This is just plain fun. Wouldn’t it be great if it helped bring used-book stores back?
Damn The Headache—I’m Taking Back Reading
One of the best things about starting over so many years after my injury has been reading. I’ve been a voracious reader for most of my life. During my years as a freelance journalist, I’d get up at 6 AM, or earlier, make a pot of coffee, and read for hours. I subscribed to 12 or 13 magazines and I’d power through every issue, rarely skipping an article, until I felt guilty about my children watching too TV (even if it was Sesame Street).
When I shifted to communications work, I had less time for magazines, but I scoured newspapers daily for stories related to my clients’ mandates so I could ghost write letters to the editor and op/eds, and if I happened to read a lot more than necessary, that was fine. I love good literary fiction, and although I was too busy to read more than a few novels a year, I always took time to read a few on the annual camping trip or over the Christmas break.
After my injury, though, reading for pleasure completely became a thing of the past. Even now, 12 years after the concussion, nothing triggers my headache faster than putting on my reading glasses, especially if I’m reading from the computer screen.
Very quickly after the accident, with no idea what a long-lasting choice this would be, my husband and I decided I had to focus the few good reading hours I had every week day—the few hours before The Headache became intolerable—on billable work only. I divided the rest of my time between health care appointments and rest.
For months, I was only able to tolerate reading for a few hours a day. For years, even when that improved, I still felt I couldn’t afford the time and pain to read for pleasure.
Before my injury, nothing had ever been higher on my Christmas wish list than books. Afterward, there was no point in making a wish list of books because they just gathered dust. Reading was, without a doubt, one of the many losses that steepened my descent into depression. Not only could I not escape into a different world in a way that’s not possible with TV or DVDs, I could barely keep up enough with events around the globe to carry on a conversation about anything larger than my increasingly confined middle-class suburban life.
When I began the MFA program, I worried about being able to manage the reading (and my lack of awareness of what was going on in the world at large, never mind the literary world, embarrassed me). But once I started reading again, it was like getting together with an old friend.
I still don’t read as much as I used to, or as I’d like to. That’s partly because the pace of my reading has slowed considerably, not just because of The Headache, but because the injury triggered symptoms associated with post-trauma vision syndrome.* The Free Dictionary defines PTVS this way:
A defect in visual perception that follows a neurological event (e.g., traumatic brain injury, cerebrovascular accident, multiple sclerosis, cerebral palsy), which is characterised by the perception of movement by objects that are known to be stationary, the running together of printed text, attempting to walk on a seemingly tilted floor, significant imbalance and spatial disorientation when in crowded, moving environments.
In the early days after my injury, I had all the above symptoms, and then some. The feeling of walking on a slanted floor is long gone, but I still become disoriented in a noisy, crowded room (MFA folks: this is part of why I don’t go to many parties), and I still see things moving out of the corner of my eye that I know aren’t moving.
The most frustrating symptoms for me have been the reading-related ones, like losing my place when I get to the end of a line of text; having double or blurred vision by the end of a day (or sometimes earlier); and needing to reread anywhere from a paragraph to a few pages because I’ve lost focus and absorbed nothing. Sometimes by the time I reach the end of a book, I feel like I’ve read at least half of it twice.
The good news is I’m not letting it stop me anymore. I knew I missed reading for pleasure, but I didn’t realize how much until I took it back. And it really was about taking it back. It was about deciding enough was enough, The Headache be damned, it was not going to run my life anymore.
My husband is a voracious reader, but he’s a library user. Not me; I like having a book collection, though I don’t collect books the way some people do. I’m the only one in my family without asthma, and books are dust-collectors, so I limit myself to two large bookcases in my office. Every few years, I used to clean out some of the old to make room for some new.
For several years, I didn’t need to do that. There was a disheartening lack of turnover on my bookshelves. But when I started the MFA program, I decided to change that, too. I cleared out one shelf for the nonfiction books and magazines I planned to read. I recently had to clear out a second shelf for the books, and a third for the magazines.
To people who have always read voraciously, collected books for decades, and don’t live with asthmatics, the single shelf in the picture probably doesn’t look like much. To me, it looks like heaven. When I took the photo, I decided to count up the books I’ve read since I started the program and discovered, to my surprise, I’ve read at least 30 in the past two years. (That’s not counting a few I took out of the library, dozens of magazines, and a dozen or more articles I read in the newspaper or online every day.)
