DATE April 29, 2008 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Lloyd Schwartz discusses poet Elizabeth Bishop and the
new book he co-edited, "Bishop: Poems, Prose and Letters"
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
"No poet ever saw the mysteries of the world more clearly than Elizabeth
Bishop," writes Lloyd Schwartz, who describes Bishop as among the 20th
century's greatest poets. Lloyd has co-edited a new book called "Bishop:
Poems, Prose and Letters," which has been published by the Library of America.
Lloyd has written about Bishop for The New Yorker and edited a 1983 collection
of essays about her. You probably also know Lloyd as our classical music
Elizabeth Bishop won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award and served
in the position now known as poet laureate. She died in 1979 at the age of
68. Here's Lloyd Schwartz reading Bishop's best known poem, "One Art."
Mr. LLOYD SCHWARTZ: (Reading)
The art of losing isn't hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.
Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
The art of losing isn't hard to master.
Then practice losing farther, losing faster:
places and names and where it was you meant
to travel. None of these will bring disaster.
I lost my mother's watch. And look! my last, or
next-to-last, of three loved houses went.
The art of losing isn't hard to master.
I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent
I miss them, but it wasn't a disaster.
Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan't have lied. It's evident
the art of losing's not too hard to master
though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster."
GROSS: Lloyd is going to read more poems from the new Elizabeth Bishop
collection, but first we're going to talk about her life and work.
You not only were a fan of Elizabeth Bishop's writing, you were a friend of
hers. How did you get to know her?
Mr. SCHWARTZ: She came to teach at Harvard. She was replacing Robert Lowell
in 1970, and I was still a graduate student, although I was teaching and
living in Cambridge. She gave a reading, and I had admired her work for
years. She had already met Frank Bidart, who was a friend of mine and a
classmate, and Frank introduced us after the reading. And I can reproduce our
entire first conversation. I said to her, `Oh, Miss Bishop, that was a
wonderful reading. I've admired your work for years.' And she replied, `Thank
you.' And that was our entire first conversation.
And it really took several years of, you know, running into her at, you know,
at gatherings or cocktail parties or at readings, and one day I sort of
screwed up my courage and invited her to lunch, and she accepted. And I think
in some ways that was the start of something that really became a friendship.
GROSS: Well, you include in your new Bishop collection a poem that she never
intended to publish. It's called "Breakfast Zone," and it probably never
would have been published had you not found the poem when she was still alive.
There's a great story behind this poem that I'm going to ask you to tell.
Mr. SCHWARTZ: OK. We were just really beginning to get to know each other a
little better, and that day that I took her to lunch, I had mentioned that I
was going to be stuck in Cambridge over the Christmas vacation. And she said
well, she would be too, and maybe we could get together. And then I didn't
hear anything, and Christmas passed and New Year's passed, and shortly after
New Year's--this was in 1974--my phone rang, and it was Elizabeth Bishop. And
she called and was very apologetic. She was in the hospital. She had fallen
and broken her shoulder and she was in the hospital and she knew that I was
around and she didn't know anyone else who was in town. And she asked me to
come to the hospital, which was not very far from where I lived, and get her
keys and go to her apartment and bring her back some items from her apartment:
her purse, her mail, and a notebook that was on her desk. So I was thrilled
to be able to do that. I was happy to do something for her.
And I did, and I brought everything to the hospital, and then she had to be
taken out of the room, I think probably for an X-ray, but I don't really
remember exactly what it was for. And I'm sitting in her hospital room with
her notebook. And I opened the notebook, and there is this poem on the page,
which I read. And I thought it was extraordinary. I thought it was just one
of the best things by her that I had ever read. And I also, because it was
very personal, there was something, there was something, some nagging sense
that I had that I might never see this poem again. And I tore out a blank
page from the notebook and I copied it. I copied the poem, just so that I
could live with it, so that I could read it. And I didn't tell her that I did
that. And I hoped that, you know, in a year or so or maybe she would publish
it and that I would see it in print, and I didn't.
