New York is one of the great walking cities, and a little cold weather makes for a brisk stride. Hot weather bakes poisons out of the bricks, but a crisp evening dulls the smells and sharpens the ear for the passing conversations, always a random joy in this polyglot city.
I am walking uptown to visit an old friend, up through Central Park to the Dakota and beyond. She has lived in the same flat on the upper west side for nearly forty years, now rich with stored experience on the walls and bookshelves. Never in the best of health, old age is catching up with her fast. They call it Parkinson’s, but that’s a diagnosis of exclusion, so who really knows? She says she’s dying of other people’s deaths – starting with her mother some decade ago.
What’s so difficult is that this woman did live a life of the mind – a former editor for Simon & Schuster who had her hand in many books – and the she loses the mind-thread now too easily. She is still in many ways the same person, but in other ways is slipping away. And when she loses the thread, she is wandering the Labyrinth, but she doesn’t mind as much as I do, she just picks up the next one to hand. But I miss her, and her ability to follow the thread, often leading me out with the strength of her reasoning. Now she neither leads nor wishes to be led; she wishes to be left alone and not pushed.
Very, well, I get up to leave. She doesn’t look as bad as I feared before coming. The loss of mind’s edge is less disturbing to me than the loss of her desire to stay on her mind’s sharp edge. I can imagine failing, but it’s hard to imagine accepting it when it comes. Maybe I will. Maybe I have! Perish the thought. But she has gone over the edge, and is trying to come to terms with it. Right now that coming to terms is comprised of a radical, biting acceptance, and rejection of the struggle to understand, to grasp the nettle of thought. I cannot make her, nor do I wish to, but I am sorry that she is so determined not to make the effort.
Calls Hamlet to mind:
Oh, what a noble mind is here o’erthrown!—
The courtier’s, soldier’s, scholar’s, eye, tongue, sword,
Th’ expectancy and rose of the fair state,
The glass of fashion and the mould of form,
Th’ observed of all observers, quite, quite down!
And I, of ladies most deject and wretched,
That sucked the honey of his music vows,
Now see that noble and most sovereign reason
Like sweet bells jangled, out of tune and harsh;
That unmatched form and feature of blown youth
Blasted with ecstasy. Oh, woe is me,
T’ have seen what I have seen, see what I see!