Although clearly recovering from my concussion, there’d been no sign of that delicious sense of well-being that usually washes through after an illness, producing energy. Energy wasn’t just out of reach. It was invisible. Maybe I’d lost the oomph, the impetus, to write. It’s so pleasant being lazy.
My only busy time of day was worrying while typical “what if I’m not good enough, what’s the point” doubts entwined with concerns that I’d lost the need to produce. Day after day, my computer and books and notes sat here glaring. I swear they were whispering mean things.
But yesterday, and again this morning, that euphoria, fresh as day. I’m working again.
Other setbacks have had more to do with family or professional pressures, and have served to spur me forward, to sort things out, find answers. I was fortunate that this illness was relatively short-lived. As I get older, I’d better be prepared for more, long and short. But it’s a relief to know the compulsion to write isn’t something I’m likely to run out of any time soon. There’s still a lot to (try to) make sense of, and more no doubt coming.
For those of you wading through setbacks long and short, I pray for euphoria.
It was a typical Sunday here in Coimbra. Bright and sunny, I’d walked from the local train station through Choupal Park, to Centro Hipico de Coimbra – the stables – for my turn with a friend’s horse. I spent a lovely hour or so there, and walked back through the park to the station, as I have done several weeks in a row. It’s about four miles round trip. But I’ve become joyfully accustomed to walking long distances and up and down hills daily. No big deal.
I sat down for a moment to wait for the train. When I stood, my vision went all black at the edges. I fully expected it to clear, I was waiting for it to clear. Instead I came to up through a sea of concerned faces. I’d fainted. My first question was, “Did I miss the train?” I wanted to know how long I’d been out. None of my saviors spoke any English, however. I believe one of the older men was a physician; he was wonderfully calm, took my pulse, checked my eyes. He and his wife helped me to stand. He kept a hold of my hand, taking my pulse now and again, sort of folding my hand into his soft, strong, warm one.
I wanted to marry him.
The trip to the ER revealed nothing. Vital signs normal. Not enough water, perhaps. Or I hadn’t eaten enough breakfast. Or maybe the day was hotter than I was used to. There was nothing to be done. They sent me home with a package of biscuits and a container of milk.
I took a bus. An unfamiliar route. Got off too soon. Had to walk kind of far.
Belatedly, I noticed the back of my head was sore and realized I’d clunked it on the cement wall.
Over the next 48 hours I grew dizzier and dizzier. I recognized the sensations and symptoms. Several years ago I suffered a very bad concussion – a wicked fall off a horse. I was concussed again. And time is the only cure.
My being – and staying – in Portugal largely depends upon my staying healthy and independent. It has been a troubling two weeks. I haven’t been able to move my head, much less work. Or take walks. Or do errands. On one or two days, I was so dizzy and nauseous I couldn’t so much as listen to music. It made me sea sick.
In the middle of this, one of the two very young kittens I only recently adopted died.
Linda and Vince, the friends mentioned in earlier blogs, have brought in groceries and offered daily encouragement. So I am not alone.
But the specter of vulnerability, of dependence, of not being able to walk where I want, or where I need to, of not being able to work, has descended from an abstract place floating somewhere over my head to one sitting just there, in that chair.
I feel better today. I was able to write at least this. I’m encouraged. But will I ever leave my apartment with quite the same confidence? What caused the fainting in the first place? We don’t know. What if fainting is a permanent part of me?
Hannah Arendt wrote, “Loving life is easy when you are abroad. Where no one knows you and you hold your life in your hands all alone, you are more master of yourself than at any other time.” I’m finding this to be true in ways I never would have expected, but I don’t believe we need radical departures to achieve something of this state of mind.
In her novel, Go Went Gone, Jenny Erpenbeck writes that Richard, newly released from an academic career, “. . . has time – plain and simple. Time to travel, people say. To read books. Time to listen to music. He doesn’t know how long it will take for him to get used to having time.” He’s uncomfortable. All those open days. But in those open hours he finds a self that has been waiting. Richard is more complex, more generous, and far more human and connected than he dreamed.
But waiting until retirement for life to feel true is as terrible as waiting for opportunities to be overseas. Yes, both gave me permission to allow all that was extraneous and distracting to fall away. What I didn’t know is that I didn’t need permission.
Gordon Mennega recently recounted the experience of a colleague who has found a way to balance professional duties with much more contemplative time. The result, in Gordon’s words, is that thinking feels almost new.
The thinking feels almost new. That’s exactly it. Grounded but fresh.
I’ve discovered that my work has been keeping secrets from me. Suddenly I see this novel draft clearly and what all those unfinished short stories are asking to become. If I’d fully understood the true cost of distraction and bedevilment prior to the major life changes I undertook last year, I like to think I would have taken advantage sooner.
But I celebrate. Loving life fully instead of only bits and pieces is better late than never.
The Harlem River Bridge was open and stuck. The Metro-North train I was taking to Grand Central for the shuttle to JFK and my flight back to Portugal was, according to announcements, delayed “indefinitely” while waiting for “the Army Corps of Engineers to figure out how to close it.” Minutes ticked by. The hour of cushion I had given myself dissolved.
We weren’t parked completely between stops. The last car sat beside the Fordham station platform. One by one, and then in droves, people left in search of options.
While discussing my own choices with a conductor – a taxi, but taxis rarely stop there; Uber, but my Portugal phone had already refused to call Uber; the subway with a stop two blocks west, but I’m unfamiliar with the Bronx, had luggage, hours and hours of travel ahead, and rarely took the subway even when I lived in New York — I said, “I won’t be doing subways.” A nearby woman pounced, eyes flashing, her voice a bark: “We’re not stupid!” she told me. “It’s two blocks.”