And after she died, I know that scholars went through all of her papers, which
were at Vassar College, where she was an undergraduate, and that poem never
surfaced, and the notebook never surfaced. I don't know what happened to it.
And 20 years after she died, I finally sent a copy to her estate and to her
publisher, because I wanted people to know this poem.
GROSS: And you've included it in the book.
Mr. SCHWARTZ: Oh, yes.
GROSS: And it's a beautiful poem, so I'm going to ask you to read it for us
and we'll talk about it a little bit more.
Mr. SCHWARTZ: I would love to. Thank you.
(Reading) "Breakfast Song.
My love, my saving grace,
your eyes are awfully blue.
I kiss your funny face,
your coffee-flavored mouth.
Last night, I slept with you.
Today I love you so
how can I bear to go
(as soon I must, I know)
to bed with ugly death
in that cold, filthy place,
to sleep there without you,
without the easy breath
and nightlong, limblong warmth
I've grown accustomed to?
Nobody wants to die;
tell me it is a lie!
But no, I know it's true.
It's just the common case.
There's nothing one can do.
My love, my saving grace,
your eyes are awfully blue
early and instant blue."
GROSS: I love that poem. And I love her description of death as a cold,
Mr. SCHWARTZ: Right. Yeah.
GROSS: Now, you know, just again, this is a poem which she never intended to
publish, and it would never--no one in the world would have known about it had
you not copied it when she was in the hospital.
Mr. SCHWARTZ: Yeah.
GROSS: So, I mean, I'm grateful that you did. I'm sure everyone who reads
her is grateful that you did, and yet, when you were doing it, did you feel at
all like it was an act of betrayal?
Mr. SCHWARTZ: Well, she didn't show me the poem, and so in some way I was,
you know, I was going something behind her back, and I, you know, I'm not
exactly proud of that. On the other hand, I wasn't doing it for gain or, you
know, anything like that, I was doing it--I copied it because I loved the poem
and I wanted to be able to read it and re-read it.
GROSS: The poem that you just read, which is part love poem, part fear of
Mr. SCHWARTZ: Mm-hmm.
GROSS: ...was, I assume, written for a woman because Elizabeth Bishop was a
Mr. SCHWARTZ: Yes.
GROSS: And I wonder if you think that's part of the reason why she was so
uncomfortable publishing personal poems because it's a truth about her life
that she probably felt very uncomfortable speaking openly about.
Mr. SCHWARTZ: I rather like to think about--I think I do think about it from
a different direction, that she was someone who was, even from her earliest
childhood, someone who was very private, who at least in theory didn't believe
in making very personal things public, and I think it was more a kind of
family trait or cultural trait of, you know, a New Englander. Of course, I'm
sure that the fact that she was also a lesbian heightened that sense of
keeping things private because it could be dangerous to let the public know
about sexual orientation at that time. But I think it starts earlier than
GROSS: You know, the breakfast poem that you just read, you know, we're
talking about how she didn't like to be too personal in her poems, it's a poem
that's at once very intimate without really being personal.
Mr. SCHWARTZ: Mm.
GROSS: It's about really intimate thoughts, but you have no idea to whom this
poem is addressed.
Mr. SCHWARTZ: Right.
GROSS: What their relationship is like. So you can't really read too much
into the details of her life. She gives up nothing in terms of that.
Mr. SCHWARTZ: Right, except that she slept with someone.
GROSS: That she slept with someone.
Mr. SCHWARTZ: Yeah.
GROSS: We don't know if it's a man or a woman, a young person or an old
Mr. SCHWARTZ: Right. Right.
GROSS: We'll talk more with Lloyd Schwartz about Elizabeth Bishop after a
break. This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: My guest is Lloyd Schwartz, co-editor of the new collection of
Elizabeth Bishop's poems, prose and letters.
Now, there's another poem that I know you like very much, called "In the
Mr. SCHWARTZ: Hm.
GROSS: And this was a poem that's really a memory of being not quite seven
years old in the dentist's waiting room while her aunt was actually in with
the dentist. And while the young Elizabeth Bishop is in the dentist's waiting
room, she's reading an edition of National Geographic dated February 1918.
