Jill Bolte Taylor's Stroke of Insight


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.



Sunday, September 14, 2014


“You have to give to the world the thing that you want the most, in order to fix the broken parts inside you.” 
Eve Ensler 

Shame to give it away
this iridescent thing inside you
rooted in your being
the thing you can't express
no matter how many poems paintings
works of art new colors you invent.
It was always going to mean death
to get it out; like the quest for the human soul
this one requires that you spill blood
open the body cavity
eviscerate everything in the search.

Shame to give it away
to find the words for it and hand them over to
some stupid boy in a campfire-lit moment
that he will not remember
and if he does, will not understand
nor care about.
He was merely listening because
he thought wide-eyed attentiveness
was the gentle crowbar
that would prise apart your legs.
When he found you were naively pleased
to have an audience he grew impatient
did the prying by force
and this is how you learned:

Pinned down, screams clenched between your teeth
silent chaos, cruel intimacy--
ultimately these become fuel
for the flame at the center of your being
the thing that makes you you: an alchemist
that takes every evil indelible moment
and transforms it into light.

Shame to give it away
but shame is a liar: the thing itself
can never be taken, it is you
and you are here
and no one gets to say how, or why
or in what form.
So spill your blood. Pry yourself open.
Tear it all apart until you find you
and hold yourself high
this being human, this human being
this thing made of light and hate and love and fear.
Show us. Light us up, be truth, heal for us.

KB © 9/13/14

Monday, August 18, 2014

Monkey at the Wheel

I've never had a great relationship with my brain. Does it seem weird to tell you that? Yes. It is a strange thing to say, but it's true: my brain and I never really got along. I have learned, slowly, that just because something consists of my own flesh and blood; just because it is mine, or is me, this gray lump encased in hard bone riding around on my spindly neck; just because I feel its weight every time I nod my head yes or shake it no, does not mean it has to do what I tell it to.

In fact for most of my life my brain was doing pretty much the opposite of what I wanted. While I was a kid, busy climbing trees and getting in trouble and riding horses and flunking math, my brain was a space ship traversing the galaxy. I'd space out in the midst of whatever I was doing and come back a few minutes later to find a teacher, a parent, a friend or a bully staring at me in confusion, as if I'd just arrived from another planet. In most cases I'd been in the middle of an interaction with these people: a lecture, a game, a fight; and blip! gone. My brain had just done the equivalent of stepping out for a smoke break without notifying the boss--ostensibly, me. I had no idea this was happening, and it was usually awkward. My high school history teacher wrote me up for "humming in class." I was unaware I'd been disturbing his lectures with my musical predilections; my brain had let my body hang out on its own, and my body decided humming in class would be a fun thing to do. 

As I got older, the blips became less amusing and more worrisome. I became a master at "stepping out" of my body. I practically majored in it in college. When my best friend was killed in a car accident two weeks before the advent of my freshman year, I took it relatively in stride. She was gone, and so was I. Off to school went my body, off to the galaxy went my brain. I don't remember very much about being at university. I made some friends but didn't retain many of them. I think I did alright in my classes; I found a major I liked, and one or two professors I connected with. I learned some things but most of them had nothing to do with academics. Mostly, I was depressed. Whenever I bothered to check in with my mind, it hurt; so I didn't check in very often. I got married, then finished school, then got divorced. The pain worsened, so I fled to Africa, a continent of pain, and I drowned myself there in other people's injuries. 

Over the years it began to feel like my mind had special rules that I wasn't aware of. It was a sensitive thing, a high-revving, shaky, frighteningly unpredictable machine. It was a Ferrari with a monkey at the wheel: in hyperdrive one day and the next, mashed into a ditch. I started having delusions. I started seeing a therapist. I didn't know I was having delusions and if the therapist knew it, she kept it to herself. Telling a delusional person that she is delusional is a tricky thing, obviously, but it does fall within a therapist's job description--so maybe she just didn't know. And I wasn't dangerous. I think I was probably just sort of weird. Well, weird and funny and tragic, from the outside. And internally, I was a wreck on one hand and rather enjoying it on the other. I fancied myself a writer and would stay up late some nights, sipping whiskey and emoting on my laptop. Other nights I went out to bars and shows, and danced myself into a dark, frenzied place that felt panicky and claustrophobic. It was those times that I'd feel like something inside me was trying to claw its way out: this deeper mind, this animal brain, this souped-up monkey-driven Ferrari. It couldn't get out, of course, but it did some damage trying. Scars began to appear on my arms and legs. I burned and bit, cut and carved. These were calming activities, they took the engine down a notch, kept the car on the road.

