Author: Oliver Sacks.
Genre: Non-fiction, essays, .
Publication Date: 2013, 2015 (this collection 2015).
Summary: A book of 4 essays. In Mercury (aka The Joy of Old Age) (2013), the author reflects on old age, a long life lived, and death, while looking forward to his eightieth birthday. In My Own Life, knowing he only has months to live, Sacks reflects on the life he has led, and the feelings of gratitude and equilibrium he feels as he comes to the end of it. In My Periodic Table, Sacks talks about his life-long love affair with physical sciences, and how he comes back to it in light of his own upcoming death. In Sabbath, the author tells of his upbringing in an Orthodox Jewish family, his break away from the religion due to his homosexuality, and the slow process of reconciliation with his family and faith, especially the concept of the Sabbath.
My rating: 8.5/10.
♥ Elements and birthdays have been intertwined for me since boyhood, when I learned about atomic numbers. At eleven, I could say "I am sodium" (element 11), and now at seventy-nine, I am gold.
♥ I thought I would die at forty-one, when I had a bad fall and broke a leg whole mountaineering alone. I splintered the leg as best I could and started to lever myself down the mountain, clumsily, with my arms. In the long hours that followed, I was assailed by memories, both good and bad. Most were in a mode of gratitude—gratitude for what I had been given by others, gratitude too that I had been able to give something back. Awakenings, had been published the previous year.
..I am grateful that I have experienced many things—some wonderful, some horrible—and that I have been able to write a dozen books, to receive innumerable letters from friends, colleagues, and readers, and to enjoy what Nathaniel Hawthorne called "an intercourse with the world."
I am sorry I have wasted (and still waste) so much time; I am sorry to be as agonizingly shy at eighty as I was at twenty; I am sorry that I speak no languages but my mother tongue and that I have not traveled or experienced other cultures as widely as I should have done.
♥ I have no belief in (or desire for) any postmortem existence, other than in the memories of friends and the hope that some of my books may still "speak" to people after my death.
♥ Perhaps, with luck, I will make it, more or less intact, for another few years and be granted the liberty to continue to love and work, the two most important things, Freud insisted, in life.
When my time comes, I hope I can die in harness, as Francis Crick did. When he was told that his colon cancer had returned, at first he said nothing; he simply looked into the distance for a minute and then resumed his previous train of thought. When pressed about his diagnosis a few weeks later, he said, "Whatever has a beginning must have an ending." When he died, at eighty-eight, he was still fully engaged his most creative work.
♥ He felt, as I begin to feel, not a shrinking but an enlargement of mental life and perspective. One has had a long experience of life, not only one's own life, but others' too. One has seen triumphs and tragedies, booms and busts, revolutions and wars, great achievements and deep ambiguities. One has seen grand theories rise, only to be toppled by stubborn facts. One is more conscious of transience and, perhaps, of beauty. At eighty, one can take a long view and have a vivid, lived sense of history not possible at an earlier age. I can imagine, feel in my bones, what a century is like, which I could not do when I was forty or sixty. I do not think of old age as an ever grimmer time that one must somehow endure and make the best of, but as a time of leisure and freedom, freed from the factitious urgencies of earlier days, free to explore whatever I wish, and to bind the thoughts and feelings of of a lifetime together.
I am looking forward to being eighty.
♥ Here I depart from Hume. While I have enjoyed loving relationships and friendships and have no real enmities, I cannot say (nor would anyone who knows me say) that I am a man of mild disposition. On the contrary, I am a man of vehement disposition, with violent enthusiasms, and extreme immoderation in all my passions.
And yet, one line from Hume's essay strikes me as especially true: "It is difficult," he wrote, "to be more detached from life than I am at present."
Over the last few days, I have been able to see my life as from a great altitude, as a sort of landscape, and with a deepeing sense of the connection of all its parts. This does not mean I am finished with life. On the contrary, I feel intensely alive, and I want and hope in the time that remains to deepen my friendships, to say farewell to those I love, to write more, to travel if I have the strength, to achieve new levels of understanding and insight.
This will involve audacity, clarity, and plain speaking; trying to straighten my accounts with the world. But there will be time, too, for some fun (and even some silliness, as well).
I feel a sudden clear focus and perspective. There is no time for anything inessential. I must focus on myself, my work, and my friends. I shall no longer look at the NewsHour every night. I shall no longer pay any attention to politics or arguments about global warming.
This is not indifference but detachment—I still care deeply about the Middle East, about global warming, about growing inequality, but these are no longer my business; they belong to the future. I rejoice when I meet gifted young people—even the one who biopsied and diagnosed my metastases. I feel the future is in good hands.
♥ My generation is on the way out, and each death I have felt as an abruption, a tearing away of part of myself. There will be no one like us when we are gone, but then there is no one like anyone else, ever. When people die, they cannot be replaced. They leave holes that cannot be filled, for it is the fate—the genetic and neural fate—of every human being to be a unique individual, to find his own path, to live his own life, to die his own death.
