Just Being There

Each June, as the winter continues for what seems forever, I make plans to visit Italy. In the beginning, it was the single event that kept me going through the winter. Now I wonder if it will be the last time. It is also a chance to recharge the muse after finishing a project and I begin floundering around for the next one.

I do not speak Italian and have little appreciation of its artistic treasures. I have no business or research to undertake. It is enough to simply be there. It is also a stroke of good fortune that I can fly away to Florence, where I spend most of my days simply wandering from place to place, listening to the people, astonished by their energy and the beauty that surrounds them. Then there is the warmth, the warmth each day, all day and throughout the night.

It is reassuring to walk into a place to find the same individuals you recall from previous years--the strong and beautiful woman at the laundry; the quiet one at the kiosk, who retrieves the morning papers for me; those who serve me coffee or tea at the bars. There is something comforting about the people who are familiar in this far off place.

As part of warming up for this month long retreat, I’ve been reading Alastair Reid’s Whereabouts: Notes on Being a Foreigner.

Reid was a poet, staff writer at the New Yorker for several years and translator of many works of South American poets. Among other places, he lived in a remote Spanish village during part of each year. Here he took up residence among the villagers who had kept the modern world at bay.

Communication in the village depended on word of mouth and, as Reid writes in Notes from a Spanish Village “are at the mercy of memory. In the store, Dona Anna tells me that Don Anselmo wishes to see me, though she cannot remember when she got the message.”

There are two, no doubt more, ways to travel—to observe a place and to live among its people. I prefer the later. Upon returning to the unnamed village each year, Reid said he “looked forward keenly to picking up the long, unfinished conversations, the view from the inside.”

From his very first visit to Spain he realized it was going to matter a great deal to him and become a part of his life. “I found it recognizable at once, in the way that something one has been looking for subconsciously is recognizable.”

He bought a small home on a hill above the village, shopped in its few stores, helped the neighbors when needed, and lived a simple life, a life that was possible then in such a village where the climate was warm and where the people took pride in being self-sufficient. He had no car indeed, there were few cars in the village, although the bus did trek up the hill a couple of times a day.

He returned each year, in part, to confirm the village, even though as he says, it doesn’t care. But he wonders if “perhaps we come back to confirm ourselves?”

“From my first visit on, simply being in Spain has always occasioned in me a kind of joy, a physical tingle, which comes from a whole crop of elements: its light, its landscape, its language, and most of all its human rhythm, a manner of being that graces the place. It comes, however not from any such abstract awareness but from intense particularities: bare village café’s loud with argument and dominoes, or else sleepy and empty except for flies; sudden memorable conversations with strangers; the way Spaniards have of imposing human time, so that meals and meetings last as long as they need to.”

As I approach my return to Florence, I share many of Reid’s sentiments. It is warm there, the light is sparkling, as are its people, and while I am a foreigner who doesn’t speak the language, I do not feel like one. There are even times when I am recognized on the street or in a café and that, of course, always surprises and delights me both.

As he prepares to leave once again, always a difficult experience, Reid comments, “…the urgencies I have created for myself elsewhere seem trivial by now, and the timelessness I have grown into is something too rich to leave cursorily.”

Yes, always.


Particularities of Individuals

I continue to read experiments from the various branches of psychology. And they continue to mystify me. Who do they apply to? What is one to make of these generalizations derived from incomprehensible statistical analyses? When examined closely, the differences between conditions or individuals are due to multiple factors and relatively small, albeit statistically significant. What kind of game is this statistical analysis anyway?

When I find myself pondering these questions, I often turn to the work or Robert Coles. Coles is one of those rare individuals who combine a deep appreciation and knowledge of literature with his work as a physician, social researcher, and child psychiatrist. A recipient of one of the first MacArthur genius awards, he is the author of over eighty books and is Professor of Psychiatry and Medical Humanities at the Harvard Medical School.

For years Coles has taught a legendary course on the relationships between literature and the practice of medicine. He attributes his life-long interest in this topic to the work of the poet and doctor William Carlos Williams who became a close friend while he was a medical resident. In an interview Coles said, “I became so impressed with the dual life he lived as a physician and as a writer/social observer of sorts that I thought maybe I’d give it a try myself.”

In Times of Surrender Coles writes about his friendship with Williams and how it led him to realize the inherent affinity between medicine and literature—their common interest in the concreteness of particular human experience. Williams had written

“The abstract, categorical mind can be wonderful…But we‘ve got to keep a close check on all that....The doctor treating a patient out there on the front line falls back on himself…and he has to come to terms with not only a disease but a particular person: this patient, not patienthood, not lungs, in general, or kidneys or hearts in general, but one guy, one gal, one kid who has some trouble and is handling it in a way that may be different than anyone else’s way!”