And as I was reading the poem, I thought, `Wow, that was a really old edition
of the magazine. Who keeps magazines around for so many decades?'
Mr. SCHWARTZ: Mm-hmm.
GROSS: `What was such an old edition doing in the office?' And then I
realized, `Wait a minute. She was born in 1911. So this was the current
edition.' And it made me think about what a different era she was from. World
War I was still under way at the time this memory takes place.
Mr. SCHWARTZ: Yeah.
GROSS: And so she was born into a different world, a different sensibility,
like before radio and television and cars and, you know, movies.
Mr. SCHWARTZ: Mm-hmm.
GROSS: And so I guess I wondered, if you felt that reflected in your
relationship with her or in her poems that she emerged from another world.
Mr. SCHWARTZ: Well, yes, I think that's a very good question, and one of the
things that I love about that poem, "In the Waiting Room," is I think it's a
kind of primary example of the way she deals with the dilemmas and
contradictions of being a human being. And she's, you know, just about to be
seven years old and is having an identity crisis, but she's writing about it
as she is about to turn 60 and still having an identity crisis, and what does
it mean to be a human being, and what does it mean to have an identity and how
much one has to have an identity and how terrifying it is to have an identity,
to be stuck in an identity.
GROSS: Why don't you read an excerpt of the poem? The poem's a little long
for us to have you read the whole thing, but read your favorite passage from
Mr. SCHWARTZ: OK.
GROSS: And before you read it, explain what was in the National Geographic
that she was looking at in the waiting room.
Mr. SCHWARTZ: Yeah. Well, of course, one of the things that the National
Geographic was good for was to give you very exotic and even kind of sexual
imagery. She's looking at pictures of African tribal women naked, with their
necks--with these kind of neck braces wrapped around their heads. And they
were frightening and fascinating. And that's what she's looking at in the
GROSS: OK, read the passage for us.
Mr. SCHWARTZ: (Reading) "I said to myself: three days
and you'll be seven years old.
I was saying it to stop
the sensation of falling off
the round, turning world
into cold, blue-black space.
But I felt: You are an I,
you are an Elizabeth,
you are one of them.
Why should you be one, too?
I scarcely dared to look
to see what it was I was.
I gave a sidelong glance--
I couldn't look any higher--
at shadowy gray knees,
trousers and skirts and boots
and different pairs of hands
lying under the lamps.
I knew that nothing stranger
had ever happened, that nothing
stranger could ever happen.
Why should I be my aunt,
or me, or anyone?
boots, hands, the family voice
I felt in my throat, or even
the National Geographic
and those awful hanging breasts
held us all together
or made us all just one?
How I didn't know any
word for it how "unlikely"...
GROSS: You know, it's like this memory of being seven years old and having
this epiphany about the interconnectedness yet isolation of every human being.
Mr. SCHWARTZ: Exactly.
GROSS: That's a pretty profound thought for a seven-year-old to be having.
And I know she's reliving this as a 60-year-old woman, but still...
Mr. SCHWARTZ: Yeah.
GROSS: ...you know, I just can't imagine quite experiencing thought on that
level at the age of seven.
Mr. SCHWARTZ: You know, there's an interesting letter to Frank Bidart about
this poem in which she says other people have talked to her, have told her
about these kind of childhood epiphanies. Reading her poem in The New Yorker
that people remembered similar things that happened to them when they were
GROSS: Octavio Paz once wrote an article about Elizabeth Bishop that was
headlined "The Power of Reticence."
Mr. SCHWARTZ: Mm-hmm.
GROSS: And since, you know, you've talked about how private she was as a
person and as a writer...
Mr. SCHWARTZ: Mm-hmm.
GROSS: ...what kind of example did she set for your as a poet about the power
of reticence? Because, you know, really there's a period, I think
particularly in the '60s, when poets became almost like guru-like figures.
They were very public, particularly if you look at, say, like Alan Ginsberg as
Mr. SCHWARTZ: Right.
