A TABLE OF THE ELEMENTS
This is a picture of Oliver Sacks’s “periodic table”, a pun on his real-world collection of the elements. It’s from an incredible article by Bill Hayes, who was the neurologist’s partner for years, excerpted from his memoir after Sacks’s death. Published more than a year ago, I found it this week and can’t stop thinking about it. Because collecting the elements and literally displaying them in your living room is not just unexpected. It’s strange. Weird. A little abnormal. And therefore brilliantly wonderful.
I’ve been a longtime reader of Sacks. More, in longtime awe. At his writing, his intellect, his life. He was incredible, as is shown throughout this beautiful piece. (I warn you, read Hayes’s article and then fall down the rabbithole with a little help from @brainpicker.)
What struck me most was how unique Sacks’s life was — since he let unexpected turns take him where they would. The description of a sudden evening with Lauren Hutton is only topped by a trip to Reykjavik to have lunch with Björk, neither of whom he recognized or knew because he had prosopagnosia, or “face blindness”, combined with no interest in or understanding of pop culture since 1955. Zero. None.
But he did have an encyclopedic knowledge of the important things that he truly cared about. When Hayes once showed him a photograph of bare tree limbs, saying they look like capillaries, Sacks responded, “I am reminded of how Nabokov compared winter trees to the nervous systems of giants.”
This caught me. One night four years ago, I posted a picture on Instagram that I took while driving — trees, skeletal against the sky — and captioned it “capillary dusk”.
I thought I’d found something interesting and new, but of course I hadn’t. It was what Hayes had seen and millions of others have noticed. But Sacks immediately went from branches to nerves to Nabokov. Based on one simple thought, he made an instantaneous connection among the many disparate, unique, strange ideas that were in his head (and his alone) and shared it with Hayes. Who quickly fell in love.
All that to say… foster the dozens, or hundreds, or thousands of uncommon interests that captivate you. Let them drive you and make you unexpected. Strange. Weird. Let them uniquely shape who you are. Chase that instead of whatever anyone expects. If you’re lucky, it will hopefully make you as brilliantly wonderful — even for one moment — as Sacks was throughout his remarkable life.