Thank you Oliver Sacks.

I’ve just read the article published in the New York Times on the 19th of February where  Oliver Sacks announced that he had been diagnosed with terminal cancer.       (My Own Life.)  It’s a beautiful piece of writing- moving and provocative, hopeful and inspiring. But then, hasn’t Oliver Sacks always been challenging, moving, inspirational?

Oliver Sacks, Professor of Neurology at New York University.

Oliver Sacks

Oliver Sacks

I first heard of Oliver Sacks when “The Man who Mistook his Wife for a Hat” was published- an account of his work as a neurologist with patients living with difficult and rare conditions,  such as Tourette’s Syndrome, Autism and Parkinsonism.  Amazing stories about the resilience, courage and resourcefulness of these people, examples of our capacity to change and adapt. I knew little about such conditions, so this book was eye-opening.

“Awakenings” is probably his other most well known work. It’s an account of his work with a group of patients suffering sleeping sickness, years after there had been a pandemic of the disease. He was able to wake them, briefly. A sad and amazing story- later made into a movie starring Robert de Niro and Robin Williams.

His article begins

“A month ago I felt that I was in good, even robust, health. At 81, I still swim 1.6 kilometres a day. But my luck has run out….now I am face to face with dying”.

He continues

“It is up to me to choose how to live out the months that remain to me. I have to live in the richest, deepest, most productive way I can….”

I could take that statement as the way I want to live my whole life.

And…

“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 deepening 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 cannot pretend I am without fear. But my predominant feeling is one of gratitude. I have loved and been loved; I have given much and I have been given something in return;…

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.”

IMG_0327Please, I beg you to read the article. Like me, you will be moved, challenged and inspired. What I would say if I received this diagnosis? What would I want for the time remaining me? How would I feel? How would I sum up my life?

How would you sum up your life? What would you want for the time remaining to you?

What better than to be able to say

“I cannot pretend I am without fear. But my predominant feeling is one of gratitude. I have loved and been loved; I have given much and I have been given something in return…above all, I have been a sentient being, a thinking anima, on this beautiful planet, and that in itself has been an enormous privilege and adventure.”

Love Letters straight from the Heart.

Remember letters? You wrote to someone on paper, put it in an envelope, addressed, stamped  and posted it.

A bundle of friends.

A bundle of friends.

Remember the feeling when you get a letter? Remember the feeling of anticipation, trying to guess who it may be from if you don’t recognize the writing. How long since you wrote a letter or since someone wrote a letter to you?

I don’t mean emails. I love emails. They’re quick, can be brief, are great for making arrangements and for staying in touch with a lot of people.

So far, I haven’t used Facebook much, but I can see how  useful it is for sharing stuff with lots of people.

But real letters, think about them for a moment. Think about letters you’ve received that mattered to you. Do you have a bundle of kept letters? If you’re young, you may never have received one. Do you still get birthday cards in the mail or is an email good enough?

Treasured letters.

Treasured letters.

I have a letter from my grandmother so old the paper is worn away in some of its folds. There’s a note my father sent me when I was seventeen and had just left home. A box of cards from  people I have never met sent to me in hospital, a very ill girl far away from home. They gave me the courage to keep going.  Do I keep emails?

Well yes, sometimes I do, but…do I re-read them? Do I hold them in my hand and treasure them? Do they bring back memories of that person as I see her beloved handwriting? Do I remember the moment I found them in the letter box?

There’s discussion here in Australia about ending a daily mail delivery. I had been thinking about letters, prompted by the rarity of my receiving any before this discussion began. Somehow it now seems more urgent. One of my friends is diligent about sending cards and my mother was known and appreciated for sending notes to her friends to let them know she was thinking of them. I’m slack at sending birthday cards- first I have to find one I like, then I resist the cost.. often I end up with a card I haven’t managed to post. I have several August birthdays I meant to…

If I like getting a letter, won’t other people enjoy it too?

Letters provide us with history. They fill in the detail. Cronechronicler is blogging the letters she sent her small sons while she and their father were abroad. Fortunately she had kept them. I have a letter my mother had kept for more than fifty years- I wrote it to her when she was away in hospital and I was twelve. I don’t remember writing it and that twelve year old self is a distant echo. You can imagine my feelings when I found it, after her death. I was so glad that twelve year old had written it.

Maybe they're full of letters!

Maybe they’re full of letters!

While I’ve been pondering getting mail and writing letters and as we Australians may lose our regular mail delivery, I discovered a movement to send a letter to a stranger through a TED talk (God bless TED!). Hannah Bencher, whose mother wrote regularly to her, became depressed after college, so she did what came naturally- she wrote love letters to strangers and left them wherever she went. She blogged about this and promised “if you ask me for a hand-written letter, I will write you one.” Overnight she was inundated with requests. As she says “her inbox morphed into this harbor of heartbreak”.

This simple beginning is now a global initiative- “The world  needs more love letters.”  Her talk is moving and inspiring and the stories she tells will warm your  heart. I am determined to take paper and pen and write! I have bought some sheets of beautiful paper, I have stacks of cards…maybe my neighbour would like a letter in her box? In the meantime, I have those August birthdays. It’s not too late to write.