I Am Awake
Published: Apr 19, 2010
Norman Mailer said you don’t really know a woman “until you meet her in court.”
I might add, “Or until she sends you her book.”
With Fern Nesson, the question requires another: Which book?
Because there are many Fern Nessons.
The Fern Nesson I met a few years ago is the wife of Charles Nesson, the mega-talented Harvard Law professor. That alone told me she’s much more than arm candy. How much more, I’d learn only recently.
Fern Nesson, it turns out, graduated from Barnard, applied to Harvard Law on a whim, won admission instantly. After a triumphant sprint through law school, she moved back to New York to clerk for a U.S. District Court judge and become a civil rights lawyer. Charles Nesson remained at Harvard. An unthinkable distance — in 1972, she returned to Cambridge and married him.
The second Fern Nesson — the lawyer — endured a "white shoe" law firm for an interminable eighteen months before moving on to work for Marian Edelman at the Children’s Defense Fund.
The third Fern Nesson was the mother of two daughters, a voracious reader, a killer tennis player.
The fourth Fern Nesson was a Ph.D. candidate in American History at
Brandeis. Her department sent her master’s thesis to the University Press of New England; the publisher promptly sent her a contract, and
“Great Waters: A History of Boston’s Water Supply” was published in 1981.
The fifth Fern Nesson was an assistant district attorney doing first
degree murder appeals for the Middlesex County District Attorney.
She turned 40. After “some intense thinking about my future,” she quit her job and — as the sixth Fern Nesson —began writing a novel, “Harmonic Convergence.”
The seventh Fern Nesson, recalling her childhood ambition, got her Masters degree and, for eight years, taught American History and Eastern Religions at the Cambridge School of Weston.
At 50, the eighth Fern Nesson, seeking a tough challenge, began to study Math at Harvard. Three years as a math teacher at Boston’s Commonwealth School followed, then a few years teaching Medieval History. Two years ago, she added another role: Director of College Counseling.
As I opened I Am Awake, I got it — this book is authored by the many-lived Fern Nesson. It’s everything she’s learned, everything she’s read, everything she can draw with a Japanese brush or paint with watercolors, everything she can photograph. As the distillation of a rich, textured, privileged life, it’s a centering device, a meditation-starter — for the author and reader alike.
“Reader” may be too strong. You turn pages, quickly at first. Here’s Chuang Tzu — “You will find the answer in the sound of water” — with a lovely photo of water and sky on the facing page. Pema Chodron’s “Say yes to life. Soften and open” is paired with a photo of hydrangeas. “Make love with light,” from John Daido Loori, is matched with a delicate watercolor.
Pretty, you think. Very. But to what point? Then, as you keep turning pages, your pace slows — the book tunes you. The words, though profound, seem less heavy; the images are less like art. On the next to the last page, Nesson quotes herself: “All my life has prepared me for this very moment.” Ah. Aha.
And on the final spread, the reveal — a story:
A man asked Buddha: “Are you are celestial being or a god?”
“Are you a magician or a wizard?”
“Are you a man?”
“Well then, my friend, what are you?”
“I am awake.”
That’s the pinnacle, yes? It seems typical of Fern Nesson, after all her learning and teaching, after all the high-powered conversations and famous friends, that she has the greatest possible ambition.
“I Am Awake” — expensive, self-published in a preliminary private run of 50 — might sit on a coffee table. But it’s the furthest thing from a coffee table book.
To buy “I Am Awake” — or to see the first 15 pages — click here.