How To Save Your Life

A brief passage near the beginning of Katherine Butler Hathaway’s memoir, The Little Locksmith:

“In order to save one’s life, as has been said, one must be willing to let it be tossed away, and not many of us are willing.  All well-brought-up people are afraid of having any experience which seems to them uncharacteristic of themselves as they imagine themselves to be.  Yet this is the only kind of experience that is really alive and can lead them anywhere worth going.  New, strange, uncharacteristic, uncharted experience, coming at the needed moment, is sometimes as necessary in a person’s life as a plough in a field.”

Hathaway (1890-1942) knew whereof she spoke.  When she was five years old, she became afflicted with spinal tuberculosis.  Because of that condition, every day brought forth challenges uncharacteristic of the woman she imagined herself to be, and compelled her to handle life situations, seemingly simple, whose depth and difficulty had not been charted:  maintaining a house, writing, falling in love.  She records many of these experiences in The Little Locksmith, in prose which is, throughout the book, as direct and open as the passage I just quoted.

As I read her work now and again, the thought occurs to me:  perhaps it is not how well our body functions which should define us, but how well we function within our bodies.


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