30 June 2013

The Periodic Table

(Maybe I should write more prose in this blog. This is something that spilled from my fingers a couple of years ago. It is still true.  K.)

Ralph introduced me to The Periodic Table in June 2007. We were at a party—the annual party where he and I both bring paper and pencil so we can scrawl the titles of each other’s recommendations. It doesn’t matter if there are others at the party, we each only want to see the other. It’s just that way with us. Six months can pass, or a year, and when we see each other again, everyone else evaporates.
So, he slid The Periodic Table off of Beatrice’s bookshelf (the party was at her house) and said, “You. Must. Read. This.”

I did, and it was the kind of earth-shaking, tremendous experience that only comes around once or twice in a lifetime. After that earthquake I needed to share Levi’s book with someone else. It was Dad’s kind of book—all scientific but with humanity as well, a little like Loren Eiseley, but with a depth all its own. I HAD to share it with someone. But with whom? Of course there was Ralph, but he had suggested it to me, and I needed someone to read it right now, and talk about it with me.

I walked home from the library one day, pondering again about who would actually read the book if I shared it. I remember I was on the corner of Johnson and Lewis, when the thought of a salesman I’d talked to a few times came into my mind. I knew his name was Roger, but I couldn’t remember the company he worked for. He would call to sell me overpriced DVDs for the library collection, but instead of a sales spiel, we would just talk about books or music or life. Sometimes the sales pitch wouldn’t even appear. Once, after a particularly good conversation, I hung up and the telephone rang again. It was that Roger, just calling to say that the conversation had meant a lot to him.

I remembered that after a year or so, I found the quality of Roger’s company’s merchandise was dwindling rapidly, and the price was escalating, so I asked the technical services librarian to request that we be taken from the call list. I enjoyed our conversations, but I knew I wouldn’t buy anything else, and I didn’t want to waste Roger’s time. So the calls, infrequent to start with, stopped.

Why, then, did he come to mind as I was contemplating The Periodic Table? I thought about it some more, then decided to jump into the unknown and write. I finally recalled the name of the company he worked for, and on the last day of July 2007, wrote a short note. It said, “Dear Roger the Salesman, Have you ever read The Periodic Table by Primo Levi? What about (and here I put in the titles of two other books, only because I thought it was too short to mention only one). . . I just wondered. Sincerely, Kate Poulter”

I sent the note through the US Post because there was no email address associated with the company, and then I waited. I didn’t hold my breath, but I did expect an answer. Somehow it just seemed that one would come. About a week later I received a squarish envelope at the library. I hadn’t given Roger my actual address, only the library address up in the corner. Inside was a card with a beautiful, stylized, hand-drawn tree. The letter read, in part, “Dear Kate, What a surprise to receive your letter. I do actually have a last name: Veinus. It rhymes with Linus—Peanuts or Pauling, take your pick. . . . I have not read the other books you mentioned, but The Periodic Table happens to be one of my all-time favorites, and Primo Levi is a hero of mine! . . . Write again, Roger.”

Thus began an amazing, beautiful friendship and love. Over the next two years we wrote hundreds of letters. I wrote just over one hundred, he sent at least three hundred, each a thoughtful, loving, insightful letter. After a few months we began to talk on the telephone, and I found him to be a careful listener and brilliant conversationalist. Though he was a fine letter writer, he excelled in verbal exchanges, and he would often talk long into the night, a few times to a snoozing Kate on the other end of the line.

We never met in person. But our connection was such that we could communicate even without the phone or by mail. We each just KNEW what the other was thinking. We each carried the other within our private solitude. It was a companionship of the spirit, perhaps such as Maud Gonne and Yeats seemed to have shared.

Then in September 2009 I received a telephone call from a woman who lived near Roger in Seattle. She called to tell me that Roger had collapsed in front of his apartment that afternoon and had died, probably instantly, from a thrombo-embolism.

My world, which had been in a sort of slow but powerful motion ever since reading The Periodic Table, rocked again, this time with a lurch that almost capsized me. I wrote the obituary, contacted friends scattered all across the continent, communicated with new acquaintances in Seattle, and tried to keep on breathing.
For two years I trod a path of grief and quiet awareness. I am now almost at another anniversary of his death, and finally something is happening. For the first years, the grief was so fresh, so painful, so excruciating, that I couldn’t think very carefully. Oh, I finished graduate school, and wrote a lot, and kept on with my other responsibilities, but there was the rent inside that couldn’t be mended.

At first I could only read poetry—nothing else could hold my attention. Rumi and Merwin and Rilke were my only consolation. Then a year passed, and I could read again, but only just. And now? Rumi speaks of a man who dreamed of gold in Cairo so he left Baghdad to find it. When he arrived, a soldier scoffed at him and said he himself had dreamed of gold in Baghdad, at the man’s own address. So the man returned to Baghdad and found the gold under his own hearth. So it is with me.

I discovered that the solitude I carry is still a companionable solitude. I now have all our letters, and the memories, but more than that, I have myself. I still see things with an awareness that Roger would recognize. Just as we both found The Periodic Table independently, but were enriched by the other’s discovery, so does our connection continue. I have finally learned that I don’t need to search any longer.

As Rumi wrote,
It may be that the satisfaction I need
depends on my going away, so that when I’ve gone
and come back, I’ll find it at home.
I will search for the Friend with all my passion
and all my energy, until I learn
that I don’t need to search.

And that is why The Periodic Table is so important to me.

Jane Eyre Meets Rumi on the Moor

           Jane:                                                                                      Rumi:
Gone is my light,                                                       Gone is my light
and yet he lives on still.                                             to that greatest light
Yes, he lives yet,                                                       Half my soul at least
but not with me.                                                        is also gone.
Others seek my hand,                                               But I live on still.
but do not cherish                                                     The wind rushes through
its small form.                                                           this hollow husk
I, who know what                                                    I have become.
it is to be loved,                                                        But I am no wind’s slave.
prized, sought                                                          With what little self
for soul’s kin’s                                                          that here remains,
sake,                                                                        I will erect a flag,
Will not submit                                                         or wire,
to such slavery                                                          rising in this wind
for mere                                                                    to vibrate and thus
appearance.                                                              give voice.
I must be free.                                                           I must either sigh or sing.
If I cannot be with                                                     If I turn this way
him to whom my heart will                                         or that,
ever cling,                                                                 the wind winds
I will belong to                                                          into words,
no man.                                                                    and becomes
Perhaps my death                                                     an air, a song,
will bring me to                                                         a hymn.
his dear sight                                                       One day a breath will waft me
once again.                                                               to another land.
But until then,                                                           But until then,
I will be                                                                    I will
free.                                                                         sing.

                                                 Now he is
                                            a present absence,
                                                a hole filled
                                          with a quiet void.
                                             What remains is
                                            Hope, perhaps,
                                                   or faith.
                                                Freely, then,
                                             I wait and sing.