These days, we are all trying to adjust to “the new normal,” an altered world that is very different from the way it used to be. Berkeley resident and author Christine Hyung-Oak Lee knows something about waking up to the “new normal.” When she was 33, Lee suffered a stroke that left her brain-damaged with a short-term memory of about 15 minutes. After beginning the long process of rehabilitation, the UC Berkeley and Mills College graduate eventually realized that her brain was not going to go back to the way it used to be, and she was going to have to prioritize her healing goals to achieve her biggest priority—becoming a writer.
In her book Tell Me Everything You Don’t Remember: The Stroke That Changed My Life, Lee shares her story of grief and her subsequent decision to rebuild her brain—and her life—for the success she desired. It is a story we may relate with right now. Here, she talks with East Bay Magazine about her journey after the trauma, how she focused her healing and the ways her urban farm and life as a beekeeper have intersected with her writing life and contributed to her process of recovery.
East Bay Magazine: You wrote about your experience having a stroke as a young woman in your memoir Tell Me Everything You Don’t Remember. After your stroke, you rebuilt your brain to be a writer. When did you realize that was even possible?
Christine Lee: I had a left thalamic stroke at the age of 33, and it left me with a 15-minute short-term memory. I was so brain-damaged, I couldn’t hold a conversation, or read a story—all of which are memory exercises. I was an MFA student in creative writing at the time, but for the first few months of my stroke, I was unable to write fiction, and could only write short blog posts, recording the thoughts that came into my head rather than communicate a constructed narrative. Even during those early months, I wrote every day, even if it took me forever, on an anonymous blog called “Writing Under a Pseudonym,” as Jade Park.
Around six months into my recovery, I was well enough to remember what it was I used to be able to achieve, and what I could no longer do. It was a dark time because my abilities were gone, but my memories of those abilities began to return. I became depressed. I wondered what the point of living was if I couldn’t be the person I used to be. I would eventually learn that this was grief and that a transition was beginning.
When you lose everything, it becomes very clear what the most important things are. And for me, that was my ability to write a narrative. And I measured my recovery by that return. I wrote every day, even if it was nonsense. I was determined to rebuild my brain to become a writer. I was aware my brain was building new neural paths and demonstrating neuroplasticity, and that what I did would affect the building of those new pathways.
When you lose everything, you move forward with your eyes on the goal. My goal was to recover who I was—but what happened was that I became a new person. And fortunately, writing was central to the new person. It was like a second chance to retrain my brain to build skills.
EBM: What was that first year after the stroke like?
CL: The year came in stages. In the first two months, I was blissed out, honestly. I was in a state of mind that people pay great sums to achieve: I was not aware of the past, nor could I plan for the future. I was living entirely in the present tense. So I had no worries. I didn’t have capabilities, but I didn’t know enough to realize these lost capabilities.
I am an avid cook and in that first couple of months, I couldn’t cook. Not because I didn’t know how to turn on the oven, but because I forgot I’d turned on the oven as soon as I walked away. I burned food. I scorched pots that contained water that had boiled for who knows how long. I turned on the mixer to mix cake batter, the phone would ring, and when I returned whenever I returned, I’d find the mixer running. I’d wonder who turned on the mixer. And I suspected it was me. The mixer would be hot to the touch. So I stopped for a while.
Earlier, I spoke of that dark time when I was healed enough to remember the past and take into account my deficits. That was when I really had to double down on my efforts, even if I was in a deep depression. I had no control over my emotions—I would fly into a rage with the tiniest provocation, and then burst into tears when someone said something hurtful to me. I had no resilience and I had no access to my bank of witty comebacks to deflect pain. I was probably hell to live with in those first stages of recovery—first, because I had to be tended and watched, and then because I was both so despondent and incapable.
I call that first couple of months my “infancy.” And I call the next few months, my “toddler years.”
Towards the end of the first year, I had regained enough skills to manage my day-to-day life. I still couldn’t write, but I could read People magazine. I couldn’t balance a checkbook, but I could go to the store and find my way back home.
It was a rebirth.
EBM: Your stroke gave you the opportunity to relearn language. When you were recovering, you couldn’t remember the word for “eggs” and instead called them “shell bells.” That sounds very poetic—do you think the process of creatively finding words again like this was part of what contributed to your rebirth as a writer?
CL: I think the ways in which my brain recalled language was admittedly beautiful, even if frustrating at the time.
