Jill Bolte Taylor's Stroke of Insight


Wednesday, December 30, 2015

It All Goes

We are all here, not because we're fucked up (most people are that) but because we know we're fucked up.
I arrive ten minutes late so that I won't have to interact with anyone, because I'm afraid if I open my mouth to speak, I will start howling. I skip the shitty black coffee and the styrofoam cup because sometimes I worry they will give me cancer. Other times I think cancer is the least of my worries.
People are already sharing.
L bares her heart about her adult son, who has left his wife and kids with no car, no cellphone, no extra clothing--just walked off in the middle of the night. The old "went out for cigarettes" jam.
J tells us jovially that he has been diagnosed with "memory loss" and after a few rambling moments, smiles and spreads his hands and stops speaking in mid-sentence. He's forgotten what else it was he was going to say. We all thank him for speaking, anyway.
P is dressed entirely in black because maybe he believes he is Johnny Cash. He says, in his deep Johnny Cash voice, that he has been thinking a lot lately about his dead wife, although she is thirty-some years gone and he is married these many years, with grown children. The holidays are strange that way. They bring up ghosts.
K makes a sudden and theatrical entrance, a half-hour late, in sweater and scarf and sunglasses, her walker preceding her like the prostrating subject of an empress. She shoos several hapless fuckers off the couch--they flee like birds from a wire--and settles herself there, snorting grandly.
Somebody's cellphone pings into the silence and somebody else glares.
I take a shaking breath. I say, without howling, "I think I'm learning about things coming and things going. That they do. Come and go. Also, I don't really like this planet anymore." And the eyes of the group rest on me. K removes her sunglasses. Nobody laughs, or pulls the "she's batshit" face, or makes any judgments. When I have finished, they thank me and move on.

J comes comes up to me after, he of the lost memories, he of the Buddha belly. His long, once-powerful arms enfold me, choke me against his shoulder. He chuckles and says softly, spitting a little into my ear, "Oh dear. It goes, it all goes. It's alright."

Dancing to the Blues

To call them the holiday blues makes them sound festive. And when you're in the midst of them you know they aren't pretty little multicolored versions of depression. They're not Hallmark-card polite, throat-clearing, back-patting "there, there" types of blues. The holiday blues are a freight train and you are tied to the tracks. They come on slow or they come on fast, and sometimes you feel them coming and sometimes you don't, but when they hit, they hit hard, and they hit you in the guts.

I thought I'd outrun them this year. I went to Mexico to pretend it wasn't Christmas, and it worked. My brain soaked up Vitamin D in copious, drunken quantities, like Hemingway on rum, sprawled out among his six-toed cats and writing like a demon. Neurons, dendrites, limbic system all thrumming to the heady amounts of love, intimacy and communication that come on tap with vacation, mixed in with greedy doses of sleep. It was like a brain spa, and my brain leisurely ordered up its own versions of Swedish massage, salt scrubs, mani-pedis, fruit peels and a few happy endings. By the time vacation ended, my brain naively thought it was ready to get back to "real life."

Cue disaster. As the plane touched down, things began to unravel. Intimacy, warmth, communication and Vitamin D hit the dark, rain-spattered sidewalk like rotted pumpkins hurled down from the freezing sky. I shrank into my beach dress and wrapped a sweatshirt around myself. I hailed a cab and tried to ignore the cabby's apocalyptic grumbling about the weather, about how Austin has changed for the worse, about a fatal accident he'd witnessed on Christmas Eve, about how the Mexicans are destroying downtown, etc, and I felt a rock beginning to form in my belly. Once home, I dug my car out from under fallen leaves, and drove back to the cold, isolated apartment which has scarcely been visited for these many months, but which had somehow, in the brief moments between touchdown and rain-spattered sidewalk, become home again.

