Monthly Archives: March 2009

paranoia, anxiety, doubt, paranoia, reassurance, doubt

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I’m Korean American. I’m writing a novel about a thirty three year old Korean dude set in 1973. In many ways, he’s had the “typical” experience of many Koreans who immigrated to the U.S. in the early 1970s: Korean War, poverty, an elite college education, culture shock, New York City. His problems are also not so unique: racism, post traumatic stress disorder, a failing marriage, lost family members. But certainly his approach to solving his problems is very unique (and that’s when the novel begins and that’s what the novel is about). I won’t say any more because I’m loathe to say anything further until I finish writing the novel.

My life too is very “typical” for 2nd generation Korean Americans born in 1970s New York City. I was born to parents with the above type of experience. But that’s my background. Unlike them, I’m Jewish, and I’ve solved my problems in ways that my parents could not have dreamed of and indeed protested so much so that I went to therapy and found my way back to happiness in clandestine fashion.

But what is this all about?

This is all about a rejection letter I recently received from a Korean literary journal. I was encouraged to submit by another litmag editor who thought I might be a good fit. So I did. They didn’t respond. A few months later, I asked if they had an update on my submission–oh, they lost it and they asked me to submit again. So I did. No response, so recently after a six month wait, I sent a polite email asking if they could update me.

This was the response:

I like your story but unfortunately the story is not going to be included in the next volume, which will be published in this fall. Especially this volume has had a lot of stories in translation and had no space for original stories like yours. (A reader mentioned that historically correct information will improve your story.)

I get so many literary rejections that I am grateful for any sort of non-form letter reply. So I’m touched by the note. But the above makes me realize why form letters might be kinder, despite their abrupt and impersonal nature. (It also confirms why when I send out literary rejections I don’t say anything specific either and only send out compliments and encouragement).

This is to say that I am used to literary rejections. Each one does affect me but more like a light pinch and not a slap.

This particular rejection feels like a slap. They like my story…but…they aren’t publishing original stories, only translations. Okay. That’s fine. But then there’s that parenthetical phrase, that under the breath remark, the one uttered while the door swings shut: “A reader mentioned that historically correct information will improve your story.”

I wonder what it means–at the risk of being specific, the narrator of the rejected story is a Korean DOG. Yes, there are two talking dogs in the story. And the dog talks about his dog history. And I did research on that particular breed of dog and tried to stay true to big picture facts but I told a story about that dog’s family history. In ways that I imagine only a dog would know. And that is the fiction part of the story. What information could I have made up that harmed the story? Or rather, what inaccurate information harmed the story?

Which makes me shudder and quail with horrid insecurity. I also can’t help but wonder if he thought I’m not Korean (my surname isn’t Korean) and thus felt I was an outsider without any authority on being Korean?

And this insecurity is spreading to my novel. Am I writing total bullshit? How many people will I piss off? Will my own community denounce it? I told my father a little about my novel and his response to one big event in the novel was, “Koreans don’t do that.” And as my jaw dropped in shock (I wanted to say, “THAT Korean does! THIS Korean does!”), he said, “Why don’t you write my story?” To which I responded, “I can’t write your story because I won’t be accurate about that, either.”

Which then led to a large discussion about how I don’t actually KNOW his story, that I only knew it in abstract terms because he’s never given concrete and specific details: “Horrible, tragic, painful, suffering…suffering…SUFFERING…SUFFERING!!!!” That I know it in emotional terms because of how I took on his pain and paranoia and urgency which then with other factors led to my depression and eventual breakdown. I felt his story. But I don’t KNOW it. Not enough to give you a timeline. Not enough to give you location. Not enough to give you anecdotes.

He’s never told me specifics. I’ve asked, but he says he can’t bring himself to tell me.

His feedback has always haunted me a little–”Koreans don’t do that.” Why NOT? What IF a Korean DID do that? It wouldn’t have been impossible for one Korean to try to do the thing I made my Korean do, in 1973.

But this literary rejection furthers that insecurity about whether I’m making shit up that is impossible, and fake, and inauthentic and doesn’t “represent.” Even though the comment, “A reader mentioned that historically correct information will improve your story” reeks more of nonfiction advice than fiction.

