Jill Bolte Taylor's Stroke of Insight


Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Star Route 3

I grew up on a Star Route. Most people have probably forgotten what this means, unless you're from the middle of nowhere, like my town. Kenai is off the beaten path a ways--it's in Alaska for starters, and it's small. We did have a road, unlike many Alaskan towns, so we developed eventually; but this was in the late 70's/early 80's, back when we didn't have any clothing stores, or any stores, really. We ordered everything out of a Sears catalog, which doubled as my high chair until I was big enough to reach my dinner at the table. I think we were fewer than 5,000 back then. No stop lights in town, no fast food, one or two restaurants (three items available: burgers, pasta, pizza), a few schools and a grocery store. If Whole Foods is the triumphant flag of first-world food shopping, ours was more like third-world camping rations. It had canned goods, boxed cereals, potatoes and carrots, frozen cuts of gray mystery meat, and in the summer, bruised apples and bananas. When I was a kid I thought bananas came in two flavors: green or brown. I hated both.

But living on a Star Route was pretty cool, for no other reason than the ones that existed in my imagination. In actuality, all it meant was we were too remote for the USPS to deliver our mail, so they contracted the job to the lowest bidder. In some places, that meant the trucks that were delivering boxes of cereal and brown bananas also brought the mail (probably what happened in our case); in others, guys on snowshoes hiked into the backcountry to bring people their Christmas letters and Sears catalogs. And they used anything in between--horses, dog teams, pickup trucks, semis, trains, ferries, rowboats, snowmachines--whatever it took to deliver the mail to the inhabitants of rural USA. Those who won the bids to run these contracted routes were sworn to faithfulness in providing "celerity, certainty and security of transportation" (a sketchy promise in the face of unmapped mountains and rivers and trailless wilderness, not to mention human deception and laziness). Eventually, postal clerks tired of writing out these same three words time and time again, and began putting asterisks (***) in their place--thus was born the Star Route.

I didn't care about this boring piece of information, however. To me, "Star Route" meant just that...a celestial pathway that led to and from my little spot on the planet. Many were the long, cold Alaskan evenings that I spent lying on my back in the snow, or high up a tree someplace, contemplating the stars. Among the hours spent trying to locate Leo, Ursus, Orion, and various made-up dragons and unicorns and tigers, I strained to see my Star Route. All the envelopes that came to our house were addressed to us at Star Route 3, or SR3. It seemed like this should be pretty easy to locate: it wasn't SR3,752,028, for example. I felt bad for those people; how would anyone ever find them, let alone how would whatever child who lived there find their own star map? I was sure mine would be easy, but I didn't know what it would look like. I knew I needed a map, though. The sky is an enormous place, and it gets more enormous the longer you sit up a tree on a winter night, gazing at it. So while I felt pretty damn special that I had a nice low (front of the line!) Star Route number, I began to feel very small and not so special the longer I looked at a cosmos that apparently had no clue I existed.

Maps are important. We need routes to figure out not only where we're going, but where we are starting from. As a kid I wasn't sure of either one. My church taught that we were made of earth, shaped from clay by the fingers of God. Carl Sagan, on the other hand, said we were made of starstuff. He was a blasphemer though, and I was discouraged from listening to his sacrilege regarding how our planet came to be, and the wider implications for the solar system and the universe at large. Still, it seemed to me that if God was all that, he or she could make us, the planet, the solar system, etc out of whatever he or she wanted--earthstuff, starstuff, unicorn farts, whatever. The "how" didn't matter as much to me as the "what"--what was I supposed to do now? Where did the route lead, and what did I do once I found it?

It takes a long time to find your place among the stars. When I finally left that little town, after Star Routes had become pretty much obsolete, I wandered for years--a peregrine, wearing my newfound adulthood like a cloak of uneasy feathers. I lived on the far side of the planet, under a whole different blanket of stars; I sought my star map on a rooftop one night in the heart of Guinea, a tiny West African nation, drinking warm beer and seeking something, anything, familiar. I found my old friend Orion, or part of him at least, hunkered low on the horizon, upside-down; I wondered wildly if his coat of mail was bunched up around his armpits, exposing his navel. I felt an empathy for him, looking so strangely out of his element, as was I in my feathery darkness, striving to stay hidden, nightbound, far from my northern pole and estranged from all my familiar stars. But that's how it is sometimes. You leave home and you expect to feel like the odd one out--thousands of miles away, strange culture, too hot, so many things that bite and burn, your heart torn between what you've left behind and what you've come to embrace.

