About a week ago, I had an experience that set my heart racing and seriously tied up my tongue. I met Dr. Oliver Sacks.
It was actually my second encounter with him. The first was very brief. But then, even if I met him a million times I’d be reduced to a blathering idiot – he has that effect on me. I have such a deep respect and reverence for the man.
Having read his many books and articles, attended some of his talks, listened to podcasts, avidly followed his newsletters and generally admired him for decades, I hold him responsible for affecting how I live. The word live is the key. Dr. Oliver Sacks is fully engaged in living. His curiosity and thirst to examine every aspect of this big, beautiful world is hard to match.
He observes and examines. He tries to understand or work out the mechanics of how things/people function. Then, he explains what he has learned or thought out to the rest of us, in language that is clear and easy to comprehend. His writings are seasoned with a wit that elicits laughter even as one learns a complex topic. Dr. Sacks is brilliant at exposing us to our own humanity and telling us that no matter what, it is all right to be just as we are. Reading him makes me feel smart. At least for a while.
For years I knew of Dr. Sacks as a neuroscientist but then I read his book the Oaxaca Journal. This was about going on a fern hunting expedition. Ferns? Turns out Dr. Sacks is passionate about them. Interestingly, that expedition was led by Dr. John Mickel, he who is godfather to my vertical garden. John once told me that whilst on that trip, every time the team took a break, Oliver Sacks sat by himself and wrote in his journal. He was shy and quiet. Soon after they got home and before John had written up his scientific papers on the discoveries made on the expedition, a package was delivered to him. It was the manuscript to Oaxaca Journal in which Dr. Sacks expounds on not just ferns but related topics like chocolate, culture and other earthly wonders in that part of the world! John jokes that he needn’t have bothered writing his own papers.
Just goes to show once again that great minds are invariably naturalists and/or plantsmen as well. Galileo, Darwin, Sacks …
Dr. Sacks takes big bites of life and chews each mouthful thoroughly. No matter what he does, he does so with almost an obsession. Then he tells us all about it. How our brains work explains how we feel and behave. What goes on inside manifests on the outside. This is true for anything.
The current status of his health is well known. The great man has terminal cancer. But, he does not ask for pity or even empathy. Instead, he shows us how to keep living. He is still writing, visiting friends and doing all that he can and wants to do. He continues to make visible the unseen and unknown.
So how has he affected my life? I’ve learned to remain curious about everything. To stay present, to pay attention and learn all that life teaches. In the garden, in relationships, in work both creative and mundane, in the ordinary, in the different, in the new and in the old. Nowhere am I more cognizant of Dr. Sacks’ instruction as in the garden when I’m always confronting the familiar in novel, new ways.
He presented me with a personally signed copy of his latest book Moving On – a memoir. It will be treasured for life. I’m about to embark on a journey into Oliver Sacks’ life and I’m tightening my belt. It promises to be a bumpy, glorious ride.
On the heels of meeting my hero, I saw the movie Inside Out – an absolutely wonderful film about our emotions. It is on neuroscience if you will! Coincidence? I think not. I do wonder if Dr. Sacks has seen it and what he has to say about it. I highly recommend you go see it!
For a neuroscientist’s take on the movie, click here.
To read about Dr. Oliver Sacks, his books and his blog, click here.
(c) 2015 Shobha Vanchiswar