And in his own work, Coles has emphasized he uniqueness of each individual; that variation is ever-present in the work he does. He put it this way, “I’m constantly impressed with mystery, and maybe even feel that there are certain things that cannot be understood or clarified through generalizations, that resolve themselves into matter of individuality, and again, are part of the mystery of the world that one celebrates as a writer, rather than tries to solve and undo as a social scientist.”

This is why he and other physicians have turned to literature and to writing about the lives of particular individuals, whether in a work of fiction as in Chekhov, Walker Percy and recently Rivka Galachen or non-fiction, as exemplified in the recent articles and books of Jerome Groopman and Autul Gawande, both of whom I have written about in this blog.

Doctors often write well because they never loose sight of specific patients and the way they express their illness. In his essays, Groopman has reminded us how our current medical beliefs are subject to qualification and often refutation. This is often the case with comparative research studies (clinical trials), whose findings may be relevant to some patients but not to others. These studies usually fail to pinpoint those to whom it applies and those to whom it doesn’t.

In reading literature we get to know a person as an individual, not an example of a personality dimension or character type. Quite often we get to know them better than the so-called real people we know or read about in research reports. In Reading Chekhov, Janet Malcolm wrote, “We never see people in life as clearly as we see the people in novels, stories, and plays; there is a veil between ourselves and even our closest intimates, blurring us to each other.”

And we don’t have to worry if their lives follow a common pattern or theoretical prediction. Their life is its own truth--unique and non-replicable.


When Prophecy Fails

How do you react when a prediction you have made is not confirmed? Do you discount the evidence, look instead for supporting data, or revise your belief while you seek further support?

The recent Doomsday predictions of Harold Camping and his followers reminded me of the classic study of these questions, When Prophecy Fails, by Leon Festinger, Henry Riecken and Stanley Schachter. Their work, published in 1956, examined what happened after the world didn’t end in a great flood according to the prediction of a cult of believers.

The cult developed following the purported message a housewife, Dorothy Martin, claimed to have received that the world would end in a great flood on December 21, 1954. Acting on this message, a sizeable number of believers quit their jobs, left college and in some cases their spouses and gave away their possessions to prepare for their departure on a flying saucer which would come to rescue them.

It was an elaborate Doomsday prediction and equally elaborate plan to escape it. What happened to the members of the cult when the world didn’t end on that Winter Solstice in 1954? Did they reject their belief or did they strengthen their commitment to it?

Virtually all of them failed to acknowledge the fallacy of their prediction or the message from another planet. Instead, Dorothy Martin claimed she had received another message that the “God of Earth” has spared the planet and the end of the world had been called off because her followers had “spread so much light.” As a result, members of the cult swung into action and tried more vigorously to spread its message by recruiting new followers.

Reaffirmation of belief in the face of contradictory information has been labeled confirmation bias, although Festinger and his colleagues viewed it within the framework of their theory of cognitive dissonance. On this account, it is unsettling to have one’s belief disconfirmed especially when it is firmly held and concrete actions have been taken that are consistent with it.

Individuals can take a variety of steps to reduce their dissonance—look elsewhere for supporting evidence, seek social support for their beliefs, strengthen their attitudes toward the basic idea, or discount the negative evidence. Recruiting others to join their cause was the most vigorous action the group took as they developed a campaign to spread its message to as wide a population as possible.

How did the believers of the recent Doomsday prediction react when confronted with their mistaken belief? Did they give it up or begin a vigorous recruiting campaign as the followers of Dorothy Martin did? Or did they attempt to justify their belief by claiming it was a further test of God to persevere in their faith?

It is really too early to know much about how these believers will respond in the long run. Most were naturally disappointed. However, apparently a few have admitted their error. Some had given away or sold their possessions, while others had drained their savings accounts.

Meanwhile, Harold Camping, the group’s leader, has been relatively silent. And the group has not been subject to the intensive, “participant observation” study that Festinger and his colleagues had carried out.

But if their dissonance theory is correct, one can anticipate a strengthening of commitment to their prediction in some form and increasing efforts to recruit others to their group. If none of this occurs, it will be just as interesting to see how proponents of dissonance theory respond to the disconfirming evidence.


Rendezvous in Rome

They met in Rome through a mutual friend. They were both in their sixties now, Adam, a musician, was there while his daughter was taking a master violin class, Miranda, an epidemiologist for a conference and solo vacation. They had been former lovers, first loves who were certain to be married until their relationship was shattered when Adam betrayed Miranda. Later we learn Miranda acted similarly.

“We thought that we would be each others one true love. We believed in that idea: the one true love. Now it is impossible that we should believe that, living as we have lived, having loved each other.”

This is the tale of Mary Gordon’s The Love of Our Youth. Do you ever wonder about a long lost love(s)? What are they doing now, where do they live, are they married and tolerably content? Do they wonder about you? It is unlikely you will have the type of encounter Adam and Miranda do or, if by chance you do, that it will be in such a historic place.

