The Airing of Ecstasies



Now that I had finished my travels, I was concentrating on blogging, working out, and saving money. I still was not sure what my living situation was going to be after I got back to Minneapolis. I couldn’t think of how I might pay the full rental amount at a typical apartment; I didn’t know anyone I could live with for cheaper. Instead, I decided to start looking at Craigslist for short-term rentals. These would be more affordable, and they would allow me to save up money for long-term solutions.

I also still had a housing representative who was helping me search. However, she seemed to be full of excuses. First, she mis-recorded our meeting appointment, the tried to blame it on me. She told me that it would be six months until she could find me an apartment. When I pointed out that I had been requesting a place five months prior to hearing from her, she didn’t offer a response. Once she wanted to give me a lengthy explanation about how she also had many other clients. I found this infuriating, because I felt it was condescending.

As the days wore on, I finally asked her if she could call around for weekly motels. She began expounding on how expensive this option would be. I became inpatient and cut her off. I told her that I wasn’t asking whether she thought it was affordable. The only things I needed were locations and prices. Speaking still took a great deal of effort, so I needed all of our time on the phone to be productive. She spent too much time trying to talk about food, family, and other pleasantries anyway. Telling me all of the excuses and other unsolicited information just prolonged the call.

It had started to sound increasingly as though I might end up going into a homeless shelter for a few months. With this realization came concerns about theft and assault. Concerns about assault made me look at getting into better shape as an imperative. As for theft, I was worried about my laptop. I could keep my wallet and cellphone, but the computer would need to stay with a friend. That was why I wanted to get my writing to a point where I was a month ahead of publication: if I was to be without my laptop for a month, I would still be able to publish my blog.

So, most days would start with me cooking a modest breakfast of toast and scrambled eggs. My dad would crack the eggshells, but I had could manage the cooking with one hand. Around 11:00, Dad would drive me to the gym or to Starbucks. I would work out or write for a for hours, before getting a ride home for a nap. If I woke up before 5:00, I would respond to a few housing ads before dinner. This schedule felt pretty overwhelming, but it was hard to fight off feelings of guilt because of how active and energetic I had been so recently.

In order to keep myself moving forward, when I wasn’t increasing the weight on old exercises, I began incorporating new ones. The first new muscle group I enlisted was abdominals. Planet Fitness had a crunch machine. It took me a while to set up this exercise, but after I was into place, I got a maximum benefit from it. The most difficult thing was getting my left arm into position. I would have to slide my elbow into place; pull the harness down, then hold it; guide my hand onto the handle; then it was a matter of squeezing my abs to rock forward.

The other thing I wanted to do was start actively using my shoulder. The exercises I had performed heretofore had mere passively stretched out my shoulder. While this had helped tremendously with the problems of pain and inflexibility, I wanted to be able to use my arm muscles to reach. If I could achieve just a modicum of shoulder movement, I would eventually be able to carry things, drive, and bench press. I had dreams of doing barbell or dumbbell press again one day, but presently, I could not lift my arms into position.

Luckily, the gym had a shoulder press machine. Using it was a matter of sitting down and getting my hand into place. I pushed my arm upward. The weight barely moved, but it did move. I could feel pressure in the top of my shoulder. I repeated the movement nine more times, until I had completed a set of ten reps. I hadn’t put any weights on the stack, but it was definitely better than doing nothing. I hammered out two more sets. Then I walked out of the gym, feeling accomplished.

I was doing the bare minimum when it came to using the new muscle groups. Nonetheless, the cumulative effect was a gain in overall speed and balance. I would practice getting down on the floor, so I could get myself back up on the couch or bed. Now, instead of writhing around and getting exhausted, I could get back up, and into a seated position in ten seconds. And instead of gasping and sweating, I would be relaxed and able to go right back to what I had been doing. That felt empowering, like I was in more control of my environment.

On the day after Thanksgiving, Dad and I went to have dinner with his family in Rosedale, Mississippi. Rosedale is a small, agricultural town in the Mississippi Delta. It is the kind of place one thinks of when one thinks of Mississippi. Dad grew up there, picking cotton, and living under harsh Jim Crow conditions. Every time we cross into Rosedale, it feels like the landscape color should fade to black-and-white. As we drive through town, Dad always points out things like the rice ditch where someone drowned, or the levee where Grandmother’s rowboat landed after she floated down the Mississippi River looking for dry land during the Flood of 1927.

