On Second Thought

Distance shrinks when one has the means of reaching speeds no one can reach without artificial assistance. Distance expands when one’s ability to move is restricted by the absence of natural physical capabilities. Between those measures of distance, a range of possibilities and limitations shorten and lengthen distance, making distance a very personal matter. The distance between New York and Los Angeles is almost negligible to a healthy and wealthy person who can afford a first-class ticket on American Airlines. That same distance is virtually insurmountable for a one-legged person who cannot afford a one-way bus ticket. In between are hitchhikers and people whose air-conditioned cars get excellent gas mileage. In between are long-distance walkers and drivers of clunkers, vehicles whose survival to the next town is questionable.


Occasionally, I wonder how different our lives would have been had we each been forced, sometime in our mid-thirties, to live for a year in abject poverty. Would we be more empathetic to the impoverished? Or would we feel great pride for successfully overcoming the odds to achieve success? Or would we experience both? But if we only felt pride without the empathy, would we have contempt for those who have not yet found the way out?

The same questions apply to our experiences from birth. And how different a path might my life have taken had I been born in an intensely poor section of Mumbai or Mexico City? Or had I been born into the royal family of Lesotho or Japan? Would language barriers make it impossible for me to enjoy time in the U.S.A.?


This morning, I find myself singing (and humming when the words escape me) a Leonard Cohen song, Heart with No Companion. Cohen’s facility with language and his ability to weave language into emotional fabric was unmatched. I’ve always been stunned and amazed by his poetry/lyrics. Here is a piece of the song; I rarely remember it word for word, but at times I can get through the entire piece without a single error:

Now I greet you from the other side of sorrow and despair,
with a love so vast and shattered, it will reach you everywhere.

And I sing this for the captain whose ship has not been built,
for the mother in confusion, her cradle still unfilled.

For the heart with no companion, for the soul without a king.
For the prima ballerina who cannot dance to anything.

Through the days of shame that are coming, through the nights of wild distress,
Though your promise counts for nothing, you must keep it nonetheless.


Almost every night, either my wife is in my dreams or, half awake, I reach over for her only to find an empty space next to me. When in my half awake state I realize she is gone, I feel like howling. Sometimes I do. She has been absent from the bed almost every night since the middle of last July, but still I am not used to it. And I am not used to going so very long without waking to a gentle caress as she gets up in the middle of the night, unable to sleep, and heads to her study, where I am now.


I am thinking in fragments, which is why I am writing in fragments. Thoughts dash across my brain almost too fast to capture with my fingers. Those fleeting ideas, often too fast to grasp, give me reason to wish for a machine. I want a machine that can seize thoughts and sounds and images from inside my brain and record them in 3-D video and audio. I would want them to immerse me in virtual reality, so when I play the experiences back later, I might have a realistic hope of understanding them and their meaning.


This chair that my wife tolerated for so long is almost intolerable to me. It will not hold its angle, nor will its back maintain its position. She never complained about it; I wonder whether it was as irritating to her as it is to me? She tended not to complain about much of anything. In that way, she was remarkably different from me, a perpetual complainer who rarely does anything to resolve the complaint. Because that would leave me with nothing to complain about. When all my financial questions and uncertainties are resolved, I will replace this chair. I wish I had known about its propensities to be troublesome long, long ago. I would have forced the issue, insisting that my wife get something more comfortable and more responsive. She always paid more attention to my satisfaction and comfort than to her own. And I never paid enough to hers.


My post yesterday failed to adequately recognize the deeply generous and kind nature of the offers people made to be available to me, 24/7, if I needed them. A friend said to me that the offers would not have been made had they not been sincere. I did not and do not question their sincerity; I said I suggested such offers must be viewed in light of the fact that people have other obligations that may necessarily take precedence. My friend then said I might think I am unworthy of such deeply generous offers and THAT might better explain my reticence to take advantage of them; my apparent (to her) questioning of their validity. The conversation eventually ended, but it left me wondering whether I attached sufficient appreciation to the offers and the depth of their generosity. After wondering, I decided I did not, but should have.


A friend told me, before COVID-19 attacked humanity, hugs should last at least twenty seconds to provide optimum benefit to the parties involved. I responded, I think, by saying I thought they should last twenty minutes. Twenty seconds can seem like a long time, but a twenty-second embrace disappears in a flash. Twenty minutes would suit me much better.

I recently read something that supports the 20-second hug, suggesting that hugs tend to release oxytocin in the body. Oxytocin, which apparently is known by various names and often is associated with romantic love and/or sexual attraction, is a neurotransmitter and hormone. But aside from its involvement with emotional and physical attraction, it seems to have the effect of reducing anxiety and generating feelings of intellectual bonding. This may all be nonsense, but I choose to believe it because it supports my contention that hugging generates feelings of well-being and enjoyment.


It’s almost 6:30, time for another cup of coffee and something to eat. And, then, I must record a video poem for Wednesday Night Poetry. On second thought, maybe a shower will follow breakfast and precede the recording.

About John Swinburn

"Love not what you are but what you may become."― Miguel de Cervantes
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