Easing back into reading

As soon as I was coming around a few days after my recent near death encounter (and I don’t mean that in any mystical tunnel of light sort of way) I told my kids that I wanted them to bring me books. I could barely stay alert long enough to get an entire sentence out but I wanted books. They obliged me. Wisely I asked for one of the few books on my shelves which might count as a mystery – Lost Ground by South African author Michiel Heyns – which has proved to be fine company indeed though I have only been able to read attentively for a few days now. They also brought along one of my endless stream of incoming purchases, a gem from Twisted Spoon chosen for Women in Translation Month – Primeval and Other Times by Polish writer Olga Tokarczuk. A surreal and fantastic work it looks good but I may have to push it a little further down the month. Reading is tough work after cardiac arrest. Go figure.

Now that I am at home, facing three blood tests each week and a host of other medical appointments all over the city when I have been told I can’t drive for 6 months, I find myself reading and re-reading my discharge report. I am living on warfarin – rat poison – afraid of bleeding too much or worse, clotting too easily and having a stroke. The devious little pulmonary embolism that triggered this whole adventure (a likely souvenir of a hellish 24 hours of flight time packed tightly into 28 hours on my recent return from Cape Town) is still sitting in my lung and will, they say, eventually be absorbed. My left leg is swollen and bruised due to a hematoma, a probable complication of the resuscitation process. I watch people jogging by outside on this hot summer day and feel like some sort of Frankenstein creature, dragging this heavy black and blue leg around.

Even though my friends have been amazing – I had a steady stream of visitors throughout my hospital stay and have no shortage of offers for rides around town – I feel a despair settling in. I don’t know where to turn, where to dig into the towers of books surrounding me. I wonder what would have happened had I slipped off this mortal coil two weeks ago. What would my family say about all these books on which I have squandered my limited funds? For heaven’s sake my open shelved coffee table loaded with books and stacks of journals – Granta, Paris Review, Music & Literature – came apart when the paramedics tried to pull it out of the way. I feel overwhelmed rather than excited about diving in to all the new books I have acquired in the past month. I had to buy an extra bag, after all, to get my haul of books home from South Africa and now they too sit on the shelf taunting me.

Will the magic of reading come back with my health?

2015-08-09 17.37.38I have also wondered if this experience is that final kick in the behind that I need to get serious about my own writing. I’m in my mid-50s. I’m not getting younger. Coincidentally while in the hospital I signed my first contract for the publication of an essay in a book coming out next Spring. It is a niche project – a collection aimed at gay, bisexual and transgender men – but my first professional publication credit all the same. So how much life with all its mess, joy and agony does one have to drag his or her sorry self through before there is enough fodder for a story? I wrote throughout my youth, being a writer was always my dream, a strength in every course I completed in university and every job I have ever held. But when it came down to creative writing I always insisted that I had to live a little first.

At this moment I feel that I lived so much that I don’t know where to begin. And now I have almost died too.

20 thoughts on “Easing back into reading

  1. Oh, poor you RG, what a scary experience. Is this related to DVT? I did laugh though at your wondering what your family would say if you’d died and they’d seen your apartment. I often wonder that. It makes me think I must take this decluttering business more seriously than I am – like right now instead of writing emails! Anyhow, hope you get your reading mo jo back soon. Even more than usual, reading when you are down can be mainly a matter of finding the right book. Think about not what you feel you SHOULD read but what you FEEL LIKE reading.

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    • Thanks for the good thoughts WG. All we know is that there is a small clot in my lung. The leg swelling is a complication. As you can imagine my ribs hurt from the CPR. I just never imagined this would happen to me. I think that the more I come to terms with the enormity of the experience, the more it overwhelms. I did finish a book tonight (hooray) and will take time to find the next “right” read. Most of my friends would be content to flake out watching movies, but that would really stress me out. Reading grounds me.

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  2. Oh god, I’m so sorry! I completely understand 24 hour flights, and they suck even without medical complications. Don’t feel guilty about not reading as much as you “should”- reading is something that we love to do, so if you’re not feeling like it at the moment just don’t do it. When my anxiety was really bad, I had no interest in reading anything new. When I felt like I could pick up a book (that wasn’t for grad school), all I could stomach were kid’s books that I’d reread a million times. It was comforting to get back in that story, and I knew exactly where it was going. No surprises! Which is the last thing someone who’s really anxious wants.
    Anyway, feel better! And don’t do anything too strenuous. You need a mental break as well as a physical one. As my (awesome) boss said when I had a mental breakdown, “The books can wait. Take care of yourself.”

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    • Thanks Chelsea! This was my first experience with long extended flying time and next time (and I do plan to go back o South Africa) I will approach the trip entirely differently. Of course I won’t be going anywhere for a while. I might just reread a favourite book soon, that is a good idea.

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  3. I think I know what you mean about living first before writing. And then what? What to do next when you’ve lived enough but are old and frail to go through the rigors of writing? It’s one of the ironies of the writing life, I guess (I say guess because I’ve only had attempts at writing fiction, most of which I’ve abandoned when anxiety and neuroses set in, and these attempts are just an estimation of the writing life). Anyway, I hope all goes well. The books can wait and I’m sure a lot of fellow bloggers can, too.

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  4. Sometimes there are just going to be times when you can’t read. You’ve been through so much with your health scare that it will take a while to get back to normal I’m sure. You need to just concentrate on copying with getting well and the rest will follow. Take care of yourself.

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  5. When I had a cancer scare, my one thought was I had to finish my autobiography, haven’t finished yet but have started and it will be part of my PhD that I start in September. Can’t beat a good deadline. Not that you need any pressure! Perhaps re – visit the literature of your youth. Recovery is about rest and re cooperation, reading, writing, painting is a small part of that. Enjoy the recovery process and hope you feel better soon.

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  6. I hope the despair lifts. The best thing you’ve done is written this post expressing your feelings. Like so many others have said, be kind to yourself, don’t expect too much. Write. Read short stories or poetry if attention is an issue. Take care

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  7. I’ve never had an experience even approaching yours, but whenever I’m tired from illness I turn to re-reads of much loved books – ones where I know them so well it doesn’t matter if my concentration lapses. I hope you do write – you have a very natural way with words. And good luck with your recuperation!

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  8. I was really glad to see you back in writing mode after your scare. I have a sense that someone who writes as well as you do will find that writing your way out of this crisis will be part of the cure. And congratulations on the exciting news on your forthcoming essay!

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    • Thank you so much for your kind and encouraging words. There is so much to write through here but I do feel it may be the best route. One of the ordered books I arrived home to was a little Archipelago gem called Intimate Stranger by South African born poet, painter and essayist Breyten Breytenbach. It is a collection of inspiring poems, prose poems and essays on reading and writing. I am keeping it close.

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  9. I am sure the magic of reading will return with your health. Congratulations on the publication! How so very exciting! I can understand feeling overwhelmed and despairing after all you have gone through. Things like that affect more than your body and I hope as your body heals your spirit finds its way too.

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    • Thanks. I just saw my family doctor today and he just kept shaking his head and saying “Oh wow”. He said anyone, no matter how strong they are can be set back emotionally by such a major and unexpected event.

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