Dear Richard: corresponding with Richard Selzer, M.D.

I was going through some old journals two days ago and in the one dated June 2, 2002, I came across printouts of a very special email correspondence.

Background:

In the mid 90’s, I was told about a bookstore in Seattle by my dear friend, Patti.

My (then)partner and I went down to Seattle a while later and when visiting the shop, my partner found a lovely little book:

Mortal Lessons by Richard Selzer, MD:

In this collection of nineteen unforgettable essays, Dr. Selzer describes unsparingly the surgeon’s art. Both moving and perversely funny, Mortal Lessons is an established classic that considers not only the workings and misworkings of the human body but also the meaning of life and death. [source]

 

I loved this book. Read it many times.

One particular passage made me weep:

I stand by the bed where a young woman lies, her face postoperative, her mouth twisted in palsy, clownish. A tiny twig of the facial nerve, the one to the muscles of her mouth has been severed. She will be thus from now on. The surgeon had followed with religious fervor the curve of her flesh; I promise you that. Nevertheless, to remove the tumor in her cheek, I had to cut the little nerve. Her young husband is in the room. He stands on the opposite side of the bed and together they seem to dwell in the evening lamplight, isolated from me, private. Who are they, I ask myself, he and this wry mouth I have made, who gaze at and touch each other so generously, greedily? The young woman speaks, “Will my mouth always be like this?” she asks. “Yes,” I say, “it will. It is because the nerve was cut.” She nods and is silent. But the young man smiles. “I like it,” he says, “It is kind of cute.” All at once I know who he is. I understand and I lower my gaze. One is not bold in an encounter with a god. Unmindful, he bends to kiss her crooked mouth and I am so close I can see how he twists his own lips to accommodate to hers, to show her that their kiss still works. Richard Selzer, Mortal Lessons: Notes on the Art of Surgery

Why did this passage move me so deeply? In the late 70s and early 80s I had several surgeries (and radiation treatments) for a parotid gland tumor that wrapped around my left side facial nerve and the threat of facial nerve damage looms. Always looms.

Eventually my younger brother and Patti read the book as well and folded it in to their creative work. And we began collecting Selzer’s work.

 

Patti, ever the diligent sleuth/creative, found Dr. Selzer’s email address. In 2002, my brother visited Dr. Selzer in Connecticut to explore the potential of a collaboration. He had a glorious visit and had Dr. Selzer sign the inside of the Mortal Lessons book.

I then connected with Dr. Selzer through email and what followed was a short-lived exchange of letters. My marriage was in the midst of unraveling and this correspondence was a sweet interlude during a very painful and transformative time.

Excerpts from some of the letters in the June 2, 2002 journal:

June 7, 2002

Dear Richard,

At my brother’s encouragement, I am writing your directly. I do hope that you don’t mind. As I write this, I am sitting on the ferry heading home to Roberts Creek… I have put aside my psychology studies and read your manuscript. I know that Nabokov detested readers who see themselves in the words they read, whose hearts bleed in recognition. I admit I have felt embarrassment at being that kind of reader. But why? As Anthony Burgess writes about Shakespeare- to see his face, we need only to look in the mirror.

I read your words in “The Atrium” and they are the exact ones I needed at that moment. In this moment…

… Working with the families of the missing and murdered women this Spring, my thoughts have been centred on death…

Death has always been strangely reassuring to me (personally). I can write with sincerity that I am not frightened of my death – BUT what scares me is leaving my kids…

I read your words and cried. Could one become blind by seeing too much? I have experienced intense sadness in the past year, and during that year I often walked alone in the woods to lay down in the moss – being one in the forest – rehearsing your dream.

… I am blessed to love reading. For it takes me to places far beyond what is possible in “reality.” And today I spent time in the atrium, observing you, through your words. Thank you.

The ferry is docking.

Love Katarina

June 8, 2002

Very dear Katarina,

You cannot imagine how touched I was to read your letter to me. I can see precisely why your brother loves you so much. You have a great heart that is both open and vulnerable.

I had not heard about the disappearance of the women of Vancouver, but now I know. It is a chilling tale. To take part in the healing is your destiny; I believe it will guide you for the rest of your life.

Your words about my “Atrium” serve as reassurance that I have not miscalculated in writing that piece. Just to think that I have you for a reader is thrilling. 

