Revelations in Unexpected Places

While my writing habit is still (and likely always will be) under construction, reading on the other hand is a part of what makes me who I am, seemingly fully formed within my DNA. Reading is also a way to escape. Sometimes I escape a bit too much, but that’s a story for another day. Most of the time, I manage to strike a good balance.

Cats and books

Cats are good reading companions – until they try to sit on your book.

The only time in my life when I haven’t been able or wanted to read was right after my husband Doug’s stroke. My mind could not latch onto the information and in any case, if I had a rare few spare moments, I spent them sleeping or just sitting. Stories held no interest for me, as nothing in them spoke to me, and any escape felt impossible anyway.

That went on for nearly the whole first year. I slowly but surely started to have the mental and emotional bandwidth to re-enter into words and ideas outside my own lived experience. I realized that it requires empathy and engagement to be a good reader, whether it’s fiction or non-fiction. Thankfully, I am back to my old self, the person who wants to read every book I see (my NWC pals and I just went to Third Place Books and two out of three of us walked out with yet another tome for the pile while the third one said he found “$180 worth of books” to desire just on the first display table). Book lust indeed.

These days, I find myself reading two or three books simultaneously, in part due to all the platforms on which you can now read. I still prefer actual pages to feel and flip through (and smell, if it’s an old book), and I like reading non-electronic books at night, but I’m totally happy to read on my phone on the train. Yes, phones are tiny and therefore challenging for us aging folks, but I just bump up the font size to grandma and it works fine. I have to scroll about every second, so my finger (or thumb, depending on how crowded the train is; you CAN read on a phone with one hand if you have to) gets a good workout.

After perusing my writing friend Peg Cheng’s 2016 reading list, I picked up a copy of “Cartwheeling in Thunderstorms” by Katherine Rundell*. The ambiguous, joyful-yet-ominous title grabbed my attention. This is a book for “young readers” but I’ve never let that stop me (and neither have you probably…Harry Potter, Hunger Games, etc.). Books are books, I don’t care who the supposed audience is.

I knew the book had a great story and protagonist (a fiercely independent and happy girl named Will growing up in Africa who, due to some unfortunate events, is sent to London to a girls boarding school). Sounds entertaining, right? Strong female character, right on. So, totally worth reading on those merits alone. Will’s childhood in Africa was a revelation, in how utterly aware she was of her vitality and the joy she found in every moment of her life. Too often, I feel like we don’t appreciate what we have and we can only look back and realize how good it was later. A good reminder to stay present and stay grateful.

Even though the story sounds a bit unconventional, many of the themes are really universal. For example, as kids (and adults, if we’re being honest), most of us have had the experience of being “new” and like a fish out of water, getting made fun of (or outright bullied), and feeling mystified as to why people don’t seem to get, or worse, hate, who you are. To maintain your sense of self when you’re being battered by these forces is a fight, and many of us give up, capitulating to conformity.

For me, the theme that resonated the most was about coping with loss and change. Life can change dramatically at any given moment. We know this, and yet until we’re actually faced with a situation like this – where there’s the “before” and the “after” of your life’s story – we cannot know how we will respond. I won’t say much more since I don’t want to reveal anything, just that I wasn’t expecting to find clues to solving my own life mystery in this wonderful book. That’s what I love about reading, from any and all genres – you might only be trying to escape, but instead you are being found.

* This is an affiliate link; purchases support Peg’s work.
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We’re Turning Three

Today is the third anniversary of Doug’s stroke on Oahu and the beginning of a very different phase of our lives. There’s nothing special about the date, I could very easily forget it. Plus I’m not very good at remembering dates, unlike my mother, who still remembers all the Beatles’ birthdays. This particular date in our lives doesn’t feel the same as say, 9/11. Sure, it impacted OUR lives greatly and of course, those of our family and friends. But it doesn’t have that same shock and grief of a national or international tragedy, seared into our collective minds. Personal tragedy is just that, personal.

Still, around this time of year, I feel something’s amiss. Or maybe that’s not the right word. It’s a kind of body  knowledge, an inner discord that I don’t immediately recognize. Feeling spaced out like there’s something I’m forgetting, or that I’ve lost but I don’t know what it is.  A real or phantom pain of unknown origin.

And then I’ll realize – oh, it’s almost that day. And then what to do with that information? Do something life-affirming or stay in bed reading? (Well, to me that IS life-affirming but I mean actually leaving the house, maybe visiting a museum.) Or pretend it is just another day, in which I do chores and run errrands? One could easily spend the day raging, maybe writing “Fuck you, universe” over and over. Or try to do something positive in the world, some tangible reminder that whatever has befallen us we are still more fortunate than many others.

The first anniversary we had a celebration, of sorts. Stayed in a nice hotel downtown, went out to a fancy dinner, did the underground tour the next day. It felt right to mark our achievement of making it through that first year. Then Doug had his first seizure a couple weeks later and because I’m superstitious sometimes, I decided we had given the date too much weight. So last year, we pretty much ignored it.

This year, Doug is up skiing, which is both challenging and rewarding for him. I hope he has the kind of day up there that gives him back a sense of his old self. The change in our identities has been one of the biggest challenges in this whole life-altering event. Obviously, it’s a way bigger change for Doug, both physically and emotionally, but I’ve changed as well – not always willingly. Do I like mowing the lawn? Hell no. Did I mention that Doug also used to cook most of our meals? He covered a lot of ground, that I now valiantly attempt to live up to. I am still and will always be completely hopeless at some things though, like organizing the pantry. Also, our car may or may not have moss growing on it.