Dad’s niece is the only family member who still lives in Rosedale. His older sister, Aunt Ruth likes to come down from Memphis for holidays with her adult children. Those adult children – my cousins – all grew up in Chicago, but have all since moved to Tennessee. From Grandmother moving to Mississippi in a rowboat, to them leaving the Midwest to resettle in the South, the Chicago cousins strike me as quintessential members of the Southern Black Diaspora.

I had not been to Rosedale or any town this small since my stroke. I had assumed that walking would be very challenging in the unpaved environment. What I found, to my surprise, was that footing was a lot easier. The uneven ground made it harder to trip, because my foot didn’t easily get caught the way it does on nonporous ground. The driveway was paved with rocks; the floor was made of wood; the house was raised three steps off of the ground. None of these factors presented any problem for me.

My family did their utmost to make me feel loved. I had not seen most of them since before my stroke. However, they had been following the stories of my progress. I told them about what I was doing in the gym and about my days since I had moved back to Minneapolis. They wanted to know more about my blog, so I gave them the link. Finally, we took a picture of all the generations gathered there. After eating, Dad drove me around town and showed me a few sites from his youth. I had always enjoyed hearing his stories. Their resonant magic is what led me to pursue a history degree. I wanted to spend a lifetime hearing the stories of bygone generations.

As November and December rolled by, many people came to Mississippi or came to see me while I was in town. Several of them had parties for various holidays. For the first time, I was invited to a Festivus party. I had heard of many people hosting parties for this holiday, and I knew that it had come from a Seinfeld episode. However, I had never seen the episode, so all I knew was that the revelers used a metal pole in lieu of a Christmas tree. I quickly RSVP’d my response, excited for the opportunity to see what all of the obsession was about.

On the day of the party, I still hadn’t watched the episode. So I found a clip on YouTube. The highlights were trimmed down to fewer than ten minutes. I learned the history of the holiday, and I got a breakdown of the various elements that make up a Festivus evening. My strength and speech were continuing to improve, but I still had questions about whether I would be able to participate though the party without collapsing from exhaustion.

The party was hosted by my friend, Eric. Eric is a soft spoken transplant from Upstate New York. He is an intellectual who makes very astute observations about local society. His most central characteristic is kindness. Whenever I am around him, I feel appreciated. As I would describe him as an introvert, I was eager to see what kind of host he would be.

When we pulled up to the curb, my friend, Dale and I climbed out of the car onto an curb. There was no fence on the side where we were, so Dale told me to wait, while he scouted around for the correct approach. Being left alone always made me nervous about falling. It was something I never told anyone about because I didn’t want to appear weak, but the idea of losing balance and no longer being in control of my body was greatly unnerving. This fear was only exacerbated by the darkness. Soon Dale yelled out that he had found the way to the porch. I waited in silence as he came back to get me.

The path to the porch was made of large stones set atop a bed of pebbles. I’m sure that it was designed to look rustic and charming, but for a person in my condition, it was perilous. The stones were set at distances from one another that even a small adult could cover easily in one stride. For a person with limited control of his legs, this was just one long chain of tripping hazards. At first, I tried stepping from stone to stone, the way I assumed the walkway was designed After I had covered about three strides, I decided that this was to unsafe. Instead, I started taking smaller steps. I wasn’t always standing on a large stone, but I was walking safely.

Once I was inside, I saw that there were around six other guests. I knew one of them, so I began telling her about how much blogging I had done that day. One of the other guests worked for a medical office, and Eric asked me if I would be willing to share the story of my blog. I obliged and gave them a brief history of my ordeal and told them how I decided to write about those experiences. After I finished telling the story, we all broke up into smaller conversations. Surprisingly, I wasn’t tired, so I kept socializing.

Eric had meticulously planned out the evening, even going so far as to type up an agenda from an official Festivus instruction site. The portion of the evening I was anticipating was The Airing of Grievances – the time allotted for each guest to tell all of the others how they had disappointed him over the last year. I wanted to launch into a lengthy rant without losing my voice failing me.

When my time came, I rallied about local politicians, expressed my outrage at the state of the state education system, complained about healthcare, and whined about potholes. Not only did I yell this all out, but I switched up my cadence, altered my pitch, paused dramatically, emphasized punchlines, and I held it all together by taking strategic breaths between phrases. In short, I employed every speaking tool I had learned over the last 2.5 years. When the production was over, I was sweaty and ecstatic. Nothing since the stroke had made me feel like such a part of a social evening.

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