I’ve been in the midst of moving for almost a year, yet am still not finished with that onerous task. My youngest son and family recently moved into the place I’ve called home since 1980. I bought a small house in the vicinity and have just settled in after spending four months painting, cleaning, and hauling box after box to my new dwelling. At the same time, I’ve been traveling back and forth to New Mexico busy with painting, cleaning, and remodeling my “retirement house.”
I’m tired. Am also experiencing emotions that I thought I was impervious to. I never perceived myself as somebody having an attachment to place, but a month or so before moving out of my old home, I began to feel nostalgic. There was so much I didn’t want to leave behind–the woods, birds nesting in bushes around the property as well as on top of the front porch light, the wildlife (deer, opossum, rabbits), and neighbors far enough away so I didn’t have to hang curtains at the windows.
Just days before the agreed-upon date to turn the old home over to my son and family, I became emotionally distraught. A friend suggested I read Oliver Sacks’ book, Gratitude. Oliver Sacks (1933-2015) was a British neurologist who spent his professional life in the United States caring for people with brain “disorders” such as aphasia, Tourette Syndrome, amnesia, autism, and a host of other neurological diagnoses.
Gratitude is a slim volume featuring four essays written during the last few months of Dr. Sacks’ life. In the second essay, “My Own Life,” he writes: “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.”
I wanted to know more about Dr. Sacks’ life and promptly procured his memoir, On The Move A Life, published just before he died in 2015. I was struck by the apparent comfort he felt in his own skin as he went about living in the world. He came from a fairly Orthodox Jewish family and realized during his teen years that he was gay. When his mother discovered his homosexuality, she said, “You are an abomination. I wish you had never been born.” He writes that she undoubtedly was referring to a text in Leviticus (Hebrew Bible) and although she never mentioned the incident again,” …her harsh words made me hate religion’s capacity for bigotry and cruelty.”
His mother’s view regarding his homosexuality didn’t seem to affect Dr. Sacks’ ability to get on with his adventures living on, what he calls, “this beautiful planet.” He focused on his passions–medicine, literature, traveling, observing the natural world, swimming, lifting weights, and riding his motorcycle. Along the way he met a wide variety of people (patients, colleagues, authors, and characters in books). He squeezed gallons of nectar from those meaningful encounters. Yet, I think his mother’s disgust regarding his sexual orientation must have cut him to the quick. He included the incident in his last book, Gratitude.
Recently I came across the following saying by an unknown author: “When something bad happens, you have three choices. You can let it define you, let it destroy you, or you can let it strengthen you.” Dr. Sacks did not allow his mother’s bigotry define him, nor destroy him. I believe he garnered strength by focusing on and developing his own interests, not giving his mother’s opinion breathing room.
Very different from the way I responded to the bigotry and disgust hurled towards my female self. For the first two years of high school, I attended a co-ed boarding school established mainly to house missionary kids so their parents could continue working “on the field” unhindered. Male faculty members often read Scripture passages, addressing them to the “girls,” during compulsory chapel sessions. A favorite text was Isaiah 3:16: “The women of Zion are haughty, walking along with outstretched necks, flirting with their eyes, strutting along with swaying hips, with ornaments jingling on their ankles.” We “girls” were likened to the women of Zion as we behaved, according to the male faculty, flirtatiously towards the “boys” in our midst. We were regularly admonished to “cut it out.” The admonishment came with the warning that God would hold us responsible if any of the “boys” fell into sin on account of our wanton ways–ways that at best I could tell had everything to do with just being female.
For years I struggled, having let the bigotry of those sermons define me. It didn’t occur to me at the time to just shuck off somebody’s construct of who I am and move forward by developing my own interests. Why did Dr. Sacks move on with apparent ease? Why didn’t I? Today I understand it (at least partially) in terms of gender construction. Somehow it’s okay, even encouraged, for men to go out into the world and make their own way. Women stay behind and do a lot of “making nice,” accommodating and facilitating the lives of others. It’s what I did for years. I still struggle to find balance.
The last paragraph of Dr. Sacks’ fourth essay in Gratitude, “Sabbath,” reads: “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’m always amazed, and somewhat envious, when people appear to find a measure of peace as they evaluate their lives. Perhaps being at peace within oneself stems from not having given breathing room to how others define you. Maybe that’s why my friend recommended I read Gratitude. Dr. Sacks drew strength as he developed and pursued interests available to him, thereby asphyxiating desire for what was not open to him, ultimately bringing him freedom and peace.
The place I once called home is no longer available to me. There is so much, though, that is and for that, I am grateful.
Esther Nelson is an adjunct professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, Va. She has taught courses on Human Spirituality, Global Ethics, Christian-Muslim Relations, and Religions of the World, but focuses on her favorite course, Women in Islam. She is the co-author (with Nasr Abu Zaid) of VOICE OF AN EXILE REFLECTIONS ON ISLAM and the co-author (with Kristen Swenson) of WHAT IS RELIGIOUS STUDIES? A JOURNEY OF INQUIRY.