Do they own reality? (A gracious Famous Writer friend told me on twitter “You tell your own truth. No one owns reality.” Oh I love him so much for throwing me those words).

All I can do is keep telling my own truth. And as R also so wisely messaged me, “Fuck ‘em.” So I keep writing. Shaking this off.

p.s.
The upside: I think Hemingway once said, “A story that doesn’t piss at least one person off isn’t worth writing.”

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Filed under The Novel, Writing

in which I march (haha, get it? March…) forward

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* Yes, that’s a hippie mobile parked in our neighborhood.

I have had my full dose of the blues and erratic mood swings the last few weeks, including my moment of panic and self-flagellation over lost things. I lost another thing since the folder incident, and I had another moment of melancholy during which I questioned myself. Ugh.

But nevermind! I am so sick of the blues (even though that is one of my favorite colors) that I’ve got to get my mind on more positive things and trudge onward. Things I am doing to lift my mood…

  • I’ve started my garden, and am making plans to expand this year–I’ve got me a black krim, an early girl, a siberia (yes I know the siberiaN is superior but that’s what I could find), and two little momotaro tomato plant seedlings. I’ve got my herb pots all full (I’m growing fines herbes this year–and it will finally HAPPEN because I am growing the chervil indoors), I’ve got potato seedlings in the ground (yay! and I saw a sprout this morning), garlic in the ground (they’re definitely sprouting), radishes, lettuces, carrots…!

    We are making plans to make another tier (my vegetable garden is on a steep patch of hill and so far, I’ve only terraced one level)…and in that next tier, I may plant adzuki red beans and a triamble squash. I am also obsessively looking up companion planting, which make it appear that some plants just physically FIGHT each other and will fight to the DEATH so I am trying to, like a good hostess, seat friends together and far away from enemies.

    As I garden, I am of course, coming up with the ever-infinite gardening and writing analogies. The most recent one occurred while I was thinning out radishes and realizing that it pertained to the revision and editing process. I was thinning out radishes because you can’t have them growing close to each other–otherwise you won’t actually GET radish roots. You won’t GET to harvest anything. You have to make sacrifices.

    Of course you say this is easy…but I was taking out perfectly healthy looking seedlings. Sometimes I had to choose between two very very good looking thriving seedlings way too close to each other. In a perfect world, I’d let both of them thrive and in a super-natural world, both would produce radishes. I’d hesitate–which do I pull out, and I regretted pulling perfectly healthy seedlings. But I had to do so.

    Like writing. Sometimes you have to cut out perfectly good paragraphs. Because they don’t contribute to the whole narrative, because they will weigh your story down and because then your story won’t blossom and get to harvest.

    I realize this is very obvious but I love that my gardening helps me with my writing; two seemingly disparate things converging always delights me.

    Also: there are reports that seed sales are up something like 300% this year. I suspect that with the Obama’s vegetable garden as potential inspiration, seed sales will continue to increase. (Now if only people would buy BOOKS too–I hear book sales have increased in Europe this year–fingers crossed?).

  • I am putting myself out there and meeting new people and friends. I have a second job, through which I have met countless new people. This second job is draining and results in my sleeping many many hours on the weekends (naps!) but perhaps it’s also pushing my brain to another level.

    I met Blog Lily the other day in real life–she and I live remarkably close to each other! And we talked about flash fiction and Famous Writers and bonded over personal items.

    They say you can tell someone is depressed by the way you feel after meeting with them (i.e., if you feel depressed after spending time (even 15 minutes) with someone, then they are depressed). I think the opposite of that is true, too: if you spend time with someone who is happy and joyful and smart, then that will rub off on you, too. Thank you Lily.

  • We are going to Disneyland! (Seriously). We’ll be at Disneyland later this week. That should help, no?
  • Keep reading.
  • Keep writing.

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Filed under Inspiring, Life, Writing

an old and inspiring post

was going through my archives…and came across this post about suggested writing exercises and resolutions by Lit-Agent-X. it has just as much relevance this year.

