What landed me in bed was absurd. Doing laundry in the basement of my sister’s house, I’d leaned into the tall top-loader to pick up my daughter’s wet shoes, and the glass door clonked me on the back of the head. It knocked me for a loop. I couldn’t see straight, fumbled for words and experienced tunnel vision.
At the emergency room, I was diagnosed with a concussion. It was a doozy. I couldn’t listen to the radio, watch TV, write or even read without my eyes hurting and my head swimming.
In that dark bedroom, lying to rest my aching brain, I was terrified. The very things that I would do in normal circumstances to calm myself were off limits: reading, listening to music, running.
Illuminated screens — from computers to televisions to laptops — left a ghost image in my head when I closed my eyes. I had no idea whether the damage would be permanent.
I did what most people do in dire circumstances: I prayed.
There are three essential prayers, according to writer and activist Anne Lamott: help, thanks and wow. I was stuck in help mode. I recited words I’d known since I was a child, puzzling over their strange phrases.
“Give us this day our daily bread,” I said again and again, turning the words over, as if I’d never quite heard them in this way. Was our day a kind of “daily bread?” Was bread a metaphor for all the sustenance that we required? Why the repetition of “day?”
I loved the rhythm of the line, almost iambic tetrameter.
Then I started thinking about the people I’d known who had suffered head injuries, suddenly kin to them, a tribe of the brain-addled.
There was the neighbor boy, who’d been hit by a car while riding his bike. He’d never been the same again, stuck mentally at the age of the accident. The poet friend who’d been struck in the head by a shelf of books, the most poetic and cruel of injuries a writer could imagine.
In that dark, I listened to myself think. In that dark, poetry came in fragments of phrases: Like looking out / The wrong end of the telescope. / The wind, making a voice / Of everything in its way. / Ghost-halo at my third eye. / The sound of the dog barking / Rings the doorbell.
Line by line, my panic quieted. I was not entirely myself, but each phrase felt like a way to make a self again.
This concussion also returned me to something I loved as a child: a rest. We need a break, a refuge, a place to be immersed in self-forgetting to feel human.
Beside my bed in the dark lay Harper’s columnist Rebecca Solnit’s Hope in the Dark, a symbol of itself. Joy can be, in Solnit’s words, “a fine initial act of insurrection.”
I wondered if this concussion actually resembled our present national illness — digital media inflaming one crisis after another. Yes, it’s true, real crises abound: climate change, war and terrorism, racial oppression, predatory capitalism, sexual violence. But crisis thinking may be itself a sort of concussed thinking.
We fling ourselves at the latest atrocious distraction and lose our reason and empathy. Our empire and its echo chambers have made us terrified of terror, forgetful of our own histories of violence. We shield ourselves but we have no refuge. We lash out and have no rest.
In that dark room, nursing my head, poetry was a way to return to myself, to remember other people who had suffered as I was suffering.
In that dark room, freed from the blare of the news, I thought: Donald Trump does not exist. And in that dark room, he did not.
But I also had to leave that room in order to return to my life.
Sometimes, my doctor informed me, concussion sufferers stay too long in the dark, become too accustomed to the lack of light and sound. Their symptoms can linger.
So I’d take walks, each day a bit longer, until I felt a bit dizzy or light in the head. Each day, my world grew a bit wider.
I’d do exercises that looked as if I were robotically shaking my head no, while looking directly at a letter pasted on the wall at eye level.
Every few weeks, the therapist spurred me to shake my head faster, reading that letter incessantly, until my balance recalibrated. Suddenly I could read again without discomfort, without feeling as if I were on a boat in the middle of the ocean.
Yet the dark room would be a refuge I had to return to, every day. Perhaps all of us — the whole country, the whole world, maybe — could use a rest. A refuge. Like asylum for the exile. Like daily bread to feed our injured brains. To help us return to ourselves.