paragraphs, I punctuate myself. In my arranging and rearranging of images I’m like a child using newspaper to dress up as a king, and in the way I create rhythm with a series of words I’m like a lunatic adorning my hair with dried flowers that are still alive in my dreams. And above all I’m calm, like a rag doll that has become conscious of itself and occasionally shakes its head to make the tiny bell on top of its pointed cap (a component part of the same head) produce a sound, the jingling life of a dead man, a feeble notice to Fate.”

— from The Book of Disquiet (edited and translated by Richard Zenith)

(Image: Thank you, L&PM.)

“Sentence by sentence he would elaborate on the anonymous grief of the world; the imagining eyes behind his paragraphs would scan the earth’s various human dramas; and through the feverish throbbing of his temples an entire metaphysics of woe and misery would take shape on paper.”

Fernando Pessoa, The Book of Disquiet

The bridge

“Nothing satisfies me, nothing consoles me; everything that has been and that hasn’t been jades me. I don’t want to have my soul and don’t want to renounce it. I want what I don’t want and renounce what I don’t have. I can’t be nothing nor be everything: I’m the bridge between what I don’t have and what I don’t want.”

Fernando Pessoa, from The Book of Disquiet, edited and translated by Richard Zenith (Penguin Classics, 2002)

(Image by dabacahin. Cover photograph: Lisbon, 1957, by Gerard Castello Lopes.)

Rabih Alameddine: “ ‘The Book of Disquiet’ reveals a reclusive author’s soul”


Just nostalgia
“I don’t mourn the loss of my childhood; I mourn because everything, including (my) childhood, is lost. It’s not the concrete passing of my own days but the abstract flight of time that torments my physical brain with the relentless repetition of the piano scales from upstairs, terribly anonymous and far away. It’s the huge mystery of nothing lasting which incessantly hammers things that aren’t really music, just nostalgia, in the absurd depths of my memory.”
— Fernando Pessoa, from The Book of Disquiet (edited and translated by Richard Zenith)
(Photograph: Pessoa, age 3. Thank you, L&PM.)

Just nostalgia

“I don’t mourn the loss of my childhood; I mourn because everything, including (my) childhood, is lost. It’s not the concrete passing of my own days but the abstract flight of time that torments my physical brain with the relentless repetition of the piano scales from upstairs, terribly anonymous and far away. It’s the huge mystery of nothing lasting which incessantly hammers things that aren’t really music, just nostalgia, in the absurd depths of my memory.”

Fernando Pessoa, from The Book of Disquiet (edited and translated by Richard Zenith)

(Photograph: Pessoa, age 3. Thank you, L&PM.)

“Each of us is several, is many, is a profusion of selves.”

Fernando Pessoa, The Book of Disquiet