Honestly, I didn’t creatively find words at that time—“creative” implies intention and construction. And I had no intention of being creative. I wasn’t a poet. But—what it did teach me is HOW language is constructed, and how stories are composed—that stories are spliced together into a narrative and structure in order to make the most impact on a reader. It was a strange lesson in craft. And in that sense, it helped my writing. Or perhaps, it is because I am a writer today that I can look back and unpack it as such.
EBM: How is your life different now because of the stroke?
CL: My life today is very different from before the stroke. And I don’t know if it was because of the stroke that my marriage was destroyed. I had a baby and got divorced six years after the stroke. Maybe the stroke was a direct cause, even if there was a six-year lag. But I am as a person living my life every year as if it were my last. I choose a year because living every day as if it were my last might lead to some disastrous decisions!
Healthwise, I’m fine now. I closed the hole in my heart that caused the stroke—the clot—to travel into my brain. I still easily tire, and I’m now an introvert in comparison to my pre-stroke extroverted self. It’s the same and very different, all at once.
EBM: What are you currently writing about and where can we read it?
CL: I am writing my novel! And the topic is a guarded secret for now. But I do have an ongoing column at Catapult Story called “Backyard Politics,” which details my life as an urban farmer and the way I view the world through my bees, chickens and foodscape. I am obsessed with my bees.
EBM: I know that these days part of your life is working on your urban farm, specifically with bees. Is there a link between urban farming and writing for you? How do the two intersect and inform each other?
CL: Who knew that urban farming would intersect into my writing life? When I began the garden and got chickens and then bees, it was merely to soothe myself and undertake a project that I hadn’t been allowed while married. My life had fallen apart, and seeing a tomato grow was extremely comforting and gave me consistency and a sense of progression. I think that comfort is a big part of why backyard farms have experienced a great resurgence during the Covid-19 pandemic. It feels like sanctuary, reassurance and independence during stressful times.
Because the garden gave me comfort, it allowed me space to relax. And the space I created expanded my mind and gave me the room to be the writer I wanted to become (and am still becoming). Eventually, my urban farm pervaded my entire life and identity, and I began to see all the ways in which it was intersectional with the way I see the world and how I live my life and all the metaphors within.
EBM: Tell me a little about a typical day in your life as a writer and an urban farmer.
CL: Every morning is chores! I feed the chickens and check on the garden. I walk by my hives to examine the bee traffic. It has also become my morning meditation—after my cup of coffee, I walk the garden.
Spring is a busy time—chores at that time of year are heftier—there’s more beekeeping work as the bees expand after a cold winter, and there is a lot of work with the soil and with planting. But for the rest of the year, I walk the garden and do maintenance. Summertime and fall are enchanting because I never know what I’ll find in terms of what’s ripe!
I try to write every day, even if it’s low-stakes writing in my journal. I try to write in the mornings before my day-job responsibilities. In the movies, they like to show writers typing away furiously, but it’s honestly not like that for me. I look like I’m not doing much when I’m writing.
EBM: Can anyone train their brain to think differently? To become a writer? Or to change fundamental ways of thinking they maybe didn’t realize they were carrying?
CL: I was brain-damaged (to this day, I like to say, “I have brain damage!”) and was able to heal my brain to not forget the writing and to retain writing skills. But I don’t think that I “think differently” than I did before, despite what the apple slogan says. I have different skills than I did before. But I still think the same way—I’m rules-based and perfection-driven and find it challenging to understand that there is more than one right way to do a thing.
Like how we can’t change our bodies, but we can build strength and skills, I do think writing can be taught. I do think skills can be built. And I do think that people can adapt their behavior—-otherwise, there’s no hope of doing things like erasing racism.
We always have to live with hope and with the goal of bettering ourselves and bettering our world. These things: knowledge, resilience, compassion and persistence, are also key to writing. Writers must be knowledgeable about the craft of writing and the world around them. We must be resilient so that we can get back up. We must be compassionate because our writing must have a universal message buried in our narrative that hopefully aims to better the world. And we can never give up. These are all things, too, that helped me in my recovery. In that way, my stroke helped me to become a better writer, too. But it needn’t have been a stroke—every setback is an opportunity, and every setback in each and every person’s life contains lessons.
Christine H. Lee is an urban farmer and the author of the memoir, “Tell Me Everything You Don’t Remember,” featured in Self magazine, Time, The New York Times and NPR’s Weekend Edition. Her writing has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and she is currently a Distinguished Visiting Writer at Saint Mary’s College of California’s MFA program. Lee is currently editor at The Rumpus and writes about her urban-farming experience in the column “Backyard Politics” at Catapult Story. A novel is forthcoming from Ecco/HarperCollins.