The sky was still black when I woke in awe from my first dreams of this new year. Other people’s dreams are, I know, commonly thought quite dull, but humor me — I’m still grateful to have been returned to a life in which I am able to sleep and wake normally, after 2019’s virulent nightmares and daymares that, yes, were hallucinations. This is the first time I’m typing that word for anyone to see.
2019 was the year I discovered the hard way that I have cavernous hemangiomas in my deep brain. They are little raspberry-shaped clusters of blood vessels that don’t belong and leaked into the tissue and cerebrospinal fluid and led to many extremely upsetting experiences. Among those were hallucinations and, following them, a kind of burial alive, six feet under the abject shame that my brain had failed me in that way, and that I hadn’t been able to recognize it or stop it from happening. Thankfully that shame has fallen away; it was a medical condition, inflammation in a region that’s acutely sensitive and, it is said, more complex than the whole universe. It could have happened to anyone, that vascular anomaly. Biology is not a meritocracy. Bodies we cultivate and care for can still be stricken by illness or accident.
Anyway — I have a friend, S, who just started teaching college courses. His field is religion. I asked him over the holidays what the word “mythopoetic” means to him, as it had drifted into my mind during our conversation. How strange that I should ask, he said, as he’d used that word for the very first time during a recent Zoom class.
In my dream, S volunteered to drive a young and impoverished pregnant woman, whom we’d happened to meet, ten hours to a prison to see the father of her child. Sitting in the passenger seat, the seat belt crossed over her belly, she looked at the wide country they traversed and spoke her thoughts aloud. Recounting this, S said to me, “I hope she’s able to find time as a single mother to write some of this down.” He told me what she’d said, gazing out the passenger window, that struck him the most: “When it comes to breath, there’s ‘my exhalation,’ which is lame — and ‘your exhalation,’ which is lame — and ‘the collective exhalation,’ which is lame — but when they gather over the sleeping land, they become spectral and beautiful.”
There’s some social realism in that dream; for example, the poor are far more likely to be imprisoned and sent far away from their families. It was her words, though, which I heard so distinctly in S’s voice, that made the greatest impression on me. The way I translate them for myself is, Regarding the essence of life, which ought to inspire and elevate, our discourse tends to fail and fall into cliches. Even so, there is a place beyond words where the echoes of words fall into a hush, and the true collective breath of all living things — the biosphere in its breathtaking mystery — maintains itself with or without us. Perhaps I found that as profound as I did because I was still half-asleep — but I looked at the clock and realized dawn was coming, so I made some coffee and drove out past the sleeping town to meet it. The sky was vast; the spectrum, diffuse, stretched along the length of the horizon. I was alive to the cold and the light. It was mythic. It was poetic.
Text and image copyrights on this site are held by me. The shame I experienced began to lift after I had my MRI and had a context for what had happened; but my ongoing hesitation to identify that I’d hallucinated points to, among other things, the deep internalization of stigma, as though a malfunctioning brain were a bruised fruit that might contaminate others. Feeling that way is dangerously isolating. Many thanks as always to those who’ve loved me through thick and thin, and those who gave me company in my pain. If you’d like to see more of this story, let me know, and I’ll try to write it — no promises! Happy New Year to one and all. EA
It’s the time of year here when trees look picked over, gardens seem bereft and bedraggled, and skies are frequently gray. So as I was walking along recently, I found this color arresting. It promptly landed on my list of things to be thankful for, a list that has been especially abundant this year and includes family, friends, mentors old and new, and, still, the excellent consultation I had last September at Mass General, which gave me hope and ongoing reason to reinvest in my life. If you’ve ever wanted to hug a neurosurgeon while crying dazed and ecstatic tears, you might be vibing to my frequency. I’m thankful for the friend who drove me there and the receptionist who was kind and even the elevators, the hallways, the glass doors, the parking garage. I hate parking garages! But that one helped deliver me from hell back to life on earth. I’m grateful for a screenshot of my parents on Zoom, hugging while wearing the scarves that I made them, my father’s a decade old or so, lingonberry-red, my mother’s new and pinky-purple like a type of orchid. I’m thankful they’ve been untouched by COVID. I’m thankful for your reading this, which is why it’s short—time is valuable! I’m thankful for Nick Hornby, whose novels got me through the worst of election season. I’m thankful for income and inspiration—also for coffee on the daily, and my new favorite source: Grounds for Change. Take a moment and click that link to find out how truly wonderful they are. I have zero financial interest in the company; my only interest is in wanting to see them and every high-quality, deeply principled business continue their good work in the world—work that benefits the people (who, in this case, produce the beans) as well as the ecosystems they live and labor in. Sustainability for all—it doesn’t get better than that.