In the March 2000 issue of NEW MOBILITY, Paul Kahn, inspired by his famous subject in his profile/interview, “An Encounter with Stephen Hawking,” wrote about himself: “I feel that the task of my life is to make something positive out of my difference, rather than deny it. I must live more intensely. I must speak more truthfully. I must not waste time.”
When Paul died on New Year’s Day, 2010, I felt like I had lost a colleague and good friend — even though we never actually met. He was a writer, editor, critic, psychological counselor, disability rights advocate, poet and playwright. He was also an NM freelancer with a gift for probing deeply, an excellent essayist, someone I could depend on to engage our readers intellectually. Yet I never shared a meal or a drink with him, never sat next to him and enjoyed watching one of his plays.
I knew Paul through his writing, as I know many freelance writers whose dedication to their craft is indispensible to this magazine. In a piece he wrote in Reflections from a Different Journey, edited by Stan Klein and John Kemp (2004), Paul wrote about discovering his artistic bent as a child born with myotubular myopathy: “Drawing, painting and sculpting gave me a sense of independence and competence because I could do them well and by myself. They also increased my sense of belonging. Through my artwork, I could communicate my feelings and, therefore, felt less alone. The admiration and praise I received from my parents and others made me more confident and outgoing. Sitting at our kitchen table with my paints, crayons and clay, I felt that I was part of a world of artists where I was valued and accepted, unlike the playground world, where all that seemed to matter was how hard you could hit a ball or throw a punch.”
Throughout his life, even though he was fighting a losing battle with a progressive disease, Paul never stopped finding enjoyment in the things he loved most. As time went on, his writing and appreciation of art became more important to him. His wife Ruth wrote of his last days in an e-mail she sent out to his friends: “Right up to the end, Paul had wonderful days filled with writing, a little eating for pleasure, visits from family and friends, and writing. Last week, he enjoyed attending the abstract-expressionist exhibit at the Danforth Museum, featuring some of his former art teachers from Boston University.”
Losing one of our own is always difficult, yet it gives us an opportunity to reflect on what makes life precious. In Paul’s last essay for NM ["Hunger," February 2010], he wrote of losing the ability to eat — but still found joy in the pleasures that remained: “There is still my wife’s smile and touch. There is still the beauty of art. There is still a cheetah’s grace.”
Paul’s words and his art will live on, connecting us with the world at large as well as with our personal worlds. But mostly, they connect us with a man worthy of our admiration and respect who lived intensely, spoke truthfully, and made the most of his life.