Jill Bolte Taylor's Stroke of Insight


Monday, August 8, 2016


It's that time of year again. Leaving-time. Today I took my last drive through town, enjoyed my last chance to drive the speed limit without some jerk hanging on my tail; turning left into light traffic without fearing a crash. I drove around with the windows down, fresh air flowing through the car, no A/C. A cool rain fell, soaking the trees and bushes, greening up everything as far as I could see. When I came up the driveway to my parents' place, a moose calf darted ahead of me, its long legs tangling in surprise, oversized ears whirling around like satellite dishes to catch the sound of my engine. I slowed, letting it run ahead of me, looking for its mama.

Tonight I had my last home-harvested meal, savoring zucchini, tomatoes, lettuce and cukes grown in Mom's garden, freshly picked berries, and halibut caught from the inlet that we can see from the house. This may all sound sugar-sweet and sentimental, but I grew up this way, as did many of us, and so you'll forgive me, maybe, if I look back even as I am propelled forward. I know I have to leave this place. I can't survive in this economy. My work lies out there, a twelve-hour journey and three-hour time change back into the "lower 48" as they call it here. Also, out there lies my sweetheart and our life together, for as long as we choose to make it our life.

But it's a life that's grown increasingly unsatisfactory. It's nobody's fault, and everyone's. It is hot (106 degrees today) and crowded. Everybody wants to be there, so everybody moves there, and then everybody complains about how crowded it is. How hot it is. How unsatisfactory, suddenly, now that the artists and musicians who used to be able to afford to call it home, can't, due to rising rent, the bulldozing of extant (affordable) music venues, restaurants and rental districts and their replacement by cookie-cutter housing. Our culture--first-world culture--seemingly cannot escape from its desire to inflict this upon itself. To chase the arts, culture, music, freedom, natural living, good food and small business out of an area in its desire to consume them. And to replace them with hollow imitations which cost more, but are worth less.

I moved from a town that values local musicians, art, small-business ownership, freedom, wildness and tourist traps (and has a higher crime rate--i.e. the frontier) to a town that used to possess all of those things and is in the midst of trading them for pop-up condos, chain businesses, stronger police presence/control, and even more tourist traps. I wonder if sometimes I might be better off living out away someplace, in a town I haven't heard about yet, where people still live close to the land. But even they are affected--every last indigenous one of them, in every corner of the world--by the things that are being done. By our A/C and our cultural addiction to gasoline and our insistence on using plastic and mass-producing our food and it's too late, it's already two degrees too late.

I had a dream last night about a raven. He was injured, my dog had grabbed him as he fell from the sky and punctured him in several places. I rescued him from my dog's jaws as he flapped and croaked indignantly, and, over time, healed his wounds. We became friends, Raven and I, although he was angry with me, and rightfully so. To allow my beast to mistreat him so...! Eventually, though, Raven forgave me. And as he forgave me, he took his human form, a dusty-skinned man with dark, flowing hair and sharp eyes that crackled when he laughed. I was in awe of him. As the last of his wounds healed, we spoke for long hours. I told him I was ashamed for all that my race was doing to the planet, but that I didn't know how to make amends other than to continue healing the wounds of the creatures around me. Raven didn't give me any pointers. He only looked at me sideways with those sharp, mocking eyes. He spoke to me without a voice: You've really screwed it up, he said. All you can do now, is all you can do. And, healed of the last of his wounds, he reclaimed his raven form and spread his wings--blacker than black--and took flight.

I woke this morning with the lasting impression of those sparkling black eyes, challenging me. I subscribe to the school of thought which says that the dreamer is represented by every subject in the dream. And why not? It's my dream. It came out of my head. I am the Raven. I am also the dog, and the healer, and the guilty party ashamed for all the sins of the human race.