And I didn't understand what was happening then, but the slow roar of the freight train should have sounded familiar. After all it has been the backdrop, these many years, to countless Christmas carols and refrains of Auld Lang Syne; no matter how loudly they ring or how many strangers plant kisses on my lips, there is that rumble, that screech, that gut-wrench. I woke up the following morning, alone, with the dark pressing on all sides, and my brain began to lurch like one of India's dancing bears. Why alone? it wanted to know. But I didn't have an answer. Yesterday we were basking in sun, and love, and affection. Today we are stumbling in the cold, isolated. Where is the spa? it asked. There is no spa, I replied. Love is a myth. And indeed, this seemed true. I couldn't communicate for shit. Every time I opened my mouth to speak to my beloved, it had much the same effect as it would if I were a dancing bear, opening its tortured mouth to roar. The brute with the ring in its nose, forced up onto its hind feet: Dance, Bear. Dance! And I did. I danced to the misery and confusion and isolation. I danced to the fear. I danced to the sadness. I wept with frustration. Dancing bears are not beautiful creatures. They are tragic, fearsome, trapped, bleeding, and broken. So the more I danced, the harder I hurt, and the farther away Love went.

Until I realized, looking at it from that far, far distance, that maybe it wasn't really Love at all. Maybe it was just love, the kind of love that loves you until you grow frightening. The kind of love that loves the beautiful but runs from the broken. I can hardly blame it. I am not a very nice creature, in this state, dancing to the holiday blues. But then none of us are, when we dance to our inner demons. We can choose not to. We always have that choice. But it's naive to think we don't need helping hands to guide us, people to reach out to, who will in turn reach out to us. Someone who won't run from the bear, from these ungainly paws that, after all, are asking for help: please take this ring out of my nose. Please help me to trust again.

But it doesn't matter, does it? Whether anyone is there to "help" me trust again. Silly brain. Sweet, silly, flawed, animal brain. We are not built to trust, not with the ground crumbling out from under us, or what we thought was ground, what we have spent months learning to believe was ground. No--we are built to run, to retreat, to protect ourselves when things change. This is why I have worked so very hard at learning to love--to Love--myself. That's the ground I have to start from. Love self, first, and then others, because if I can't love silly, sweet, flawed, animal me, then I can't love anyone else. If I run from the bear, then how can anybody else be expected to stick around? Maybe that's something I can pledge to do in the New Year: sit with myself. My own fearsome, broken bear.

Auld Lang Syne might suck this year, but I won't have to lay on the tracks. And maybe we can dig up some Jay-Z or some Z-Trip or some Zaytoven (it's the end of the year, after all). Anything but the blues. I'm done with them until next year.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

It Is Your Mind

Mexico: I have a whole week with nothing to do, a windswept white beach, and a busy mind that needs unwinding. I have brought along Peter Matthiessen's book The Snow Leopard, and he has picked me up and borne me along on his dream-quest through the Himalayas. All throughout this week it is as if my body is on the beach and my mind is in the clouds at the roof of the world, the sweet, fresh sweep of white snow against the immense blue of the sky; and yet I cannot quiet my thoughts. The engine of my mind still runs, relentless, a perpetual motion machine, until I run into a particular story. In one of his chapters Matthiessen invokes Hui-Neng, the sixth Ch'an Buddhist Patriarch of China, when he was asked of the prayer flags flying in the sun: Is it the flags that move? Is it the wind? And the Patriarch answered: Neither. It is your mind. And I read these few words, over and over, and time begins to slow.

The question and the answer come back in equal measure, neither bearing more weight than the other. They dance around one another in slow circles in my consciousness, their even tread wearing a smooth, patient path down my neurons. Is it the flags that move? Is it the wind? Is it the palms that move? Is it the ocean? Is it the clouds that move? Is it the sand? None of these things. It is my mind.

I experiment with what it means to rest, to cease the movement of my body. First I try the broad divan with the pillows that lies close to where the waves come hissing up the shoreline. I arrange myself so I'm propped up and can see the foam-tipped crests rushing in, can hear the music they make as they mutter the same language they've spoken for thousands of years to this same white-washed shore. I breathe deeply. I tell my muscles to let go, to un-clench, I tell my jaw to soften, my nerves to stop their screaming chorus.

But it is my mind that moves. It won't stop. I realize the irony in trying to get it to stop; I am a mind, trying to get my mind to stop trying, and it's not working because it is working too hard and I grow frustrated.