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Filed under Helpful

into the ether

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I am so distraught. I am feeling alarmed, angry, down on myself, depressed, hopeless, and frantic. I have been reminded, once again, that I am not at 100%, and perhaps will NEVER be my old self again. Everytime I think the stroke is behind me, I am reminded that it is not BEHIND me, it is a PART of me. That the black dead spot in my brain will never regrow itself.

I slept all weekend–out of 48 hours, I think I spent almost 30 hours sleeping. This is unusual for me.  I couldn’t get enough sleep. I would wake up, wander a bit, maybe garden and then feel very exhausted and sleepy by noon. Then I would sleep until dinnertime. And eat, maybe watch a movie (I watched Vicky Cristina Barcelona this weekend–I loved it). And then go back to bed. It was a very mysterious thing and it reminded me of the early days of my stroke recovery when I would require at least 15-18 hours of sleep each day/night (depending on how you looked at it–because at 15 hours of sleep per 24 hour period, I’d be sleeping night and day).

But now, not so mysterious. I clearly needed the rest. My brain needed that rest. My brain clearly bonked and hit its limit by the weekend.

Because–because! I misplaced a folder full of papers that I CANNOT FIND. It is for my community college job, and the folder includes one doc that another teacher entrusted to me, to scan and copy for others. It was her ONLY copy. I am so freaked out and upset. My husband walked me through the entire Friday afternoon, step by step and I COULD NOT REMEMBER.

Had I brought the folder home? I *think* so, but I can’t remember. Where was it on my desk before I thought I picked it up? What did I do with my backpack and purse and folder once I got home? I DON’T REMEMBER. I don’t remember any details from Friday late afternoon and evening and night. It is a BLANK. Like someone came and erased the whole blue folder from my mind, ala Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.  It’s as if my brain overloaded by Friday afternoon and it just shut down, much like an electrical blackout.

And no one accepts when I say, “I never used to be like this before the stroke!”  I know myself.  I was NOT like this before the stroke.  I didn’t used to forget things IN THIS KIND OF WAY.  Not in the whole “black hole never existed” kind of way.

Now I feel totally fucked up. Did I even bring that folder home? If I did bring it home, did someone tidy up behind me? I don’t know. I DON’T REMEMBER. I am going out of my mind–frantic, angry, panicked. Combined with feeling hopeless about my ultimate prognosis. I am worthless, I can’t even remember where I put a folder and I let someone else down. I want to scream.

I will never be the same again.  Fuuuck.

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Filed under Life, The Stroke

Fiction Expectations

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I am really not sure why one day is a good writing day and another, just horrible. Some days I’ll write over two thousand words, most of them good, and even get another short story idea. Most other days, I just stumble through the dark, not knowing where I’m going.

On those horrible days, I might switch over to reading 2666 (I’m still reading that epic novel, and loving it. I’ve just begun reading book 4…or book 3, depending on how you look at it) or take out my handy moleskine notebook and start jotting down notes and sketching out the storyline there. I’ve decided not to make writing more torturous than it can be.

Eventually, I make it through the woods. One of my writing mentors told me, “Sometimes you have to write the shit to get to the good stuff.” But sometimes there is a LOT of shit. (Let’s pause for effect). A LOT.

Reading and writing go hand in hand. You can’t write without reading. You can’t. You gotta read a lot. Some books inspire me as a person, and some books inspire me further in my writing. Murakami inspires me as a writer, Bolaño’s 2666 is doing amazing things for me as a writer, as does Yasunari Kawabata’s work. They are masters of craft, and I am learning from them as I read. Their use of language is amazing. Kawabata is on one end of the spectrum, and Bolaño the other end (dude wrote a 4 page sentence!).

As a human, I love all of the above books, but also adore Yoko Ogawa’s writing, and John Irving’s books (though his recent books don’t have the sparkle of his earlier work) and of course, there’s my favorite novel of all time, The Great Gatsby. I think these works resonate with me on a thematic level. The beautiful writing and characters also seduce me.

One of my readers, Anonwupfan, asked me as a writing prompt, “What do you expect from the fiction you read? What would you like your fiction to do for your readers?