Taking it one step further, I am the person who is uncertain of leaving my home; and also uncertain of staying. I am the one who loves harvesting fresh fish, berries, and vegetables and eating them right here at my mother's table; and I am the one who loves adventuring out into the world to live elsewhere, to make a life that is still a mystery to me. I am the driver of the car that frightened a young moose calf today, who delighted in the fresh cold wind that brought the rain into my face as I drove; I am the person who is, even so, unsatisfied with country life and must go make my fortune in the city just like everyone else who is driven there. I am the one who cannot wait to get on the plane tomorrow night, even though I am beginning to hate the place that I know it is taking me to; I am that same person who cannot wait until I get to land at the Anchorage airport again, walk outside, look at the mountains, fill my lungs with fresh air, and weep because I am, after all, home again.

Life is complicated. Life is simple. All we can do is care for the creatures around us, animal and human. Maybe we can do more than that, but I have not found it. It's a catch-22, that we want to stay but we have to go. I don't know anyone who doesn't live with this predicament, not even the tides rushing and out of the inlet on which my hometown sits. Like them, I'll be back. But like Raven, I have to go. I don't know if I can forgive myself for this, but maybe it doesn't matter.

Friday, August 5, 2016


August. Not even 11pm and it's dark out. The rain has been going all day, sometimes pelting the metal roof like a hail of metal BB's, sometimes soft and misting. The cloud cover is low and muted, gull-wing gray.

I am hibernating. That's what you're supposed to do at your parents' house, go to your room and close the door, wrap up in the goosedown comforter. Mom comes every now and then, taps softly, and when I'm too deep to hear, she peeks in to see I'm alright. Sometimes I wake and she comes and sits on my bedside. She's so light she barely dents the mattress. She puts her hand to my forehead, but there's no fever. There's nothing wrong with me externally. Just, sad. No reason. It's fall, and raining, and soon I will have to leave home and travel to a place that is also home, but not-home.

I don't want to go. I never want to. It's been this way since I was a kid. I dig up old journals from the shed out back, a treasure trove of scrawlings and pencil drawings starting from when I was seven years old. I open any one of them and find a kid on a journey, either coming or going. In one: "I don't think I want to go to daddy's this year. It's so far and I don't think they want me and I don't want to leave Alaska." And then that self-same kid, not even two months later: "I don't want to leave daddy. He might be lonely for me, and I'll miss the sunshine and my sisters and Dee" (the dog, whom I'd known all my life, got a name; the baby sisters didn't, not till later). The pencil art depicts my imaginary friends: dragons and unicorns and flying horses and packs of wolves. They accompanied me everywhere and did all sorts of naughty things. They were all called Nameless, one dragon in particular wreaking havoc on every adult that incurred my wrath. Funny, after all these years he's been popping up again. Just a glimpse here and there in my peripheral vision: a red wraith, a jet of fire, a shadow on the mountains.

I dig up my mother's journals too, and she lets me read them: the years just after my birth, the hardest of her life. I grieve with her twenty-something self. How resilient she was, how determined to continue on with things! Sometimes the most courageous thing you can do is take a tennis lesson in the face of looming depression, rage, failure. I grew up not knowing how brave she was, and so when hardship came along for me in the form of clinical depression and subsequent mania, I kept up the charade as long as I could. But unlike her, I leapt, one Alaskan winter, off the edge of sanity. And that's what made the final decision on living an uninterrupted life here in the north. Nameless came to accompany me as I made my exodus down south. The doctors tried to medicate him away, but it never quite worked. After a while I stopped talking about him, and that seemed to make them feel better. A fire-breathing dragon who came from a cave in an Alaskan mountain range is probably not going to make a good city slicker. He's more polite these days but I wouldn't trust him not to rear his head in a bar fight.

Still, leaving is hard. I slept all day today and woke up in time for dinner. I was social enough to get by for a few hours and now I am back in bed. I dread going back to regular life which has become a chore. Back and forth to work in crushing traffic and smothering heat. Then back out to get groceries. Clean the house. Do the laundry. Wash. Rinse. Repeat. I work hard to rise above it and squeeze out creative juices; in order to write memoir one must swim deeply into the past. I am asked, why bother with the past? It's the past for a reason; leave it there.

