When I was finally diagnosed with spondylitis 7 years ago, it was my body of course that showed the signs first: the pain and stiffness, fatigue. When I began graduate school two years after that, something else happened, another facet of the illness appeared causing a different sort of trouble: brain fog. As I went about trying to complete assigned readings and critique essays and stories of my classmates, I found that I had to re-read single sentences over and over and over again. Sometimes it took me a half hour just to make it through one paragraph. On occasion I would lose track of time, whole hours passing as I struggled to comprehend a few pages of text.
It was infrequent at first, this fuzzy brain of mine, mainly causing me trouble during reading, but then the day came when it appeared in the classroom. Up until that point I was a regular and eager participant in classroom discussion. The topic was a piece of writing by George Orwell, an excerpt or short piece, perhaps it was “Shooting an Elephant.” The class was alive with some rather spirited discussion, my classmates engaged in this rather elegant give and take, and all I could do was sit there as they talked over me and around me. I tried to follow them, but it was like they were speaking in some sort of code or language that I had never heard before. I think I only heard about every three words. When I did make an attempt to speak and share my thoughts, their gaping mouths and silence let me know that I wasn’t making sense and/or had completely misunderstood the meaning of the text. But I couldn’t stop. There was something in my brain, I had thoughts, important thoughts, and I was trying my damndest to say them out loud and continuing to dig myself a hole full of embarrassment to swim in. I am nothing if not persistent. After a few more classes like this, where I struggled to understand what was being understood around me, and also struggled to communicate the workings of my mind, I gave up and sat back.
Luckily I had a very good and caring professor that term. She gave me lots of room when it came to my writing, and didn’t pressure me to participate in class by calling on me out of turn. But that’s because she thought my writing showed promise. I believed that then, that my writing showed promise. That perhaps I had found my ‘something’ at last. But now even the writing is hard. Prose is especially hard. So much follow through is needed for prose, so many rules. I find it difficult to keep track of the thought(s) I started with to say nothing of the beginning, middle, and end. Juggling all those balls is tiring.
Poetry, on the other hand, is manageable. Perhaps because it often unfolds on the page in discrete blocks. It’s “chunks” of language versus an unending stream of black. Generally speaking most of the poems I write are one-pagers and so I find it easier to maintain my focus for longer periods of time. While I’m thinking of the next line, though, it often comes to my attention (glaringly) that I’ve forgotten to do something else: pay a bill, give the cats fresh water, fill out the paperwork for another year of financial assistance from the hospital where my rheumatologist practices. These are everyday tasks, but there’s only so much my brain seems able to hold. Focusing on one thing means other things disappear.