I’m a reader who is also a writer and who is also a fiction editor. Sometimes I yearn for the days where I would read as an act of wonderment, before I started writing fiction, like how the general population marvels at the sunset or a dew drop or how television seems so magical.

Scientists know why the sunset is pinker that evening, and why the dew drop takes on that shape, and how the image appears on the television–I know, because I’m married to an engineer who knows all these scientific details and I find myself hollering, “Stop taking the wonder out of it!” I don’t want to know, really, why the sunset is so beautiful one particular evening; I just want to appreciate its mysterious beauty.

Being a fiction writer myself, some of the wonder is taken out of the reading experience. I am aware of the technical feats, the craft elements needed to execute a scene or build a character and storyline. I find myself examining work for those elements, much like an engineer examines a machine or software’s elegant execution or how a biologist knows why and how the trees turn color in Autumn. And yet…

I look for the feeling of wonder as a reader. It is harder to experience these days, but I search and yearn for that feeling of wonder as I read work. Junot Diaz’s voice in The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. I’m entranced by that narrative voice, and by the story, and the sadness and the humor and its combined brilliance.

Or the character of Aphias in Alex Chee’s Edinburgh. The story of Philippe Grimbert’s Memory. And Bolaño’s 4 page sentence in 2666 and the epic story in front of me, the one written with such confidence that even though I’m lost at times, I’m following, I’m following, I’m trusting that narrator. And the brilliance of Fitzgerald’s photo capture of the 1920s in The Great Gatsby and most of all, the character of Jay Gatsby, told in “as if told” first person narrative. The feeling of “Whoa, how do they do that?” And feeling emotionally touched, unearthing a part of me that had been hidden under the soil until that point. Like remarkable sunsets. And vistas. Falling in love. The thing that defies explanation. A little miracle.

As a fiction editor–I read for that sense of wonder, too. And if that wonder isn’t there, I examine the craft of the piece–has the writer hit one of the big elements (voice, character, idea, language, story/plot) out of the ball park? I think a piece can hang on an element if it’s done with brilliance–and that brilliance can bring on wonder from a reader.

And I’d like my fiction to bring that sense of wonder to my readers, too. Some feeling of enlightenment and awe. I don’t think I’m there yet, but I’m typing, writing, thinking, struggling, reading, imagining, dreaming towards that light.

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Filed under Abstract Thoughts, Reading, Writing

It is never okay and that is why I was excused

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Jury duty. I was summoned to jury duty last week. In Alameda county, you get a notice in the mail with the summons date, and then you call in the night before (now you can also check online) to see if you’re to show up the next day. For the last few years, despite my being summoned faithfully every year, I’ve never had to show up to the courthouse.

This past week, I was told to appear. Sometimes, I sit in the jury assembly room all day, never getting called in to the courtroom. This past week, I got called. Drats.

About 80 of us gathered in the courtroom seats, and reluctantly put away our cellphones, newspapers, and books. I admired the diversity of the group.

The judge introduced himself and talked about his experience as a juror and how it was an honor and how in longer cases, the jury members will even keep in touch with each other. I nearly scoffed at the corniness. But some of his urging (and those of my attorney brother, who tweeted me with unheard of passion for the legal process before I went into the courtroom) seeped in–this was Civic Duty, and a great honor, and I ought to be up for it. I guess. Yah. Okay. I was feeling a bit open minded, anyway.

But then the details of the case came to light. It was a domestic violence case. The defendant was in the courtroom the entire time, a big burly dude. Before we were called into the jury box, in private, we also indicated on a separate questionnaire whether or not we had had experienced domestic violence whether it be as a witness, in our family, or if we ourselves had been a survivor. I said yes. My family has numerous domestic violence “incidents.” I said yes, I would be biased.

As I sat in the juror’s box (yes I was one of the first 15 people called to serve), I learned the name of the defendant. I learned the names of each of the jurors. We were asked to answer 15 questions, including our names, the neighborhood of the City in which we lived, our occupations, our education beginning from high school, shared information about family members and other experiences. We stated these things publicly. So weird. It got real personal at times. I felt like we were in group therapy. Again, weird. One juror got excused early because she barely understood English. People giggled at her answers. I’m sure they giggled because they were uncomfortable, but it was disrespectful.

