“Joy and sorrow, life and death, always so closely together!”
— Dorothy Day, The Long Loneliness
“Joy and sorrow, life and death, always so closely together!”
— Dorothy Day, The Long Loneliness
“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.
with the night falling we are saying thank you
we are stopping on the bridges to bow from the railings
we are running out of the glass rooms
with our mouths full of food to look at the sky
and say thank you
we are standing by the water looking out
in different directions
back from a series of hospitals back from a mugging
after funerals we are saying thank you
after the news of the dead
whether or not we knew them we are saying thank you
in a culture up to its chin in shame
living in the stench it has chosen we are saying thank you
over telephones we are saying thank you
in doorways and in the backs of cars and in elevators
remembering wars and the police at the back door
and the beatings on stairs we are saying thank you
in the banks that use us we are saying thank you
with the crooks in office with the rich and fashionable
unchanged we go on saying thank you thank you
with the animals dying around us
our lost feelings we are saying thank you
with the forests falling faster than the minutes
of our lives we are saying thank you
with the words going out like cells of a brain
with the cities growing over us like the earth
we are saying thank you faster and faster
with nobody listening we are saying thank you
we are saying thank you and waving
dark though it is
— W. S. Merwin, “Thanks”
“One piece of advice that Don Juan gave to Carlos Castañeda was to do everything as if it were the only thing in the world that mattered, while all the time knowing that it doesn’t matter at all.” That’s from page 112 of When Things Fall Apart by Pema Chödrön. I bought the book on New Year’s Day 2003 and finished reading it three months later. I had since tried often to get back to that sentence, but I just couldn’t find it. I had begun thinking perhaps I read it somewhere else. But today, this Sunday morning, when I finally got out of bed, there it was. I pulled the book from a shelf, opened it to a random page, and found what I thought I had lost forever. What did it matter that I couldn’t find the exact page or the original sentence? Wouldn’t it have been enough that I remembered what it meant? Is it any comfort that there are still things I believe to be random?
Yes, Sunday morning. I woke up thinking of three deaths. Last week, a friend told me her cousin had recently committed suicide. He jumped off a building. He was 52. He had been depressed, but the last time my friend saw him, he seemed to be recovering through medication and psychotherapy. She wondered if there was anything more she could have done to prevent the tragedy. He was such a gentle and kind man. Last night, I got a text message from another friend saying her three-year-old niece had died of pneumonia: “Please pray for her soul.” My friend says this is the time for her to believe in “a god because I need the assurance she is now happy and carefree with him.” This morning, I didn’t feel like getting up. Instead, I took The Snow Leopard from my bedside table and got back to reading random pages. I found this on page 307: “Then the sun is gone, the journey is done, the new moon rises.” That took me back to earlier parts I had read in which Peter Matthiessen writes about his wife, Deborah Love, who died of cancer in 1972. The following year, he went on a journey (with field biologist George Schaller) to the Himalayan mountains in Nepal. The book is his travel journal of those two months.
The book has been in my backpack now for that same length of time. I take it with me when I go out of the house. I dip into any part I want. I skip pages, reread others, scribble notes in margins. Before work begins, when it’s over, as daydreaming resumes, between visits to other worlds in other books—I’ve been with The Snow Leopard. And I hope to be with it till the end of this month. I’ve given myself a deadline: finish the book by June 29, the second anniversary of this blog. The timeline gives me something to work on. Not that I lack things to do or worry about. At my age, I can safely say that things affect me or they don’t (whatever that means). But sometimes I still need some sense of urgency to keep me going. Not that I’m in a hurry, either. As Matthiessen and Saul Leiter would agree, why hurry? On taking pictures, Leiter said: “Of course, I don’t know that I’m going to get what I’m going to get. It takes time.” I don’t know that I’m going to finish this book by June 29, in the same way that I didn’t know this blog would last this long. Perhaps without realizing it, I’ve taken Don Juan’s advice to heart. I’ve been posting words and pictures here, I’ve been sticking around, as if it were the only thing that mattered. Yes, as if.
