Two events recently converged to remind me of the way people, often isolated, are really related. The first has to do with the often-neglected practice of expressing gratitude to those who have influenced us: teachers and writers, among others.
A perfect "stranger" wrote to my wife Lynn, author of a book of poetry, Planting the Voice, published 22 years ago and, while not forgotten,has been mainly overlooked as she has moved on to other types of writing. A fellow-poet, who has admired Lynn's poems for years, somehow found our e-mail address and expressed with elegance and sincerity his appreciation of her work and its influence on him over the years. Wow.
Such things are rare. In publishing a few articles last year, one or two "fans" contacted me, and once in a while a former student will write to say how much my classes meant to him or her. Mostly, however, people are too busy or too shy. Or they just don't realize how important expressions of gratitude are, how much every one of my readers, every one of my students, has acquired some insight from me, just as I continue to reflect gratefully on my teachers in St. Louis and elsewhere who introduced me to the study of language and literature--and all I have learned from reading, which is not an isolating activity.
We don't need Harold Bloom to remind us (in The Anxiety of Influence)that writers cannot exist in a vacuum but are constantly indebted to the web of the sources they have stepped into. What is true for writers is also true in other areas.
I was reminded of this yesterday in reading some of Joan Halifax's Being with Dying, where she talks with honesty and eloquence about suffering and the importance of being a companion to those who are ill or near death.
"Life connects us to one another," she writes, "as do suffering, joy, death and enlightenment." She goes on to say she cannot separate herself from a dying person, even if she must struggle to understand his or her needs and the mystery of dying.
Thomas Merton has written about how he feels connected to unseen people in the midst of his solitude and silence: it is a community of prayer. "No man is an island." Yet, for anyone who works alone, it is easy to feel isolated, neglected, unaware of the debt we owe to many, both living and dead, who have made possible the human community that sustains us all. On the political level, this is a lesson many have long forgotten, especially given the tradition of American individualism.
I am grateful to Lynn's poet-friend for not taking this for granted (and to the Internet for making such communion possible in new ways).