The truly weird thing, the unexpected slap in the face, is what happens when your map leads you back to a home that suddenly isn't home anymore. All the familiar places, the roads, the new stoplight in town, the people who welcome you and whom you love, so much it hurts--that same tree you climbed to seek your path--they are there, but you aren't. That kid is gone. The cloak of feathers that you thought would protect you; it flew up off your shoulders at some point, without your noticing. Gone. You're on your own now, truly. Now it's just you and your path. Your Star Route. And that's when the true journey begins. When I was a kid dreaming about Star Routes and celestial maps and starstuff and the cosmos, when I was imagining the hand of God reaching down and stirring the earthen pot to throw the clay that formed human beings, I never imagined this path. The one that would take me far from home, take the concept of home from my mind and reshape it, broaden it, stretch it, pull it so large it would never be the same again.

Home is the cosmos. Home is the universe. Home is the Northern Lights, the Southern Cross, it is Orion upside-down or right-side up, it is Leo roaring out his own name across the light years to another galaxy; it is a child sitting high in a tree, reaching for her star map, straining to look forward through time to a moment when she'd be striding through a field in a remote country, wearing her years like a flowing gown.

I grew up on a Star Route. Not many people remember what that is anymore, but I do. I remember who I was, and who I am. It remains to be seen who I will become. I trust the stars to guide me as they always have, as they guided the Magi on the night they found God. Just a tiny thing he was then; far from home, his own star map shining out for those who knew where to look.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

3 AM

The night, I think, is darker than we can really say
And god’s been living in that ocean, sending us all the big waves
And I wish I was a sailor so I could know just how to trust
Maybe I could bring some grace back home to the dry land for each of us

--Gregory Alan Isakov, "3 AM"

So I'm home now, whatever home means and after so much time has passed. Days. Years. Island time has stretched me, mellowed me, unspooled me. I haven't worn a watch in over a decade, but now I've stopped asking for the time, glancing at my phone, checking social media. I don't know how long it took me to return to this landlocked town; it was a ten-hour flight but it seemed longer. The time change, the hours spent waiting at airports. In one of them, sometime past midnight, I made a bed on the floor in a vacant corner and dozed for a bit; drowsing in and out, trying to decode the cryptic patterns on the carpet. I wondered idly if all human designs are pieces of a larger whole, a cosmic pattern that tells the story of the multiverse. Right there on the carpet, the answer to every question humanity has ever thought to ask, and all we do is hurry over it, cursing; or wend our way through a crowd, noses planted in our smartphones. We don't see, we fail to wonder. Maybe we have even forgotten what questions to ask, or how to read the stars at our feet.

Back in the middle of the continent, I miss the salt air. My ears strain for the perpetual sound of the waves returning over and over again, whispering the same few words. They are such good, soothing words; such vital words, for the ocean to say them so many times. Here on my inland couch, stranded in my living room, I feel my body rocking as if I've just come off a boat. If I close my eyes I sway involuntarily with the currents of an ocean whose shores begin some fifteen hundred miles away. I could turn around right now and go back there, tonight. I could walk into the waves under a half-moon and feel the ocean's cool embrace. I could swim with Honu, the sea turtle and Kohola, the whale.

But that would be running away from the life I've just built here. After all, I ran to here from someplace else. To this place that is, ultimately, an ocean too. If I think of it that way, imagination takes over and a vision, so clear it catches my breath, washes through my mind. Time slips and tumbles; it is millions of years ago, and today. All of human history fades, and the sky wheels backward. Here on my inland couch, in my living room which sits on a limestone shelf studded with the fossils of sea creatures, I can close my eyes and feel the waters rise around me. My skin welcomes the cool, clear sea that fills my house, sends me floating toward the ceiling which rises and sets me free, and I am swimming among prehistoric fish. Finning up toward the surface, my clothes disappearing, all the cars and buildings floating away like so many bubbles, I reach the night air and overhead the stars are out by the billions.