The case was not anticipated to last more than a week. This was certainly a case on which I could sit on as a juror. A bit inconvenient, but it would not impact my life.

But dormant emotions awakened during the jury selection. The defense attorney alluded that the defendant was going to claim ‘self defense’ making me confused and angry. For serious? The defendant’s attorney looked a lot like one of my good friends so I couldn’t hate her. But really? Okay, I could hang with that.

We were asked one by one if there were any occasion under which a man could understandably strike a woman. Juror number 9 (who wept as she explained her experience with domestic violence) and I (wide eyed and in shock) said in our own ways a variation of No Fucking Way. “Could a man claim self defense? If a woman attacked him?” Ugh. I lowered my hand, uncertain of my answer, disgusted by the question.

Clearly, there was no dispute over the fact that the man had struck his wife/live-in girlfriend.

“What about if a man strikes a pregnant woman? Is that ever okay, if she incites him?” The woman next to me, Juror number 9, audibly gasped. “How many of you believe that he is innocent until proven guilty?” I couldn’t believe it, most everyone’s hands went up to say yes, he was innocent until proven guilty, even for striking his pregnant wife.

One man, Juror number 8, said no. He was asked about that. He said, “A pregnant woman is going to be hormonal. If you’re a man, you have to understand that and know she’s going to be emotional.”

I wanted OFF this jury. I knew I could not be biased, and I was going NUTS as my memories, like movies, played on the inside of my skull. I have seen family members strike each other, ashtrays being thrown. I have heard stories of aunts being beaten so hard that jaws were broken. The men were never taken to court, but thankfully, all of the women got out of their marriages before they were beaten to death. I kept thinking about them. I kept thinking about the defendant, his physical presence and how strong he looked. I couldn’t help but think of Chris Brown and Rihanna, too. I thought of Chris Rock, and how he said it is NEVER okay to hit a woman (but it’s okay to shake the SHIT out of her!–funny). It is never okay to beat the shit out of a woman.

And when we were asked if we could control our biases, I raised my hand. “No,” I said. I explained that I knew too many men who had not been brought into court for the violence they’d inflicted, and that if this man were here in court today, there had to have been some kind of evidence.

The defense attorney asked, “But are you aware that someone is innocent until proven guilty?”

Yes, I said. But he is not.

And so I was eventually, at the end of the day, along with Juror #9 (a middle aged Princeton grad who clearly was a victim/survivor of domestic violence), #8 (the dude who said that pregnant women should be given extra leeway), and #5 (a retired old dude from Piedmont with a Stanford MBA whose sister was beaten by her husband), excused from jury duty.

All of us walked out together into the cool air outside, relieved and some of us a bit shaken. “Have a nice life,” I said, as Juror #5 chuckled in response, and we went our separate ways, probably to never see each other again.

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Filed under Life, Memories

bopping around: links

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Just thought I’d share…

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sunshine outside, cloudy inside

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Oh! I’m feeling physically better, thank you! I’ve gotten back on the exercise wagon again, because my back was hurting me so much I had to have some sort of relief plus why make myself feel WORSE.

The sunshine has returned–and while I love rain, it’s nice to have occasional sunshine. So I took the opportunity to turn my vegetable garden over and start some seeds and such. I found seed potatoes and planted some potatoes, too. (If anyone would like some seeds or my few leftover seed potatoes, let me know).

I think everytime I look into the future, I sense bleakness and so I put my head down again. I can really only concentrate on the NOW, something I learned while sick. Kind of like running, I think–you can’t always think about the finish line a long ways away, or the end of the treadmill workout, 30 minutes away. That’ll kill you. I just put my head down and focus on the present moment, get myself through the immediate seconds. It’s like that now. Except with the vegetable garden: I like to think about the future of that garden.

There’s still laughter in our house. I watched an episode of Martha Stewart with Keenan Thompson as guest and chuckled throughout their whole interaction (Martha didn’t know who Notorious B.I.G. was, and she and Keenan had a humorous discussion about THAT and then Keenan did crafts for the first time, and THAT was funny too).