GROSS: Who'd appear in like student unions around the country naked.
Mr. SCHWARTZ: Yeah.
GROSS: And had this incredible cult following, and he was so personal in his
Mr. SCHWARTZ: Yeah.
GROSS: And there were many other, you know, writers, you know, who were
similar and having a very public and very large personality.
Mr. SCHWARTZ: Right. It was around that time that Elizabeth said she
believed in closets, closets and more closets. I think the lesson for
writers, why I love to teach Elizabeth Bishop and assign her poems to my
writing students, is how economical her poems are. She once said in an essay
that she never finished writing, describing the poems that she liked best,
that the qualities she most admired were accuracy, spontaneity and mystery,
which are three very interesting qualities which I think, really, she's really
describing her own work: this wonderful eye for detail, this sense of living
through the poem spontaneously--that is, you know how carefully written it is,
but when you read the poem, you feel you're living through the experience as
she is living through it, just as she's kind of reliving her childhood in "In
the Waiting Room." But always with a sense of mystery that there's something
left to the imagination, that there's something between the lines. And maybe
they are the qualities that exist in every great poem. So that's what one
would like to aspire to as a writer.
GROSS: Well, Lloyd, congratulations on editing the book, and thank you so
much for sharing some of her poems with us.
Mr. SCHWARTZ: Thank you for having me.
GROSS: Lloyd Schwartz co-edited the new book "Bishop: Poems, Prose and
Letters." He's also our classical music critic. I'm Terry Gross, and this is
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Interview: Dan Gottlieb talks about his accident, his outlook on
life and death, and his new book, "Learning from the Heart"
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
As a psychologist and family therapist Dr. Dan Gottlieb has helped many
people through some of the most difficult passages of their lives. He's also
endured a great deal of physical and emotional pain of his own. Nearly 29
years ago he was in a car accident that left him a quadriplegic, paralyzed
from the chest down. On his first visit to FRESH AIR, Dr. Gottlieb--or Dr.
Dan, as he's often called--described how he became devoted to his work after
the accident. He subsequently made a mark in his field not only through his
private practice but through his popular radio show on WHYY Radio in
Philadelphia where FRESH AIR is produced, his newspaper column in the
Philadelphia Enquirer and his books. His new book is called "Learning from
the Heart: Lessons on Living, Loving and Listening."
Dan, welcome back to FRESH AIR.
Dr. DAN GOTTLIEB: Thank you, Terry.
GROSS: Now, the last time you were here you mentioned that you were part of
the first generation with quadriplegia who've lived into their late 50s,
thanks to advancements in medical science. So let me just start by asking you
how's your health now?
Dr. GOTTLIEB: Not good. There have been some changes over the last two
years, two, three years that have kind of told me that I've turned a page in
my life. Quadriplegics, paraplegics are prone to a lot of urinary tract
infections. I've always had a lot of urinary tract infections. And two years
ago I got one that just wasn't going away. For the first time, all the
antibiotics wasn't knocking it out. And the urologist said it's not going to
go away. So we have to do all sorts of other interventions. I've been fine
with that for a couple of years, but I know my days are numbered when the
maintenance dose, the antibiotic isn't going to work.
And then my heart rate dropped precipitously last summer, and I had to have a
pacemaker put in. It was emergency surgery. Ordinarily having a pacemaker in
is no big deal. And within hours after the pacemaker was in I was having
wild, dangerous fluctuations in my blood pressure, from 300 over 200 all the
way down to, it was as low as 55 over 35 once. And more recently my muscles
have been fatiguing, and we might hear it through the course of the interview.
Even by intercostal muscles fatigue.
GROSS: Which are those?
Dr. GOTTLIEB: It's the ones that help me get my voice out, that force words
out of my mouth. And I feel a kind of air hunger sometimes because I feel air
hunger. And that comes and goes. And 80, 90 percent of the time I feel fine.
