JUDY KRAVIS

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Monday, 15 January 2018

One damp and cloudy afternoon in Nijar, each change in the weather reflected in the white sea of plastic on the plain below, I read Oliver Sacks' Gratitude, four essays of such gentle and collected sanity that immediately I read them again. Although I know how much honing must go into these pages, I am completely humanised by their plain-speaking calm. This is what you can write when you are trying, as he says in the first essay, to complete your life. In the second essay he knows he has an unstoppable cancer and he begins to be able to see his life 'as from a great altitude, as a sort of landscape, and with a deepening sense of connection of all its parts.' From the top of Nijar town, the plastic plain below is almost beautiful in that sunlight you can get towards the end of a bad day.

This second essay, called 'My Own Life', sits strangely beside a few lines I read in Renata Adler's Speedboat in the plane on the way to Spain.
In the South, in simpler days, I remember a middle-aged gentle black worker speaking to his son who had insomnia. 'When you can't sleep' he said, just tell yourself the story of your life. 'Now sometimes when I can't sleep I wonder. A twenty-four-hour curfew every day, for everybody. Suppose we blow up the whole thing. Everything. Everybody. Me. Buildings. No room. Blast. All dead. No survivors. And then I would say, and then I would say, Let's just have a little quiet around here.
The speed of Renata Adler's prose outstripped the speed of the Boeing 737-800 series and made the journey feel unusually peaceful, preparing me for this afternoon with Oliver Sacks. In the fourth essay, Sabbath, Oliver Sacks comes to understand a sabbath after most of a lifetime without religious practice of any kind.
The peace of the Sabbath, of a stopped world, a time outside time, was palpable, infused everything, and I found myself drenched with a wistfulness, something akin to nostalgia, wondering what if: What if A and B and C had been different? What sort of person might I have been? What sort of life might I have lived?
He regrets being as agonizingly shy at eighty as he was at twenty. He regrets speaking no language other than his mother tongue. But the impression the book leaves with the reader, as the title suggests and the publisher makes clear by excerpting on the back cover the ending of the second essay, is of acceptance, and gratitude, even a certain optimism that the future of the planet is in good hands (I'm grateful for the respite when I look out of the window at the largest concentration of plastic greenhouses in the world).
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. 

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