At Their Own Hand

I woke sometime around 3 this morning, thanks to being completely stopped up. I thought about getting up only for a while, until my sinuses decided to cooperate with my breathing. But I changed my mind. So, here I am at 4, torturing the keyboard by jabbing it with swollen fingers. In just a few hours, at 9:30, I have an appointment with a new cardiologist. I decided I was not satisfied with the cardiologist I’ve seen since moving to the Village more than eight years ago. He is the same one who treated my late wife; the one I blame for failing to understand and properly treat the severity of the weakness in her legs. So, far later than should have been the case, I decided to move on to someone else. I let my primary care doctor’s nurse recommend the cardiologist I will see this morning. Perhaps I should have done more research about her; I know little of her background, but I will explore it in more depth after I determine whether I like the way she interacts with patients.

I hate the fact that I regularly see various specialists. That reality makes me feel old and infirm. I suppose I could just deal exclusively with my primary care doctor. But what would that do for me? Nothing, really. It would prove that I am willing to live a fantasy life, one in which the reality of aging does not apply to me. Rubbish.


Gianmaria Testa was an Italian singer/songwriter who died before his potential was fully realized. Though he was only 57 when he died, during his relatively short life he composed and sang some beautiful songs. Poetry, really, set to music. Following is an English translation of his song, Seminatori di grano (Sowers of Wheat), followed by an embedded video in which he performs the song. The tune is from Testa’s album entitled Da Questa Parte del Mare; “On this Side of the Sea.” The album focused on the theme of modern migration: “…on the reasons for it, the struggles, the leaving, the decisions, suffering, of crossing seas and deserts, on the significance of words like ‘land’ or ‘homeland’ and the sense of uprooting and of loss that the transition imbues in you forever.” He was a man who, I feel certain, was deeply compassionate. It comes across in his music; I do not need to know the translation of the words to know the compassion and emotional weight they carry. Testa once said he hoped his children would never be ashamed of their father’s music; why would they, I wonder? His music illustrated the decency of humanity that we all wish we could find. Testa was an actor, writer, musician, composer, and poet. And he was a trainmaster; he never gave up that role, in spite of his musical success. He remained connected to working people. He was both their champion and their student.

I would encourage anyone who reads this post to listen to the YouTube video while reading the English language translation of the lyrics (below). The music, by itself, is moving; the music, coupled with the lyrics, is for me incredibly powerful.

Sowers of wheat

They arrived at the break of the day,
men and women, to the highland
with the slow, silent, vigilant pace
of sowers of wheat.

And they were looking for something that wasn’t there
between the dumping ground and the railroad
And they were looking for what wasn’t there
behind the police’s binoculars
and they folded their hands and eyes in the wind
before leaving.

All the way to the road and surrounded by the night
they arrived from the highland
men and women with the intent gaze
of sowers of wheat.

And they left what wasn’t there
to the dumping ground and to the railroad.
And they left what wasn’t there
to the tearing eyes of the police
and they stretched out their hands against the wind
that was carrying them away


People who are in love with language are at risk of feeling its effects too deeply. The evidence suggests  that is true. Consider how many poets—writers whose words often are aflame with emotions—die by suicide. The emotional weight of the thoughts that emerge from constant exposure to powerful language is greater than most other people know. Think. Think. Think. That’s what language makes one do. It forces a person to consider everything. And when one considers everything, it is impossible to avoid thinking about pain; both one’s own and the agonies of others. The weight of that thought and the additional pain it brings can become too much. Not all writers succumb to it, of course; most do not. And most writers may not even feel it, at least not deeply. But those who do cannot help but wish—at least occasionally—it would end. For themselves, of course, but for everyone else. I’m fascinated by the number of writers who die from suicide; sufficiently entranced by them to want to know much more about what they thought in the months and days before they took that final step. I wonder what could have been done to draw them away from the ledge, as it were. I suspect there was little that could have been done. They probably hid their most devastating emotional pain from family and friends in an attempt to insulate those people from the darkness. But they probably had to force themselves to keep quiet; they must have wanted to reach out in the hope that, by sharing their suffering, their pain might have been eased. I suspect, though, they knew how impossible it would have been to share that suffering. Unless a person has felt it, its depth and darkness cannot be comprehended. And they would have lied, had they been confronted. There always has been a stigma attached to what is perceived as weakness or cowardice or attention-grabbing by revealing one’s emotional fragility.

Here is a terribly, woefully, awfully incomplete list of writers of all genres who—facing depths of darkness about which we can only speculate—took their own lives:

    • Sylvia Plath
    • Abbie Hoffman
    • Hunter S. Thompson
    • Gerard de Nerval
    • Virginia Wolf
    • Wallace Allan Wood
    • Jack London
    • Arthur Koestler
    • Vladimir Mayakovsky
    • Ernest Hemingway
    • Phil Ochs
    • John Berryman
    • Cesare Pavese
    • Richard Brautigan
    • Anthony Bourdain
    • Yukio Mishima
    • William Lindsay Gresham
    • Anne Sexton
    • Byron Herbert Reece
    • William Relling Jr.
    • David Foster Wallace

They may have been afflicted by mental or physical maladies that made living impossibly hard. Or they may have become so disenchanted with life that any other existence, even one which involved terminal emptiness, was more appealing. There could have been other reasons to have taken them to the conclusion that death was better for them, or their friends and family, than their continued lives.

I am not sure why I am more fascinated by the suicides of people whose vocations or avocations involved writing than by the suicides of train conductors or lawyers or civil engineers or store clerks. If someone were to compile a list of store clerks who died by suicide, I suspect it would be far longer than a list of writers who died at their own hand. There is nothing special about writers, except that they tend to reveal themselves and their demons, in one way or another, in their writing. Those revelations are less common, I suspect, in civil engineers and train conductors.

What the hell do I know about the pain of writers or train conductors or lawyers? I can only guess about what went through the minds of people who decided, ultimately, to take their own lives. Guessing is a pointless exercise. Only by devoting time and mental effort could I learn enough to make my guesses more than mere conjecture. And what value would my educated conjecture hold? I think we ought to respect the privacy of people who, for whatever reason, decide to end their own lives. And I think we ought to remove the stigma of suicide. Judging people for making decisions most people never have to make is, in my mind, supreme arrogance.

The list, above, of writers who died by their own hand represents just a tiny fraction of all writers who found the experience of living too much to bear. A search online of any one of their names reveals details of a life riddled with problems and challenges that might seem tolerable to most people. But to people who actually have confronted those problems—not just contemplated them from a comfortable distance—those difficulties might spark compassionate heartache. We cannot know what is hidden in another person’s mind. We cannot understand troubles that have not plagued our own thoughts.


I’ve been sitting at this keyboard for too bloody long. It’s nearing 5  and I am no closer to understanding the secrets of life and death than I was two hours ago. There’s no point in going on. I’ll just settle back and see where the rest of this morning takes me.

About John Swinburn

"Love not what you are but what you may become."― Miguel de Cervantes
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One Response to At Their Own Hand

  1. Jennifer Woolvin says:

    Gianmaria Testa’s voice reminds me a bit of Leonard Cohen. Nice album.

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