GROSS: You were saying to me right before we started the interview that you
feel like your body's going in one direction and your career is going in the
other direction. Can you talk about that a little bit more to--you feel like
your body is failing you in some fundamental way, but at the same time your
career just keeps, you know, taking off. Your previous book "Letters to Sam,"
did really well. It's published in 14 languages. You've got a new book
that's just come out. You're doing a TV special. I mean, so can you talk
about that paradox?
Dr. GOTTLIEB: It's almost as though I'm watching a movie here, and it's
really an interesting movie. You use language, though, that I disagree with.
GROSS: Go ahead.
Dr. GOTTLIEB: You said my body is failing me, and my language is my body is
getting tired. I've had a different relationship with my body over the last
five, 10 years. And my body has served me nobly. It has worked very hard,
way above and beyond.
GROSS: Oh, see, I really like what you're saying. Because what you're saying
is that you're not having an antagonistic relationship with your body. It's
like, you know your body's had a hard time and you're grateful to if for
having hung in there and done it's best.
Dr. GOTTLIEB: Deeply grateful.
GROSS: It's so easy to get angry with your body anytime something goes wrong.
So I appreciate the distinction that you just made.
Dr. GOTTLIEB: Yeah. Yeah, deeply, deeply grateful. And I care for my body
like it is a fragile lover that I adore.
GROSS: Did it take you awhile to reach that point of not getting angry with
Dr. GOTTLIEB: Oh, yeah. After my accident I had--well, before my accident I
was a young man so I was ashamed of it. And after my accident I hated it. I
felt betrayed by my body. And after that, you know, I said that I have to
treat my body kindly, but it acts like a terrorist to me. And now I don't
feel that way. When something happens, it's the voice of by body's
exhaustion. That's how I feel. And I feel great compassion and gratitude for
GROSS: So, getting back to my poorly worded question, how does it feel to
have your body feel increasingly tired while your career is getting bigger?
Dr. GOTTLIEB: It depends on what time of day you ask me. If you ask me in
the middle of the night when I can't sleep, I'll say `terrifying' is how it
feels. But during the day it's really interesting, I don't know where it's
going to go or what's going to happen. I'm going to ride it as long as I can
ride it. I am clear about why I work. I am clear about what my life means to
me. And I am clear I am living a meaningful life.
GROSS: You've had several near-death experiences because of the quadriplegia
and related problems of that. Does this feel fundamentally different? I
mean, because you've always pulled through.
Dr. GOTTLIEB: Yeah, it does feel different. I've had a couple of doctors
say that they thought my body was wearing out. My body feels tired. It
doesn't feel emergent, what's happening to me. I could live another decade.
I certainly hope I do. It doesn't feel emergent, but it does feel like my
life is getting smaller. Now, watch, we could turn around a week from now
and, you know, I could be fine. But the way I feel now, my body is getting
GROSS: And we talked about this the last time you were on the show, but for
people who didn't hear that just tell us briefly about your accident, what
Dr. GOTTLIEB: I was driving westbound on the Pennsylvania Turnpike December
20th, 1979, and an 18-wheel truck was driving eastbound, and a wheel broke off
the truck--not just a tire, the whole wheel, metal frame and all--and bounced
across the turnpike and crushed my car. The last thing I remember seeing was
a big black thing in the sky coming down. And seconds later, of course, my
life was forever changed. I believe, though, that most of us have been hit by
a black thing, that in a millisecond your life is forever changed. No
sidewalk under your feet, you're in free fall, in other words. It's a doctor
saying `I think it's malignant' or a spouse saying `I don't think I can do
this anymore' or a sudden death of someone you love. What happened to me is
not unusual at all. Looks different, but at the deepest levels it's not
GROSS: I'm trying to remember whether it's in your book or in one of your
recent newspaper columns that you wrote about how, in dealing with your own
anxiety--and like most of us you have your share--you, among other things, do
Dr. GOTTLIEB: Yes.
GROSS: And you describe once a three day like meditation retreat. You come
home and, you know, that night, 2 in the morning you wake up with this big
anxiety attack, your heart is beating and you're basically talking to your
anxiety, saying, `It's been five hours since the meditation retreat and
already you're not leaving me alone.'
