(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
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
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.
30 June 2013
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
Now he is
a present absence,
a hole filled
with a quiet void.
What remains is
I wait and sing.
Posted by Kathryn at 7:33 PM