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I Learned to Fly

Finding Gratitude in Physical Illness

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I have just finished my fourth novel, a semi-autobiographical look at my days repatriating from Europe to the U.S. At the time, I was living in Seattle, trying to find a journalism job. I’d already been a successful journalist in Tokyo and London, and was finding it hard to land a newspaper job (or any journalism job) in Seattle. The search went on for months and months. The novel has brought the following episode front and center into my consciousness, and more fully transformed the traumatic event into a well of gratitude.

In 1999, I finally landed a copy-editor position at one of the local Seattle papers. One night, I was working the night shift. Next to me in the open plan office sat the managing editor’s desk, and on it, the police scanner was on. Stories of crimes came in from all over the city. I remember I was working on a story about shipping routes in Alaska on the old green-screen computer when on the scanner came a little boy’s voice. He was beneath the bed, he whispered to the dispatcher, and daddy was hurting mommy. Daddy had a gun.

I felt myself transported through the scanner, through the phone lines, to the boy’s bedroom. I was with him curled beneath that bed as his mother and father fought violently in the next room. As the boy cried and pulled further into himself, I wanted to help so desperately. Will someone help the child? Please?

At that moment at my computer, I couldn’t seem to lift my arms. I’d been a journalist for twelve years at this point, typing 10-plus hours a day, and sometimes had problems with my arms. Weakness and numbness would hit me in the middle of the night.

Here, though, at that moment, I couldn’t use my arms at all. They hung by my side, lifeless. The left was worse than the right. I could lift the right a few inches. A car was summoned to take me home, and what followed were months and even years of healing. I would never work in a newsroom again.

A friend said at the time: “You just couldn’t ‘handle’ it anymore.” And I knew she was right. I am an empath, highly sensitive, and the world’s stories of trauma had become too much for me. As I tried everything to get full use of my arms back, from physical therapy to crystal healing, I’d have phases where I was stabilized, but relapses would put me on my back for longer than I cared to admit.

During one bad episode about two months after the original event, on my back on the hardwood floor, the only place that felt comfortable, I was crying, bemoaning my fate. I was not just a journalist at the time, but an emerging novelist. How could I be a writer if I couldn’t use my arms? I pondered deeply what it meant to be a writer, to have a literary voice. I still had that voice. I still had the desire. Did my arm problems then negate my purpose as a writer?

On the floor, I decided to write a story in my head. I kept thinking of when I used to skydive. I remembered hanging there as I floated toward the earth, my legs dangling and useless. I came up with a title: “I Learned to Fly”. I wrote the first sentence in my mind, memorized it, then wrote the second sentence. I spoke out loud the first and second sentence, then “wrote” a third in my head, and said all three sentences out loud to anchor them in my psyche. I did this for the fourth sentence, and the 20th sentence, and the 100th sentence. Two days later, I had a 25-page story memorized. I can still recite it today. Months later I was trained on voice software, and voiced in the story. It became part of the final chapter of my first novel. The voice software ended up transforming my writing, bringing in more flow, more grit, more breath.

I continued to be unable to work because of my arms, and I grew bored. Boredom is an incredible blessing for a creative empath. In my boredom, I started doodling. When I was able, I traced my hands on cardboard, cut them out, and decorated them with fairy tale images I found in a book. I kept ruminating on what my hands do all day, what anyone’s hands do. Do they write about crime? Do they create beauty? Later, these “Mystical Hands” sold for up to $250, and led to opportunities to teach art.

Little did I know at the time that my life as a full-time literary and visual artist had begun. Because I was used to making such good money as a journalist abroad and because I’d been doing it for so long, I would have never reconsidered my career unless forced to. (These days, I don’t get myself to such an edge. I listen to my body and my soul now.)

There are even more things I have to be grateful for due to the loss of my arms. The whole episode led me to my new career as a book coach where I help others find their authentic literary voices, and I’m my own boss now.

There’s one more thing I’m grateful for. It would take 10 years and a major transformation around food, but the physical illness also led me to a plant-based organic diet that has sparked greater physical and mental health. The new diet completely cured my arm issues. But that’s another story altogether.

As I work with an editor on my fourth novel, and remember what brought me here, I am so grateful to have left behind a life of reporting on trauma. I feel so unbelievably lucky to live this life of art, soul, beauty, and poetry.  

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