When something really major happens in your life there is always a before and after. And when that something is a massive transformation that alters your body and identity, when that something is a stroke that suddenly changes you from an able-bodied person to someone who will spend the rest of her life managing the effects of brain injury, the line between ‘before’ and ‘after’ can often feel very stark. Over the years, I’ve found several ways to smudge and trouble the hard contours of that before and after line but occasionally, the ‘before’ can come up upon me in quite an unexpected way, prompting melancholy reflections on the loss of my able-bodied self.
Over time, I’ve come to understand my relationship to the body I was before as being very like bereavement: like that kind of grief, the sadness about one’s lost physical self doesn’t really go away, though you do find ways to deal with it, riding it out and accepting it when it comes. I would say that in my case that developing and understanding a new identity as a disabled person has been a really positive (and positively important) process. Yet despite this , encountering the ‘before’ can still occasionally be a weird or difficult experience. For me this can be particularly so when visiting the landscapes that I previously enjoyed as a physically active able-bodied person.
So I confess I was a little worried when we decided to take a wee break in some beautiful Hebridean islands I’d not visited since a few months ‘before’ my stroke. When I saw these lovely places again, wouldn’t I simply be reminded of how very different things were when I saw them last? Was I just going to spend the whole time being bothered by the body I once was, the body that stomped blithely about the Clisham Ridge ?
Of course, when I saw the hills, I thought of what it was like to be up there, back then.
But I also found that the sheer force of the NOW of these places came upon me so very strongly that there was little space for thinking about how things were ‘before.’
These landscapes are so distinctive, so very special. Why hadn’t I been back sooner?
I am not the energetic walking body I once was. But I just walk differently now, paying continual attention to my body’s needs and behaviour, gauging my strength and energy, adapting to the environment.
This forced work of adaptation (an activity familiar to all disabled walkers) means I have to develop a much closer connection to my immediate environment: I have to strive to understand the relationship of my body to the spaces and substances that surround it.
Forced attentiveness comes with its own rewards.
So as the different body I now am, it was fantastic to be back here again, to see this light and feel this air again.
I walked and knitted. I listened to larks and lapwings on the machair, turned my face into the wind, picked the tide-smoothed shells of sea urchins from the sand. Tom took many photographs. I met creative and enterprising people that I wished I’d met before. I felt enlivened and inspired.
On our last evening I ran into Deirdre Nelson, the brilliant artist-maker whose work I’ve written about a few times, and who I’d not seen since before my stroke. I first saw Deirdre’s a fighe a cheo / knitting fog exhibition ten years ago in the very spaces at Taigh Chearsabhagh, where I now found her again.
The last time I saw Deirdre, I was an eighteenth-century academic specialist with a sideline interest in textile art and knitting.
“So much has happened,” Deirdre said, giving me a hug. “Look where you are now.”
“I know,” I said, “here I am. Back here.”