Love Richard

June 8, 2002

Dear Richard,

Thank you for your kind and inspirational words. I do feel like I’m riding a thrilling wave of learning. To connect with humans hungry to explore circumstance is wonderful. That is what I admire so much in your spirit! It is truly exciting to witness some of your creative process. The manuscript, the photo of you on the park bench…

Time for coffee on this early Saturday morning. I like this time of the year, day and week. The kids sleep in, the sun shining through the greenery, the birds singing and I have my coffee and mountain of books strewn on my bed. 

Love Katarina

June 9, 2002

Dear Katarina,

It is so good to imagine you lying on a bed bestrewn with books, one of which is “Down From Troy,” a variety of intimacy I don’t often enjoy.

Warmly, Richard

June 11, 2002

Dear Richard,

My brother and I wrote our Canadian Citizenship exam yesterday. We knew we arrived at the right place when we saw a line up of dozens and dozens of people from different nationalities lining up clutching their papers. It was surreal and wonderful.

The process took quite a while and as I was waiting in my seat, I pulled out my copy of “Down From Troy”… the page opened to:

For the more than sixty years that he lived on the continent of North America, Grandpa remained blissfuly stateless. The idea of citizenship never occurred to him, neither in Canada, which he had entered illegally, nor in the United States.

Miraculous coincidence. My copy is beginning to bulge with post-its… Many things I want to ask you, discuss, share! You’ll have to excuse my obvious enthusiasm. 

All the best to you,

Katarina

June 11, 2002

Dear Katarina,

In you I have found my ideal reader. It is infinitely touching to me, the way in which my words echo in your heart. Fate was looking over my shoulder when she decreed we should come together. You are one of those things for which I am grateful to your brother. Please don’t hesitate to write to me as often as you wish. 

In warmest friendship, Richard

June 12, 2002

Dear Richard,

I woke with a start this morning… my dreams were heavy with images of people I love, morphing into ones I didn’t know, words swimming around me: subatomic physics, Feyman’s Sum Over Histories, ethical issues in psychology… all the while I was spitting out little white pills that formed on my tongue – some the size of a tic tac, others the size of a pinhead.

I had fallen asleep with your book beside me. I recall the heaviness of p. 51: Whatever their true domestic drama, it was not naked but clothed in civility. Whatever their secret disappointments or resentments, each of their mouths was closed upon a pill of silence. 

It is precisely this civility I have fought against, played into, cursed, embraced, uncovered, shied away from, discovered, torn apart, understood…

It’s a beautiful day. I picture you in the library… I can smell the books.

Cheers, Katarina

June 12, 2002

Dear Katarina,

Yes, I am in the library, daydreaming away the afternoon. My mind is not mine to control; it wanderers whithersoever it listeth. It was always thus. It’s because I was a changeling. It was your lovely message that brought me back from… where was it? Scotland! I’ve never been there except in the novels of Sir Walter Scott, but I’m sure that the Scotland of my imagination is more “Scottish” than the real one. This wool-gathering can turn one topsy-turvy. I sometimes wonder if something really did happen or whether I dreamt it. One’s grip on reality loosens after a while. But then, what IS reality? Certainly it is not the truth.

You are lucky for all sorts of reasons, but the two I’m thinking of are that you are engaged in study of a new discipline; nothing is more satisfying to the spirit than mastering a new art or craft or field of endeavour. The other is that you have passed through the flames and come out whole with new understanding of yourself, having shed the falseness of a former life.

I have to tell you two things, One is that our correspondence will end up in the Archive of my papers at the University of Texas in Galveston. One day, it will be read by others. I can say that I’ll see that doesn’t happen, but whenever I’ve tried, I find I can’t sort. I just thought I’d better tell you that I’m no longer Richard Selzer but “Richard Selzer.” There is a woman in Finland who was quite horrified to think that her letters to me weren’t going to be private.

The other confession is that there is a woman, also in Texas, who is engaged in writing my biography! I have tried mightily to dissuade her, but she persists… if you prefer, I shan’t give give her your address. 

Please write to me again soon.

