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Roger Ebert on Travel, Writing, and Being Lonely

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In the wake of the passing of film critic Roger Ebert, I am, like many of Ebert’s admirers, revisiting some of his writings. I was particularly struck by this essay, All By Ourselves Alone, in which he discusses his travel rituals in cities like Venice and London. He opens the piece at a familiar Venetian cafe:

Of course you must have a newspaper, a book, a sketchpad–anything that seems to absorb you. If you are simply sitting there, you will appear to be a Lonely Person and people will look away from you. If you seem preoccupied, you can observe them more closely. In any event, I do not sit there for the purpose of people-watching.

No, I am engaged in Being By Myself in a City Where No One Knows Who I Am and No One I Know Knows Where to Find Me. I have such places in many cities. London, of course. Paris. Rome. Stockholm. Edinburgh. Cape Town. Cannes.

He goes on to describe how he likes to visit many of the same places and dine on the same meals every time he returns to a city.

I may to the onlooker appear to suffer from some sort of compulsive repetition syndrome, but in fact I am engaged in a personal ritual. I have many sacred places, where I sit and think, “I have been here before, I am here now, and I will be here again.”

By the time Ebert wrote this meditation on some of his sacred places, in 2009, he had already lost the use of his voice to thyroid cancer. Ebert lost the ability to speak, as well as to eat or drink normally (i.e., without the aid of a feeding tube), in 2006 after undergoing a tracheotomy and having part of his jaw removed. Three years had passed between that surgery and “All By Ourselves Alone,” so it is easy to imagine how Ebert was able to conjure the wistfulness that comes through in this nostalgic essay.

But the thing that moves me about this piece, especially when coupled with this TED Talk in 2011, is that it came at the beginning of one of the most prolific periods in Ebert’s writing life. In his last post, A Leave of Presence, published earlier this week, right before he passed, Ebert noted that last year he had published 306 movie reviews (up from a typical 200 per year) in addition to a couple of blog posts per week. Ebert was lucid and thoughtful up until the end. Ever a writer.

At the end of his life, Roger Ebert made use of a computer to speak, either by writing text that was translated to speech or by making use of email, Twitter, and other programs to communicate. In the TED Talk, Ebert notes:

I have not come here to complain, I have much to make me happy and relived. I seem, for the time being, to be cancer-free. I am writing as well as ever, I am productive. If I were in this condition at any point before a few cosmological instances ago, I would be as isolated as a hermit. I would be trapped inside my head. Because of the rush of human knowledge, because of the digital revolution, I have a voice, and I do not need to scream.

I’ve been a casual reader of Roger Ebert’s columns over the years, but it has only been in the past several years that this larger-than-life character came to life for me thanks to his personal essays and commentary on Twitter. Because he kept busy, Ebert did not appear to be a “Lonely Person,” the type of person he didn’t want to be when he was sitting in that cafe in Venice. He kept himself preoccupied with writing up until the very end of his life.

And what a life it was. It’s easy to be awed by a Pulitzer Prize winner, an author of 20 books, and a writer whose work was syndicated in more than 200 newspapers. But now as I reflect on the life of Roger Ebert, I’m inspired by his dedication to his work; his delight in his writing, even as (or especially as) it became his sole means of communication; and his reluctance to allow himself to be lonely even while pursuing a rather solitary profession.

“I have been here before, I am here now, and I will be here again.” It seems to be the perfect mantra for coping with the ups and downs of writing and life.

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