I have nothing to say. Not this morning as I sit here waiting for my coffee beans to extrude their bitterness into the water in which they are bathing. Not any morning. I am the embodiment of Billy Preston’s dictum in reverse: nothing plus nothing is nothing. Nada.
Even as my daughter’s sweet little dog leaps up to join me in this favorite chair of mine, cuddling against my right arm and trembling, perhaps realizing that my wife is preparing to take a week-long writing retreat and leave the two of us to fend for ourselves—even as I sit here now fueled by darkly roasted coffee beans steeped long enough in the French press to enable most humans to leap tall buildings in a single bound, I can offer you, dear, sweet, patient and charitable reader of mine, nothing.
I can hear Julie Andrews singing in my ear: “Words! Words! Words! I’m so sick of words! I get words all day through– First from him, now from you! Is that all you blighters can do?”
‘Fraid so, Julie. You see, in the mid-seventies, as a graduate student in Murray, Kentucky, we had a visiting professor come to teach a course or two. Michael Kaye was a graduate student himself from some other university, an “ABD” as we called them (having completed “all but his dissertation”), and he was simply brilliant, or at least that’s what my 23-year-old, barely crinkled brain thought. He lived with his short, stocky, effervescent girlfriend, who once popped into the living room in full belly dance attire to entertain my then-girlfriend and I in their living room, the image of which I still have trouble wresting from my mind.
I admired Michael, in spite of his choice in girlfriends, and asked to read the most recent draft of his dissertation. It was, as I recall, an extraordinary tome, literary and conjectural, and I told him that I liked it so much that he should publish it as a book. He didn’t hesitate to tell me that he had “nothing new to say” so wouldn’t even consider publishing it. Was this humility, I wondered, or was he simply making a fair point?
Many years, perhaps decades later, I was teaching family therapy at Harbor-UCLA Medical School to psychiatry residents and a sprinkling of psychology fellows. One of the psychology fellows—Martine Van Milders, devoid of any trace of obsequiousness, commented after one of the classes that she enjoyed the way I presented family therapy, and that I should write a book. Channeling Michael Kaye, and quite honestly, I simply expressed gratitude for the compliment, and added “But I have nothing new to say.”
Clearly more perspicacious than I at a similar point in our careers, she didn’t hesitate to set me straight: “No one has anything new to say. It isn’t whether you say something new that matters, but how you explain what everyone else has to say. That is always new.”
Comeuppance sings and hums like a perfectly tuned airplane engine, and learning from our students is especially sweet, in that “child is father to the man” way. Martine’s encouragement was a turning point for me, providing the rationale I needed to write my second book (the first one being a schlock collection of “activities” written with the jejune and dubious motivation of getting a book published before I turned 30). So I wrote a book with nothing new to say, although I said it differently than others, contributing a single snowflake to the vast storm of family therapy literature.
These days, as I sit in fear of the dying of the light, I can’t help but find myself wondering why on earth any of us—what we do or who we are, matter in the brief moments between the before and after. In the vastness that is the universe of space and the infinite of all that came before and all that will come after, I can’t help but wonder—perhaps in the renewed adolescence that seems inextricably woven with senescence, what meaning to attribute to this minute speck that is each of our lives. Sometimes, I imagine, we are merely God’s expendable playthings, little marbles forever lost under the couch.
Perhaps, some of us will be remembered for a brief period after our corporeal deaths. Perhaps, a few of us will be quoted generations down the road. But none of us, I imagine, will have had anything new to say. Perhaps the only task that is embraceable is to simply say it all differently, to live a life that is uniquely ours. We have little choice in that, I suppose, other than the choice of how fully to embrace that task. We can certainly choose to not bother to read or write because it has all been done and said before. Or, we can embrace it, and write about nothing in our own unique and hopefully gratifying way, or hell, who knows, maybe even break out into a belly dance, chunky middles and all.