Perhaps I need a different place, a different position, I tell myself. This place isn't comfortable enough, it's too loud, it's too windy. I rise, grab up my book and notebook, retire up the beach to the hammock beneath the palms. It is quieter here, where the wind plays gently through the broad leaves and rocks the long tall trunks, swings the hammock. I can still hear the ocean faintly. Mother Ocean she is, merely a whisper at this distance, a soothing half-remembered voice. I wind myself into the hammock, go fetal, retreat to inner space. It works in much the same way as picking up a kitten by the nape of its neck; I go limp, my nervous system temporarily shut down.

But because I am not a kitten and because I have a conscious brain that niggles and wriggles and picks and percolates, the gears soon start up again. "I," it insists: I this, I that, I need, I want, I forgot but now I remember, my limbs are cramped, my neck hurts, what about changing into something dry, shouldn't I go check on this or that, I'm thirsty, I'm hungry, and on and on, like a child plucking at my elbow; it nags and bleats and cries until I resolve to get up. Exasperated, clock-less, I look at the sun, which has not changed much at all; the same shadow falls across my arm as when I lay down, which tells me I have been here mere minutes, actually. Where is the stillness, where is the quiet I so longed for back in Austin, and knew I would get from this vacation?

Ah. There. A crack has been made, a still point, a small, unruffled pool--no bigger than a puddle--somewhere among the swirling chirring chatter in my head. Wherever you go, there you are. I've brought the whole mess along, the mess that is me; it didn't somehow stay behind when I boarded the flight to Mexico, it didn't stay on the plane when I disembarked. It's here, treading the pristine sands; here, diving into the cerulean blue; it's here, when I open my eyes against the stinging salt. It's here in my held breath, here in my stubborn jawline, in every swirling thought, tucked into the chaotic dreams that crowd in like long-lost friends while the wind sings me to sleep. Truth? I am happy to see me here. I've missed the sacred mess of her, screwed-up as she might be, as batshit as it seems that she can't relax to the beat of blue-green waves shushing their white-noise whispers against secret sands.

Last night I dreamed Icarus came into my room. I was glad to see him. Every ancient culture, says Peter Matthiessen, has some iteration of a Bird-Man, or a Thunderbird, or a god with wings. In the dream he is big; his wings are enormous. Their tips scrape the walls, rasp against the woven ceiling. He is wearing his bird mask. He cocks his head to look at me; his eyes are bright behind the long, pointed beak. Without words he urges me to fly; I can sense the impatience in his powerful form, the way his feathers vibrate along their hollow bones, the quick bright jerks of his hands and his head. He turns his back to me, and I see the lattice of muscles along his supple spine. The wings rise higher. A rush of air, and he is gone.

The moon is full; it is the first full moon on Christmas in 40 years. We all sit on the beach and shout and drink a salute when she breaks free from the clouds and sails into the clear. It's not exactly a full-moon party, but it will do. Later on, when everyone has turned into bed, I will come back outside and commune with her. This nervous bright energy that stirs up my mind, makes it even harder to settle into the present, into emptiness. "Stay Present" warns a bright orange sign down the road, where traffic swells to its fullest, and there are no shoulders on the road for cyclists and pedestrians to shelter from passing cars. It's a free-for-all, and yes, you have to stay present at every moment to avoid becoming road kill. But isn't that always the way? I hear the voice of wisdom asking and answering the questions that perhaps can't entirely be answered. Is it the car that moves? Is it the road? Is it the earth that moves? Is it the moon? Is it the hawk that flies? Is it his shadow? 

None of these thing. It is your mind. 

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Long Distance

Your voice on the phone is both sweet
and raw.
Without touching me you
press nerves and skin, you unspool
the tension in my belly.

How many miles above our mixed-up heads
is the satellite that brings us to one another?
You reach up to scratch your face
and I feel its roughness against my cheek.
I am the wind that runs cold fingers through
your hair.

But of course it only leaves me hungry:
this distance.
Outer space, the hum of the satellite cruising
through our atmosphere, the static
of comets barreling by on their way
out of the solar system.

I want your lips on my throat, your
hands at the small of my back
your arms gripping me tight as a seatbelt
so that when I crash from this great height
I might have a chance
of surviving the impact.