I cannot pretend I am without fear. But my predominant feeling is one of gratitude. I have loved and been loved; I have been given much and I have given something in return; I have read and traveled and thought and written. I have had an intercourse with the world, the special intercourse of writers and readers.
Above all, I have been a sentient being, a thinking animal, on this beautiful planet, and that in itself has been an enormous privilege and adventure.
~~My Own Life.
♥ A few weeks ago, in the country, far from the lights of the city, I saw the entire sky "powdered with stars" (in Milton's words); such a sky, I imagined, could be seen only on high, dry plateaus like that of Atacama in Chile (where some of the world's most powerful telescopes are). It was this celestial splendor that suddenly made me realize how little time, how little life, I had left. My sense of the heavens' beauty, of eternity, was inseparably mixed for me with a sense of transience—and death.
I told my friends Kate and Allen, "I would like to see such a sky again when I am dying."
"We'll wheel you outside," they said.
I have been comforted, since I wrote in February about having metastatic cancer, by the hundreds of letters I have received, the expressions of love and appreciation, and the sense that (despite everything) I may have lived a good and useful life. I remain very glad and grateful for all this—yet none of it hits me as did that night sky full of stars.
I have tended since early boyhood to deal with loss—losing people dear to me—by turning to the nonhuman. When I was sent away to a boarding school as a child of six, at the outset of the Second World War, numbers became my friends; when I returned to London at ten, the elements and the periodic table became my companions. Times of stress throughout my life have led me to turn, or return, to the physical sciences, a world where there is no life, but also no death.
♥ Bismuth is element 83. I do not think I will see my eighty-third birthday, but I feel there is something hopeful, something encouraging, about having "83" around. Moreover, I have a soft spot for bismuth, a modest grey metal, often unregarded, ignored, even by metal lovers. My feeling as a doctor for the mistreated or marginalized extends into the inorganic world and finds a parallel in my feeling for bismuth.
I almost certainly will not see my polonium (eighty-fourth) birthday, nor would I want any polonium around, with its intense, murderous radioactivity. But then, at the other end of my table—my periodic table—I have a beautifully machined piece of beryllium (element 4) to remind me of my childhood, and of how long ago my soon-to-end life began.
~~My Periodic Table.
♥ Recovery started, slowly, as I found meaningful work in New York, in a chronic care hospital in the Bronx (the "Mount Carmel" I wrote about in Awakenings). I was fascinated by my patients there, cared for them deeply, and felt something of a mission to tell their stories—stories of situations virtually unknown, almost unimaginable, to the general public and, indeed, to many of my colleagues. I had discovered my vocation, and this I pursued doggedly, single-mindedly, with little encouragement from my colleagues. Almost unconsciously, I became a storyteller at a time when medical narrative was almost extinct. This did not dissuade me, for I felt my roots lay in the great neurological case histories of the nineteenth century (and I was encouraged here by the great Russian neuro-psychologist A. R. Luria). It was a lonely but deeply satisfying, almost monkish existence that I was to lead for many years.
♥ "The observance of the Sabbath is extremely beautiful," he said, "and is impossible without being religious. It is not even a question of improving society—it is about improving one's own quality of life."
In December 2005, Robert John received a Nobel Prize for his fifty years of fundamental work in economics. He was not entirely an easy guest for the Nobel Committee, for he went to Stockholm with hid family, including many of those children and grandchildren, and all had to have special kosher plates, utensils, and food, and special formal clothes, with no biblically forbidden admixture of wool and linen.
..He was full of entertaining stories about the Nobel Prize and the ceremony in Stockholm, he would have refused the prize. His commitment to the Sabbath, its utter peacefulness and remoteness from worldly concerns, wold have trumped even a Nobel.
♥ I had felt a little fearful visiting my Orthodox family with my lover, Billy—my mother's words still echoed in my mind—but Billy too was warmly received. How profoundly attitudes had changed, even among the Orthodox, was made clear by Robert John when he invited Billy and me to join him and his family at their opening Sabbath meal.
The peace of the Sabbath, of a stopped world, a time outside time, was palpable, infused everything..
♥ In December 2014, I completed my memoir On the Move and gave the manuscript to my publisher, not dreaming that days later I would learn I had metastatic cancer, coming from the melanoma I had in my eye nine years earlier. I am glad I was able to complete my memoir without knowing this, and that I had been able, for the first time in my life, to make a full and frank declaration of my sexuality, facing the world openly, with no more guilty secrets locked up inside me.
In February, I felt I had to be equally open about my cancer—and facing death.
♥ And now, weak, short of breath, my once-firm muscles melted away by cancer, I find my thoughts, increasingly, not on the supernatural or spiritual but on what is meant by living a good and worthwhile life—achieving a sense of peace within oneself. I find my thoughts drifting to the Sabbath, the day of rest, the seventh day of the week, and perhaps the seventh day of one's life as well, when one can feel that one's work is done, and one may, in good conscience, rest.