Affectionately, Richard

June 12, 2002

Taking a break from studying… both kids made it to school today – my son’s weekly migraine is looming, but he wants to make it today as it is his last chance to talk to a girl in his science class who he has had a crush on since September… in his pocket is a beeswax candle and a cinnamon stick – and ancient love booster recipe that I gave him before he left.

What is reality? “Not the truth…” concepts I have been struggling with and fighting against. And finally I accept! How often I have cried, “is this not real? and this? and this?!” There was much camaraderie when I read your words: “Things do matter, I am not opposed to owning property…”

Re: emails not being private – I have no qualms about that. Myself, I am an avid journal/image-idea-file keeper and ALL gets inserted, much to my mother’s concern. I am in full support of correspondence being kept for future eyes… I love books of letters, private diaries.

Given the choice between two discoveries – that of an unknown play by Shakespeare and that of one of Will’s laundry list – we would all plump for the dirty washing every time.  (Anthony Burgess)

How exciting and bizarre it must be to have a biography written about oneself! Where does truth fit in there? If you would like her to have my email address, please feel free.

I am in awe of the “writer.” My art is the 2-D visual. Do you process your thoughts, then write? Does it flow through you? Are you a careful writer, going back, correcting, changing? Or is the final product simply a dictation of what you have already worked out? And the “surgeon” in you. Does your writing parallel your art as a surgeon? Oh, for a simple few seconds, to see the human body as you have seen.

Love, Katarina

June 13, 2002

Dear Richard,

Having spent hours in the garden, I took a break on the porch and started rereading your book, “Raising the Dead.” Your command of the English language astounds, for it is not only storytelling, but word-plays. When I teach drawing, I tell my students – you must be able to extract a small segment of your drawing, any segment, and have the composition work within those limits.  I feel that technique of analysis works with your sentences.

I love when I read and have to put the book down and pace the room in excitement before getting back to it. I am completely humbled and gratified that I get to be the reader and not the creator. Creation can be exhausting.

Is that the torment of the artist? To always have to be the creator and not the observer of one’s own work? I struggle with the need to create that which I already know, see, feel INSIDE. To interpret and regurgitate in order to see it, see it, see it. But as creator, I am always a step behind. The process of creation includes a time delay between the internal conversation and the actual act of creating the work. The real vision spills out ahead of me into the dark abyss of eternity and I am left behind scampering and clawing, desperately trying to capture the minutest glimpse of what I have already experienced just a spit second before.

I love to fantasize about the writer’s palette of words. It is often theorized that “Lolita” in the guise of a prepubescent was actually the English language. Nabokov, being Russian was new to the language and he adored it, coveted it, explored it dangerously. 

Here comes my cat with a garter snake in his mouth. Must be a signal to get back to work!

Love, Katarina

June 14, 2002

How to speak about the creative act? It deliquesces while you are still applying pen to paper, or, I imagine, brush to canvas. It is, in that respect, most like a moment of ecstasy, physical or spiritual. Nor can it be recalled with any exactitude. The bright colours of retrospect cannot be precisely applied, only approximated, as you so powerfully expressed it. 

What moves me most is the human body. Last evening on the shuttle bus, I sat next to man whose cheek was gray, pocked and fitted as though a Satyr with sharp hooves had danced across it. Had such a cheek ever been kissed? I wondered. And thought Apollo chasing the nymph Daphne who, just as he caught her, metamorphosed into a laurel tree, thought of the lustful god pressing his ramous mouth not to wet warm flesh but to the ridged bark of the tree. What’s more, at that moment, I wanted to lean toward the man and kiss his cheek — just to see. It is the unspeakable length to which the true artist will go in search of the truth. 

Whatever else can be said of my work, it cannot be said that I have shirked the body to dwell upon the soul. I’ve never been able to distinguish between the two. And it is particularly the malformed, afflicted and even repulsive body that is the most revealing of what is called the soul. Precisely through the declaration of its vulnerability. Through the flaws and fissures and festering of the flesh, the soul swims closer to the surface where it can be glimpsed. The soul is only visible as it wears the flesh. Otherwise it is a pallid wasp.

I was wondering if I should erase all of the above. No, I’ll let it stand, and count on Katarina to forgive any unintended offense.

Love, Richard

 

The New York Times June 15, 2016:


2 thoughts on “Dear Richard: corresponding with Richard Selzer, M.D.

Leave a Reply