It is like my eyes are open for the first time. The stars have stories to tell, not unlike the patterns of a faded carpet I saw, long ago, in the middle of a journey from island to mid-continent. This time I am paying attention. This time I am awake. This time I will bring back their stories when I return, in the morning, to dry land.

Saturday, February 7, 2015


Maui Meditation

The theory of relativity bears itself out here in the islands, time stretching languid and long, chewing-gum left out in the sun. Einstein would be pleased. Back on the mainland that same gum is brittle, has lost its fluidity, breaks up in little pieces under pressure, and there is never enough of it. On the mainland it seems I am always looking for more time; here, I have handfuls of it. I sleep, wake, play, eat, write, sleep some more, watch the sun set and the moon rise.

I do and do not know how many days I have been here. Five, I think. But each morning the sun gilds the green hills, the black-and-gold beaches, with fresh spray from the surf. It is the same sun as the day before and yet different. The same beaches but subtly changed. The sun takes forever to move across the sky; clouds are slow ships hauling through its blue depths. Each wave, which has traveled many hundreds, perhaps thousands, of miles to reach this place, rolls in across the coral reefs, rumbles over lava, stone, sand, kisses the roots of trees, drags at my toes, beckons. I dive in.

I play carefully with the waves. Some are quick and some are slow; some look fearsome and others playful, the way a friendly lion might be playful. I was taught from a young age never to turn my back on the ocean--my dad was a sailor, and my other mentor was the ocean herself. She threw me on my head a few times, rolled me end over end and burned my lungs with her brine, worked her way into my nose, ears and eyes. Now I play in the smaller waves and bow respectfully to the large, letting them roll over my body and coming up on the other side unhurt. I swim past them out into calmer, bluer, clearer water, and find Honu, the sea turtle. She is twenty feet down and her shiny black eye glances up at me through water clear as gin. All around us fish dart and flutter. Brightly-colored beauties: yellow, blue, orange, black and neon, urchins and sea stars. I gulp air then dive and roll, dolphin-like, flipping easily through the current. I can hear them nibbling busily at the coral: little pops and cracks, like Rice Krispies. And then a wilder, deeper, more urgent call: the humpback whales are singing. I stay down as long as I can. Come up for air, dive again and again. I don't know the words to their songs but I know the meaning, the exhiliration, the warning, the longing they hold. A single one of these creatures is big enough that I could fit comfortably inside its lung. They have no idea I'm way over here listening; no idea what my life on land is like; yet we're connected because they're out there, singing, and I'm here, an audience to their symphony. 

I stay out for what seems like hours. My fingers and toes wrinkle, my skin opens to drink in the salt water. I feel my body beginning to slicken and lean out, and the need for breath becomes less. I wonder if I might be growing a dorsal fin. I wonder if anyone back in Austin would notice if I didn't return, and if stories would be told about what happened to me. She decided to stay in the islands. She was lost at sea. I heard she turned into a dolphin. Such a fantasy is highly unlikely where I currently live, a thriving tech town in the middle of the continent, firmly landlocked and thus not a place where people routinely turn into sea creatures. But here in the islands, this tiny tail of land where people are daily reminded that the planet is, indeed, 70% water and perhaps 70% magic as well--anything is possible. Anything is possible, and everything is relative. To a person on the shore, I might look like a dolphin dancing in the setting sun; to a dolphin, I might look like a weird new jellyfish; to a shark, I might look like lunch. And to a humpback whale, like a mere sparkle on the crest of a wave.

The only thing on earth I am not relative to, is me. To myself, I am only myself. Moment to moment I might be a dolphin, an eagle, a humpback whale, a tiny human being, a cosmos. Again, I think Einstein would be pleased. Magic seemed to tickle him a little bit. "Logic will get you from A to B," he said; "Imagination will take you everywhere." 