I’m doing a lot better than I thought I was, and that makes me ridiculously happy.
Starting over in middle age is hard, especially when you have particular strikes against you that make it more difficult to keep up with younger peers, or your own expectations. But every so often I realize I’ve actually exceeded my expectations, and that by itself makes up for a lot.
* (For those interested in such things, my PTVS was identified by an optometrist who specialized in vision problems related to neurological dysfunction. It includes convergence insufficiency and mid-line shift. Medical doctors are more likely to refer to it as vestibular-ocular dysfunction. I later saw an opthamologist who provided the same diagnosis and remedy: glasses with refractive lenses, much like those Hillary Clinton used for a while after her concussion in 2012.)
When All Else Fails …
I’ve spent the last two days doing my taxes. Actually, I spent yesterday doing my taxes and today I’ve spent most of the day on hold waiting to ask a tax expert some questions. I spoke with two very nice humans, neither of whom could answer my questions. The second one put me on hold and that was it for the day. Over four hours of listening to muzak.
I tried, unsuccessfully, in those four frustrating hours to write a blog post. But with all that muzak in my ears (same five-minute tape over and over), it was impossible. Instead, I thought I’d share some recent photos from my garden. All the photos from my site are from my garden last year, but here are a few fresh ones from this year.
When all else fails … flowers.
“If You Can’t Start Over, Start Now”
That, basically, is what a Facebook friend wrote to me a couple of years ago when I was feeling really crappy one day and wrote for my status update, “I wish I could start over.”
When I look back at it, I could have, and probably should have, started this blog two years ago, which I realize in hindsight is when I actually did start over. (I was accepted into the UKing’s MFA program in May 2013, if I remember correctly.*) Or maybe I should have started it in April 2013, when I applied for the program. Or maybe on February 22 2013, when I saw the email announcing the brand, new, unique-in-Canada program and looking for applicants.
Maybe I should have started this blog right then, as I sat in my desk chair staring in disbelief at the screen. At that point, I’d almost stopped trying to figure out what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. But right then, what I wanted to do for the rest of my life landed in my inbox.
Maybe I should have started this blog then, but I was still living in a pretty deep fog of confusion. I’ve never in my life been more confused than I was in the decade after I fell and hit my head, especially after the lawsuit settled.
At least while the lawsuit was ongoing, I had a focus. Once it was over, I had no idea what to do next. Nothing fit anymore. I wasn’t enjoying most of the work I was being offered as a communications consultant, but I didn’t have the energy or confidence to go out and sell myself to do the kind of work I wanted, even if I could have figured out what that was.
Although I remember the years between the accident and the settlement reasonably well, and have journals, emails, and other documents to corroborate and sometimes correct my memory, I don’t remember a lot of what happened after the lawsuit settled. I have to work at recalling landmarks from that period between the March 2007 settlement and the February 2013 email.
I remember taking the family to Costa Rica for Christmas 2007. I was trying to make up for all the time I hadn’t spent with them in the previous four years, and for all the mistakes I’d made while my focus had been almost entirely on trying to recover from the accident and pursue compensation for my losses.
I remember in 2008 walking away from my failing business and taking a full-time job. I was trying to find a way to bring some kind of meaning back into my life. But all I remember is how surreal it felt to be working in an office tower after years of working from a home office.
I remember in 2009 walking away from that job after less than a year and being unable to get another job, or even many interviews, as the recession settled in. Who wanted to hire a fifty-something consultant who’d only ever worked at home and didn’t yet know what the term “social media” meant?
I remember in 2011 deciding to work with a business adviser, which I know now was one of the best decisions I’ve made in my life. I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do for the rest of my life, but what I ended up learning was how to have a little self-respect again.
I remember in early 2013 realizing that, despite all my adviser’s good advice, I wasn’t getting anywhere because I still didn’t know what I wanted to do. I had almost stopped* trying to figure that out when that email arrived and I found myself thinking, “Maybe it’s not too late.”
Maybe I should have started this blog—which is about starting over in the middle of my life to pursue the goal I’d set out to pursue 30 years earlier—right at the moment I started over. Maybe if I had, I would have written a lot more about it than I have here in this one post.