Dr. GOTTLIEB: And I devoted three full days, full time to caring for my
mind. It gave me five hours, not to mention 400 bucks for this damn retreat.
And there's the mind agitated. But I want to put that in context for you.
Dr. GOTTLIEB: About six months ago a friend of mine was concerned about her
eight-year-old son. He watched films of 9/11 and now he was scared all of a
sudden of airplanes flying in his window. And they didn't know whether he
needs to see a therapist, if something should be done, if she could do. And I
usually don't see kids that age. But I'll do it informally; over coffee, the
three of us talked. And I told him--I heard this story and I told him, you
know, this is an age where we learn about death, where we start thinking about
death and it's pretty scary. I said, some people get over it and some people
don't. I said, I didn't. I said, `I was scared to death when I was your age
and my fear was the bogeyman. The bogeyman was under my bed, and I thought if
I laid still and didn't even move my eyeballs the bogeyman wouldn't get me.' I
said, `but I was scared to death every night I went into bed.'
So this kid looks at me and he says, `So where's the bogeyman now? Do
bogeymen ever go away?' And I've got this deepest belief, you can't lie to a
kid that age because they'll catch you, you know. So I said `I'll tell you
the truth,' I said, `the bogeyman's still under my bed,' I said. `But, after
all these years, the bogeyman's old and he can't hurt me anymore. You know,
he's been there all--he just doesn't have the strength to hurt me so he's
there, I don't get scared of him. He's like an old buddy after all these
years.' And that's my relationship to my anxiety. You know, it's there. I
don't particularly enjoy it, but I don't know what I'd do without it. It
wouldn't be me.
GROSS: How do you distance yourself from it, like when you wake up with your
heart beating in the middle of a big, you know, anxiety attack? How do you
not get totally caught up in the panic?
Dr. GOTTLIEB: It's my mind. I just watch. I just watch my mind doing what
it does. And because I'm able to watch my mind now, I'm able to use the data
from my past.
GROSS: What do you mean?
Dr. GOTTLIEB: Well, the data is every time I've had a panic it hasn't lasted
for the rest of my life. It hasn't been real. It always passes. Another
emotion is always there waiting to come right around the corner. So when I'm
in the middle of this panic, I'm not suggesting I don't suffer--I suffer the
same way, you know, the rest of my neurotic cohorts suffer--but there's a
quality of knowingness that I have. There's an observer inside of me that
observes with compassion. I feel the same way about my mind I feel about my
body. I feel the same way about me that I feel about my body.
GROSS: So you're not really angry with your mind for having the anxiety
that's leading to the panic?
Dr. GOTTLIEB: No, it's my neurotic mind. I mean, it's me, you know, it's
me. Meditation is really about paying attention. Enlightenment is simply
about shining a light on what is. And the more you pay attention to exactly
what you're feeling, rather than try to fix it, the less likely it is to stay
for a long time because you're going to be aware of another feeling coming
around the corner.
GROSS: Do you, or have you ever taken like anti-anxiety pills or
antidepressants? I mean, you're a therapist so you know your way around these
drugs. I'm sure you've had many patients who've been on them and you've had
suggestions about whether they should remain on them or not. When it comes to
yourself, do you think that you should get an assist from an anti-anxiety pill
when you know that it threatens to get the better of you for a while?
Dr. GOTTLIEB: Sure. I've got a history, Terry--I think I might have
mentioned it--of clinical depression. And clinical depression is a serious
illness of one's brain and it needs treatment. And I take a low dose of an
antidepressant every night, partly to help with insomnia and partly to keep a
baseline of antidepressants onboard. I think antidepressants are abused.
It's of great concern to me. And when they're used appropriately they're a
You know, we talked about compassion for my body, for my mind. To take these
medications is really an act of compassion for your brain. Your brain is
suffering when you're depressed. It's in an unhealthy environment. It's
being assaulted, and it's an act of compassion for one's brain to get help.
