I took a great course in American literature and philosophy with Professor Brian Bremen at the University of Texas at Austin last spring. In it, we read a lot of Emerson, maybe so much so, that when I re-read my poem again after it was accepted for publication, his words were the first ones that came to mind.
In his essay on “Experience,” Ralph Waldo Emerson writes, “Two human beings are like globes, which can only touch in a point, and whilst they remain in contact, all other points of each of the spheres are inert; their turn must also come, and the longer a particular union lasts, the more energy of appetency the parts not in union acquire.”
The first time I came across that quote, I remember thinking it was so callous of Emerson to reduce human contact to spheres that touch only at a point. I remember thinking that for someone who writes so much about humanity, he needed more of it himself.
When I first wrote “6 Ways of Looking at a Friend,” I mainly remember feeling hurt. It was the first time I had thought about the friendship that meant so much to me from beginning to end. I was upset that things had to change. I thought, like all teenagers do, that the friendships made during this time would be permanent.
Janell Ball captures the feeling beautifully in her poem, “Lamentations of Cancer” (Fall 2012), when she writes, “i miss / how you were. how we were together. i’m angry you’re / not the same. wondering where you’ve gone.” As the speaker’s mother battles cancer, the speaker finds it’s the memories of changes that she remembers most, saying, “you stare / straight ahead at the coffee shop. forget to ask me / about things we always talk about.”
Similarly, with my friend’s battle with mental illness, I’m finding that the things I remember the most about our friendship are the lapses in normalcy, however small, however drastic. I remember when she didn’t leave her apartment for weeks. I remember when I would make visits to give her notes so she could catch up on schoolwork. I remember when she dropped all of her classes a month later and checked into a drug addiction treatment center.
It has been a little over a year since then, and these memories mean more to me than they ever have. Our paths diverged so naturally that I don’t think either one of us realized what was happening until we were well out of each other’s lives.
I’ve since thought about the Emerson quote more, from the context of this friendship, from the context of experience, and I no longer see it as a reduction of human contact, but a metaphor for the fleeting and inconstant nature of it.
“Their turn must also come,” Emerson says. Like I write in my poem, “Sometimes you forget / that other people / have places to go.” Our paths in life have many intersections. And if we’re lucky, these intersections are home to the close friendships and relationships that we cherish. But what most of us forget is that other globes are always in motion as well. And their orbits are filled with their own twists and turns, too. And for two paths to intersect, whether it’s for months or for years, is really nothing short of special.
“The more energy of appetency the parts not in union acquire,” Emerson finishes. Now when I read this quote, I think I understand. I’m not upset at the way things turned out. And I think that’s exactly what Emerson is saying—to just be grateful, for the paths we cross in life, for the fact that we can even cross paths at all.
Thomas Nguyen is an aspiring physician and poet, and currently attends the University of Texas at Austin, where he is a third-year undergraduate student studying Neuroscience and Creative Writing. He has previously been published in The Healing Muse. His poem "6 Ways of Looking at a Friend" appears in the Spring 2016 Intima.
© 2016 Intima: A Journal of Narrative Medicine