The Ocean, Chekhov & Friends

February 4, 2013

The Handlers continue to bounce around—David and Marlene to South Africa, and Alan and I just back from Central America. Our favorite adventure had us trekking a rain forest in Belize dressed in bathing suits and helmets (are you picturing this ??!!) and carrying huge yellow tubes ( the modern day answer to the black rubber inner tubes we raced in as kids)–our vehicles for floating down the river through magnificent other-worldly caves.  The rest of the trip (a cruise) was considerably less active—physically active that is—a cross island tour of Grand Cayman, a snorkeling trip off Key West just two examples. On down time, we ate delicious food, napped, (that is, I napped; Alan hit the gym), ate more, and spent time with my favorite playmate—the ocean.

I’ve never outgrown my love affair with the water. My favorite thing to do is find a shady spot –preferably a secluded corner ( an ambitious task on a cruise but doable if you set your mind to it) — like I did as a girl on the Long Island Sound and just hang out for hours with the ocean. And its ever reassuring sound. Now though, I combine that quiet visiting with reading, another of my guaranteed paths to peace throughout my life. Usually it’s Chekhov. Other times Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky. I actually hesitate to say (write) that because it makes me sound either very intellectual and scholarly (which I’m definitely not!) and/or very full of myself (which I try hard not to be). But it’s true; they are my favorites, and I never tire of them—just like I never tire of the Beethoven or Brahms Violin Concertos—in the Handler house we’re as likely to listen over and over to a favorite piece of music as we are to eat pasta several days in a row. What we love, we indulge in.  So too for me with the Russian writers.

Chekhov is not only the greatest short fiction writer the world has known and Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, the greatest novelists, but all three were brilliant psychologists—not by trade but by heart and intellect, and as a psychologist myself and a lover of stories—people stories, no authors more grandly fit my tastes. Personal preferences aside though, the brilliance of Chekhov and Company is his/their uncanny gift for introducing us to ourselves—not our public presentable selves but our darker, more vulnerable, hidden, guilty, envious, self-centered, very lonely selves. A wise empathic friend, Chekov accepts us as the human beings we are: frail creatures—imperfect and damaged but retrievable –provided we set ourselves to it. That’s why I love him.

Chekhov characters mirror our own internal lives particularly our conflicted relationships and the feelings that accompany them. And he pulls no punches. What we might be inclined to neutralize, he bears the often brutal truth of. A prime example is the way he deals with ambivalence; Chekhov speaks freely of his characters’ hatred for the people they also love. Yes, hatred is the word he uses (I found it jarring at first but he convinced me)—not the more benign ‘annoyance’ or even ‘anger” we’d be more comfortable with–not because that love is false or dissipated but because that’s what humans do, we hate as well as love the same person; we are disgusted and enraged as well as proud of and calmed by the people we love—not because we choose to be or we ‘let’ ourselves be or because we are bad people but because we are human, and humans have those feelings. Raw, intense, sometimes even violent. Whether we’re aware of them or not. They come with the territory. Conscious or unconscious and irrespective of the ways we defend against them, feelings are visceral emotional responses to events, circumstances and/or people, and we all have them in varying degrees and constellations. We have them by dint of our personal histories—physiological, psychological and social. We have them by dint of our humanity. And Chekhov insists that we face them. Plain and simple, we’re people: frail, flawed- very definitely; forgivable, even salvageable—oh yes, says Chekhov.

How can we not love him? In his company, we meet the forbidden parts of ourselves. I’m convinced he’d also want us to forgive ourselves. And that his Russian brothers would agree . Clearly my heartthrob on this trip was Chekhov; on others, it’s Tolstoy or Dostoevsky. Truth is, I’m madly in love with the three of them. For the same reasons.


About Joan Cusack Handler

Joan Cusack Handler is a poet and memoirist, and a psychologist in clinical practice. Her poems have been widely published and have received awards from The Boston Review and five Pushcart nominations. More »

Get Joan's newsletter

Talk with Joan


Get Joan's newsletter