It’s not really so much faith that I’m talking about— I was raised in a secular home and am, for the most part, deeply allergic to organized religion of any kind— as my foundational connection to the spiritual: after my 2020 Covid-related stroke, it was as if the part of my brain that was responsible for spiritual and contemplative thinking was lopped off like a gangrenous limb. I went from almost daily meditation and contemplative reading and practice to nothing. I couldn’t find it; I couldn’t access it. Trying to reach it was like trying to make an international call using two Dixie cups and a string. It’s been a kind of anorgasmia of the soul: it is still there somewhere, crackling like a frayed wire, but once found? Nothing. A flat line. A dull hum.
My connection to a contemplative life has always been a part of my day to day, going back more than thirty years; there has been meditation that began in earnest in 1986 (and was admittedly on again and off again), study of sacred texts of all kinds (The Dhammapada, The Vedas and Upanishads, the Torah, St. Augustine, the Quran, the Baghavad Gita, and the modern Muir, Merton, Rilke, Parker Palmer, Padraig O’Tuama, Chodron, Berry, Goldstein, Salzburg, Boorstein, Weber, Lamott, and sometimes, Bill Wilson). Having lived through a smorgasbord of traumatic experience, I grew up wanting answers: What compels humans to harm one another? How do we heal from it? Why do some of us heal, and others don’t? How do we metabolize intergenerational trauma?
There was always the unflagging belief that the guidance I needed would come from somewhere; that there was something out there greater and wiser than myself that would lead me at the worst of times, and where I would find joy in the best. And then, after the morning of September 1st 2020, that feeling — and the inclination to read, to study, to meditate, to believe in any of this— was gone. The books still sit on my shelves; my zafu is gathering dust on a shelf in the guest room, where I used to sit. I have no desire — it’s not even really a desire so much as it is one of the familiar things that made me me— to read them, to sit for 20 minutes every morning before my day begins. They feel like completely alien acts that were performed by someone else who, once upon a time, looked like me and sounded like me, but who is no longer me.
Susan and I had fended off Covid during the early, deadly days. In the spring of 2020, we moved my elderly, irascible mother out of her Manhattan apartment to our Connecticut home, where she lived until late June 2020, when we thought it was safe to bring her home with a box of N95 masks and a large vat of hand sanitizer (it was). But for four months, I had done the thing I swore I would never do again: live under the same roof with her for the first time since 1987, when my physician, concerned about my stress-related blood pressure and the fact that, at 24, I was bursting ocular blood vessels with the same frequency as brushing my teeth, wrote me a prescription that read GET YOUR OWN APARTMENT OR YOU WILL DIE. 33 years later, Covid struck, my mother was 84, and there we were.
When we finally decided that it was safe enough for my mother to return to her home, we planned to bring her back, fill her refrigerator, and give her strict instructions about going out. Convinced that we were trying to kill her, she insisted on staying with us. So we waited another week, and then brought her home. She acted out by going on a spending binge that would leave her precariously close to bouncing her rent checks. She fought with everyone she could; she fired her aide. She asked me for more money for essentials; I said no, because by essentials she meant the 31 tubes of Clinique lipstick she kept in the medicine cabinet in case of emergencies. She had the bank call Adult Protective Services, citing neglect; a case against me was opened and then closed when they judged it frivolous after she admitted to them matter-of-factly that the essentials were 31 tubes of Clinique lipstick.
It happens all the time with the elderly, they told me. Don’t worry.
They were very nice and wished me well, and told me they were sorry.
A few weeks after the case was dropped, I got sick; I slept for eighteen hours a day, couldn’t eat, had a blinding migraine that wouldn’t cease. Instead of attacking my lungs, Covid attacked my central nervous system, and on the morning of September 1st, I had a mild vascular stroke that left me unable to sit up in bed without the room spinning, or walk a straight line for months. Incompetence at my local hospital resulted in no emergency room MRI and an inconclusive CT scan; there was the belief that the stroke was located in a part of my brain stem that would not have showed up on imaging. A Yale neurologist ordered a lumbar puncture, and a year’s worth of ongoing tests, which revealed Something but not what we’re looking for. Are you under the care of a psychiatrist? The lesions, however, they saw, bright as bulbs.
