Update From the Sick Ward
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.
Lee, you had a stroke? It sounds as if you’re doing great–keep it up. I don’t know how you can write this blog and teach and write other things. It’s all I can do to cover teaching, email, and the occasional attention to the writing career. I wanted to tell you
I had a subarachnoid hemorrhage in Oct 2009–a kind of stroke–and wrote about it in three installments of a monthly piece I do for The Iowa Source. If you want to, you can check it out by going to http://www.iowasource.com and searching for Stefaniak.
Continue to take care of yourself!
Oh man, Lee. Thank you for this beautiful writing, for your honesty and vulnerability. It means a lot to hear your voice rising up from the page and saying the most important things. Much love to you.
Thanks so much, Sonya. Much love to you, too.
And just now reading what you wrote I’m reminded of a book I got at the library yesterday ~~THE Timekeeper. A most excellent book too I must say.
And he makes me think of you and the way you write~~
I love all your writings.
God bless you Lee.
Thank you, Ruth Ann.
Write on, Lee. Run on, too. Write and run and cry and live another day. Sending more healing (inside and outside) energy to you.
Thanks so much, Nita. I’m looking forward to being allowed ten minutes of running come Monday.
“I wept because, in spite of all this, there was still love.”
Yes. Yes. Yes.
Lee, one day you and I must sit down over cups of tea and talk for hours about this love. Love and all its fascinating permutations between all kinds of people is what my writing is all about. I suspect it plays a major role for you as well. The parts of books and movies that bring me to my knees weeping are unexpected moments when action is taken automatically, unquestioningly, and the action is done out of love.
Examples: in the opening chapter of Breena Clarke’s novel, “River, Cross My Heart” when word goes out in town that a child is drowning in the Potomac. People rush down to the river. When a shop owner sees the mother of the child running in the street he grabs her, throws her into his cart, and drives her there at top speed. I still cry just thinking about this scene.
And, for something completely different, the hobbits in the Lord of the Rings movies: They are absolutely devoted to each other. There are many moments but the first one I remember best because it shocked me: Merry confronts Frodo about the dark riders pursuing them. Frodo tells him that he and Sam have to get out of the Shire. When I first saw this film I totally expected Merry to give him a hard time, to grill Frodo, to question whether he was carrying a treasure. But Merry just nods and say, “Right. Buckleberry Ferry!” and they go. I was stunned–stunned because of the love and, perhaps, stunned because I had such low expectations of finding any.
I’m glad you’re feeling better, Lee. I could go on, but that would leave us less to talk about with our tea. One day…
Sophronia, will you be at AWP in Boston? I’m hoping to be able to travel by then, and a cup of tea and a chat would be lovely.
Lee, I will indeed be at AWP in Boston. You and me and tea–it’s a date! Looking forward it.
Good deal, Sophronia. As they say in my neck of the woods, I’ll see you there, Lord willin’ and the crick don’t rise.
You’re in the Wellness Ward now.
Thanks, Maureen. I like that way of looking at things.
I’ve been there, Lee, more than once actually. I too have longingly remembered the happiness of walking (for me.) Isn’t it a wonderful thing, this body we’re given? I test mine everyday, and find my returning strength a blessing. May you also.
Blessings to you, Rita.
I wept reading your blog post. I wept because you’re such a dear, dear friend. I wept because of the beauty of your heart, the beauty of your prose.
Sue, your good words mean the world to me. Thank you for your friendship.
Lee — What a beautiful small essay on voice and life. So many os us are better off because you are the writer/teacher that you are. Dinty
Thank you so much, Dinty. I’m looking forward to being with you and Jeff and Eric next week. Blessings to you, my friend.
Thank you for sharing this, Lee. Enjoy every sip of those 5 minutes. I am rooting for you!
Thanks, Chrstina! If all goes well, I’ll be allowed 10 minutes come Monday.
This is such a beautiful, powerful essay. The ending segment knocked me out. I also loved, ” Drafts are discoveries, and I never know how many drafts I’ll need in order to know what I need to know.”
You know, the only problem with this essay is where to file it. Oh, hell, it goes in three or four places on my hard drive. Voice. Structure. POV. For starters. I may have to create a new category: Jazz.
I just got my new River Teeth and am honored to see I’m in there with you—my essay “Wild Ducks,” a braided memoir spurred by my wife and I taking our daughter away to college. I can’t wait to read yours on how we writers sometimes sell out friends and family by telling their stories. Boy, that sure fits “Wild Ducks,” since my wife and daughter can’t even bear to read it; the trip itself was hard enough, and here I use it and broadcast it, and they just cry. Taking a cue from you, I’m going to post a piece on my blog this Sunday in part about that aspect of my essay. For better or worse, a writer comes to regard with a cooler eye his raw material—the upsetting event, the nagging memory, the painful emotion—that he’s shaping into story. And he assumes the narrative’s other actors share his clinical view. They don’t; they can’t. My experience was not theirs, but it triggers and perhaps threatens theirs.
Keep runnin’, Lee, and writin’.
Thanks, Richard. I haven’t received my River Teeth yet, but I’ll look forward to reading your piece. You’re so right about how we writers are able to regard our own experiences with an analytical eye while at the same time leaving ourselves vulnerable to reliving the emotions at the heart of everything. Our loved ones, though, are usually eager to forget and move on. We all do what we must to be able to live our lives.
Thinking of you here, with best wishes. The power of your language brings me back to the hardest teacher, the body. But I have some sense its lessons are teaching us to live. My own experience from two blood clots is that the constant vigilance eases over time into a greater attention, a clearer sense of presence in the body. I think of the hard edit, the cuts that make the voice clear. A strange backhanded gift. That old double-edged word, awful.
Thank you for the blessing of your continued presence on the page.
Aaron, I love what you say about the body as editor. As you know–and as I’m learning–there’s certainly a different perspective on the other side of something like this. Thank you for your good wishes, my friend.
Once again, Lee, your essay has touched my heart. I am so happy that you’re able to run again, even if you’re starting slowly. I hope to see you in Boston at AWP.
Thanks, Denise. I hope that, too.
This past weekend i visited my folks who live in a retirement community on an island in south Florida. My folks live on the third floor. Early Saturday morning my mama called me to the balcony. “Look–there’s Tim! Doesn’t he look great!?” Tim (and his wife Jo) have been friends of my folks for nearly forty years and moved down from Chicago early last spring. Just days before they moved, Tim had a stroke. Scary. But now I watched him from that window jogging, holding his weak hand in his strong hand. Sunday I crossed their path as I was walking my dad’s little dog. We chatted for a minute. Tim asked me a question that I couldn’t decipher. I asked him to say again. He blinked, inhaled, and this time spoke a little slower and enunciated with deliberate focus. I understood every word, and answered his question.
His recovery is remarkable and inspiring. Your recovery is inspiring and remarkable as well–your transparency admirable. Vulnerability is most definitely the Great Challenge in life and then specifically in writing. Fear of being misunderstood or rejected can be a devastating force. I appreciate your insights about voice…on all levels. And the great difficulty and vulnerability involved when we choose to take on the hard work of engaging with others to understand and be understood.
Life is hard work.
Kimba, thanks for sharing that inspiring story. Indeed, life is hard work, but I guess it’s the only job that really counts.