Jill Bolte Taylor's Stroke of Insight


Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Death of a Merman

I'd like to remember my childhood as a carefree time when I ran around with the wind blowing through my unruly hair, loved by everyone, never frightened, never damaged. These tender years, we believe, are the time to daydream; dream big, be immortal, be sheltered from the wide scary world by loving parents and wise, benign teachers. Yes--those icons of moral education who are there to guide us gently into language arts, history, math, science and beyond, starting with kindergarten. They are not generally the ones who usher us into the knowledge of Death. But so it was with me.

I was a chubby-cheeked, dewy-eyed second grader in a pair of winter boots and a bright pink parka when I first witnessed death in all its violent, gory, awesome dimensions. I had just walked through the front doors of my rural Alaskan elementary school on a dark winter morning. I was mildly excited that we were celebrating Sea Week, which meant we'd get to decorate the classrooms and halls with all sorts of fish, whales, turtles, and (I hoped) mermaids and mermen. I remember that as I came into the foyer I was struggling to remove my mittens, the kind that you can't lose because they are connected to one another by knitted strings. I always found these rather annoying and restricting--the kid version of handcuffs--and I was dealing with this problem while trying to hang onto my lunch box. No idea what type of lunch box was in vogue at the time; this has completely escaped my memory along with most of the idyllic moments of my childhood before that precise moment, because just then I looked up to behold a monster in the throes of its demise at eye level with me, and my mind flew out the back of my head. 

What happened next imprinted itself on my eyeballs and will be seared there for the rest of my life. Mr. Newton, a third-grade teacher not known for coddling his students, in fact known for the opposite, was wheeling a table down the hallway and past the foyer where I stood. It was one of those 6-foot long tables so common to public schools at that time, used for everything from cafeteria lunches to library book displays to school bake-sale fundraisers. The table had a squeaky wheel and this is what drew my attention. My eyes traveled from my pesky mittens, slowly, slowly, drawn by the sound of the wheel, up to the vision of the table and its occupant being pushed along the hallway by the eternally grouchy Mr. Newton. And my world slowed down as if time had punched straight into a wall of molasses.

On the table, writhing and gaping, lay a gray, wet, interminable length of muscle fronted by a frightful, basketball-sized head filled with rows of teeth. The thing twitched and coiled, serpentine, then lay still. I goggled at it. It was the only thing in the world. There was nothing else to look at; my vision had narrowed down to this one thing, this creature from the edge of unreality. It lay still, stiller than still, for an eternity. I can't remember if the table was still moving along the hallway. I can't remember what Mr. Newton was doing at this point. I stared into the one glazed eye of the creature that was closest to me. It was black, intelligent, depthless.

The spell was broken, of course. Like a jack-in-the-box, or a toaster watched too closely, the thing jumped to life again, jaws agape, and my young psyche broke. I can't remember if I screamed, but I know my heart dropped out of my body and into the ground, and Mr. Newton took action then. He said, and I remember these words like they are being spoken to me at this very moment, "Stand back. You don't want to get splattered." And then he raised the baseball bat which he'd been carrying and which I hadn't noticed, and he brought it down with all the strength of a grown man, onto the creature's head. There was a sick, solid thud. There was no splattering of brains. A little blood. A twitching and shuddering set up along the incalculable length of muscle that was the creature's (body? tail? what the hell was this thing, that was longer than the table and hung toward the floor and was now, I understood deep in some newly-awakening part of my brain, dying?) The jaws with their rows of splintered teeth chomped once or twice, and stopped. And with them stopped any illusion of an idyllic, Little Women-style childhood where I might run innocently about, wind in my hair, my belief in the goodness and justice of the larger world blissfully intact. This new childhood was decidedly more...Hobbesian.

