I love this excerpt from a letter Ted Hughes wrote to his twenty-four year old son, Nicholas. As we know, Ted Hughes was married to the brilliant Boston native, Sylvia Plath, and had two children with her before her death in 1963. Their relationship became a point of contention, specifically amongst feminist American fans, and much is unknown about their final days together. (Did you know he destroyed her final – and probably most revealing – journal in an “effort to protect their children”? ) All family history aside, we do know they shared an inexhaustible passion for the writing life and thoroughly admired each others stupendous literary talents. They were quite the pair.
“That’s the paradox: the only time most people feel alive is when they’re suffering, when something overwhelms their ordinary, careful armour, and the naked child is flung out onto the world. That’s why the things that are worst to undergo are best to remember. But when that child gets buried away under their adaptive and protective shells—he becomes one of the walking dead, a monster. So when you realise you’ve gone a few weeks and haven’t felt that awful struggle of your childish self—struggling to lift itself out of its inadequacy and incompetence—you’ll know you’ve gone some weeks without meeting new challenge, and without growing, and that you’ve gone some weeks towards losing touch with yourself. The only calibration that counts is how much heart people invest, how much they ignore their fears of being hurt or caught out or humiliated. And the only thing people regret is that they didn’t live boldly enough, that they didn’t invest enough heart, didn’t love enough. Nothing else really counts at all. It was a saying about noble figures in old Irish poems—he would give his hawk to any man that asked for it, yet he loved his hawk better than men nowadays love their bride of tomorrow. He would mourn a dog with more grief than men nowadays mourn their fathers.
And that’s how we measure out our real respect for people—by the degree of feeling they can register, the voltage of life they can carry and tolerate—and enjoy. End of sermon. As Buddha says: live like a mighty river. And as the old Greeks said: live as though all your ancestors were living again through you.”
-Ted Hughes, letter to Nicholas, 1986
Photo of James Turrell exhibition, Guggenheim, 2013