Mrs Stroke Bloke and I were just talking about how over five years have passed since my stroke. A lot of things have changed since the day before the stroke. Since the day after the stroke. Since the day I was released from the Rusk Institute. And so on.
The rather hoary old saw I’m ripping here is, time flies…
It was way back in January of last year that I mentioned that I’d written a short piece of fiction that revisited – however clumsily – some of the themes of Walt Whitman’s work. I am large, I contain multitudes, and all that good stuff. And in that regard, it was clumsy. But the piece was fun to write, and was (I’d like to think) one of the better received pieces I’ve delivered to an audience. I also liked its underlying theme of the importance of friendship.
Anyway, the point is, each time I stumble across Whitman’s writings, they stir some kind of inchoate echo in me.
The old ones are the best.
Maybe it’s to do with his humanism. Maybe it’s something to do with his position as a bridge between transcendentalism and realism. Maybe I just like bearded sometime Brooklynites who really need to give their hat game a little more thought.
I mean, who doesn’t? But maybe it’s something else. On my Twitter feed today, I came across a link to a piece on Brain Pickings. (Sorry, I don’t recall who put it out there.) And it only turns out that in his early fifties, Whitman suffered a stroke that left him severely disabled. Now there’s an echo.
I’ve recently been writing a short reflection on stroke recovery for another forum which briefly mentions the role that luck plays in our recoveries. As a metaphor for the part luck plays in our lives more generally, maybe. I dunno. But Hi, Diddy! anyway.
You might say that due to luck – and whatever other variables were present – Whitman made a partial recovery.
But as his body [partly] healed, the experience had permanently imprinted his mind with a new consciousness. Like all of our unexpected brushes with mortality, the stroke had thrust into his lap a ledger and demanded that he account for his life — for who he is, what he stands for, what he has done for the world and how he wishes to be remembered by it.
Ten years after his stroke – rather than my current five – Whitman wrote to a friend reflecting on what the limitations of living in a disabled body had taught him about the meaning of a full life.
I think many fellow stroke survivors will recognise sentiments like those expressed when Whitman writes that his condition seemed to have settled quietly down, and will probably continue. That is, the state of the new normal. Also, the tendency to fatigue. The feeling that much of the time – for Whitman, about two-thirds of the time – one is quite comfortable. Then, presumably, a sensation or a task or an event reminds him of his deficits.
The painting that narrated my wee story would be glad to read that Whitman felt he had the most devoted and ardent of friends, and thus, the principal object of [his] life seem[ed] to have been accomplish’d.
But more than anything else, Whitman found strength in returning – as he so often did – to nature. Funnily enough, this most American of poets took a very Scottish attitude in doing so. The trick he wrote to his friend is, I find, to tone your wants and tastes low down enough, and make much of negatives, and of mere daylight and the skies. Keep your expectations low, expect the worst, hope for the best. Like watching Scotland play football.
After everything else fades, Whitman reflects, there is still nature. Though, after climbing the Old Man of Storr, I wouldn’t necessarily say that nature relies on tamped down expectations to convey its transcendental and inspirational gift. A recognition of its awesome qualities should suffice.
Oh yeah, and friends are awesome, too!