I still feel overwhelmed. I feel like there is this black cloud inside of me and it keeps growing and growing and the bright part of me is getting backed into a corner. I wonder what will make the black cloud dissipate, and I think that’s just more exercise, and as much writing as I can get down, spending time with my husband, and with my friends. Maybe a few good home-cooked meals, or the discovery of a brilliant recipe, or a good book, or a compliment. And distractions like travel.

Oh, and I’m not sure if this is the best time to do it…but I’ve decided to break my addiction to chocolate. My husband knows that if you rifle through my pantry, you will discover pieces of brilliant gourmet chocolate here and there. I am never without chocolate. My favorite is the Ritter Sport brand milk chocolate with cornflakes. My oh my. But Callebaut milk chocolate is a close second. Closely followed by Valrhona. But even Hershey’s will do in a moment of desperation. And I love M&M’s. And Skor bars! And Snickers!!! Or chocolate chip cookies. Homemade of course. But Pepperidge farm in a pinch, too.

Uh. See? I had to stop the chocolate. But the withdrawal is a bummer–I keep craving the chocolate. It’s been 3 days now, without the chocolate. This feels almost as bad as when I quit cigarette smoking cold turkey. And without the chocolate, I find myself craving cigarettes.

Also–in sort of unrelated news, I went off my glucophage/metformin. I ran out of prescription. I switched primary care physicians and the drugstore wouldn’t refill off my old prescription because my old PCP won’t respond. And I’m too lazy to call my new PCP to refill. I asked my cardiologist to call in a refill when I went to visit him last week, and his office called in a prescription. But the pharmacy won’t fill THAT because they said it’s not exactly the same as the original prescription and they went my primary care physician to respond first. Blah blah blah.

As you know, I’m not into high maintenance health care crap. So I decided not to bother. So far so good. I’ve been taking glucophage/metformin for several years now (to treat my PCOS). So far, no weight gain. So far, no other signs of PCOS kicking back in…

p.s. Anonwupfan–I’ll get to your suggested blog topics/questions soon! They are really good questions.

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there is no such thing as utter immunity

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The flu shot served me well this season, protecting me from the flu for almost the entire duration of the flu season. I’m the kind of person who gets sick with a fever every month or two throughout the winter–but I have been gloriously sick-free.

Until this weekend. Bleah, I am sick. In bed. With fever.

Every time I try to get inspired to write, I feel a weight and cloud settle over my body–a fog so thick that the Muse can’t find her way to me.

But at least–being physically sick distracts me from my black internal mood.

Just for fun…I thought I would look back into my archives and see what happened on this date in years previous?

2 years ago, on March 1, 2007: I felt an earthquake.

2 years ago, on March 2, 2007: I celebrated the 2 month mark of my stroke recovery, and pondered the role of friendships in the process of healing. I’d also returned from a trip to Miami.

Last year, on March 2, 2007: I wondered if the MFA was worth it.

I am now struck by how much I traveled while recovering from my stroke–to be “sick and in recovery” and yet be physically ambling about! I was on blood thinners and my short term memory and other mental abilities were still impaired but I made the decision to not cut my life short and see as much of the world as possible.

It also dovetailed into the fact that I could not be left alone by myself (when you have severe memory issues, you forget to EAT) and by the fact that my husband was traveling a whole bunch for business reasons–so we decided to make the best of it. I remember telling myself that I might not remember the trips later but that somehow the experiences would make it into my psyche and I would somehow be enriched and the better for it.

And even though it seemed weird to others and weird to me now, I don’t regret having done all that traveling while sick, having to be led through the airport and getting so exhausted so easily that I slept the bulk of the time while traveling. It didn’t matter. I was engaged with life, and I was putting myself out there.

My doctors were a bit surprised but also pleased–they encouraged me to push myself. The more I pushed myself they said, the better off I’d be.

Now. Why don’t I have that spirit in me today, when all healed? Sick now, sick then. But way different.

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Filed under Abstract Thoughts, The Stroke