The moment ended. Time seemed to remember that it had a job to do, and it sped back up to its normal pace, and Mr. Newton carried on pushing the table down the hall. I never saw the creature again, never heard its name. Years later, when I uncovered that memory, because I had an adult brain that could contemplate such memories and the Internet had been invented, I hunted the thing down on Google. It took a bit of digging; I asked the Internet what in fuck's name is big enough, ugly enough, and intelligent enough, that lives in Northern waters and can survive out of water for a bit. Turns out Mr. Newton was wheeling a wolf eel down the hallway of our elementary school. See it here:


Wolf eels are actually fish, not eels, and are fearsome-looking but fairly peacable animals. They mate for life, and are rather affectionate, if one could call a fish affectionate. I don't know why I'm explaining all this--I guess I feel I owe them a favor, after such a disservice was done to one of them in my young presence. Even back then, a fear-frozen second-grader watching the death of a monster, I understood that the monster was actually us. The creature on the table should never have been there. It's not like he asked to be brought up out of the water and get a free tour of our lovely school. He wasn't looking to have me for breakfast. Maybe he'd left behind a lady friend in the dark, cold water, a mate who wondered where he was. Taking a baseball bat to the head--that's no way to die.

So I did learn something from Sea Week, and I did get my merman, after all; a creature more fantastic than I could have imagined, because in the end, it was real. And if it's real, then we still have a chance to save it. It's up to us to educate ourselves, via our big brains and the fantastic Internet, and any other way we can, about our oceans. We don't have to wait for Sea Week, and we don't have to wait until one of these incredible creatures dies in front of us. We can do it now. We owe it to them.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

The Ancients

Everything's got soul
that's what they believed
mineral, vegetable, animal
wind and rain
stars and planets and comets tracking the heavens
everything, alive and soulful.

The earth's got soul
it screams when we kill its children
hoarse by now with its clogged veins
sucked dry by progress;
still it gives back music ancient ears can hear
and they move to it, groove to it
bringers of the first beat
singers of the first songs.

My hands've got soul
they speak of what I do
knuckles marked with callouses
from healing not from hurting
one hand scarred from the time
I stuck a knife through it
nicking bone and tendon
and the nerve that speaks constantly
of everything it can't feel: we all make mistakes
but still, it's got soul.

You've got soul
ancient eyes in a young face
what do you see when you look in the mirror?
I see you.
Do the thing you came here for
stop killing yourself
listen to what the heavens are saying
your hands've already learned about love
now let them teach you.

KB 5/2015


They say the open range is no place
for the soft and the civilized
but it is the only place
I want to be right now:
a lone campfire struggling against the dark
and a horse tethered nearby.
I picture myself gazing up from my bedroll
scheming as I count them:
handful after handful of stars like flung silver
hanging just overhead
so that if I reached up
I might pluck them one by one
and secret them away.
So many that they would weigh down my horse
as we made trail the next day
enough to pay off bandits and bad men
enough to buy me immortality
to wait out time until the future comes
and people are building spaceships.
Enough to pay for passage beyond the moon's orbit
beyond the Milky Way
out to places this lone cowgirl, asleep in the desert,
can barely imagine.
That's where I want to be right now
dreaming on the open range
nothing but a lone campfire
a patient horse
and low-hanging stars waiting overhead.

Saturday, May 9, 2015

the wanderer

i am a wanderer tonight
walking the dog through quiet streets in the soft dark
stepping around pools of light where moths have gathered
to worship false gods.
the wind is jasmine, rosemary, woodsmoke
it greets my lonesome skin like a lover's touch
long gone but still remembered.
we stop near a vacant lot grown wild with flowers
where lightning bugs sing their bright song
in a secret semaphore:
here a question, there an answer
over and over, until they find one another
above the whispering grass
and begin the only dance they know.
it is a beautiful place, my little world
but i don't want to be here anymore
i am carrying too much weight and it has been too long
staying in one place
and this is not what wanderers do.
too many months and years
too long spent in this life alone; the one i came here to find
has gone, or was never here at all.

and i'm sure it was me, who said long ago
that i would be the one to choose
when to leave: like any night creature
if i found myself falling from a great height
i would simply arch my spine
turn in midair
shed any unnecessary weight
and begin to soar.

so i am falling
and so i will fly.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Writer's Block

It's not good in here
not at all good inside your head:
this desert that dries up stories
bleaches their bones
leaves nothing but petroglyphs and
tumbling sand.
Too many words taking flight--
a beating of wings and webbed feet
and you must capture them all and pin them
to the single wire of a sentence
which would lead to someplace that makes sense.

