The task of imagining something not immediately present is exhausting
Within a few hours of getting bonked on the head at the swimming pool I could feel the world becoming less stable, and then a few days later the sun began to shine too brightly and the sound of human voices, buses passing along the street, music on the radio all became too loud to bear.
The doctor at the walk-in clinic asked me to sit up straight on the examination table with my legs outstretched. He then turned my head and pushed me straight back. Then he shone a light into my eye. You’ve got a concussion, he said. A few days later, when I made the trek across town to visit my family doctor, he told me that he was no longer talking to anyone about long-term problems because he was getting out of family practice altogether. And then he stormed out of the room.
I could feel the fogginess closing in, the feeling of losing contact with not only the world around me but the world within. The task of imagining or conjuring with something that was not immediately present became exhausting. But I did recognize this absence of thinking in the words and actions of people all around me. There were two kinds of deeds in the world: concussive and non-concussive.
Upon visiting Israel, the president of the USA told the prime minister, in front of the Israeli media, that he had just returned from the Middle East, where he’d had a good visit.
The prominent Toronto editor-inchief of a liberal magazine quit his post, on account of having to censor himself too frequently.
Another Toronto editor proposed that the means to cultural understanding is to establish an appropriation writing prize—surely well intentioned, but one of the most stunning examples of concussive non-thinking that I’d encountered in my new concussive state.
These incidents occurred when I was in Toronto for the first annual Grand Prix Awards for magazine publishing, which my companion renamed the Awards for Grand Pricks. The Geist entry, a forty-five-year-long photography project documenting race relations in the most unhappy city in
America, lost to a photo shoot featuring shoelaces—a painfully concussive decision by the judges.
In the same week, at the Canadian magazine publishing conference, I went to see an interview with Anna Maria Tremonti. As soon as she began to speak, a familiar unpleasant sensation began to settle over me, and it took me a few minutes to figure out that the only time I listen to Tremonti is at 8:45 a.m., when her show comes on CBC Radio and when I’m still lying in bed, which means I’m struggling to get out of bed because the concussion is in full effect.
At the Georgia O’keeffe exhibit in the Art Gallery of Ontario, in front of Calla Lilies on Red, a man with puffy hair, wearing a boxy blazer and surely a concussion victim, said to his companion: I love all the layers here. With his cupped hand he traced the white petals along the folds of the lily. I see one thing, he went on, and when I look longer I see so much more. His companion, a woman in a black spaghetti-strap dress, said nothing, and the concussive man continued to speak gibberish and stroke the outline of the lily. I wandered ahead, wondering if the world would have fewer concussions if it had been made in the image of the vulva rather than the penis.
A few days later, in Lester’s Deli in Montreal, the store manager was locked into a phone conversation with someone who wanted Montreal smoked meat sandwiches for their party, but was low on cash. You can come down and get the supplies yourself, said the Lester’s employee, and I can show you how to put the sandwiches together. Or we can have them delivered at whatever time you want but we won’t have them assembled. Yes, yes, but it will take you several hours to put all the sandwiches together. Sure, you can get a team of friends to help you.
My sister told me about an article she had just read about another concussed writer, Ernest Hemingway, who by the end of his life was struggling to write. The article suggested that the reason Hemingway suffered so much and finally killed himself was not because of bipolar disorder and alcoholism but rather the brain damage caused by nine concussions over the course of his life: shell blasts from two world wars, boxing, playing football, a car crash and two plane crashes.
My own concussion came about at the swimming pool, when a backstroker drifted into my lane and we smashed into each other, head to head. When I stood up in the pool, the woman who had crashed into me was lying on her back, and then she too stood up. She was in her late fifties, small, no more than a hundred and ten pounds. Oops, she said, I didn’t see you. And then she flopped onto her back again and continued on her course, propelling herself unevenly through the water.
The collage poem above and those on the next few pages are composed of words and phrases taken from recent issues of Geist, compiled by students from Agassiz Secondary, participants in the Geist in the Classroom program.