So would I like to be my “old self” again? The one who spent hours reading food blogs so I could give Doug a grocery list and his meal plan for the week? That kind of time and freedom feels like such a luxury to me now, one that I didn’t appreciate at the time. I really could have been doing a lot more with it. I use my time much more wisely now, and cherish the spare moments I have for reading, writing, seeing friends, going for a walk…

I know I’m also a stronger person now, I’ve had to be, and I’m learning to be kinder to myself. I have days where I feel like I’ve failed miserably, but I realize I could have given up long ago and haven’t. And, even though I’m not all the way to accepting our new identities and the resulting changes to what we mapped out for our future, I’m making progress. I read that age 3-4 is when children start to develop a sense of humor and empathy. We’re far from being kids at this point, but I feel like maybe this is still a relevant concept, because we have had to start completely over in so many ways, figuring out who we are now and what we want for ourselves. I hope we do continue to grow stronger, laugh more and act more compassionately.

c-bunnies

Chocolate is a mood-enhancing food.

Today though, in honor of turning 3, I had a bowl of cocoa bunnies cereal for breakfast and then we’ll see where the day takes me.

Where in the World I Was

People start blogs, keep at them for a while, then drop them. I swore I wouldn’t do that, I wouldn’t be the cliché. But here we are. And I probably should have known it would happen, given my general habit of starting things but not finishing them. Like this bleeping rug that was hatched (can rugs hatch? why not?) in 2014.

Rug in the making

The hundreds of recycled clothing items that are becoming a rug.

I will finish it this year, even if I have to work on it in the sweltering heat of August.

In our post-stroke life, there is no shortage of excuses for not doing the things we should do – exercising, eating well, reading instead of watching TV – but in the end, they’re still just excuses. 2016 was a year I’d rather forget, but like every day of every year, there are consequences for our choices. I chose to focus on our own tiny sphere, or maybe it’s more accurate to say that life threw a bunch more challenges our way and I focused on those in order to maintain my sanity. It was all I felt I had control over, and even then, it wasn’t really in my control. Doug still has epilepsy and takes two meds to keep seizures at bay. Both our dogs still passed away last year.

Meanwhile, our democracy was in the process of driving itself right to the edge of the cliff, and we’re now teetering. Given my inability (or unwillingness) to take action to help prevent that, I’ve pledged to focus on helping us pull back, or at the very least, get the vulnerable passengers out of the damn vehicle. I’ve thought about this a lot, because putting energy into resisting all that’s going on right now is hard – not just for me, but for so many of my family members, friends, co-workers, and neighbors, and at times it feels daunting when I have a lot on my plate already.

It would be easy for me to go the victim mentality (which I have done at times, trust me), and just fall right into the trap of believing that Doug and I have paid our dues, so we’re off the hook. But the reality is, we’ve weathered our own personal tragedy so well because of our privilege. Our good jobs and medical insurance. Our families with means to help us. The flexibility in our schedules to focus on therapy and healing. Not everyone has these “luxuries,” which shouldn’t be thought of as luxuries at all. Basic humanity. Something that we should be able to provide in this country. Having this kind of privilege is a gift and shouldn’t be squandered.

So what the hell am I doing writing, NOW? Shouldn’t I be making phone calls to my representatives? Or volunteering time to organizations that help refugees, or protecting the environment? Yes, and.

I’ve been doing a lot of reading on the role of writers and artists during times like these, as well as on hope and activism. The resounding message is that action and words are both necessary.

Here’s a quote by James Baldwin that I read today (I’m currently obsessed with his writings; items in bold are my emphasis):

The greatest poet in the English language found his poetry where poetry is found: in the lives of the people. He could have done this only through love — by knowing, which is not the same thing as understanding, that whatever was happening to anyone was happening to him. It is said that his time was easier than ours, but I doubt it — no time can be easy if one is living through it. I think it is simply that he walked his streets and saw them, and tried not to lie about what he saw: his public streets and his private streets, which are always so mysteriously and inexorably connected; but he trusted that connection. And, though I, and many of us, have bitterly bewailed (and will again) the lot of an American writer — to be part of a people who have ears to hear and hear not, who have eyes to see and see not — I am sure that Shakespeare did the same. Only, he saw, as I think we must, that the people who produce the poet are not responsible to him: he is responsible to them.

That is why he is called a poet. And his responsibility, which is also his joy and his strength and his life, is to defeat all labels and complicate all battles by insisting on the human riddle, to bear witness, as long as breath is in him, to that mighty, unnameable, transfiguring force which lives in the soul of man, and to aspire to do his work so well that when the breath has left him, the people — all people! — who search in the rubble for a sign or a witness will be able to find him there.

I’ll never be Shakespeare or Baldwin, of course, but while I may write for myself, more importantly, I will try to find the courage to bear witness while I do that. And because you never know what your words might do for someone else. My writing inspiration this week is thanks to the wonderful writer and writing coach Peg Cheng (@pegcheng), whose blog I love and who tweeted me after reading this poor neglected blog. Thank you Peg, for the encouragement and inspiration.