Humanist Homecoming

When I began writing this blog, it was with the intention of it being about my current life. However, there was so much backstory that I felt was vital to the reader’s knowledge and appreciation that I devoted the first seven months to merely talking about the journey to this point. Last October, I felt like the narrative was not immediate enough, so I decided to split the posts between past and more recent events. After six months of using this method, I’ve covered enough backstory to generally stick
to one narrative timeline per installment.

During my November in Mississippi, I wanted to write more, but I kept finding myself preoccupied with meeting people. My first Monday, I went to dinner in Biloxi with two former coworkers. Hope and Steve were both members of my first work team at AT&T. Each does a lot of writing. Steve writes poetry; Hope writes fiction. Although I have various things in common with each, I had never discussed my desire to be a writer with either.

I didn’t want to be one of those people who constantly talks about his plans but never puts any of them into action. To me, writers wrote. People who talked incessantly about what they planned to write but never produced anything were posers. They wanted the mystique of being known as writers without actually doing any of the years of solitary, fruitless toil. Those are the times that make one a writer.

It felt wonderful sitting there talking with Hope and Steve about my work. We discussed memories, politics, and how my therapy was going, but most of all, I was proud to be discussing the writing craft. I had felt like a Luddite around them at AT&T. The whole time I was working in call centers, I’d walked around with the vague felling that I was meant for something else. The majority of the people toiling in call centers probably feel this way, but I was doing less than most when I was away from the office. But this conversation felt natural. I spent the evening finally feeling like I was one of these people who carved out time to write – in anonymity and without reward – because they felt a calling.

Before my stroke, I had thought of myself as a good person and a decent friend. However, I really didn’t put much effort into making this manifest through my actions. I was a good person by definition, and whoever saw me as anything to the contrary? Well, that was their problem. After the stroke, how I behaved toward other people became much more important. In the past, I had simply tried not to be a bad person. Now, I went out of my way to be more thoughtful and kind. I wanted to show people that I valued them.

On my last night in town, I met several friends for dinner. One was Chris, a kind-hearted lady from Maryland. Since moving to Mississippi, she has remained very politically active. In fact, the main reason why I often miss her on my trips to the coast is that she often has a brunch or rally that conflicts with my visits. The other two – Sarah and Vicky – are practically inseparable. Sarah is a very loving and compassionate person. I can’t help but feel loved whenever she is in the room. Vicky got married and had children early. Now she is a non-traditional college student, and science is her life. Whenever we’re together, each one adds a unique flavor to the experience.

Chris told us about the new political projects she had going. Sarah raved about what new adventures her daughter was going through. Vicky regaled us with tales of what she was learning in class. I thought, If I can work this hard to make the lives of others better, love this unreservedly, pursue truth this earnestly, I will be doing something I can be happy with. It took a lot of dedication in the gym to achieve the kind of physique with which I had once impressed people. I wanted my character and my words to leave such an indelible mark on others.

On Sunday, I was back in Jackson. The Mississippi Humanist Association had a screening of the movie, A Better Life, a film that answers the question of what meaning people can find in life if they don’t believe in God. The filmmaker, Chris Johnson, interviews many self-described atheists and agnostics about what things bring them joy in life. The more I listened, the more it made me think about how much we have in common with religious people. Even for strict churchgoers, the majority of the moments of ecstasy for most people I know are when they’re doing things like holding their children, sucking on honeycombs, or taking in sunsets.

The thing I really appreciate about the humanists is that they have a mission. The members of my atheist group have fascinating discussions, but they’re primarily a social media network. MHA holds blood drives, volunteers, donates to food drives, has a monthly brunch, and sponsors events. They partner with religious groups and do things to make their presence known in the community. Being a member of MHA always reminds me to look for ways to make a difference.

The week after the movie screening, several of the MHA members met up for Sunday brunch at the Bulldog Restaurant and Pub. It was a beautifully clear day and the temperature must have been about 60°, so we sat outdoors. We had such a large group that we had to sit at one of the large picnic tables. A few months earlier, I would not have had the balance or muscle control to get my left foot in and out of the opening between the table and the bench. Now it was as easy as straddling the bench, with my right leg on the inside; sitting down; lifting my left leg up and over the bench; then swiveling in to position.

