In recent days, I’ve been swept along by a current that I can’t fully understand.
I trace the start of it to a month or so ago, when I read a unique piece of fiction by Alan Lightman titled Einstein’s Dreams that I was drawn to like a magnet.
A short novel. A meditation on the value of time, presented as a series of dreams Einstein had during the long nights he worked and slept in the patent office in Bern, Switzerland, where he eventually developped his theory of special relativity.
Why I alighted on this book, I can’t know for sure, though I think it started with my fascination with the author himself, who is both a physicist and writer, and MIT’s first professor to receive a joint appointment in science and humanities.
It seems nearly impossible that anyone should have a mind both brilliantly mathematical and linguistic, but it is so.
Wouldn’t it be wonderful to be so lucky? Instead, I’ve always been drawn to the kinds of questions he asks without possessing the means to begin answering them.
I wonder what I would have become if there hadn’t been many others like Alan Lightman: extraordinary minds belonging to gifted writers.
People whose written work gives me a second home; a place to slip away into; a space outside of the mainstream of my life, using words in ways that expand my sense of what it means to be human, filling me up and helping me to see beauty and truth in a new way.
In my experience, what we’re seeking and what we find often have a strange, synchronous quality that doesn’t feel predestined as much as it feels in harmony with life at that moment.
Does this make sense to you? Have you experienced anything like this?
This notion seems to have been confirmed by the fact that, at about the same time, I acquired a copy of Paul Kalanithi’s memoir, When Breath Becomes Air. I had seen so many laudatory reviews of this treasure of a book that I ordered it.
And here it was, and I immediately started reading it.
Kalanithi’s book, which is indescribably beautiful, chronicles the last years of his life and death, at the age of 37. He was a soulful, brilliant intellectual, a dazzling literary mind and exceptional neurosurgeon who wrote When Breath Becomes Air as a means, I believe, to making himself whole before meeting death— reconciling everything that he was and everything that he loved and hoped to give to the world.
It was hard to let that book go when I reached its end, and it stayed with me for days. I wish I could have stretched out that time and been able to prevent the space I inhabited while reading it from collapsing under the weight of life, but alas, it isn’t possible.
This is the stuff of happiness, real happiness. When we come to these moments that feel transcendent. When we experience snatches or stretches of time that are a kind of walking through the clearest, most distilled awareness.
When I was seventeen, my great aunt Gertrude, who was in her late seventies, lost her husband. They had married late and had no children, but had always been close to my mother and so we saw them often and loved them too.
My great-uncle had died early in the day, and as evening approached, plans were made for someone to stay with Aunt Gertrude, and so I volunteered to spend the night with her in their apartment downtown.
The first night after his death, there we were, the two of us, in this home she had shared for close to forty years with her husband.
I remember that she passed in and out of a state of shock, absorbing then rejecting her terrible loss. I remember how she moved from simple chatting and cups of tea to restless, frightened and disoriented meandering through her apartment, like the victim of a tornado sifting through a life reduced to rubble.
I remember how, just when she seemed to have calmed herself down, she turned and noticed her husband’s glasses on a side table, picked them up, turned them over in her hands with tenderness and dissolved into sobbing as another wave of loss rolled over her.
It was a long night. I remember that we didn’t sleep very much, and yet I also recall that even then, she was able to smile and chuckle as she told me things about my great uncle.
I remember the next day: how tired I felt, and how I had such a headache. But what I remember best, what I walked away with, imprinted in me for good, was the knowledge that THIS IS LIFE. Pushed up as I was against my great uncle’s death and his spouse’s grief, this couldn’t have been clearer.
“There is a moment, a cusp, when the sum of gathered experience is worn down by the details of living. We are never so wise as when we live in this moment.”
― Paul Kalanithi, When Breath Becomes Air
I’m old enough now to live with the silent countdown of my days. It’s hard to say exactly when that shift in human awareness occurs, but for women, the biological clock probably hastens it : its ticking is too loud to ignore.
If given the chance, I would never want to turn back time. It would feel like going back to an inferior version of myself—or maybe an emptier version is the better way to put it.
In my French classes this week, I had several of my groups finish the following phrase:
Quand je regarde mes photos d’enfance, je me sens…(= when I look at photographs from my childhood, I feel…)
This was a group of beginners, so they used their smart phones and came up with satisfying answers like: actif, vieux, détendu, souriant, …que mes souvenirs sont précieux…
(In english: active—I think maybe “energized” was the meaning sought here—old / relaxed / like smiling / that my memories are precious).
At first, I wrote “nostalgic and a bit sad”, but a more honest answer would have been that I feel that the person in the photo is a stranger. There is no sense of alienation from myself in this, but rather, there’s an awareness of ongoing transformation and adaptation through experience.
Whoever I was at 5 or 12 or 23 or even 37, I am no longer. I’ve evolved, and continue to do so, perhaps with greater will and a clearer intention because I know, as Paul Kalanithi knew, that my life doesn’t have a horizon, it has a finish line.
These thoughts were very much with me when the phone rang on Monday morning, while I was doing preparation for the 8 groups that I teach french to. This was a terrible call. A colleague has been diagnosed with metastatic lung cancer: could I take over two of her groups?
I felt sick. I also felt…prepared for this, somehow.
Of course I took her classes that Tuesday.
Her students asked about her. They were worried about her. The first group of men told me that she has been sick for weeks. They thought she had pneumonia. They had been helping her get back to her car after class for several weeks…
One small, shy man who had arrived a few minutes early got up and wrote the day’s date and weather in french, with a red dry marker, on the white board. Very dutifully, respecting the routine she had set up with them. It was such a bittersweet gesture.
I told them nothing, other than that I would be their teacher till the end of the contract.
Presently, the “human resources” of this same corporation are being laid off and let go by the hundreds and hundreds. The company is experiencing tough times and so are its people.
One of my students this week mentioned that this work climate was like a slow poison.
Another informed me and his french class colleagues that he had received his pink slip, and would not be coming back. He is a tall, quiet Chinese immigrant with two very young children. At the end of class, he lingered a moment because there were kind things he wanted to say to me. I told him what I honestly feel: that I think he has a bright future and this tough patch will soon be over. And I smiled.
When he left, my throat caught and the tears came.
I think that in our lifetimes, we experience many deaths, but also many lives.