But I didn’t. So instead, I’m starting now.
Two weeks ago, I wrote a blog post. This week, today, I wrote a blog post. Tomorrow, or the next day or next week, I’ll write another one. And I’ll just keep going like that, one sentence at a time, one word at a time, until I have a blog post or an essay, or maybe even a book.
I didn’t start this blog two years ago when I actually started over. So instead I’m starting now. And really, what more can any of us do?
A Missive to the Class of 2015
I was terrified. That first evening we all met at the grad pub in August 2013, I was terrified. I couldn’t possibly live up to the high standards the rest of our class set, and I vowed to stay to myself, go to class and back to my room, not get involved, not give anyone an opportunity to know me, or dislike me.
But you drew me out. You didn’t mean to; I didn’t give you a reason to. I tried not to let you. I think it was your sheer enthusiasm for what we were all doing there, for the shared dream inside each of us. Not “just” to be the writers we’d all already been for anywhere from five to thirty-five years—magazine editors and broadcast journalists and communications consultants and, and, and—but “real” writers, people who write those anachronistic things called “books.”
As thrilled as I was to be accepted to the brand new program, first of its kind in Canada, I felt in my bones I didn’t belong there, not the way all of you did. I still feel that in some ways, still feel like an outsider. But I had to do it anyway, had to try. I was—am—at that stage of life where it’s really now or never. No more putting it off until I have more life experience, until after my time with my mother has run out, until after the kids have grown, until after the mortgage is paid off.
I have life experience, my mother died in 1991, my kids are 29, 27, and 19, and my mortgage, well—let’s just say I seem to be considerably further away from that goal than I was two years ago. But it was worth it.
I didn’t know that then, though. I almost didn’t get on the plane. Almost dropped out halfway through the first term. Almost didn’t show up for the second residency.
Then, to my surprise, I got through the first year. We were halfway there. I didn’t know where the money for second year was going to come from, didn’t know how I was going to cope with the headaches for another year. I considered taking a break and doing the second year later, but I knew that would never happen. As an old friend said to me recently about some challenges she’s been taking up, “It’s never going to get easier.”
So I went back, went on, as did all of you, and here we are. Two years ago, on one of the earlier middle pages of my life, I wanted to be a better writer but I was terrified of being found out to be a terrible person. Two years later, I am a better writer. I don’t know if I’m a better person. Or rather, I don’t know if anyone around me thinks I’m a better person. But I know it doesn’t matter to me as much anymore. And that’s not an insult to any of you. It’s a gift I gave myself, and you have all been part of the gift.
Because to me, becoming a Master of Fine Arts and making it to the middle pages of my book manuscript has not been the only thing to come from the University of King’s College Creative Nonfiction Writing program. I’m also, on these middle pages of my life, surprised to find myself, if not a better person, at least a calmer one. A more confident one. A just slightly less neurotic one. A person who can say, it’s okay if not everyone likes me. Because somewhere in the last two years, I’ve learned to like myself again.
It’s not that I don’t still sometimes wake up in the morning in sheer terror at the thought of just getting out of bed. But then I get out bed and start writing another page of my life. The beginning of my life is long since over, and I trust the end is not as near as I’ve so often hoped it would be. I’m just on one of many pages in the middle of my life, much as I’m on one of many pages in the middle of my book.
Two years have gone by so quickly. I’ve been so proud to see us all closing the back cover of the program, one by one. Master Gough. Master Cole. Master Levangie. Master MacDonnell. Master Simon. Master Osberg. Master Gould. Master Bruhm. Master Duncan Bruhm. Too many to name, but Masters, all. And the title fits. You were all writers of the highest calibre to begin with. Now . . .
I look forward to being less overwhelmed with work all the time (though I don’t really know if being a writer and making a living means ever not being overwhelmed), but I am truly sorry we’re parting company. You are some of the wisest, most talented people I’ve ever met. I think so highly of all of you, and I look forward to seeing you again, whenever, wherever, on one of many more middle pages I trust we all have ahead of us.
Congratulations to the Class of 2015, the inaugural class of the Master of Fine Arts in Creative Nonfiction Writing at the University of King’s College in Halifax, Canada. Well done. Bravo. See you on your book tour. Or mine.
And so it begins . . .