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.