April 2018

Friday, October 25, 2013

I Feel a Funeral in my Brain

This morning and last night, I’ve felt a funeral in my brain. Though these headaches are not uncommon since neurosurgery six years ago radiation to my brain three years ago, fortunately they are not typical.
When I was in the hospital after brain surgery six years ago, I had some doozies of a headache, as you might imagine. My doctors and nurses took my pain seriously, thank heavens, and I don’t think the headaches ever got beyond an 8 on a 1-10 scale. (That’s what people in the hospital always want to know… How is your pain on a 1 to 10 scale with 0 being no pain and 10 being excruciating pain? —so it’s really a 0-10 scale, I guess.) I learned that the doctors would intervene at a 7, so that was a key number for me. Anything over a 7 meant, “Please help me.”
When I returned home after almost a month in the hospital, my head rang when the puppies next door yipped and the hammers across the alley pounded. I can’t remember the process over the next couple of years, but I’m pretty sure I didn’t regularly have headaches for a while.
Then the headaches started again, and I was diagnosed with a second brain tumor. When I had a spinal tap to see if any tumor cells were heading down my spine, the needle punctured the lining of my—something—whatever holds in my spinal fluid, and I guess the fluid from the water system in my head drained into my back, and I had an awful headache. This one was my only 10, and I went to the emergency room where they put an IV in my arm and defeated the headache. This was a migraine. If you experience migraines, I have great respect and compassion for you.
When I had radiation for my second tumor, I again developed awful headaches. After a year of these headaches (was it that long?), I started taking a neuro-transmitter blocker each night, and the headaches mostly disappeared. I also learned some exercises that dissipate a headache. I don’t usually have headaches now, but today I do, and I tell you true when I tell you that my vision hurts, and I smell the color blue.
The pain in my brain brings to mind Emily Dickinson’s “I Felt a Funeral, in my brain.” When I was teaching American studies to high school students, I often taught this poem, and I hated the textbook’s interpretation questions with this poem. They led students to believe that this poem was either about a headache or a decent into madness. To me, the headache was too literal for Emily and the descent into madness was a misreading of the poem and a misunderstanding of the proximity of madness to wisdom. This poem, I believed, was about the descent into wisdom, something we more often imagine as an ascent, which is part of what’s interesting. Now that I’ve experienced these headaches and perhaps my own descent into wisdom, I think the poem is about both of those. I still don’t think it’s about madness, and I’ll tell you why in a minute.

The poem begins:
I felt a Funeral, in my Brain,
And Mourners to and fro
Kept treading - treading - till it seemed
That Sense was breaking through –

Yes, I feel (literally) now that a headache is like an internal funeral and the “in my brain” places the event in a particular place in my body, but is parenthetical, not essential, information. It’s true that my head hurts, but really it’s my whole Self that hurts. And “treading—treading”: Yep. That’s what happening in my head: “treading—treading.” Let’s continue with Emily:

And when they all were seated,
A Service, like a Drum -
Kept beating - beating - till I thought
My mind was going numb –

There it is, “beating - beating-” And yes it’s my mind, not my brain, that’s going numb. My brain feels the pain of this internal funeral, but my mind is shutting itself to the pain. Or maybe to anything but the pain. Back to Emily. So far, she’s talking about this headache. (I wonder if she had a brain tumor.) :

And then I heard them lift a Box
And creak across my Soul
With those same Boots of Lead, again,
Then Space - began to toll,

Yes, the creaking is across my soul, not just my brain. To borrow from another of Emily’s poems, the creaking is “where the Meanings are-” This eternal part of me aches. And yes, these mourners wear “Boots of Lead”: a heaviness. “Again.” And yes, space begins to toll…perhaps I’m being too literal here, but there’s a high whine in my universe that is perhaps like the toll in hers.

As all the Heavens were a Bell,
And Being, but an Ear,
And I, and Silence, some strange Race,
Wrecked, solitary, here –

Ah. She’s nailing my headache here. I feel as though my head is in a giant bell. I’m standing in the bell with my head just above the clapper, and I don’t just hear the clapper hit the bell: I feel its vibration. That's probably what causes the nausea. All of me is receptive to all of the vibrations of the universe: My being is but an Ear. I make no vibrations myself. I just ring with the universe’s noise.

And I, and Silence, are some strange race. We are alone in this reception of the ringing. This is not the silence of the Christmas hymn “Silent Night.” This is The Silence of the Lambs.

After describing this pain, Emily describes her existential falling into wisdom. The world of her mind changes, and the poem in no longer about her syntotic experience of an internal dying:

And then a Plank in Reason, broke,
And I dropped down, and down -
And hit a World, at every plunge,
And Finished knowing - then –

So is the grad school student who must have written the textbook right? Is the poet describing going mad? No, I don’t think so, though perhaps madness is one of the Worlds she hits as she plunges. How do we read that last line? It’s key to where she lands. Is “knowing” a gerund, a verb used as a noun, and did she “Finish” in the state of knowledge, or is “knowing” a participle, a verb used as an adjective, and does knowing describe her as ending with knowledge? The two possibilities contradict each other, and yet each works.

As the poet Walt Whitman noted, “Do I contradict myself? Very well, then, I contradict myself. I contain multitudes.” Every teenager and all of us who remember what we learned about ourselves as teenagers, understands what it means to contain multitudes. Emily’s contradicting herself. So I’d say, it’s both: she ends in the state of knowing and she ends her previous state of knowledge. To move into a new way of knowing, after all, requires the death of the old way of knowing.

And why does she end with “then--”? The dash is key. Then…what? Don’t know. Just “then--” That’s what happens when we go into a new way of knowing. Something indefinable past that space.

And if I’ve moved at all closer to wisdom, this process of moving into wisdom has required the painfulness of a kind of death. Later, I suspect, I will be very wise. Maybe that’s the “then--” Or maybe not.

Maybe or maybe not: That’s the beauty of Emily Dickinson.

1 comment:

  1. Mary: This is such a wonderful piece, all about the noises in our brain and headaches and the poems you use to describe it all. I'm going to make copies of each of the poems you mention - all perfectly describing the confusion that occurs. I had terrible migraines when I was younger - I had an old 53 chev, my only real possession and sometimes looking for a place of quiet and relief from the pain I would climb into the back seat and stay til I could see again and the pain retreated. Sometimes for a few hours, and sometimes for a day or 2.


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