But like the salmon that are disappearing from the waters of my home state, I like swimming upstream. You cannot write honestly about anything without living it. Life does not come without pain. So in order to write, I have to hurt. That's just how I do it. Some days I stay in bed all day. Some days I walk around in the mountains. If I'm not in Alaska, then some days I just have to sit on the couch, close my eyes, put on some good music and slip away in my mind's eye. Maybe Nameless shows up or maybe not. Maybe my mother calls and I can hear her making tea, or talking to her horse in the background, and we make plans for my next trip "home." Maybe, now and then, I hibernate in my new bed, five thousand miles south, and the dog comes to lay his head on the edge of it and put his nose next to mine. He's so light he doesn't dent the mattress, but I know he's there. And there's nothing wrong with me. It's just sadness. It will pass.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016


Walking the dog past dark
I hadn't meant to be caught out this way
it was daylight when we left
but things happen
and the night seemed tame
there were couples with strollers
and dogs when I left the house.

It was safe, is my point
But it isn't now
it seems less safe as I push my way
through the patch of woods that leads
to the field where we always play ball
the dog and I.

For a moment I don't see him
the man sitting on the ground ahead of me
He looks like a tree stump
or a large rock
but he is a man
sitting motionless there
with a backpack, maybe, I can't tell
But a man all the same
just waiting.

And suddenly the patch of woods
that is so familiar during the daytime
surrounded by neighbors and filled
with green, filtered sunlight
feels evil, feels too-close, too-hot
with its smell of tomato vines and gasoline.

I don't know whether to run or stay
my heart does not race, my hands do not sweat
what happens instead is a kind of suppressed
molten rage that bubbles in my belly: he
has frightened me
and fear is a lit match to the lake of oil
that lies at the center of what it means
to be a woman walking alone past dark.

So what I do is I walk on past
I don't run and I don't stop to ask
what he is doing there, to see if he
might be hurt, or waiting to hurt me.
He stays silent and does not move
he just watches me go on by
and he doesn't know, or maybe he does
with the senses of those who prey
or are preyed upon
about the pillar of fire that is my spine.

I take the dog and we go on home
in the shadowless cover of the dark
while other men walk by.
I stare down each one
though I don't know their intent
and I know that my eyes throw out sparks
like a faulty furnace about to blow.

Lucky, is what I don't think to myself: lucky
that I didn't get assaulted for walking
in my own neighborhood alone
unintentionally after dark, when it could have been
so much worse.
People will say it though.
You were lucky.

Saturday, April 16, 2016

The Cowboy, The Horse and The Dance

You can't be sad and dance the two-step at the same time. It's some kind of law of physics. The same way that you can't sit heavy and weigh down a barstool while also lightly tripping along in the arms of some cowboy from just outside of town.

I don't know if he's a cowboy. He's dressed like one. Got the hat, the boots, the well-broke-in jeans. I guess first-off that he's fifty but that's a gift; on second inspection he's probably eyeballing seventy from several yards away, getting ready to clear the fence and keep on dancing his way toward the senior center. But the man is a professional with the ladies; he doffs his battered headgear and holds out a hand. The barstool I'm weighing down suddenly threatens to tip over, I leave it so fast. My girlfriend snatches the tequila from my hand and boots me the rest of the way onto the floor.

I haven't two-stepped since the year I moved to Austin. For the first few bars I struggle to remember: is it quick-quick-slow, or quick-quick-sloooow-sloooow, or a combination of both? What do I do with my feet when he turns me? I try to remember to put pressure against his hand, and to relax into his encircling arm. Ladies go backwards; men go forwards; sexist much? I wonder wildly if the cowboy has ever worked a horse in his life. The band is so country it hurts: I mean lyrics like "gee-golly-whillikers I hope we both die together so we can meet up in heaven" kind of shit. And it's still only the first half of the first verse and I'm struggling with my whirling brain, my two left feet, what to do with my clunky right hand, my stiff back and my jaw which will not do anything but clench, madly, against having to spin backwards. I feel like a mustang about to buck straight vertical.