Perhaps I’d once been accosted in a subway, or had been trapped, or fallen asleep to find myself in Brooklyn instead of Broadway and Lafayette. Perhaps a medical condition precluded my walking any blocks or descending and ascending stairs with two carry-ons. I travel lightly, but not empty-handed.
But no. No thought to any other possibility other than, “We’re not stupid!” implying that while she wasn’t, I was.
I left the train to take a look at the street – a stray taxi perhaps? A flash of inspiration? – hoping it didn’t leave without me before I’d figured something out.
Three women stood just outside the station door, one twenty-something, one thirty-something, one eighty-something. I overheard the thirty-something say “Grand Central.”
“Grand Central?” I said. “You’re headed to Grand Central?”
“Yes. Uber. Want to join us?”
So, the four of us, capable and competent and resourceful, climbed into an Uber car so small there weren’t enough seat belts to head into Manhattan. The older woman was joining friends for a play. The two younger ones had meetings with clients. And I, of course, was travelling,
Not one of us stupid.
Perhaps the woman on the train believes she’s empowered, and that it’s her job to empower me and any woman she encounters who isn’t exhibiting her, ah, strength. Perhaps she thinks she represents a proper sort of feminism.
Whatever her reasoning, I reject it. And happily embrace women who join forces.
I’ve never opened a book without a pen. Audio books? Never! What would I do with my hands? My annotations are an elaborate system that fill most pages. My son calls them the rantings of a mad women. Maybe so. I don’t care. I am madly in love with my books.
But I’m suddenly in love with audio books, too. Having given myself time and permission to listen, I’m hearing so much more.
The change came while working with Talece Brown on Vanishing Point. We spent hours (with her on the West Coast and me in Connecticut, these hours were often in the middle of my night) deciding on characters’ voices and how to convey the novel’s core. Talece brought new dimensions to the characters I thought I knew so well, not only through dialogue but with a beautiful portrayal of the scenery of their inner and outer lives. She saw my story as a movie, and her vision shines through.
As we approached the release date, I finally heard friends singing the praises of audio books, how they enable them to make use of what could feel like lost time, commuting or doing chores. A few even say they’d never ‘read’ if it weren’t for audio books on their smartphones.
In a recent Facebook post, George Saunders recognized some readers, unable to figure out Lincoln in the Bardo’s format, had given up. I hadn’t given up, but intrigued by its 150-plus voices, his was my first purchase. I was rewarded. People came alive. Descriptions sung. Tough passages became crystal clear.
At the end of long reading and writing days, I don’t want to pick up another book but neither do I want to stop working. I’d been wanting to revisit classics, but who has the time with such steep stacks of new books? Enter audio books. Wharton, Woolf (Nicole Kidman’s To the Lighthouse!), D.H. Lawrence. And now I’m sampling new releases to decide which to read and which to hear. Which ones are calling you?
Finally, a revelation. About limitations. The limitation of having only my voice in my head, only my interpretations, my emphases, my biases. Listening to books by authors I’ve read more than once, I’ve heard – for the first time – lines and whole paragraphs I’d skipped over that are not only interesting, sometimes stunning, but crucial.
We writers can become more aware of rhythms in our own work by listening to the pulses of others’ being read out loud.
I’m not likely to join the ranks of audio-book junkies, but . . . while writing this . . . downloaded two more. Naturally, I hope you’ll give Vanishing Point a try: http://amzn.to/2CB1Lv6
Wishing you joyous celebrations. And a happy exploration of the spoken word!
Illus: Google Images
Hello all. What a week politically. Here’s some distraction.
Curious what sort of story caught Reese Witherspoon’s imagination — she snapped up the movie rights — I picked up Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman. Social misfit, physically-damaged Eleanor (“There was, it seemed, no Eleanor-shaped social hole for me to slot into”) first shares her brand new Hollywood bikini wax (I had no idea) but moves on to things like this: “I suppose one of the reasons we’re all able to continue to exist . . . is that there is always, however remote it might seem, the possibility of change.” Eleanor is delightfully capable of change. Honeyman’s quick, light prose has just enough fun and just enough suspense. You might see the movie, but read the book first!
Emily Fridlund is a friend of my own friend and priceless mentor, Gordon Mennenga. Her History of Wolves, long listed for the Booker Prize, is an excellent choice for a snowy winter night. The brilliantly observant 14-year old Linda copes with family love and family loss deep in the north woods of Minnesota. Linda’s mom implores her to ” ‘ . . . feel clean for a second, okay? Just feel good. . . . We’re starting over, you and me. I’m trying to get God on our side, do things different. So you can be a happy little kid again, got it? Can you just be a little kid for one second?’ I wasn’t sure what else I could be.” As I wrote on Goodreads, “Completely absorbing. Beautifully and honestly told.”
My own Connected Underneath is also story about family, and love, and the choices we make. Small stones create far-reaching ripples in the lives of wheelchair-bound Celeste, Theo, a single ex-biker dad, and his adopted daughter, Persephone. “[Theo] came to realize – we all come to realize – our search isn’t for family, exactly, but for connection, connections that will keep us, so we won’t drown, won’t fly off, something that will connect us underneath.”
And I’m going to throw this out there: Ron Chernow’s Hamilton — I know. A bit lengthy for this busy time of year, but, I’ve read nearly all the other Chernow biographies — astonishingly, they read like novels — and don’t know why I put this one off for so long. It provides fascinating insight into those Founding Fathers our politicians constantly evoke. Chernow gets to the truth about those early years of our republic, fraught with discontent and disagreement. We nearly didn’t make it, and yet here we are. Or, so far, here we are. Take a look — even if you’ve seen the musical!
These titles are readily available in all the usual places, but please support your local independent bookstores.
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