I haven’t written here since the new year began for mostly happy reasons: I am back at work, teaching (yay!), editing and writing (huzzah!), and attending meetings (as I said: mostly happy). Getting through this past semester—and a full summer of conference travel and an intensive seminar—feels like a major victory. In the early months of 2015, when I was increasingly unable to make it to campus to teach, I wondered if I would ever return to my former life. Now I am ordering books for the fall semester, editing a new journal, organizing a symposium, navigating deadlines.
Of course, this is not my former life, even if I can go stretches—sometimes even days—forgetting how much has changed. It is easier to list the negative changes that the last couple of years have brought my way, but more urgent to tally the positive ones.
For example, I garden now, spending hours with my hands in the soil, or gently encouraging peas to take hold of the trellis I have constructed for them. For some 25 years—the majority of my professional life—I have eschewed the outdoors and all that comes with it—bugs, sun, dirt. Now I find I cannot live without touching plants, without dirt under my nails. I did not plan this, but neither do I shy from it—as once I would have, instinctively—despite its hackneyed obviousness.
Or, another: my arms—formerly gleaming fishbellies—are now covered with tattoos, with more blossoming each month.
Who is this man with tattoos? Is he tapping into some deep well-spring of symbology and ritualistic pain on the road to enlightenment? Or he is just mired deep in midlife crisis, desperately seeks a “cool” that might ward off accelerating decay?
Who is this man who gardens? Is it a more authentic version of myself, one I could not see while still wholly in the grips of professional ambition and institutional politics? Or Is it an aging, saccharine Hallmark-version of myself, taking solace in green shoots and daily micro-harvests to ward off the declines of my own plot?
Honestly, I don’t care—and this may well be the greatest change I can measure when I place myself heel-to-heel with the person I was before I started falling up the down staircase. The search after an “authentic” self now seems to me as profoundly pointless as worries about being perceived as “cool”—or being perceived as caring about being cool. All the questions—profound and pathetic, cosmic and paranoid—that for five decades fueled my anxiety attacks and sparked my pre-dawn insomnia … they are gone. I try and summon them and they speak to me as if in a foreign tongue, or from an alien species whose needs and ambitions differ from my own as much as those of a sea sponge.
Freed from these questions whose pursuit brought me absolutely nothing, I feel lighter … but also perhaps inevitably smaller, less intensely plugged in to the conversations around me. I suppose it will eventually be time to figure out how to return to questions and quests—ones properly suited for a new body, a new self. But still, for now, I am enjoying the vacation from my old self, and before I return fully to the world I think I’ll spend some more time enjoying my plot of earth and my couple of yards of flesh.
Even the questions that first sundered me from my former plots no longer can be conceivably served by a single answer.
Am I dying? No, I am not. Yes, of course, I am.
Will I ever recover?
Jared Gardner is a professor and patient at the Ohio State University.