Kaysen: In the parallel universe


In the parallel universe the laws of physics are suspended. What goes up does not necessarily come down….Time, too, is different. It may run in circles, flow backward, skip about from now to then….

Another odd feature of the parallel universe is that although it is invisible from this side, once you are in it you can easily see the world you came from….

Every window on Alcatraz has a view of San Francisco.

Susanna Kaysen (1948–), Girl, Interrupted


Photo by Gianni Crestani at Pixabay

Jenny Diski: There are no novel responses possible


There are no novel responses possible. Absolutely none that I could think of. Responses to the diagnosis; the treatment and its side effects; the development of cancer symptoms; the pain and discomfort; the dying; the death … I am appalled at the thought, suddenly, that someone at some point is going to tell me I am on a journey.

But much as I hate it, the journey – that deeply unsatisfactory, often deceitful metaphor – keeps popping into my head. Like my thoughts about infinity, my thoughts about my cancer are always champing at the bit, dragging me towards a starting line. From ignorance of my condition to diagnosis; the initiation into chemotherapy and then the radiotherapy; from the slap of being told that it’s incurable to a sort of acceptance of the upcoming end. From not knowing, to “knowing”, to “really” knowing; from being alive and making the human assumption that I will be around “in the future”, to coming to terms with a more imminent death. And then death itself. And there is no and. Maybe it’s just too difficult to find a way to avoid giving the experience a beginning and an end…..

The end of the journey doesn’t come until you either die cancer-free of something else, or die of the effects of a regeneration of the cancer cells. Good and bad; from here to eternity, and from eternity to here. But I have been not here before, remember that. By which I mean that I have been here; I have already been at the destination towards which I’m now heading. I have already been absent, non-existent. Beckett and Nabokov know:

I too shall cease and be as when I was not yet, only all over instead of in store.
From an Abandoned Work

The cradle rocks above an abyss, and common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness.
Speak, Memory

This thought, this fact, is a genuine comfort, the only one that works, to calm me down when the panic comes. It brings me real solace in the terror of the infinite desert. It doesn’t resolve the question (though, as an atheist I don’t really have one), but it offers me familiarity with “The undiscovered country from whose bourn/ No traveller returns”. I’ve been there. I’ve done that. And it soothes. When I find myself trembling at the prospect of extinction, I can steady myself by thinking of the abyss that I have already experienced. Sometimes I can almost take a kindly, unhurried interest in my own extinction. The not-being that I have already been.

  –Jenny Diski (1947-2016), in the Guardian, 29 April 2016. She died on 28 April.



Bruce Kramer: Sadnesss is a way of sensitizing you to what really matters


I had delved down into a space where I perceived this great pool of gratitude and sadness. And don’t mix sadness up with depression or despair… All sadness is is a way of sensitizing you to what really matters, what’s really meaningful.

And death does that.

I see my death. It looms in front of me sooner than I would like, but because it’s there, because we live with that, I am so grateful for just this moment, for this time together. And that is a great gift.

  –Bruce Kramer in an "On Being" conversation. He recently died of ALS and kept a blog about it. Thanks to Maria Popova for the link.

Emily Dickinson: Her final summer


Her final summer was it,
and yet we guessed it not;
if tenderer industriousness
pervaded her, we thought

a further force of life
developed from within,—
when Death lit all the shortness up,
and made the hurry plain.

We wondered at our blindness,—
when nothing was to see
but her Carrara guide-post,—
at our stupidity,

when, duller than our dullness,
the busy darling lay,
so busy was she, finishing,
so leisurely were we!

    --Emily Dickinson  (1830-1886) 

Virginia Woolf: ...when the lights of health go down


Considering how common illness is, how tremendous the spiritual change that it brings, how astonishing, when the lights of health go down, the undiscovered countries that are then disclosed, what wastes and deserts of the soul …it becomes strange indeed that illness has not taken its place with love, battle, and jealousy among the prime themes of literature… literature does its best to maintain that its concern is with the mind; that the body is a sheet of plain glass through which the soul looks straight and clear.

  --Virginia Woolf (1882-1941) in her essay On Being Ill (1926)

Xin Qiji: I somehow cannot mention it


To the tune "The Ugly Slave-girl"

When I was young and had never tasted grief, I loved to climb towers.
I loved to climb towers to write elegant poems about my grief.
But now that I have tasted the utmost dregs of grief, I somehow cannot mention it.
I somehow cannot mention it. Instead I say, "What nice brisk autumn weather."

      --Chinese poet Xin Qiji 辛棄疾 (1140-1207)



Rilke: The strangeness that has entered us

Please, ask yourself whether these great sorrows have not, rather, gone right through the middle of you? If much within you has not changed, if you haven't somewhere, in some place, changed your being, while you were sorrowful?...If it were possible for us to see farther than our knowledge reaches, and even a bit farther than the works of our forebears, perhaps we would then bear our sorrows with more confidence than our joys. For they are the moments when something New comes into us, something unknown; our feelings fall silent in shy confusion, everything in in us steps back, a silence ensues, and the New Thing, which no one knows, stands in the middle of this without speaking.

