I read The Diving Bell and the Butterfly by Jean-Dominique Bauby in one sitting a few weeks ago, as I was left sitting in the wake of my family leaving town. After suffering a massive stroke that left him with locked-in syndrome, he could only blink his left eye. He composed the book in his head and dictated it by blinking his eye, with the help of Claude Mendibil. Of course, much has been said in the history of words about taking goodness for granted, but the way that Bauby approached his memories without being able to do anything physical about them was astounding--and the very existence of this book--of producing a creative work in his condition is the ultimate story of triumph and the power of art.
I'm struggling about responding to this book under the umbrella of not taking life for granted, for that feels so trite. What saves me from this, I hope, is the depth of pain with which he wrote--this book is no "go get 'em, pursue your dreams, you can accomplish anything" story. It distills the goodness of human existence while enduring physical impossibilities and deep existential struggle. No matter how shallow my own wrestling seemed in comparison, this memoir made me want to live actively remembering what is real and good and true--a theme that keeps repeating itself to me in recent months.
Here are three of my favorite excerpts from the book that underline the way that I want to live--and the kinds of things that keep popping up in every meaningful conversation I've had in the past month.
Taking joy in and being thankful for small pleasures, rather than constantly looking forward to the next big item or trip that money can buy.
The delectable moment when I sink into the tub is quickly followed by nostalgia for the protracted immersions that were the joy of my previous life. Armed with a cup of tea or Scotch, a good book or a pile of newspapers, I would soak for hours, maneuvering the taps with my toes. Rarely do I feel my condition so cruelly as when I am recalling such pleasures.
Feeling deeply and not allowing busyness or struggle to make me feel numb.
I need to feel strongly, to love and to admire, just as desperately as I need to breathe. A letter from a friend, a Balthus painting on a postcard, a page of Saint-Simon, give meaning to the passing hours. But to keep my mind sharp, to avoid descending into resigned indifference, I maintain a level of resentment and anger, neither too much or too little, just as a pressure cooker has a safety valve to keep it from exploding.
Living life with good people.
Other letters simply relate the small events that punctuate the passage of time: roses picked at dusk, the laziness of a rainy Sunday, a child crying himself to sleep. Capturing the moment, these small slices of life, these small gusts of happiness, move me deeply than all the rest. A couple of lines or eight pages, a Middle Eastern stamp or a suburban postmark...I hoard these letters like treasure. One day I hope to fasten them end to end in a half-mile streamer, to float in the wind like a banner raised to the glory of friendship.