06/13/2012 03:33 pm ET Updated Aug 13, 2012

Getting It

Dear Waldo,

It's 4 a.m. and I must admit to you that I am in a terrible way. I cannot sleep, and this is not like me. I'm 64, and my husband is three years older than I am, and when we go to bed at night and I hold him I can feel the loosening of his skin, and on the back of his neck are little things he's never had before, and the thought of not having him anymore is too much for me. We have three wonderful children who are grown and are out in the world now, and the idea of the phone ringing and then one of them never coming home again is so awful it seems to break into little pieces as I think this. And I'll hear my pulse in my ears, and then I'll think about all that has to happen to keep my heart going, that it's just this moving thing inside of me that I have nothing to do with really, and outside it's so dark, and I just want to curl up with my babies and my husband and say it's okay, it's okay, it's okay, and I can see my reflection in the window now. I can see an old lady sitting in front of the fire, writing and crying, writing and crying, except it's not even a real fire, it's gas and the logs are fake, but here's the honest truth: I put my tongue to the corner of my mouth and my tears seem so delicious and the crazy thing is I am loving this moment, just loving it.

Well, since I wrote the last sentence a while has gone by in which I cried so deeply I began to worry about my back, but now I feel so sleepy. Isn't that something? How I can feel sleepy with all this in my head. Well, maybe I'll send this letter tomorrow and maybe I won't. If I do, it does not require a response.


Helen Sammers

Dear Helen,

I'm delighted you decided to send your letter because it gives me an opportunity to focus upon the concept of "getting it." Getting it is most commonly linked with jokes, and so I'm going to tell you one right now:

A married couple lives by the beach and they're throwing a party, and the wife asks her husband to go collect some sea snails so she can make escargot. The guy goes down to the water and begins collecting snails into a pail when he meets an absolutely beautiful woman sunbathing. They talk for a while and then she invites him in to her beachside cabana. They have a few drinks and before you know it they're making love, and then the guy falls asleep. Three hours later he wakes up to the horror of his situation. He throws on his clothes, grabs the pail of snails, dashes back to his house. And as he leaps up the steps to his door he trips, dumping the pail of snails onto the walkway. Now the door opens, and looking down at him is his wife. A horrible pause. The guy turns to the snails on the ground, "C'mon guys, you're doing great, almost there, keep it up, doing good, not much farther..."

Not a bad joke, right Helen? I'm assuming you get it. The "getting it" I'm talking about happens in an instant -- in this particular case, at some point while the husband is coaxing the snails. At that instant when you "get it," if the joke is to your liking, you celebrate it with a burst of laughter. It feels involuntary, doesn't it? As if the joke itself did this to you.

Now that you know the joke, you might be able to break it down and reach an understanding about what makes it funny. That is, with your head you may be able to understand the machinery of the joke -- the innocent gathering of snails, the beautiful sunbather, the cheating husband, the tension of the wife at the door -- but this understanding is completely separate from your getting it. Getting it happens in an instant. It does not involve the plodding of understanding. It's as if the tips of two wires touch -- one connected to you and the other connected to everything else -- and suddenly a flash of order leaps from the chaos and is gone as soon as you glimpse it. You may laugh if the joke is told again, but you will never get the same flash.

There's another kind of "getting it," Helen, that has the same dynamics as the getting of a joke, but the getting it I'm talking about now is much bigger, much more powerful, much more special. You at 4 a.m., in the glow of fake logs burning in a gas fire, weeping at you have no firm idea what, that too is "getting it." A sudden flash of fragility and beauty and desperation and sweetness and panic and magnificence and helplessness and thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you, and then it's gone. Moment over. No understanding. Never to happen exactly like that again.

I say lucky you.

Your fan,

Waldo Mellon