Jill Bolte Taylor's Stroke of Insight


Monday, May 30, 2016


I sat quietly with the hard wooden church pew digging into the bones of my skinny butt. The bench wasn't meant to provide comfort for the faithful, and neither was the sermon being roared from the pulpit. The silver-haired preacher was revved up for takeoff, spittle flying from his downturned mouth into what I secretly liked to call the "splash zone," the suckups in the first few rows getting little sprinkles of holy water with every bitten consonant.

I was tempted to squirm, but my eyes were fastened to the beams that supported the roof of God's house. They were sturdy, wood-hewn, painted a humble brown against the arched white ceiling. Whoever built the place had clearly been going for aesthetics resembling a mental institution. From the stained walls to the green shag carpet, God had His work cut out for Him broadcasting spiritual inspiration to the scant population of this backwoods Alaskan church.

It never occurred to me to wonder what the rest of the town did on Sunday mornings while we waited for the blasts of the trumpets which would herald Christ's imminent return. Everybody in my little world went to a church, and they all seemed to love the rituals, the greeting-times, the hymns and the prayers. I felt alone in hating it, fighting every Sunday as I did the flowered dresses with their frilly sleeves and shiny buttons, the stiff pumps that clunked like horse's hooves, the accompanying tights and, later on, the nylons prone to getting runs from crotch to ankles.

I usually spent these torturous mornings downstairs in Sunday school with the rest of the kids, learning to sit quietly in a circle with my head bowed for prayers. No peeking, either, to see if everyone else had their eyes closed. If you tattled on somebody else, you got busted for looking around. God doesn't like people who open their eyes during prayer-time. If you're going to talk to Him, you better damn well bow your head and close your eyes, OR ELSE. I never figured out "or else what." So I hated Sunday school, and in recent weeks I'd begged to sit upstairs with the adults. I thought I was missing out on some big, special secret in the sanctuary, listening to the sermons my mother was always going on about. She came away all glowy, with pages and pages of notes, the leaves of her Bible folded over and highlighted, with little exclamation marks (!!!!!) written in the margins. So there just had to be something great going on up there. But it sucked. The benches were hard and my legs were always going to sleep and I got in trouble for squirming and turning around to stare at whoever was behind us.

Not today, though. My eyes honed in on the beam above the preacher's head, where something was taking shape out of the air between it and the ceiling, shimmering like heat off sun-baked sand. The sermon thundered on, I don't remember it now, but there was hellfire in it--there was always hellfire somewhere in there. It was like fireworks on the Fourth of July. You can't have the Fourth of July without fireworks, and you can't have a Fundamentalist sermon without hellfire. And the hotter the hellfire got, the more solid grew the form I beheld, up in the rafters. I sneaked a quick look sideways at my mother, but she was scribbling in her notebook. Ditto for the adults down the bench and across the aisle: good Baptists all. I returned my gaze to the beam, and there--I could begin to make him out now. The arch of his spine and the points of his elbows where they rose above his sharp, serrated scapulae. His wings barely visible where they folded tightly to his lurid sides, the tail that curled once, twice, around the beam then hung forebodingly toward the top of the grand piano, its tip twitching languidly back and forth, like a beckoning finger. His head turned on its long, red, scaly neck, yellow goat-eyes seeking me out, and when they found me, he bared a tangle of canines in a delirious grin. My stomach clenched with anticipation.

"Nameless," I breathed softly, so softly no one heard. For that was his name. He was mine, and not mine. He never came when called, but he was always there when I needed him. He wasn't always a dragon. He could show up as a tiger, a wolf, a bunny rabbit, a winged horse. He could be a she; he could be a pack of creatures; he could be a giant. He could fly, swim, tunnel through rock, climb trees, be large as the wind, or small enough to fit under my pillow. When I went on the airplane to fly to Scotland and visit my dad, he often flew outside the window or clung to the wing. He never seemed to have a name, though I called him many things over the years. And sometimes he was very, very naughty.

At this moment Nameless didn't seem to have anything good in mind. I watched, transfixed, as he delicately picked up one clawed, scaly foot and placed it in front of the other, moving toward the preacher, stalking him. A low rumbling sound began, which came from everywhere and nowhere, and which nobody heard but me. I shut my eyes; I felt the way you feel when an earthquake approaches, but hasn't yet begun to shake. And still, the sermon droned on, background noise now to the rumbling.