GROSS: In your new book "Learning from The Heart," or maybe it was in your
newspaper column, you tell a story about, after your father died and you went
to the funeral parlor to give them personal effects to put in the casket with
him and to examine, you know, how they prepared the body, you noticed that on
his head they had put on the prayer cap, the kippa or yarmulke. And you had
to think, `well, my father wasn't really a believer so should I ask them to
take it off or should I leave it on?' Tell us what went through your mind and
what you did.
Dr. GOTTLIEB: My father was more than an unbeliever. He was a passionate
atheist, my dad. So I, you know, I thought, well, should I take it off to
respect him? And then I thought, well, what if, you know, who knows, and
what's it mean? And, you know, maybe there is somebody up there and maybe
this somebody's judgmental. And I had them take it off. I finally decided.
I called the funeral director. And all this ruminating took, you know, five
seconds. My relationship with my dad was, I always crapped around with him.
I mean, my sense of humor comes from him. He didn't have a good sense of
humor, but he laughed so easily. And I loved to crap around. So I have the
funeral director come and he takes the yarmulke off and takes it in the back.
And there my dad and I are alone there and I look in the casket and I say,
`You owe me one for that.' It's the first time he didn't laugh. I was half
GROSS: So you wanted to respect his position as an atheist. Are you a person
of faith? Are you an atheist?
Dr. GOTTLIEB: I am a person of faith and I go to synagogue almost every
Friday night, and I don't believe in the God they pray to.
GROSS: OK, you can explain that.
Dr. GOTTLIEB: No, I can't. I can try. I believe there is something divine
in this life, in me, in you. Our most solemn prayer, the Shema, says God is
one. And I take that literally, so what does that mean? Well, maybe what it
means is when we are one as a people, or even at this moment when we are one,
maybe that's God. Right there at the moment, or the marquee at a church
around the corner from my house that says `God is love.' Well, maybe, maybe
it's the other way around, too. I don't know. But I do believe there's
something divine in us, between us, and in this life. And I think my job, my
personal belief is that little piece of divinity in me, my job is to know it,
to honor it, to grow it best I can every day, every year. I'm not real good
at it, but I'm trying.
GROSS: So will you leave this world thinking that there is something beyond
Dr. GOTTLIEB: No.
Dr. GOTTLIEB: I will leave this world thinking, `Damn, I wish I didn't have
to leave.' I believe that I will live on to the extent that other people carry
me with them.
GROSS: Afterlife as memory?
Dr. GOTTLIEB: Yeah. So, you know, probably my grandson, Sam. But, you
know, my body, you know, I'll continue after I'm dead. My body will continue
what I'm doing now and trying to nurture the world best I can. So I'll
nurture, you know, that small area of the environment.
I just had a conversation with Sam when I was going through all these...
GROSS: I should mention, Sam is your autistic grandson to whom you dedicated
your previous book. It was called "Letters to Sam." The book was written in
the form of letters to him.
Dr. GOTTLIEB: Right. And Sam's doing really well, by the way...
Dr. GOTTLIEB: ...really well, and we have a wonderful relationship, and he
torments me about being bald. And I try...
GROSS: Very nice.
Dr. GOTTLIEB: I try to take it like a man, but one day I failed and I
explained to him in six-year-old terms the genetics of baldness. And I told
him he as going to have my hairline when he grew up, which he refused to
acknowledge. So anyway, so when I went through these acute health crises this
summer, Sam pulled me aside and he said, `Pop,' he said, `how old am I going
to be when I die?' It opened up a wonderful discussion about death. And I
asked him what it meant to him and what he was worried about. So he said he
was scared that he would miss me, that he wouldn't see me again. And I asked
him what he thought would happen to me after I died. And he described his
version of heaven, the kind we tell kids.
And I said, `Sam, if I am in heaven, do you think I'll still be loving you up
there?' And he said, `well, sure.' And I said, `Will you still be loving me?'
And he said, you know, `yeah.' And I said `Sam, do you think you'll be able to
feel my love for you?' And he thought for a long time about that, he said `I
think I will, pop.' So I said, `So we have that going on. So death isn't
going to stop that part. It's not going to stop the love part. It'll stop
the visiting part, the seeing part, but it won't stop the love part.' And Sam
seemed to feel a bit better.
