Dr. Oliver Sacks gave me a gift for my birthday some years ago: a writing prompt that I use each year for my special-ish day: Write an essay in which you equate your age with the corresponding element number on the periodic table.
Since I am a nonscientist, this seemed like an invitation to a find a metaphor in a reflection of the year past and in one’s hopes for the year to come.
Of course, Dr. Sacks did not give this present to ME; it was in a July 2015 New York Times essay titled, “My Periodic Table.” (Link; subscription required.) One of his final essays (he died in August that year at age 82), it was a gift for everyone:
At one end of my writing table, I have element 81 in a charming box, sent to me by element-friends in England: It says, “Happy Thallium Birthday,” a souvenir of my 81st birthday last July; then, a realm devoted to lead, element 82, for my just celebrated 82nd birthday earlier this month. […] Next to the circle of lead on my table is the land of bismuth […] Bismuth is element 83. I do not think I will see my 83rd birthday, but I feel there is something hopeful, something encouraging, about having “83” around. Moreover, I have a soft spot for bismuth, a modest gray metal, often unregarded, ignored, even by metal lovers. My feeling as a doctor for the mistreated or marginalized extends into the inorganic world and finds a parallel in my feeling for bismuth.—Oliver Sacks, “My Periodic Table.”
My year just past, 53, corresponds to iodine, which I described thus: “Essential to human life, unmissable and considered beautiful by many with its violet color when it is heated, discovered with difficulty, and not thought about every day except when one does not consume enough of it. Is that life at fifty-three? The violet, iodine, year?”
The year has been one of challenges for me: some passings, several moves, a betrayal. I suppose I just made my 53rd year sound like life in 2022 for members of the British Conservative Party. “Discovered with difficulty,” certainly resonates with my emotions about the year just past. I am in a place of contentment right now and for the foreseeable future, so at least I have that over the Tories.
Today, November 18, 2022, I am 54. A Scorpio, whatever that means. A dear friend composed my birth chart a couple years ago and informed me that I am a “double Scorpio,” which sounds neat and intense, and my ego-driven side (all of me?) hopes it makes me sound mysterious and sexy, but it just means that the sun and moon were both in the same sign at the moment of my debut on life’s stage. To my non-astrology believing ears it just sounds like “double thing I double don’t believe in.”
Element 54 is xenon. It was difficult to find at first, suspected to exist, but it took its 19th Century discoverers quite a bit of work to isolate it. So its discoverers, Sir William Ramsay and Morris Travers, chose the Greek word, “xenos,” meaning “stranger” as inspiration for its name.
My year past has featured a lot of work, and someone I thought I knew well has turned out to be a stranger. So first, betrayal, which will ultimately make this column unfold like a bizarre episode of Dynasty that somehow veers into The Waltons. [Pretend Editor’s Note: Please insert more current cultural references in here, Mark.]
An individual with whom I had a close relationship both professionally and emotionally decided to cease our creative productions, our conversations, and all contact with me during the summer. I know what that sounds like: I must have provoked this. All stories have two sides. No explanation was offered, so if I did something, I apologized and I apologize again here (as if this will be read by this person). I have no clue, and it hurts. It hurts.
Because this person (she was and is a woman, so, you know, feelings were felt and expressed) was a daily part of my life for thirty months, even though it was a cross-country connection, it was indeed a connection, a deep and meaningful one I thought, and the sudden cessation has felt more like a death occurred than anything else. This was an important relationship, for me at least if not for her, and this is a break-up of sorts. All of the emotional structure of a breakup, but minus the relationship.
Have I ghosted people who were ostensibly important to me, even some who I felt were too important to me, in my past? Yes, sad to say, I have. Even in these sober years, I have. So if cosmic emotional balance is a thing that exists, I am in balance.
The most difficult part has been the thought, probably incorrect, that maybe it had been a prank that she, a professional comedian, put together with her fellow performers all along: Perhaps the friendship always had air quotes around that word, had never been real, which is why is was easy for her to sever ties with a breathtaking abruptness. It makes it difficult for me to appreciate the work she and I created together. There were songs she wrote with my name in the titles, videos we scripted and performed, many laughs shared and a few tears.
It is sad and there is nothing I can do.
In the 1890s, Sir William Ramsay was in pursuit of an answer to a chemical question that had perplexed chemists for a century: how is it that nitrogen extracted from chemical compounds, from materials, should be lighter than nitrogen that is extracted from the air. One would think that anything from the air would be lighter than anything from substances.
Ramsay and eventually his student Morris Travers started to break nitrogen down. Atmospheric nitrogen, when heated, left behind a heavier gas. That answered the question about the minuscule but weird difference in weight. They named the gas argon, or “lazy” because it is inert, but its discovery implied a whole new family of elements. It would just take looking. They found helium, then krypton, then xenon. It took increasingly complex tests and many of them to isolate these gasses.
The bigger story from my year just past was the remarkable number of addresses I resided in. My landlord from 2019 through the two COVID years decided to sell the house we both lived in and move out of state. I chose to stay here in New Paltz and a friend reached out with a proposition: He had a bid on a home, so would I be interested in renting part of the downstairs for a studio apartment of sorts? It took almost six months for his mortgage to be approved, so in the meantime a friend offered part of her house. So from the home I’d lived in for a few years I moved to the house my friend who was trying to buy a home was renting, then when his lease there expired, I moved on to the kind friend’s home (house number three), then when the purchase went through, the studio apartment.
I have nothing on Ramsay and Travers and their search for the noble gasses, but pardon me if I hear a little echo in the story of a search for something they knew existed but could not find without time and effort: in my case, a home.
Xenon is used in headlights and in MRIs. It is inert and heavy. When one turns on a car headlight, xenon is the first chemical in the lamp to start to glow before the other chemicals “switch on.”
The uses for which xenon finds its value are for things that we did not know we would ever need to do or ever be able to do until we discovered xenon.
All of my experiences this year—from the search for permanence and the comfort of home and the embrace of trust, a new voice as a writer, the breaking of that trust—it may all be work to find something whose worth I do not yet know how to measure or even notice, but after this year may prove to be incredibly valuable. Like xenon. My xenon year, 54.
Mark Aldrich is a journalist, award-winning humor columnist, and writer/performer with the Magnificent Glass Pelican radio comedy improv group, now in its thirty-second season:
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