Monday, January 26, 2015

The Impressionist

Women are the only oppressed group in our society that lives in intimate association with their oppressors.  --Evelyn Cunningham

It's an unexpected interruption on a day
when you are hard at work mastering the lovely
piece that is your life, its nuanced colors and shades
the way the light and dark balance one another
and he enters quietly at first, failing to wipe his feet.
It's such a minute error, so small
you could almost ignore the smear on the canvas
if it didn't keep nagging at your eye.
It's as slight as the way he looks at you
that squirm when he touches you without asking--
deferentially almost; apologetically.

And certainly you say no
when he tries to paint himself into the picture
of your bedroom: the antique mirror glowing softly
the sweetly arranged shapes of you and the dog
beneath the down coverlet
the friendly book on the night stand.

No, you say, I'm not comfortable with that
and when he asks again a brush-stroke later
the answer is still no
but with an awkward smile
which he accepts as surrender.

Perhaps there is a rare man
a kind, experienced
and unhurried man
who understands that a smile is not always
a smile
an implied yes is not always really yes.
This is not that man.

Later on things become more complicated
you are worn down to a different kind of consent
there are words involved, forceful words
that paint the picture with darker colors:
you decide fleeting pleasure is better
than starting over: the arduous drawing of
that will then be crossed
battled over
crossed again
destroyed again.
Whatever anyone calls you after this
it will be dangerously close to slut
or just as sad, willing.

Here you must paint over your mistakes.
First impressions are vital but you
have taught yourself to trade them
for the confusion of camouflage:
the way he respects or does not respect
each line you draw, the way he loves
or does not love
the shapes that define you.

You accept every other impression
drowning the first in hopeful hues
all that color running down a saturated canvas.
You decide on impulse to paint with your
eyes closed
finding his dark weighty presence if not comforting
then at least a counterpoint in a sea of light
which holds everything down
keeps you from spinning out
into a backdrop of ambiguity: you tell yourself
whatever anyone calls you after this
it will not be victim. 

©KB 1/26/2015

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

I Wrote This for You

I wrote this for you
during a thousand hours with my two hands
pressed against your pain.
You find me, eventually
tired and hurting
your body tight as hardwood
gnarled into shapes you can't escape
no matter which way you push and stretch.
You have forgotten how to walk
how to run
how to breathe
You have forgotten how to fall
into a sleep natural and trusting
as a child rocked next to the beating heart
of someone who loves it--
but you are ready to learn.

You don't see your own perfection
but it is there
I see it
curled like a bud in your belly
your furled palms and corded forearms
the small of your back where it's tight and guarded
the arches of your feet that ache and ache;
perfection is there
I see it.

You belong to you; this beauty is your own
day by day you will stand taller
breathe easier
release the tough coiled ball at your center.
You will not be hard and hurting but pliable and strong
a thing that floats
a body that breathes
a being that knows, loves, believes.

I see you someday, soon, moving with ease
along a crowded sidewalk
a smile curling your lips as you float
from curb to sidewalk to street corner.
Your form is pure grace, strong and light
proud as a tall ship
the breath in your lungs like wind in sails
bellying you onward: now exhale--now inhale--
do you feel the waves pressing you forward?
Can you hear the beating heart of love?

© 1/6/2014

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Black Holes

"The heart that breaks open can contain the whole universe." --Joanna May

I didn't know you, not really; I called you a friend but you weren't, not really. You were a face, a constant presence on my peripheral vision. You were the friendly conversation I could always count on. You were the smile that was always waiting to catch my eye if I glanced in your direction--that made me a little nervous because it was always ready, always lit up, and I thought you wanted something from me. Maybe you did. Warmth, touch, chat, companionship, alliance against the dark that closed us into a cave every winter and the light that sent us too high every summer.

A few times I opened to you--in my braver moments--and we talked for far too long: life, love, dog mushing, travel, the holes in the universe that lead to the unknown. We didn't know where we were going and on those nights we didn't really care. You were a good person. We were two good people who had plenty to regret, and we met on that common ground. Regrets. Love. The great unknown. Black holes you can fall into and never look back.

