I didn’t set out to have a life-changing experience, and I’m still not sure if I’ve had one. Life has certainly been disrupted in a fairly major way—months of my life are just gone—but throughout this adventure, many of the foundations have held firm. The people have been there for us, we managed (together) to keep my classes going, this blog has become a consistent anchor and daily life moves on with some rhythms not too different from what they’d been for many years.
On the other hand, elements of my life disappeared. Reading for pleasure, for example. Since the surgery, I’ve been able to read short things, including student papers and newspaper articles if I could make the font big enough, and even “serious” books (with enlarged font on the kindle) because absorbing the ideas could be done in small chunks or one at a time. What hasn’t been possible is following the flow of a narrative. For most of my life, I’ve read several books a week—at least. Serious books, brain candy books, mysteries, memoirs, biographies, afternoon tea novels (D. E. Stevenson!), I consumed them all. Except since September. For whatever reason, one of the capacities that seemed to have vanished was reading a novel. Elizabeth, a wise and wonderful friend with impeccable taste, recommended Trollope, which she adores. That’s good enough for me—except I couldn’t follow the narrative when I started, despite several tries. This was hugely frustrating because what I was reading, I was enjoying, but I couldn’t stick with it. I couldn’t figure out why until Michael pointed out that I wasn’t really reading much of anything and it might be a generic problem, not an author/book problem.
This all changed late last week, and seemingly suddenly. I’d been trying books regularly, with consistent failures. Late last week, Nancy loaned me The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and it was like someone had flipped a switch. Not only was I able to read fluently and follow it, I perceived the texture, depth, narrative, character development… it was all there again, the whole experience. On my way to Trollope yesterday, I ran across Ann Patchett on my kindle and stopped to see what Run was like. And read it all. I was drunk on the words. Yesterday was a teaching day and we did our strength training afterwards, to avoid taking the chance of getting too fatigued to pull off class afterwards. Three hours of teaching is a lot of energy and effort, especially with a new class (only the second meeting and enrollment still unstable) and the strength training takes even more energy. I was tired. My original intention had just been to find my place before putting it aside for later. And then I got sucked in. It’s been so long since that’s happened consistently that it was exhilarating. I’m very hopeful that this much-missed texture of my life is returning.
This return highlights the differences between “before” and today’s reality. I’m compensating for most all of the changes and must acknowledge that it works pretty well overall: large chunks of life look much like they always have both to me and to external observers. Except. My brain is different. My capacities are diminished—whether temporarily or permanently, we don’t know. Things I’ve always been able to do (like read, until last week), I can no longer do. Patterns of thinking and analysis that have characterized my contribution to the world no longer happen. The short-term memory lapses don’t fret me that much: people are hugely understanding and accepting, particularly if I’m of good cheer about “oops, there’s a word or concept I just don’t know right now!” Students, once cued, are charming about saying “you just wrote different words on the board than you said, which did you mean?” (Last night, trying to explain the strategy of “tit-for-tat” in a prisoner’s dilemma game, I wrote “tent for tent” on the board.) This can be handled: if I’m good natured and easy-going about it, and don’t seize up, others are fine with it, too. It’s not hard to make jokes about it and keep on going constructively. People are similarly accepting of my limited energy levels (more than I am, for sure), once it is put in context and explained. We still don’t fully understand or know how to adapt to the over-stimulation and the anxiety it produces, but we’re gaining on it, slowly. While my life features more anxiety, the counterbalance is less adrenaline, on average. The latter is a positive change, one we both prefer. We can do without the anxiety, and are working to find ways to head that off.
I’m different and my brain is different. Having the reading back is a gift and I’m going to start Trollope all over again now that it looks like this function is restored. Is the glass half-full or half-empty? As we discussed in class last night, framing matters. Michael read the first draft of this post and suggested the news is great and I could end on a hopeful note, taking the return of the reading as a sign of the full swing of recovery under way. That’s the full version. It is real and I live it that way. At the same time, it also highlights the shortcomings that still exist, even though there is so much to be thankful for and happy about. I feel guilty for having a sense of loss and grieving the changes, when there is so very, very much to be thankful for. But grieve I do, even while seeing the positives and celebrating them.
Have I had a life-changing experience? Even if my brain fully recovers and all my abilities return, maybe. That in and of itself is a sobering adjustment of perspective: when this started, I figured they’d found a problem, they’d fix it and we’d go on. That view exists, and we are and will go on. We’re more firmly entrenched in our conviction that it’s the people who matter in life and reinforced in our values. We know that we need to keep finding ways to give back to a world that has given us so much. We need to celebrate what each day brings us, our ability to be together, the gifts we have. We are refocused on what really matters. Is that life-changing? Not sure, because it's always been a part of our ethic, though more at the forefront some times than others. Is it good, either way? Yes.