The Snow Leopard is many things all at once. It is a great adventure story, a timeless plea to protect nature, a lucid introduction to Zen Buddhism, an interfaith appreciation of all that is sacred and mysterious in life and death, a vivid tapestry of journalism, anthropology, and memoir. Most of all, I see it as one man’s struggle to stay alive, sane, and grateful amid the daunting physical, intellectual, emotional, and spiritual tasks he has set for himself. Matthiessen promised his eight-year-old son that he’d be home by Thanksgiving. And he wanted to see the snow leopard, that rare, elusive creature living in those mountains. He didn’t achieve either of those goals despite his persistence or endurance. Near the end of his journey, he thinks nothing has changed: “I am still beset by the same old lusts and ego and emotions, the endless nagging details and irritations—that aching gap between what I know and who I am.”
Sometimes despite our best efforts and fervent prayers, we are left with no clear answers, with things falling apart. Words fail, people die, journeys end, gaps remain. Matthiessen wrote: “Maybe it’s better if there are some things that we don’t see.” Leiter said: “I like it when one is not certain what one sees.” It’s the confusion, the mystery, the trying-to-see that mattered to him as a photographer. I know what they were getting at, but even if I do finish reading The Snow Leopard, I doubt I’ll ever have its author’s clarity or equanimity as he came to terms with the death of his wife. At a certain point, he realized that “nothing was needed, nothing missing, all was already, always, and forever known, that D’s death, even that, was as it should be.” Would I even remember those words weeks or years from now? Would it still matter to me that somebody felt that way and wrote about it in the clearest way he could?
Matthiessen remembered this much: “In those last months, it seemed that love had always been there, shining through the turbulence of waves, like the reflection of the moon in the Zen teachings; and love transformed the cruel and horrid face that cancer gives to death. One day, knowing she was dying, D remarked, ‘Isn’t it queer? This is one of the happiest times in all my life.’ And another day, she asked me shyly what would happen if she should have a miraculous recovery—would we love each other still, and stay together, or would the old problems rise again to spoil things as before? I didn’t know, and that is what I said. We had tried to be honest, and anyway, D would not have been fooled. I shrugged unhappily, she winced, then we both laughed. In that moment, at least, we really understood that it didn’t matter, not because she was going to die but because all truth that mattered was here and now.”
by Jason Shinder
Just when it seemed my mother couldn’t bear
one more needle, one more insane orange pill,
my sister, in silence, stood at the end
of the bed and slowly rubbed her feet,
which were scratchy with hard, yellow skin,
and dirt cramped beneath the broken nails,
which changed nothing in time except
the way my mother was lost in it for a while
as if with a kind of relief that doesn’t relieve.
And then, with her eyes closed, my mother said
the one or two words the living have for gratefulness,
which is a kind of forgetting, with a sense
of what it means to be alive long enough
to love someone. Thank you, she said. As for me,
I didn’t care how her voice suddenly seemed low
and kind, or what failures and triumphs
of the body and spirit brought her to that point—
just that it sounded like hope, stupid hope.
[“Living” is included in Jason Shinder’s posthumous collection of poems, Stupid Hope (Graywolf Press, 2009). According to David L. Ulin of the L.A. Times, “many of these poems were composed while Shinder was battling lymphoma and leukemia. (He died in April 2008 at age 52.)” Thank you, HealthCetera, for the photo.]
“The ancient masters slept without dreams and woke up without worries. Their food was plain. Their breath came from deep inside them. They didn’t cling to life, weren’t anxious about death. They emerged without desire and reentered without resistance. They came easily; they went easily. They didn’t forget where they came from; they didn’t ask where they were going. They took everything as it came, gladly, and walked into death without fear. They accepted life as a gift, and they handed it back gratefully.”
— Chuang Tzu
… (in the last anecdote of his book) [William Barrett] tells how he broke down and wept at the spectacle of Delmore Schwartz reduced to his terminal dementia, wildly bellowing and raving. Barrett recounts this awful incident without wasting a word, contemplates the shattered young man he was and concludes: “There crossed my mind the ancient story of the father weeping for a dead child. A stoic philosopher, passing by, tells the father: Why do you weep? It is irrational. Your weeping will not bring him back to life. The father replies: That is why I weep, because it cannot bring him back!” So it is his present persona, Professor Barrett, who recollects and (as the existentialists like to say) assumes his emotion. The mature man has the final word.
— from “The American Intellectual Vocation” (a review of William Barrett’s memoir, The Truants: Adventures among the Intellectuals) by H. J. Kaplan (National Affairs)