And then it happens. The cowboy shifts his weight to accommodate my quick-quick-stumble. A drip of sweat falls from the brim of his hat to the back of my hand, where it rests on his shoulder. Time quits dragging me forward like a wild horse, and instead of racing into what I'm supposed to do in the next moment, I shut my eyes and stay in this one. I let the old cowhand press me around the dance floor. I move away from him when he moves toward me; I move toward him when he moves away. I stop stepping on his boots and my knees stop colliding with his. The sweat from his neck continues to drip onto the back of my hand, and the front of his shirt soaks the front of mine. He presses me into a graceful twirl, and my back arcs and my knees bend as I whirl away, floating in space but not too far, my center of gravity bound by a strong thin thread to the center of his.

My eyes are still shut. I peek now and then. He doesn't run me into any of the other dancers. Here and there I gouge him with a sharp elbow, but he doesn't seem to mind. And this is how I know he's worked horses. Nobody gains this kind of patience unless they've put in their time around large, gawky prey animals with nervous systems set to "run now, look later."

When the dance is done, he offers me his open palm and leads me back to my bar stool. I thank him and sit back down, but the sadness doesn't sit down with me. The cowboy has somehow unpacked that burden, slid it off and kicked it into a corner. I watch him slope off across the dance floor, just an old dude dressed in old ranch-hand boots and jeans. He's probably got a long drive to get back to wherever he's from. I realize we never exchanged a word. Didn't need to. Dance is a language, and most animals speak it. We're the ones who have forgotten, and have to re-learn. That's alright. The only prerequisite is to be willing, and to close your eyes so that they may be opened to possibility.

Below, I have included a link that illustrates the possibilities of what can happen when we learn to dance with creatures who have not forgotten how:


Sunday, April 10, 2016

Time, Space, and the Rosemary Bush

I go outside because I need to go home to myself. Too long indoors and I forget what my own skin feels like. It needs sunlight, it needs a cold stiff breeze scrubbing against it to know its own boundaries--where my body begins and the world ends--it needs rain.

I went out this morning with the dog to wander around the neighborhood. His perambulations guide our walks, though they don't make much sense to me, because I don't normally go about based on my sense of smell. We stop at benches and street lamps, the corners of fences; we stop at the neighbor's rosemary bush and a perfectly uninteresting clump of grass. Everything must be very carefully and thoroughly smelled and then peed upon. It's a ritual rivaling any one of the world's major religions. He all but crosses himself after every single one.

I choose to be patient this morning, instead of dragging him past his chosen stops. I choose to see the things around me: the leaves of trees silvering in a strong breeze; dark clouds gathering overhead; the flagrant, shameless red of the roses that release their scent so close to my nose while the dog cocks his leg on their lower branches. I take photos. I let words flow through my head. I notice the bumper sticker on a car: a large black and white image of a bald man. I think it might be Gandhi, or else the guy from Breaking Bad; I don't know, I never really watched the show, but I dream of a world where the two might be similar. Passionate, desperate, impoverished men, with a singular goal. Men who don't have much time.

I have time. My brain tricks me, most days, into thinking I don't, but I do. I have as much or as little time as anybody else. Today I have what feels like a dragon's lair of gold full of time. Hours before I have to be anywhere. Hours to wander around and let my skin remember itself, remember what its borders contain: bones that feel light as birds' wings, blood that travels from my fingertips to my feet, a heart that aches sometimes with the weight it carries. I am made of molecules tinier than anything I'll ever see which are 99% space--which is larger than anything I'll ever imagine. Buddhists have known this for centuries. In comparison, physicists figured it out a few years ago. My dog, with his sacred circles of the rosemary bush, doesn't know and wouldn't care that he is 99% space. Does any of it matter? Does time matter? It does to me, today.

