My family doctor tells me I’m doing great a little over three weeks after my stroke. She says I can go back to teaching. I confess that I already have. I taught my advanced undergraduate creative nonfiction workshop last night, I tell her, a three-hour class.
She wants to know whether it felt comfortable to me; I tell her I loved being back with my students. Then I come clean about what the work asks of me in the way of preparation and the other duties I have, and—oh, yeah—there’s still a glimmer of a writing career for me, a novel I want to get back to, essays I want to write. I tell her I’ve chosen to cancel readings, other teaching gigs. I tell her I’m learning to say no, at least for a while. She says she thinks it’s good for me to be back at work where I’ll have plenty of things to occupy my mind, so I won’t dwell on the stroke and the maybe-hole in my heart and whatever is waiting on down the road.
Then she gives me a gift: I can start running for five minutes during one of the three walks I take every day, and if that goes well, I can move up to ten minutes after four days, increasing things from there—gradually, of course.
“We’ll have you back to where you were,” she says.
I’ve been running since the early 80s; for the past few years, I’ve run an hour every other day. I’ve done weight training on the in-between days. No weight lifting yet, she says. My neurologist is worried about the increase in inner-cranial pressure that such an activity would cause.
I’ll take it, those five minutes, with the promise of more time to come. I’ll take it as a step toward what I hope will be a day when I’ll have no need to write about my stroke and the maybe-hole in my heart, when it’ll all seem like something that happened a long time ago in a world I somehow managed to fall into and then found a way to leave. A world of paralysis and helplessness, one I’ll hope to know again only by its absence.
One of yesterday’s joys was finding my contributor’s copies of The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Nonfiction in the mail that had piled up at school. I took special note of a piece by Jennifer Sinor, “Crafting Voice.” I was intrigued with her thoughts on the ephemeral nature of voice. “We can’t point to it on the page,” she says, “pin it down, say that here, right here, in the way this sentence runs or in this choice of words or in this use of detail, we have voice.” She concludes that we identify voice by noting its absence, which leads to “the distance we feel from the writer, the subject, or from the words on the page.” Without voice, we feel at a remove, not fully engaged.
The absence of blood flow.
“Have you felt any tingling, any numbness?” my doctor asks me, and I tell her on occasion in my foot and my ankle.
She wants to know which foot
“Both,” I tell her, and she doesn’t express any alarm.
I let worry lift from me and wing away to the high shelves in the exam room, one of them displaying ancient remedies and medical instruments. I long for the day when I’m not on hyper-alert, on guard against any twinge and ache. I watch young men and women running through my neighborhood and I want to feel what I know they feel—that effortless glide through space and time. At night, I close my eyes and recall the routes I’ve run in countless cities. Five minutes, ten, fifteen, and on and on to the endorphin calm I crave.
“You don’t find your voice,” Jennifer Sinor says. “You make it.”
You make it out of an intimate knowledge of your subject matter, letting it inhabit you. Once you fully understand your material, not just factually but also in terms of the complications it presents, your confidence will translate into voice on the page.
For me, each draft I write is another way of living with my material and another step toward more fully knowing its complications and ironies. Drafts are discoveries, and I never know how many drafts I’ll need in order to know what I need to know.
Today, what I know is this: I’ve been lucky to be able to make my professional life the way I’d have it: a little writing, a little teaching. Without those two things, I wouldn’t have a voice. I wouldn’t be me.
Voice also comes, Jennifer Sinor points out, from a writer allowing herself to be vulnerable.
The first time I saw my family physician after the stroke, I wept. I wept from the memory of not being able to lift my right arm, my right leg. I wept because for a time, I hadn’t been able to say the words my brain held. I wept over the kind words, good deeds, and the windup toys my students and colleagues sent me. I wept over Nunzilla, and Chirpy Bird, and Robot Guy, and Knight on Horse. I wept because my doctor called me on the day of my release from the hospital, and the first thing she said was, “This is not going to happen again.” I wept because I didn’t want to weep. I wept for everything I’d gained and everything I’d lost.
Absence and presence.
I wept because, in spite of all this, there was still love.