They say words are the things that hold us together
and language makes us what we are.
This is your life's work: go ye into the desert
into the brazen sun and the unforgiving dark
suck up water from the dust
and spit it back out to grow the soul of the world.

Of course it is all nonsense; you
should never have chosen this career
and now you wish you were twenty-seven again
living your life circa the 60's
freeloving it up with all the rest;
and they weren't using latex, baby
it was vinyl all the way.
It was Hendrix and Joplin and Morrison
and you could feel every. single. thing.
People listened like the world was on fire
while they burned up angels
and smoked their wings.

Or maybe that's not your style
and you wish to be entirely elsewhere;
the middle of the Pacific perhaps
climbing high up the masts of a tall ship
to watch a storm bellying over the horizon.
You could find your muse that way
or if not, then simply die happily
swan-diving into oblivion.

Either way the words lead you onward
flying ahead like a flock of geese
their wild wings beating, and beating,
and beating the shit out of whatever it was
you thought you had to say. All you can do
is fly after them, capturing one and the next
pinning them down
stringing them to the wire of a sentence
that will show us where we need to go.

©KB 5/2015

Wednesday, April 29, 2015


Stand quietly with me tonight
put your feet on the ground, and feel
how the earth spins beneath us
so smooth and sweet her steps in this dance.

Think of how she looks from far away
gazing blue-eyed into space
with a single moon hung beside her:
a pearl, an opal, a mirror.

Comes the time for me to leave
I'm going to miss her
almost as much as I'll miss you
and the way you looked into me:
a cosmonaut searching the galaxy
for his own reflection
or maybe the face of a new moon
smiling back.

KB ©4/29/2015

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

To-Do List

I keep a to-do list to organize my head
but it strikes me very strangely
that the longer I live, the longer it gets
which seems like faulty math
though I never was good at numbers.

Here is a math word problem:
if you could put all the world's theoretical physicists
on a scale and add up their body weight then
take this number and multiply it by 3.14...etc
what would you get?

Here is my to-do list:
  • play nicely with others
  • continue not having cable
  • buy groceries and put them away
  • learn to talk intelligently about string theory
  • finish reading Infinite Jest*
  • fall in love
  • stay in love
  • live in a van for a year
  • write a poem about theoretical physics
  • be so joyful it feels like dying
  • die**
So far I've managed the groceries
and the lack of cable with admirable ease
but love and string theory remain mysteries
as does infinity and, of course, infinity's
unproven sense of humor.
Jest, like love, has no physical weight
and cannot be added to the scale and multiplied by pi
even if all those theoretical physicists moved over
(doubtful) to make room for it.

I dream of living in a van and one night
camping in a spot so quiet I could hear the stars hum,
so still I could feel the invisible atomic fibers of my being
vibrating at just the right frequency
and then all would become clear: this finite being
this theoretical physical body that is me
knows the recipe for joy so great it splits me in two.

Now I'm crossing items off the list
though it is out of order; playing nicely with others
almost always comes after joy breaks me open
and poking Infinity in the ribs with an elbow
gives me a sense of accomplishment on a par
with distilling physics down to words.
I do not jest about death; it's on the list, if nothing else
for punctuation.
We have to stop somewhere.

*I know two people who have finished Infinite Jest, but they were unable to tell me what it was about. So maybe this is a loophole; I could just not finish it, and if anyone ever asks what it's about, I'll make something up.
**I thought this would be a good thing to put on the to-do list, because I know without a doubt that someday I will actually get it done.

KB© 4/2015