And then the next time I'd see you, we'd have forgotten. Back to being strangers who knew each other once, just that once over a beer at a bar that felt like home. I moved away and never thought about you but once or twice; a mutual friend would mention they'd seen you, and I'd think, uncomfortably, of that connection that lasted no longer than a breath and didn't lend itself to my understanding.

Last night I read online, from an impersonal distance, that you'd taken your own life. Not discreetly, in a moment of private anguish, but publicly, hanging yourself from a tree in the middle of town. Why would anyone do such a thing? but I thought, suddenly, of a Tibetan monk setting himself on fire in protest of a situation that is unlivable, unthinkable, untenable. This is public, visceral, frightening, sickening. It tears our hearts out. It leaves us numb. It is a statement of abhorrence of the Thing That Should Not Be. No one can live like this; no one should have to. Isolated, alone, no help on the horizon. No matter the appearances on the surface, no matter how many friends, acquaintances, warm alliances you have--this dread solitude at your center, this maelstrom of demons that stole your mind--they occupied your inner territory, claimed it for themselves. You had to get out.

Now I understand. This is what we had in common, and this is why your presence made me so uncomfortable. I was looking into a mirror. I think, though, that you were better than I was back then. You reached out. You tried. You made friends, chased adventure, gave your heart, fought to live. It just got to be too much. A decision had to be made: live in chains, or set yourself on fire and hope someone saw.

Well, someone did. We all did. You are mourned. You are loved. You will be missed. No one, no matter what the demons say, is ever alone. Not you, not the Tibetan monk burning to death in a pillar of fire. We are all everything. We are all connected. Go back to where you came from; discover the secrets of love, black holes, time travel, your place in the universe. Go on and on till you find the place you were meant to be. Find peace there, and ease. Gather a team of eager dogs and mush them down the spine of the universe. Let their laughing mouths guide you to freedom.

© 11/18/2014

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Wise Woman

i carry your heart with me (i carry it in my heart) i am never without it.        --e.e. cummings

It was years ago and yesterday
You clambered up into my bed

Wearing your fuzzy footed jammies
With a book in your hands that needed reading.

I don't remember the book, there were so many:

Jabberwocks, Care Bears, Alice in her Wonderland.
The point of them was us telling stories
Funny lively stories in the morning
Scary keep-you-up-late ones in the night
Stories that lit up your green eyes
Made you ask questions
Made you trill with laughter and sometimes
To my mingled pride and shame, made you cry.

I was twelve and 
angsty and still a child

Skating on the edge of a grown world;  
You were five and followed me endlessly

Soft yellow-duck hair haloing your head
Ticklish feet, bitten nails, a penchant for Rice Krispies. 

How I loved you--fiercely, furiously, a love that wrapped itself 
So tightly around my adolescent heart I felt at times 
I'd have to scream to get it out. 

Sometimes I did and it scared you a little. 

Sometimes I protected you from others who screamed.
I tried to warn you about the world so you wouldn't get hurt
The way I was already hurt--all that made-up wisdom
I thought I possessed but didn't, all the stories I told
To scare you into not growing up.

I wanted to toughen you but you wouldn't toughen
You insisted on loving openly

You trusted, you laughed, you were real and warm
As only a child can be.

Much later, when the world finally did hurt you 
It tore me open all over again
The way it does every time
The way it feels watching someone 
Take a punch in the gut and having
No power to punch back on their behalf. 
These are the simple equations of love:
I carry your heart in my heart. When you hurt I hurt.
When you are glad I am glad.

But I am beginning to learn from you
(I see you were the wiser woman all along):
It is always worth it.
To love, to hope. To keep loving. Keep hoping.
To fall down and get up and love again, hope again,
Returning to the path you've marked for yourself.

So you don't need my raging adolescent protector.
She can keep her mouth shut while she holds your hand:
You've got this, you will make it, sister--
She can give you center stage
To love openly, to trust, to find your laughter again
To be real and warm
As only a grown woman can be.