I believe that almost all our sorrows are moments of tension that we perceive as numbness, because we no longer hear our estranged feelings living. Because we are alone with the strangeness that has entered us; because all that we trusted and were used to has been taken away from us for a moment; because we are in the middle of a transformation where we cannot be stable. That is why the sorrows also pass: the New Thing in us, that has come into us, has gone into our heart, into its innermost chamber, and is already no longer there-- it is already in our blood. And we don't learn what it was....We can't say who is come, we may never know, but many indications show that the Future has entered us in this way, to transform inside of us, long before it happens. And that's why it is so important to be alone and alert when you are sad: because the seemingly uneventful and numb moment in which our Future enters us stands so much closer to Life than that other noisy and random point in which, from the outside, it happens....


Here, dear Mr Kappus, you must not be afraid when a sadness looms before you, a bigger sadness than you have seen; when an anxiety, like light and the shadows of clouds, goes over your hands and everything you do. You must reflect that something is happening to you, that Life has not forgotten you, that it is holding you in its hand; it will not let you fall. Why do you want to shut out gloom from your life, when you don't know yet how these conditions are doing to you? Why do you want to worry yourself asking where it all comes from and what will happen? Since you know that they are passing over you, and want nothing so much as to change into something else....

In you, dear Mr Kappus, so much is now happening; you must be patient like a sick person and confident like a recovering one; since perhaps you are both. And more: you are also the doctor charged with watching over yourself. But in this illness there are many days where the doctor can do nothing but wait. And that is what you, as you are your own doctor, must do above all.

        --Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926), Letters to Franz Kappus, no. 8

Bitte, überlegen Sie, ob diese großen Traurigkeiten nicht vielmehr mitten durch Sie durchgegangen sind? Ob nicht vieles in Ihnen sich verwandelt hat, ob Sie nicht irgendwo, an irgendeiner Stelle Ihres Wesens sich verändert haben, während Sie traurig waren?...Wäre es uns möglich, weiter zu sehen, als unser Wissen reicht, und noch ein wenig über die Vorwerke unseres Ahnens hinaus, vielleicht würden wir dann unsere Traurigkeiten mit größerem Vertrauen ertragen als unsere Freuden. Denn sie sind die Augenblicke, da etwas Neues in uns eingetreten ist, etwas Unbekanntes; unsere Gefühle verstummen in scheuer Befangenheit, alles in uns tritt zurück, es entsteht eine Stille, und das Neue, das niemand kennt, steht mitten darin und schweigt.

Ich glaube, daß fast alle unsere Traurigkeiten Momente der Spannung sind, die wir als Lähmung empfinden, weil wir unsere befremdeten Gefühle nicht mehr leben hören. Weil wir mit dem Fremden, das bei uns eingetreten ist, allein sind, weil uns alles Vertraute und Gewohnte für einen Augenblick fortgenommen ist; weil wir mitten in einem Übergang stehen, wo wir nicht stehen bleiben können. Darum geht die Traurigkeit auch vorüber: das Neue in uns, das Hinzugekommene, ist in unser Herz eingetreten, ist in seine innerste Kammer gegangen und ist auch dort nicht mehr, - ist schon im Blut. Und wir erfahren nicht, was es war....Wir können nicht sagen, wer gekommen ist, wir werden es vielleicht nie wissen, aber es sprechen viele Anzeichen dafür, daß die Zukunft in solcher Weise in uns eintritt, um sich in uns zu verwandeln, lange bevor sie geschieht. Und darum ist es so wichtig, einsam und aufmerksam zu sein, wenn man traurig ist: weil der scheinbar ereignislose und starre Augenblick, da unsere Zukunft uns betritt, dem Leben so viel näher steht als jener andere laute und zufällige Zeitpunkt, da sie uns, wie von außen her, geschieht....  

Da dürfen Sie, lieber Herr Kappus, nicht erschrecken, wenn eine Traurigkeit vor Ihnen sich aufhebt, so groß, wie Sie noch keine gesehen haben; wenn eine Unruhe, wie Licht und Wolkenschatten, über Ihre Hände geht und über all Ihr Tun. Sie müssen denken, daß etwas an Ihnen geschieht, daß das Leben Sie nicht vergessen hat, daß es Sie in der Hand hält; es wird Sie nicht fallen lassen. Warum wollen Sie irgendeine Schwermut von Ihrem Leben ausschließen, da Sie doch nicht wissen, was diese Zustände an Ihnen arbeiten? Warum wollen Sie sich mit der Frage verfolgen, woher das alles kommen mag und wohin es will? Da Sie doch wissen daß sie in den Übergängen sind, und nichts so sehr wünschten, als sich zu verwandeln....

In Ihnen, lieber Herr Kappus, geschieht jetzt so viel; Sie müssen geduldig sein wie ein Kranker und zuversichtlich wie ein Genesender; denn vielleicht sind Sie beides. Und mehr: Sie sind auch der Arzt, der sich zu überwachen hat. Aber da gibt es in jeder Krankheit viele Tage da der Arzt nichts tun kann als abwarten. Und das ist es, was Sie, soweit Sie Ihr Arzt sind, jetzt vor allem tun müssen.