I do remember this: our preacher loved the King James Bible. Maybe all that Old English made it seem more authentic and hellfire-ish. I'd nearly read the Good Book cover to cover by this time in my life, I must have been seven or eight at least, and I lingered particularly on the Book of Revelations. It made me giddy with fear. I asked my mother about the strange creatures and the events it portended. When she didn't have the answers, I asked my Sunday school teachers. They said that one day the world was going to end, and that Jesus would come back and save the good people and throw the bad ones into a lake of fire. I could count on these things happening, they said, most likely in the not-too-far future because there were so many bad people that it wouldn't be long now before Jesus returned to deal with them. One passage in particular had seared itself into my young brain:

And there appeared a great wonder in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and upon her head a crown of twelve stars;
And she being with child cried, travailing in birth, and pained to be delivered.
And there appeared another wonder in heaven; and behold a great red dragon, having seven heads and ten horns, and seven crowns upon his heads.....and the dragon stood before the woman which was ready to be delivered, for to devour her child as soon as it was born. {Rev. 12:1-4}

Needless to say, the idea of a seven-headed baby-eating dragon scared the living shit out of me. And the further idea that this was certainly going to happen and that I would certainly be thrown into hell if I didn't believe it, pretty much drove the nail in the coffin of my budding sanity. I was mental.

But, I was little-kid mental. And I had Nameless, an ordinary one-headed dragon, to see me through the hellfire. The rumbling grew to a roar, and I opened my eyes just as his snaggle-toothed mouth sprang wide and belched a bonfire straight down onto the preacher's head. This sort of violence did not disturb me in the least, given that similar violence took place with regularity in the pages of a book I'd been told was God's honest truth. In fact I found it hilarious. I couldn't suppress a giggle, which seemed to goad Nameless into further hijinks. With a dragonish grin he dove at the preacher's flaming head, snapped it off with one bite, opened his wings and flew straight up out of the roof. By now I was hysterical. I bounced a little on the pew then collapsed into silent, open-mouthed laughter.

Retribution was instant. A powerful pinch of the nerves at the top of my shoulder hauled me upright. I'd gotten my mother's full attention and her hazel eyes glared into mine at close range. Our foreheads practically clanged together. "Kara Beth," she hissed, "what is wrong with you?" I slid my eyes away from hers to check the goings-on behind the pulpit. All normal; the preacher stood unscorched, head secure, and was just calling for us to break out our hymnals. There was no hole in the roof and no sign of Nameless. But I was in very real trouble, not for the first time, nor for the last. I feared banishment--back to Sunday school, with the other kids, where Nameless would have no rafters to hide in and no preachers upon which to dine.

I don't remember my punishment that day, nor the number of times some version of this scenario was repeated. They were legion, for Nameless came to rescue me almost constantly in those days, and I never had more need of rescue than during the interminable Sunday mornings I endured in that little prison of a building. The poor preacher died a thousand deaths at the mercy of the claws and fangs of various predators. Eventually, though, I grew out of it. Years went by before I really thought about Nameless again. But he did come back. 

It was a few years ago. I was going through a time of great upheaval, stress, fear and loneliness. I had decided to leave my home in Alaska and move to Austin, TX for health reasons, and the grief was killing me. I didn't want to leave my home, but I had to go; I hated saying goodbye to my friends and family, but I couldn't face another winter. As I packed and sorted and put into storage all my belongings, I kept seeing something in my peripheral vision. I was alone except for my dog, and I was jumpy. I'd be hauling yet another box out to the shed, and there it would be again: this large, heavy presence just out of my line of sight, and I'd turn my head and there--! What was that? 

I collapsed on the couch for a nap one day, just before I was to leave for Austin, and had a brilliant, vivid dream. In the dream a huge tiger came pacing into the backyard, up onto the deck, and through the open sliding door. I lay on the couch, paralyzed with fear. The tiger came closer, his massive form dwarfing the living room furniture. He padded softly up to me, lowered his black-and-gold head, and stared into my eyes. My stomach flipped with anticipation. A low, rumbling growl began, that seemed to come from everywhere and nowhere, and the tiger's hot, sweet breath caressed my face. I closed my eyes.

"Nameless," I said, softly.