We pass the roses and the rosemary again on our way home. They smell so riotous it is like somebody has crushed them together, like maybe god is conjuring up a new form of gorgeous in her giant lab. Who knows? She could be creating another whole universe, one that is contained entirely in the bowl of a rose blossom, and nourished with the rain that drips from the spires of a rosemary bush. If so, I hope there is a dog passing by, leading his human by the hand, and stopping her so that she will notice how slowly time passes there, in that place, while down below he does his business with the grave attention of a saint.

Thursday, March 31, 2016

The C-Word

It's scary, looking the monster in the face. All these thoughts spinning around: it's cancer. It's nothing. I'm paranoid, it's a parasite, it's gluten, it's my imagination, don't be ridiculous. Could it be my imagination? There is pain. The pain scares me. I wonder if I am scared because I feel pain, or if I feel pain because I am scared. The cart and the horse, running circles around one another; the chicken or the egg?

The doctor, whose bedside manner resembles that of a construction crew boss, orders tests. There is little point, he seems to think, in attempting to explain anything to me until he's "gotten in there and had a look around." He says bodies are like machines; they wear out, parts go bad and have to be replaced. This is almost dead opposite of the paradigm I work from on a daily basis, encouraging my clients to think of their bodies as allies, intelligent organisms with multi-layered, elegant, sensitive systems that want to heal themselves and will do so with the right level of input. 

He hasn't said the c-word, but I can hear it whispering in the corners of the room. I can hear it in my own head, dogging my thoughts. It scares me. It also, simultaneously, is doing something I never expected: slowing me down. Distilling each moment down to its bare essence. Today, taking a shower, the sun came slanting through the window and turned the water droplets into thousands of prisms. I stood still, hands raised to my face, bathing in rainbows. It was so beautiful I could barely breathe. Not every moment, but many moments are like this lately: clouds moving across the sky. The white flash of a dove's wing. Water bouncing off my skin. The feeling of falling, when I'm in bed, just before I drift into sleep. The smell of my boyfriend's hair.

And when it turns out that it isn't the c-word, after all; when the tests all come back negative; the gratefulness and ease begin, strangely, to recede. The spinning thoughts of death and the stress and the mental agony, they go, and of course I'm glad to see them go, but also that deep joy in living, that slow loveliness--where has it gone? Daily life rushes back in, demanding, pushing, stamping its foot. My brain reverses and goes back into its usual spin, gets caught up in the little shit. Gotta go here, gotta get there, gotta book another client, what about paying the bills, did the dog get a long enough walk today, what's going to happen tomorrow, next week, next month?

And clearly I have lost my mind again. I find myself missing Death. It was teaching me something. When it was possible that I had something that could kill me, I suddenly knew with absolute clarity what was Important and (just as clearly) what was not Important. None of the daily shit that I worry about is Important. All of the things Death highlighted: the slow savoring of a meal; a conversation with a friend; water running across my skin; sunlight on my face; taking time to make love; feeling the breath fill my lungs; all of these things are Important. All of these things are Now. So what am I doing, right now? What did I do today? Did I do any of those things? Yes, but did I do them consciously, gratefully, as if it might be the last time? As wonderingly as if it were the first time?

I don't want to have cancer. I don't want to live under a death sentence. But I'm thankful that I did taste it, for a little while. I'm thankful for today, for being alive, for being here, now. It doesn't mean feeling happy, not really. Not today. But deeply, insanely thankful. This is a good place to inhabit and I plan to stay here until it's time to leave.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Dog on the Tracks

You always know the ones
who grew up wild from the ones
who once belonged to someone:
that swift look
of unguarded hope they throw you
and the tail: brief flurry of a wave
ears gone twitchy for a voice
that used to summon them home.
Then the slump into despair
tail tucked, ears flattened
and the dog slinks off
just another stray after all.

The wild ones bluster by
a lucky pack of bastards;
never having hoped
they can never despair.
Sharp-eyed and wired for garbage
they tumble through the railyards
one haphazard, blissful day at at time.

I could learn something from them
those irreverent hounds.
I tell myself
to forget you, or if not
then at least howl in anger
but my dumb beast of a heart
just keeps looking down the tracks
wagging its arrhythmic tail.

KB 9/2015