But ultimately there are only so many roads. So many red lights and blind corners, so many tanks of gas burned up circling the same few blocks. Over and over I did the things that had failed me before, hoping this time--this new relationship, this new job, this new residence--would be the right one. Circling that block with manic high speed and razor-sharp turns didn't work, and neither did dragging around the same block in low-speed choked-up depressive reverse. One night in the middle of a new relationship and a promising new career, having just bought my first home, I gave up. Found myself in the bathroom with a bottle of pills and a crazy person in the mirror. Brain: checked-out. Stalled. Gone off the shoulder of the road, in free-fall.

It didn't really come back from that night. Not that brain, not that person in the mirror. I didn't die, but monkey-mind began to. The free-fall lasted eighteen months, and when it was done that car hit bottom and blew up. My life as I knew it died in the resulting fire. It wasn't a quick death, but it was thorough and permanent. I didn't think I'd ever see the road again.

It's weird, though, what can happen after you give up. When your hands are taken off the wheel, by choice or chance. Because of that night I received a new name: Bipolar. It was, I see now, only one name among the many other names I have taken for myself: Writer. Rolfer. Maker of Mistakes. Woman. Lover. Healer. Destroyer. Student. Teacher. Friend. Because of that night I received help, in the form of family and friend support, medication, and therapy. I began to see my delusions for what they were. Now, they are my comedians, a source of laughter in a world that appears to be ever more unaware of its increasing delusions.

And my car is back on the road, at last. It's not the same car. It doesn't do flashy turns and go from zero to sixty in .001 seconds, but it's fast as hell if need be. It's got meds in the tank and love in the headlamps. It's a sweet-ass Cadillac circa 1959, with hot-pink fins and zebra stripes and a set of moose antlers bolted to the grille. This Eldorado is all about moving forward, high speed or low, smooth and quiet, the whole world plastered to the windscreen like it's smiling for a closeup. I'm at the wheel now, most of the time, but there's a tiger in the backseat and every time I gaze in the rearview to try to guess what I might have left behind, his toothy grin reminds me: You got one day to live, lady. Do it. Do it now.

Friday, August 8, 2014

Rites of Passage

Female friendships that work are relationships in which women help each other to belong to themselves.
Louise Bernikow
Drawing the circle tonight in an ancient ritual
the sharing of food and wine
this coven of females that fit one another
the way soft old jeans cradle our curves.
Mad as maenads
wild-haired women who, when we laugh
throw back our heads and roar
above the hum of the crowd like lionesses.
Fierce pride, this tribe: boundless affection
smiles full of teeth and words
shouting advice, swapping insults.

Our edges are sharp. When we collide we cut and bruise,
we bleed. People look at us and say
we are crazy, and they are not wrong:
we build up heads of steam, eyes lit up like Mars.
But post-collision we embrace
we soothe and murmur, chuckle and weep.
Our talk turns soft as summer wine
and we give it generously: this love
that absolves, accepts, forgives, moves on.

We know what all smart women know:
friendship among lionesses
is careful ground.
Inside us these ferocious hearts
that beat
and beat
and beat us to pieces
until we do what they demand.
And they demand this: you will love your sisters
like it or not
you will learn the lessons your tribe has to teach
you will hit your lows and reach your heights
to love and be loved every step of that journey:
This is how you become a woman.

KB © 7/9/14

Monday, July 28, 2014

The Mad Season

10:19 PM and sunlight is streaming through the windows, writing its name on the walls: the shadows of trees are pen and ink. I had to force myself to come inside tonight. It seems I can never rest enough these days, though I drench myself in sleep and rise to the surface and dive for more--when I come up for air the light teases me, sends my dreams on walkabout.

Rain: they say this is good fishing weather, but that depends what you are fishing for. Salmon are plentiful or not, regardless of weather; some days they leap one over another into the net and others they swim quietly around without a bump. Rain stirs up the lake fish; trout, pike, Arctic char, grayling. Deepwater fish don't care what happens to the air; storm, sun, rain--they'll eat whatever comes along, hooks and sinkers included. But salmon--it is something deeper than hunger that drives them. The end of the world wouldn't deter them from finding their way home to that one inscrutable place, coveted above all others, seven years' journey to find it again.

The end of the world. Some say it is here. Here, in this place: the edge of so-called civilization where people fall to the middle of the food chain despite the rifles they noisily tote around on backpacks the size of small houses. The edge of a mountain chain so vast and high small planes and airliners can disappear and never be found. Here, in this time: where civilization has run up against the edge of available resources and the planet's exhaustible ability to rebound from the abuse of its children. Science has become our religion, and its prophets tell us we are doomed. There will be no god thundering in on a white horse to avenge his own. No trumpets to announce our redemption.

