“The most we can do is to write — intelligently, creatively, evocatively — about what it is like living in the world at this time.”
BY MARIA POPOVA
“If you are too much like myself, what shall I learn of you, or you of me?” Mary Oliver wrote in her beautiful meditation on how differences bring couples closer together. This life-expanding recompense of embracing otherness graces every meaningful relationship, be it the love of a person or the love of a place, and it comes alive with uncommon splendor in Insomniac City: New York, Oliver, and Me (public library) — the poetic and profound more-than-memoir by the writer and photographer Bill Hayes.
After the sudden death of his partner of sixteen years, Hayes — a lifelong insomniac — leaves San Francisco for New York in search of a fresh start. He finds himself in a city where “life is a John Cage score, dissonance made eloquent,” where “every car on every train holds a surprise, a random sampling of humanity brought together in a confined space fora minute or two — a living Rubik’s Cube.” Slowly, his heart begins to awaken from the coma of grief and he falls in love again — first with the city, then with an improbable new paramour: the late, great neurologist and writer Oliver Sacks. He learns that New York, like love, is demanding and difficult but rewards those who surrender to it unguardedly. Both can break your heart, and both can break it open if you embrace their irregular edges.
What emerges from this dual love letter is a lyrical reminder that happiness and heartache are inseparably entwined, and that without the tragic, the beautiful would be just a frayed strand of half-being.
I moved to New York eight years ago and felt at once at home. In the haggard buildings and bloodshot skies, in trains that never stopped running like my racing mind at night, I recognized my insomniac self. If New York were a patient, it would be diagnosed with agrypnia excitata, a rare genetic condition characterized by insomnia, nervous energy, constant twitching, and dream enactment — an apt description of a city that never sleeps, a place where one comes to reinvent himself.
Alongside the portrait of New York Hayes paints a portrait of the irreplaceable Oliver Sacks — a largehearted genius of ceaseless eccentricity, who collects spectacles and dreams of fern salad and writes with a fountain pen and has never emailed or texted or owned a computer; who, when taught to open a champagne bottle in his late seventies, dons his swimming goggles “just in case”; who earnestly calls pot “cannabis” and exclaims with gusto when stoned into hallucination: “The primary cortex! The genius of the primary cortex!”; a man of imagination so infinite and empathy so complete that when asked what has been doing lying in the garden for hours, he replies that he has been wondering about what it’s like to be a rose.”
Hayes is the “Billy” in Dr. Sacks’s own magnificent memoir — the love of his life, whom he met after three and a half decades of singledom and celibacy. Dr. Sacks himself recounted their defining moment of mutuality: “[Billy] came to see me and (in the serious, careful way he has) said, ‘I have conceived a deep love for you.’ I realized, when he said this, what I had not realized, or had concealed from myself before — that I had conceived a deep love for him too — and my eyes filled with tears. He kissed me, and then he was gone.”
The two met when Dr. Sacks sent Billy a letter — one might say fan mail, though Hayes seems far too humble to call it that himself — after reading his book The Anatomist. Hayes writes:
He was without a doubt the most unusual person I had ever known, and before long I found myself not just falling in love with O; it was something more, something I had never experienced before. I adored him.
Indeed, Hayes’s is not so much a love letter, for even the most exquisite of the genre can slip into the formulaic, but a most unusual letter of adoration — of Oliver, and of New York.
Besides that deep love and mutual adoration, Hayes’s tender account of his life with Dr. Sacks — or “O,” as he appears in the book — reveals that they share a fervent yet ungrasping appreciation of what he so poetically calls “those rare moments when the world seems to shed all shyness and displays every possible permutation of beauty.” They share, too, a good-natured curiosity about the world — one about the natural world, the other about the human world. Both are fearless explorers, but Billy is the modern urban counterpart to O’s Darwin and Humboldt and Shackleton — while Dr. Sacks ventures to remote islands of exotic ferns and curious neuropathologies, Hayes ventures into a questionable artist warehouse, comforts the sad stranger on the train and the go-go boy with the existential crisis, chats up the elderly…
Read more of this exquisite story here..