Sunday, January 15, 2012

infinite nutshell

I could be bounded in a nut shell and count myself a king of infinite space.

-- Hamlet

If you build it, he will come.

-- W. P. Kinsella, Field of Dreams

He has at least three diseases, two of which are cancers, but neither of the cancers will kill him. Something else will take him first, and that something is his "hospice diagnosis," the disease whose symptoms we treat. Other teams evaluate and treat his other sicknesses. The latest developments in demise are the stuff of our talks, the threads emerging and submerging in his tapestry of decay. You may think this sounds morbid but - mirabile! -- it is not.

He reviews his life, his phobias, joys and losses, from the kitchen table. We have a grand time. There is a frissive pleasure to be taken from his contrarian thoughts and provoking questions, which he offers in sparkling humor.

He's an introvert, no small talker. He's agoraphobic, and doesn't like crowds. Walking into an office party he wouldn't know what to say. But for life and death, the cruel choices of precedence among disorders competing to dismantle him, he's a raconteur of the first order. He doesn't plan to die. He plans for pleasure -- he wants to get a lesion taken off his nose because it's ugly; the doctors (not ours) say "Why bother? you'll die in six months." But he's thinking of how he will look, what his life will be like, as if he had a future before him. As if he were alive.

Put him in at the wheel of a car, with his oxygen stored beside him, and he's as good as ever. He drove to Pennsylvania the other day and felt like a healthy young man. It lifted his spirits. When he can think this way, like a person without disease, his quality of life improves.

He can do this on his own. I'm flattered that he likes to do it with me. He finds me useful. That's because we're alike. He is quite charming sometimes, and so can I be. But it's an effort. We work at it. It costs.

I too am an introvert. There's a psychological test, one of the assessments to which counselors are subjected at thresholds of training, the first of whose categories is an introversion/extroversion scale. I'm about as introverted as the scale can measure. I've learned, as my cohort has, various skills of presentation -- how to behave with others when you have something to do. Sometimes, if you're one of us, your meter hits Empty. The persons around you are quite suddenly a crowd, and they're taking all the air from the room, and you must go elsewhere without delay, to some place that is at least momentarily your own. You might recover strength in the presence of those you know and trust well, one or two at a time; but sometimes you must be free even of them, must have a room to yourself and your thoughts, or sometimes a room just to yourself until you can remember how to recognize your thoughts. Because that is how you know who you are -- in the quiet of the inner room, and everything you do for others (and you must do with others) is measured and guided by what you heard in the inner room. Or else. Or else you start to go crazy. Which, if they understand what I mean, no one would want.

This -- this writing -- this is a way for me to recognize my thoughts. I have to make place for them, so they will come.

We are, I think, a minority. A lot of us are artists, philosophers, inventors, creators. Some of us learn to be nice about it, but we want to do things our way. The majority do not understand us well. Not only our utterances but our very silences arouse their suspicion, originating as they do from a place that is not of this world. So our success in the world depends to a large extent on how well we learn to pass for normal.

On the other hand, we don't understand the extroverts very well -- the people who retreat from solitude into the safety of a crowd because in silence they dissolve: the people who learn right out there in public, as they say and do stuff, who they are. We detest above all their untragic optimism, their unadulterated hopefulness. We have to keep reminding ourselves that they're not crazy, they're just, well, different. The universe would be incomplete without them. And it would also be incomplete without us.

So it's all right if they leave us alone, because for a long time, much longer than they expect, we'll be perfectly all right. We can keep ourselves company.  Sometimes in fact we yearn for our own company. Prayer, meditation, writing, composing, singing, running, sculpting -- these are our private places, our disciplines of solitude, our temples of contemplation built in faith that the gods will come and a real world will appear.

Over a lifetime, if we learn how to do it well, we become our own good company. They used to say that an artist needs "experience:" if you didn't like Hemingway head for every war, famine, drunken revel and physical ordeal the world can supply you could not be "authentic." But experience can truly arise in a country house, a wheelchair or a bed. My cohort and I, when the time of our dying comes, will be separated from the society we have cultivated in the nutshell of our minds. So it is a good thing to leave some artifacts behind, some trace of our investments and our expeditions. How else will our heirs know who we are, as opposed to who we passed for?

1 comment:

drob said...

This is not a man. Even Nietche's uber-man would not find solace. Goddard had a dog; a polite lick on the face is the humility we need. Lack of society is hubris or (later) madness. Why chase what can only bite you?