During the course of brunch, I was able to get up and go to the restroom twice. Unlike before, it wasn’t a big production to try to get my left leg from being trapped beneath the picnic table, followed by a mad dash to the latrine. It was a smooth transition from a seated position, leading to a casual stroll. No more chaos and wondering whether I could get to where I needed to go in time. I was reestablishing authority over my own body.

One of the reasons why I had decided to spend November in Mississippi was to save money. Although I had gone out several times, I had always kept a scrupulous eye on how much money I spent. On the one hand, I wanted to be able to appear as though I was at ease; on the other, I needed to save up enough to be able to afford my own apartment once I arrived back in Minnesota. It was bewildering how I would actually ever save up enough, but I was committed to the idea of saving money.

One way I was able to facilitate this was by going to the gym often. Planet Fitness was my least favorite gym out of all of the ones I used, because the machines didn’t correspond that well to my body. Given my limited range of motion, the equipment was not set up as well for me as the workout stations at L. A. Fitness or Anytime Fitness. However, I was able to design routines that made me interested enough to keep going in.

At first, I would just start with leg extensions and leg curls. Doing these exercises daily would strengthen my quads and hamstrings enough to aid in foot clearance. Most days, I would also perform lat rows to increase my ability to stretch my arm up and forward. These were three exercises I could do at any of the gyms I went to, so they formed the first 45 minutes of my routine.

After this, I would pick and choose from an assortment of other exercises. One day, it might be treadmill and pectoral flys. Another, it might be seated leg presses and shoulder shrugs. By altering the permutations of my workout combinations, I was able to work my responsive muscle groups all week without hitting a plateau. I didn’t know what my life would entail materially after I returned to Minneapolis, but I wanted to be as physically prepared as possible.

The other way I saved money while still going out was by going to a coffee shop. There was Wi-Fi at my dad’s house, but my laptop couldn’t connect to it with any regularity. So I would go to a local Starbucks for three hours and write the first 1,000 words of a 2,000 word blog post. Later that week, I would return to Starbucks and complete the second 1,000 words and then email the rough draft to my editors. Downloading the edited copy, revising it, and emailing the final draft became the third part of my weekly visits.

A cup of coffee only cost five bucks, but it allowed me to get vital work done. I was feeding a sense of purpose, and doing so in a very public environment. When I first began going to Starbucks, I had feared dropping my wallet, having my laptop stolen, falling, or publicly wetting my pants. Now I was becoming very comfortable with my surroundings and developing behaviors that allowed me to not have to concentrate or worry:

Your wallet goes in the top pocket of your bag.
Your meds go in the large pouch.
The charges and ear buds fit in one side pouch.
The mouse goes in the opposite side.
The laptop charger goes in the front pocket.

Managing brain injuries is largely about managing order and routine. Once you clear your physical and mental space, your mind doesn’t feel cluttered, and panic is less likely to ensue.

When I have inexplicably fallen or misplaced things, it’s because my mind is trying to do too much. I was quite athletic before my stroke; coordination came naturally. After the stroke, I had to plan many of my movements. For every motion I had to think about, there had to be other things that I didn’t need to mentally dissect. Knowing how to walk into a business, make a purchase, and unpack and pack everything was invaluable for someone who had almost died of a hypertensive stroke.

Toward the end of the month, I ran low on my prescriptions. I took the bottles to the drugstore for refills. They informed me that a couple of them were not marked for refill. Then I realized that I had added the last set of refills to the older set of pill bottles in October, and that the written prescriptions were at an independent pharmacy in Sleepy Eye, MN. Rather than waste time trying to get the prescriptions faxed, I told Dad to just take me to a walk-in clinic.

The people at the clinic told me that I owed a balance that had to be paid before they would see me. Paying non-network price to see a doctor just to write prescriptions for medications I had refilled one month earlier came to $180. Dad, realizing the bind this put me in, told me that I could just stay in Mississippi for another month. Now I could relax and concentrate on rehabilitation and blogging.

On the last day of November, I went to Starbucks to write. When I finished, I began putting my things away. Then I heard someone spelling his first name, “C-H-O-K-W-E.”

I realized it was the mayor. I called him over and introduced myself. He said he knew who I was.

I didn’t remember having met him before, but our fathers had close ties, so I could’ve met him when he was younger.

He asked what I was doing in town, and I told him about my stroke and how I came to Starbucks frequently to blog. Before he left, we took a selfie together. He told me that I should use it for my blog.

I packed up my laptop feeling like I was doing something that matters.

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