Little by little, month by month, slowly slowly, my life clicked back into place like the glass shards in a kaleidoscope; I could walk, I could drive, I started going back to the gym. I stopped having brain melt downs mid-sentence; despite long Covid, I returned to work. I started publishing essays again, and editing, and began working on another book.
But my previous morning routine— alarm at 6:30, stumble into the guest room with my meditation timer, sit on my zafu for 20 minutes, then read for another ten— was suddenly as alien to me as learning a difficult foreign language, like Hungarian. It literally made no sense; it was as if it had never happened previously. The online meditation sits I often attended via New York Zen Center for Contemplative Care and Everyday Zen — I received ongoing invitations to join them, which is how I knew to sign up for them — felt like I was watching a movie, except no one was moving; I didn’t recognize what was going on. Listening to dharma talks, I was unable to focus. I couldn’t recall why I was wearing the tiny gold Ganesha I haven’t taken off since 2016; I couldn’t understand why one sits on my writing desk, its back to the window. My interest in, and connection to any sort of spiritual anything had vanished. It took me another year to actually recognize objectively that it had evaporated— all of it, it seemed. It was like that moment when you realize that something that was always there was suddenly missing. Oh, you think, wait a minute… and suddenly, the words you always read sound familiar again, even though once heard, they still sound distant and odd and don’t shake you out of your stupor.
A few years ago, I remember watching one of the most moving videos I’ve ever seen; I can’t see it without weeping. A woman in her 90s, stricken with Alzheimers and unable to speak or to make contact with anything or anyone around her, gets a visit from a social worker, who sings a song to the woman from her childhood. And suddenly: recognition. Her eyes light up; she begins to sing along. Versions of this abound: a former prima ballerina, also suffering from Alzheimers, hears the music from Swan Lake, and sitting in her wheelchair, begins to perform the solo she had many years earlier. It seems to me that these examples emanate not only from a stimulation of the hippocampus— that sliver of the brain responsible for memories of the past — but from a place where the soul and the spirit intersect and are touched, gently jostled, and awakened, if only for a few moments. The power of music and its ineffable spiritual— visceral— connection to us is what the late Oliver Sacks called, in Musicophilia, a power… that comes spontaneously as a blessing or a grace. It can disappear with brain injury, and it can also be awakened.
Is it possible too that one’s vital connection to contemplative practice can be lost at the neurological level, and similarly re-awakened?
Having said this, I also have to consider issues of cynicism, skepticism, and pessimism, all of which I tend towards when I fall into clinical depression (which I’ve lived with for decades); before the stroke, I battled depression as a rule and a fact of my life as it had been for my father. But I was always able to hold the -isms at bay, to keep them from overtaking the contemplative part of my life; after the stroke— maybe because of the stroke and the way I was bounced around an unhelpful and disbelieving medical community like a warm Spaldeen — they took over and ran roughshod. After witnessing so much death and destruction, and having lived with the stress of a frivolous but invasive APS investigation launched by a bored elderly parent struggling with severe mental illness, and not knowing if I was going to live or die after making a masked trip to the drugstore… maybe my spirit literally broke. But as someone who has spent most of her life taking refuge in contemplation during the most difficult and traumatic parts of her existence even going back to her childhood, I’m not sure.
So I’m trying to reclaim this inexplicable thing that I seem to have lost, that has been siphoned out of me like gas from a car; it’s incredibly difficult, and even a little shame-inducing. I don’t know if forcing it is the answer— flinging myself into multi-day silent retreats (which I’ve done pre-Covid, and love) or sitting on my cushion every morning whether I want to or not, doesn’t seem like a good idea — so instead I’m trying to reawaken that connection and to nudge the power cord back into the socket by being outside more, being in nature, moving more slowly through the world. This loss, this vaporizing of what I never considered might even be losable, has been like walking around blindly, frantically searching for my glasses while they’re sitting on my head. I’m angry and frustrated and I can’t see, but I don’t know why.
This post was originally published on Elissa Altman’s blog Poor Man’s Feast, The Beard Award-winning journal about the intersection of food, spirit, and the families that drive you crazy. Read more on her Substack, or keep up with her archives here.