Adam and Miranda make the most of their time in Rome as they agree to meet each day to walk for a while in a different place. More often than not it is along the tree-lined paths of the Villa Borghese gardens, to a church or monument of the sort that can be found on practically every corner of Rome. Occasionally they linger over a meal in a café.

Adam had lived in Rome, he had family there and he wanted to show Miranda the places that meant most to him. As they stroll along, they slowly reveal themselves to one another and the persons they have become in the nearly a half-century since they last saw one another. “Are we fated to always be the people we were? Always making the same mistakes?”

Their lives, its rhythms, had grown radically apart. The things that had absorbed them once, no longer did. Yet they still play the question-asking game. “She enjoys this kind of play with him. It was who they were, people who played in this way. She doesn’t have people now who play in this way with her.”

Yes, they ask about each others life, families, and the work they do. But they explore more the real difference between them—the central concern of their lives. Adam is devoted to music; Miranda to political engagement and social change as expressed in her medical research in “undeveloped” countries. Their dialogue on these two lives pervades the novel.

“…she hears him playing a Bach partita, one of the preludes of Debussy, and she realizes that she had moved herself away from his music, thinking it irrelevant to the suffering of the world Now and newly she sees it as essential, an alternative to chaos, a sign of the goodness that is the counterpoint of the dread conditions she is living in.”

In reading Gordon’s novel I became the observer, following behind them as they recount their past, their uncertainties, and the way they are still bound to each other.

They circle around this truth, although Miranda does her best to deny it. The sharpness of her protest when Adam expresses “regret for the life we didn’t have together” awakens a regret sometimes felt at the passing of old loves, old selves, old hopes.

“It is time to go she says. They walk out to the road. Stand here, Adam, just stand here. It will be easier for me to remember if I can remember other things. You against this pale sky, the red, or is it purple of these leaves. And the silly palms, and the yellow of the plane trees. And the building, and the heads of all those poets, or whoever they are that made someone think they deserved to be remembered. By the likes of us."


A Writing Life

Recently a friend sent me an essay she wrote about the importance writing has meant to her throughout her life. It is a profound and moving testament. The essay, Reflections on the Writing Life, was an address she delivered on the 72nd anniversary of Kristallnacht and dedicated to Hannah Senesh, a Hungarian Jew, who was murdered by the Nazi’s in 1944 at the age of 23. She begins by quoting Senesh:

“I feel I could not possibly live without writing, even if only for myself, in my diary….A thought that is not put on paper is as if it had never been born. I can only truly grasp a thought when I’ve expressed it in writing.”

I often feel that way. It is one of the reasons I write these posts. I have an idea and I start trying to put it to words and I find the idea isn’t really much of an idea after all. Had I not tried to write about it, it might have lingered in my mind as some kind of a gem. Writing clarifies. Writing corrects. Writing discovers.

In her essay my friend compares writing to music. She hears a rhythm of words in her ear that “chime in my head as I write them down.” I know that feeling. I hear a sentence or a phrase that almost demands to be written.

Sometimes it is only a word and I type it and the rest of the paragraph and every now and then a page will follow almost automatically. It is quick and when I’m done, little in the way of editing seems to be required. That is unlike the usual case when each word or so requires a herculean effort.

Similarly, my friend says: “I listen for harmonies, point-counterpoint, cadences and fluency in the word-music I want to make as I weave word –patterns on the page.”

She reviews the course of her writing life, beginning as a child when she wrote poems, impressions, and the letters to the members of her family. “Letters are our charms against the ache of absence and separation, and the fear of loss.”

Although I have never met her or spoken to her, I have had the good fortune, perhaps even the richest of fortunes, to be one of her correspondents.

She wrote in her journal as if it was another person. It became “my listener, my confidant—a second person, a “you,” my old companero.”

Later in life she turned to academic writing as she pursued her career in sociology while at the same time writing short stories and then sometime later a trilogy of novels. In writing she discovered that one has an inner life and in reading and re-reading our writings, “we come to know ourselves more deeply.”

To write and then put it in the hands of a reader in the various ways there are to do that now is to make it permanent. In her essay, my friend expresses this much better. “To read another’s writing is to keep its light in the world.” If a book or letter is never read, it is as if it is hidden away in a box until it discarded and eventually turns to dust.

You will appreciate the spirit of her essay and why I wanted to write about it by reading its conclusion:

“Let us, People of the Book, go on reading and writing, let us continue the conversation between the generations, let us be keepers of the flame, let us keep their lights in this world as we go on kindling our own beside them.”

The essay was written by Audrey Borenstein, co-founder of the Life Writing Connection (with Olivia Dresher), author of One Journal’s Life: A Meditation on Journal-Keeping, Redeeming the Sin, and other works of short fiction, poetry, and criticism, including The Kingdom Where Nobody Dies, and Evanesce.