The Embodied Life of the Mind: An Improvised Sequel

In my last post, I reflected on my writing life and my body and the history between the two. At the end, I announced I was going on a bike ride to help keep a balance between writing and living. And that’s what I did.

I planned a quick errand at the post office before hitting the Delaware Canal Towpath, where the biggest traffic hazards would geese (and if they’re feeling grumpy, they can be a hazard!). As I started down the hill, I saw the road was blocked for construction, but the sidewalk was open. So I moved to the sidewalk, and…the bike didn’t make it up the curb. It slid sideways, then pitched me off, I put my hand out, and broke my wrist. My writing wrist. Bad.

Fortunately, I was right by the sports complex at Lafayette College, where some nearby football players rushed to help me. Public safety arrived, then EMTs, and it was off to the ER.

The hours of waiting to get fixed were horrible. The details are painful and gory, and I have no interest in dwelling on them here. I’ll just say that I didn’t find much leisure to reflect on the embodied life of the mind until the next day, following orthopedic surgery (“I’d never seen anything quite like that,” the surgeon told my wife afterward), an epic round of painkillers, and the 5am arrival of a roommate in far worse shape than I was.

By breakfast that morning, I’d already learned that my left hand was not good at texting. It also couldn’t open crackers or ketchup packets on its own (good one, hospital folks!), but it could deliver yogurt on a spoon to my mouth pretty reliably. Some things would need to be learned. Some things would need to be reconsidered, some released.

Reading is going fairly well. Though large hardbacks are tough to negotiate, I’m enjoying the pleasure of holding Ann Blair’s Too Much to Know in paperback and understanding it more and more easily as I ease off the painkillers. Eating is fine. I ran a few errands today, including the post office and taking my poor bike to the shop—it’s in better shape than I, apparently.

But writing? My left hand is shaky at best in forming individual letters, much less words. I’ve gotten several great tips on dictation software, which I’ll start trying soon. In the meantime, I’m learning to let go: of short-term goals, of the feeling of control I get when words seem to flow right out of my hands.

One thing about that two-year writing hiatus I mentioned last time is that I wrote a lot. Nearly every day. There was no product, no goal or due date, but a furious need to get the overwhelm out of my head and onto the page to see what was happening to me. That journaling, fueled by my somewhat new love of fountain pens, was a huge release valve for me. The feeling of pen on paper, the spectacle of watching lines become meaning, that was magic for me. Same with the drawing hobby I picked up in that “silent time.”

I’ve learned to write through someone else’s healing. Now, I get to learn how to wait through my own writing. There will be many efforts along the way; I’m going to see if I can learn to draw left-handed, work on some hand-writing, and eventually train my right hand to again do what I’ve long assumed it will do. But it won’t be the assurance of that smooth flow. The words from T. S. Eliot’s “Burnt Norton” suddenly become urgently relevant and evocative:

Words strain,

Crack and sometimes break, under the burden,

Under the tension, slip, slide, perish,

Decay with imprecision, will not stay in place,

Will not stay still.

It’s not that the words won’t keep coming; it’s that I have to wait for them, holding them in open, unable hands and hold them up without the easy power of putting them down “in place.” This language stuff is risky business, folks. Like going outside. Writing is at once our native element as literate citizens and a foreign country we all have jury-rigged our neurons to do whether we know it or not.

Thanks to my left hand for typing this post, and to the cast on my right hand for holding Four Quartets open as I typed. And now, as the words in “Burnt Norton” do, I will, “after speech, reach / Into the silence.”

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