Last week my Nonfiction Prose class read Floyd Skloot’s essay “Gray Matter: Thinking With A Damaged Brain.” Skloot begins with the line “I used to be able to think” and continues the essay to explore (with remarkable ease and integration of information) the results of a virus that attacked his brain over a decade ago. The essay itself prompts fascinating questions about the distinction between the mind and the brain and wonders, in an age of PTSD and traumatic brain injury, how accurate Descartes could possibly have been. But what’s pecked at me this week has been Skloot’s first line: I used to be able to….
Already, at 33, there things I’m no longer able to do. Some of them are bodily and cliche– sleep in past 9 am, eat Taco Bell, exercise without wondering about joint health– but others are social or metaphysical. I used to be able to believe wholeheartedly in a political candidate. I used to be able to buy groceries without wondering about supply chains. I used to know how to pray.
Considering what I used to be able to do has been sad, and useful. When I was younger, I tended to define myself by what I was currently doing. Now, though, I’m beginning to see that part of growing is marking the spaces between what I have done. It’s like seeing those yearly height marks on the door frame of a childhood home: to the child, the fresh mark and its accomplishment are the prize, but my adult eyes linger on the spaces and see in them the living.
I used to be able to do many things. That I can’t or don’t any longer is a significant marker of both change and choice. Those absences are how the world has marked me. And, sad as those losses may be, they are also evidence of living.
What comes to mind when you begin with Skloot’s line? “I used to be able to….”