2:29 PM and the wind has just flared up. Trees nine stories high bowing and swaying, their leaves silvering under a lead sky. But a flock of three-ounce birds flutters and dives through the branches, bustling about with seed-gathering and business as usual. The fishing boats are fighting hard against the wind today; unsecured items are falling over on people's decks and in their yards; bits of siding are preparing to flap loose; but the birds smooth their feathers and flit from branch to porch rail to rooftop, singing little songs to their babies who are just now learning to fly.

This is not a place for the civilized. It is a crazy-making place, a place for rituals and revolutions, but not for everyday life; not for homemaking and grocery shopping and daycare. Putting civilization on this place is like dressing a grizzly bear in a debutante gown. Sooner or later the thing is going to come apart, with results varying from carnage to comedy.

People go mad here. That is one way the gown comes apart. Their minds bulge and fray at the seams, they turn on one another, they turn on themselves. Some go quietly, slowly disappearing over the years via the neck of a bottle. Others flare out sideways and leave scars. Last week a neighbor man went into his shed, nailed the door shut, and set himself on fire. People "flip out" with guns, machetes, kitchen knives--every week, it seems, they murder each other in gruesome and public ways. A few years ago, a friend of mine stabbed herself through the heart. Life is hard here. It turns out, living is often harder than dying.

But madness comes in many forms. There is the madness of a summer night where the light stays and stays; the madness of rooting down in wet, sucking mud for a weekend of camping and music and mosquitoes; the madness of waking up to a foot of snow that wasn't there the night before, and whooping for joy. There is the madness of running up a mountain pass at night, in sleeting wind, breathing the freshest cleanest air left on earth. Have you ever brushed up against death and thanked it for sparing your life? Ever watched a mama grizzly move her cubs away from you instead of ripping your head from your neck? Been bluff-charged by a moose and felt your belly turn to water? This is life, mad and fierce and lovely. Every day of not-dying here is a gift, a rarity, a statistical improbability.

This should be a lighter post. If I were writing from anywhere else, it would be. But I could never speak lightly of this place; even most of the jokes we make about Alaska have punchlines that involve drinking, road accidents, brain damage, freezing to death, spousal abuse and small plane crashes. Gallows humor much?

6:30 PM and the wind has stopped. Rain falls steadily now, plinking on the barn roof, darkening the horses' coats. Their wet eyes gaze at me, large and soft in a bid for carrots or grain. The rain is good to them, comforting after the fierce sun, softer than the winter snows that freeze their thick coats. Tucker cocks a back hoof and lowers his head, settling down for a nap in the drizzle. I take his cue and prepare to do the same; the hay smells sweet and lulls me, a place I used to hide as a child. There is nothing to do today, and no one to do it with, and that is a good thing. Let the rain say what it may; later, I will make up an answer.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

For Philip, Who Was Weird

If you're a human being walking the earth, you're weird, you're strange, you're psychologically challenged.
Philip Seymour Hoffman

In the end it's just your voice
your own weird bright lone song
blossoming from the beautiful dark
that lives in your head.
You hide in that dark
though your beating heart lies exposed;
you've pried yourself open for the world to see
but nobody sees.

I know the virtue in hiding.
Evening comes and I tread suburban streets
by my weird lone strange self
looking in lighted houses and wondering
how can ordinary people seem so magically out of reach
backlit in their perfect frames
sharing a meal, arguing, embracing
or simply sitting quietly
staring at something just out of my view?

Maybe in your own way you did the same
eavesdropped on ordinary human life
took it in then decided it wasn't for you
that your existence would not be framed
in a precise square of light that signified normal.
You lived outside that frame until you couldn't
write yourself into the story anymore
then left via the narrow path of a needle.
Strange, such a tiny place for a human being
to disappear into
that single point of reference in a sea of madness.

I know the virtue in coming undone.
The hectic symphony of rhetoric and prose
every role you play becomes a cage that won't open
until you've left a part of yourself in there
so many parts and pieces taken, chewed, spat out
and the chorus cries for more.
Sometimes the sanest thing to do is embrace insanity.

In the end I am compelled to say of you
that you were weird
and that is the bravest thing a person can be.
I am not there and no one is there to say these things
or try to change the hand you've dealt yourself;
it's just you coiling down to infinity
singing the song that only you know
your weird lone voice ragged and ecstatic
the voice of enlightenment or madness
which are one and the same, you see at last.

KB 7/8/2014