Good Reading : November 2017
GOOD READING NOVEMBER 2017 51 BOOK BITE 2 From time to time I reread Charles Dickens, who has always had a central place in my pantheon of writers. Recently an extraordinary phrase in A Tale of Two Cities caught my eye: ‘For, as I draw closer and closer to the end, I travel in a circle nearer and nearer to the beginning. It seems to be one of the kind of smoothings and prepar ings of the way. My heart is touched now by many remembrances that had long fallen asleep ...’ That passage moves me tremendously: as I indeed draw closer to the end, I, too, find myself circling more and more to the beginning. My clients’ memories more often trigger my own, my work on their future calls upon and disturbs my past, and I find myself reconsidering my own story. My memory of early childhood has always been fragmented, probably, I’ve always believed, because of my early unhappiness and the squalor in which we lived. Now, as I move into my 80s, more and more images from early life intrude upon my thoughts. The drunks sleeping in our vestibule covered with vomit. My loneliness and isolation. The roaches and the rats. My red-faced barber calling me ‘Jew Boy’. My myster ious, tormenting, and unfulfilled sexual throbbings as a teenager. Out of place. Always out of place – the only white kid in a black neighbourhood, the only Jew in a Christian world.Yes, the past is drawing me in and I know what ‘smoothings’ mean. Now, more than ever before, I imagine my dead parents watching and taking great pride and pleasure in seeing me speak before a crowd. At the time my father died, I had written only a few articles, technical pieces in medical journals that he couldn’t understand. My mother lived 25 years longer and, though her poor grasp of English, and, later, her blindness, made it impossible for her to read my books, she kept them stacked by her chair and stroked them and clucked over them to visitors in her retirement home. So much is incomplete between my parents and me. There are so many things we never discussed about our life together, about the tension and unhappiness in our family, about my world and their world. When I think of their lives, picture them arr iving at Ellis Island, penniless, without an education, without a word of English, my eyes tear up. I want to tell them, ‘I know what you went through. I know how hard it was. I know what you did for me. Please forgive me for being so ashamed of you.’ Looking back at my life from my 80s is daunting and sometimes lonely. My memory is unreliable, and there are so few living witnesses to my early life. My sister, seven years older, has just died, and most of my old friends and acquaintances are gone, too. When I turned 80, a few unexpected voices from the past awakened some memories. First there was Ursula Tomkins, who found me via my webpage. I had not thought of her since we attended Gage Elementary School together in Washington, DC. Her email read, ‘Happy 80th birthday, Irvin. I’ve read and enjoyed two of your books and asked our Atlanta library to get some of the others. I remember you from Miss Fernald’s fourth grade class. I don’t know if you remember me – I was pleasingly plump with red frizzy hair and you were a beautiful boy with coal-black hair!’ So Ursula, whom I remembered well, thought I was a beautiful boy with coal black hair! Me? Beautiful? If only I had known! Never, not for a moment, had I ever thought of myself as a beautiful boy. I was shy, nerdish, lacking in self-confidence, and never imagined that anyone found me attractive. Oh, Ursula, bless you. Bless you for telling me I was beautiful. But, why, oh why, didn’t you speak up earlier? It might have changed my entire childhood! Becoming Myself by Irvin D Yalom is published by Scribe, rrp $35.00. Now, as I move into my 80s, more and more images from early life intrude upon my thoughts.