It was possible, I thought, that I would die. I turned the idea over and over in my head—dying would not be so bad; I had lived a good life.
Listen to me read the below here:
In the mornings, when it is too easy for me to feel anxious and distractible, I keep my ears open for the sound of the mourning dove, which anchors me to nature. I was recently asked by a reader, How do you remain at ease with limitations related to creating? The mourning dove is one key. Rather: the mourning dove is an example of holding on to the numinous in the face of oncoming frustration.
Yesterday I saw a documentary film called The Wolfpack, which is about seven siblings mostly confined to a small apartment in the projects of Lower East Side Manhattan. Some years, they explain, they were permitted to leave once; another year, not at all. At one point in the film, one of the brothers appears onscreen in a gorgeously elaborate Batman costume. He indicates, pointing, that the costume is made of cereal boxes and yoga mats.
The Wolfpack is about many things, but one of its major threads is the resourcefulness of creativity when faced with limitations. The six brothers, having watched over five thousand movies while in isolation, transcribe the films by hand and typewriter. They act out entire scripts. Even their cardboard revolvers have chambers that open and close.
In October 2013, on the flight out of Heathrow to San Francisco, I’d sat next to a friendly British man. We spoke for hours, though I can’t remember any of the conversation, or anything much else about the flight except that I also managed to finish my friend’s just-released second novel. I drafted a long email to her, to be sent when we landed: “[The novel’s] so good, to get that out of the way,” I wrote, “and it sounds so banal to say ‘good,’ but no fiction I’ve been reading has felt ‘good’ for the last several months.”
Four hours from landing, I began to drip sweaty rivulets in the frigid plane. I turned to the friendly British man and said, “I don’t feel well.” I thought I might, in fact, vomit. I unbuckled my seat belt and stood.
I woke up on the aisle floor, looking up at a circle of Virgin Atlantic flight attendants. Almost immediately, my eyes began to close again. I couldn’t keep them open. I’d apparently scooted out to get to the lavatory and fainted in the aisle, though I hadn’t hit my head—one of the female attendants had caught me as I fell.
Later I would hear one of them say to my husband on an airplane phone that I’d been and out of consciousness for the rest of the flight, although I’m not sure that’s true. I spent the four hours sitting in the aisle seat, formerly occupied by the friendly Brit, with an oxygen mask pressed to my face. I placidly considered my life up to that point. It was possible, I thought, that I would die. I turned the idea over and over in my head—dying would not be so bad; I had lived a good life. I mentally said good-bye to everyone I loved, summoning their faces as I did so. The panic attacks that had plagued me for over half my life remained at a distance. I believed I was a lucky woman.
The next few months after the incident on the plane were full of doctors’ appointments and tests. At one laboratory, I watched as fourteen vials were filled with my blood.
I think of my fainting on the plane as one milestone in the story of my illness, and also a marker in the world of limitation. I was frequently exhausted while in England. I spent more time in bed than anyone else at the retreat I’d attended, and wrote about my experience in a Glastonbury restaurant here. At the time, I was highly aware that my life had become more circumscribed than ever.
A year later, I was in New York to attend and teach at a writing conference. It was also the first time that I’d needed to request a wheelchair; the late-stage Lyme disease, which had still not been diagnosed at that time, in combination with the stress of travel, had depleted my resources to the point where I could not make it from one end of the airport to the other without aid. I subsequently developed pneumonia. I was also on assignment for a longform essay, but there was only so much I could do. I did make that deadline, but it seems in hindsight that I made it by the skin of my teeth.
I tell these stories because to answer the question of how I remain at ease with limitations while creating, while writing, is to look at both the bigger and the smaller picture. In the bigger picture, my status is constantly changing as the limitations I experience change. Do I know if I will be able to walk tomorrow? I do not. Do I know what I can do today? I can listen for the mourning dove; I can write these words for you to read. After I finish typing these words, I will have to lie down and close my eyes, and when I open them again, I may or may not feel able to work on the edits for my novel, which is to be published next year. These edits have a deadline. My body has its limits. I can thrash and rail and gnash my teeth about the problems of my body, but there’s nothing productive about doing so, even if I want to. Even when I do.