And I said to him, `Sam, there's one more thing.' I said, `If you're right, if
there is a heaven up there and if I'm up there,' I said, `when you get older
and you start to lose your hair, I'm going to laugh my ass off at you.'
GROSS: My guest is psychologist and family therapist Dan Gottlieb. A car
accident nearly 29 years ago left him paralyzed from the chest down.
You've got a new book called "Learning from The Heart." And your previous
book, "Letters to Sam," which is letters to your autistic grandson, that did
really well. Printed in 14 languages, sold a lot. And you were telling me
before the interview started, I didn't know this, that you donated all the
royalties to charity. And I'm thinking, like, that's a really generous thing
to do. I mean, why did you decide to do that?
Dr. GOTTLIEB: Well, I've got to be candid. Part of my thinking comes from
my ethnic background. And that says to me if I was going to keep the money, I
wouldn't make any money. And if I give it away I'm going to make a lot of
GROSS: Oh, so you committed before you knew it would make money, is that what
Dr. GOTTLIEB: Well, I did actually, I did.
Dr. GOTTLIEB: But, you know, I think I made it clear, I like my life. I
really like it the way it is. I'm very happy with my life. And in terms of
money, you know, I can pay my mortgage and I can take myself out to dinner
almost whenever I want and I can take a couple vacations a year so, you know,
so what? So what do I need more money for? And there's so many people in
this world in so much pain, and so many children are suffering. And, you
know, what am I going to do, buy a couple more suits? You know, it's the best
feeling I've ever had, Terry. It's just a wonderful feeling.
GROSS: Since you've talked about how you fear your body is getting tired and
that you've turned a corner, do you mind if I ask you a couple of questions
about facing a body that you feel is getting tired? Do you get scared of what
Dr. GOTTLIEB: No. I might sometimes in the middle of the night, but by and
large, no. I feel sad. But when I am living with death, I'm living with
life; I'm more alive. When I feel death nearby, I feel life nearby. They go
together. And I think to a certain extent that's true for all of us. I
refuse to believe I'm different from anybody else in that regard.
GROSS: But do you still worry about what the circumstances will be? Because
so many people just obsess on that. You know, `will I be in pain? Will I be
alone? Will I be at home? Will I be in the hospital?'
Dr. GOTTLIEB: I know all those answers, most of them.
GROSS: You do?
Dr. GOTTLIEB: I don't know about the pain, but I'll be at home. I'll be
with a nurse, because that's how I live. So all the stuff that most people
worry about, I've been there. I've done that. Two stories.
Dr. GOTTLIEB: One is, I tell a story about a patient I saw years ago who was
obese and had two artificial knees, and he was sitting in a chair in a
session. The chair was probably too low, and he labored to get out. And you
could see he was working really hard to get out of the chair. And he gets up
and he takes a breath and he looks down, he says, `you know, I probably
shouldn't say this, but I look down at you and I think, thank God I can get
up.' And I said `Well, I shouldn't say this either, but I look at you and I
think, thank God I'm not going to have to go through all that when I get
And I felt the same thing with--in "Tuesdays with Maury." There was one point
early in his disease where he says to Mitch, `oh my God, somebody's going to
have to wipe me one day.' And I'm reading this and I'm thinking, you'll get
used to it. And you get used to stuff. So all of the things that people are
afraid of--becoming dependent, winding up in a wheelchair, having an attendant
with them full time--I've been there. It's not that bad. You get used to
stuff. So, you know, I didn't think much about pain. I really hope that
doesn't happen. But I'm not afraid. I'm mostly sad because, for obvious
reasons, I love my life so much. I love almost everything about it.
GROSS: Do you know, it's really been great to talk with you?
Dr. GOTTLIEB: And you, Terry. I appreciate our time together.
GROSS: Dr. Dan Gottlieb's new book is called "Learning from the Heart."
You can download podcasts of our show on our Web site, freshair.npr.org.
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