Golden Little Dreamer, Avatar of Bright April, Satrap of the Endless Sky, Patient Priestess of Ever-afters.
These are just some of the pet names the novelist Paul West composed for his wife, Diane Ackerman, after she was told he lost all use of language. They make up a list at the end of One Hundred Names for Love: A Stroke, a Marriage, and the Language of Healing, Ackerman’s memoir about West’s stroke and how the two writers reinvented their life together with patience and creativity.
Ackerman is a poet, author and naturalist. She has written eight books of poetry, three children’s books and many works of nonfiction about nature and science, including Cultivating Delight: A Natural History of My Garden, Deep Play, A Slender Thread, The Rarest of the Rare, The Moon by Whale Light, On Extended Wings, An Alchemy of Mind and A Natural History of the Senses, which was adapted into a television series on PBS.
She studied at Cornell University under the cosmologist Carl Sagan and taught there and at Columbia University.
Her articles have appeared in The New York Times, The New Yorker, Smithsonian and National Geographic. She has been awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship, the John Burroughs Nature Award, an Orion Book Award and the Lavan Poetry Prize.
Her newest book, One Hundred Names for Love, is the Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle selection for Week Eight. Ackerman will deliver a CLSC Roundtable Lecture at 3:30 p.m. today in the Hall of Philosophy.
Ackerman had just published her book on brain science, An Alchemy of Mind, when her husband had a stroke, and she said she knew “with chilling detail” exactly what the doctors meant when they said he had global aphasia. The stroke took away his capacity to speak and comprehend language, or any symbols at all.
He was left with only one word, “mem,” with which to express himself. This was quite a blow to West, an author of more than 50 books.
“Paul was a real British eccentric, gifted, romantic, a word maven,” Ackerman said. “Our household was always very zany, and life changed very dramatically, but we changed along with it.”
There is a misconception that the only progress stroke victims will ever make occurs in the first few months following the stroke, but Ackerman said she knew otherwise.
“Most of all, I knew the golden rule of brain research, that contrary to what we all learned growing up, brains aren’t rigid and unchangeable,” she said. “They’re plastic, as scientists like to say — in a nutshell, that means don’t give up hope.”
Even though a stroke causes permanent neurological damage, the brain’s unused neurons can be repurposed to perform lost tasks like learning to speak and write, albeit with plenty of rehabilitation. Given this knowledge, Ackerman set out to try everything to help him regain language.
With 35 years of marriage behind them, she had an intimate knowledge of the way his mind worked, how he wrote and thought and named things, so she tailored special speech exercises to take advantage of this. More quickly than she expected, words began to come to West in surprising, roundabout ways.
“Somebody who is aphasic hasn’t lost language,” Ackerman said. “All the words are in there; they’re just very crowded. The wrong words very often come out. So aphasia is a sorting disorder. Quite often, Paul would say things that are breathtakingly poetic or involved arcane vocab.”
When he wanted to refer to a computer, he said “light dancing mailbox.” When he wanted his velour jogging suit, he asked, “Where’s my cantilever of light?” When he wanted to say Indian summer, he said, “This is the time of springtime reversal.”
Being a poet, Ackerman was amazed at these turns of phrase. Being a naturalist, it informed the way she witnessed the hours spent in hospitals and rehabilitation wards.
“Sometimes I roamed a hospital looking at it as if it were a separate culture with its own habitat and ambiance and tribes and customs and smells and sounds,” she said.
It was a refreshing way to observe a seemingly sterile environment like a hospital, she said, all by being in a state of mindfulness and beholding the world around her. These rich descriptions permeate One Hundred Names for Love, a project she began writing years later.
By that time, West already was dictating to her enough to write his own memoir of the stroke called The Shadow Factory. It was a therapeutic process. He since has written several other books, and his insights, in italics, are scattered into Ackerman’s account.
“I was amazed by the clarity and the beauty with which he could convey what was going on in his mind,” Ackerman said. “By definition, somebody who is aphasic can’t tell you what happened, but because of the unusual situation for Paul, his unusual recovery, he was able to describe what goes through somebody’s mind when all that is happening.”
None of Ackerman’s previous books are as personal as One Hundred Names for Love, but she said she felt it was a book she needed to write.
“I must tell you that even though there’s a stroke at the center of this book, I don’t think of it as a medical book; I think of it as a love story about two quirky, word-obsessed people,” Ackerman said. “Very romantic people, who found themselves faced with a terrible crisis and had to discover ways to keep their long love story alive. And so we did.”
Diane Ackerman was born in Waukegan, Illinois. She received an M.A., M.F.A. and Ph.D. from Cornell University. Her works of nonfiction include, most recently, The Zookeeper's Wife, narrative nonfiction about one of the most successful hideouts of World War II, a tale of people, animals, and subversive acts of compassion; An Alchemy of Mind, a poetics of the brain based on the latest neuroscience; Cultivating Delight: A Natural History of My Garden; Deep Play, which considers play, creativity, and our need for transcendence; A Slender Thread, about her work as a crisis line counselor; The Rarest of the Rare and The Moon by Whale Light, in which she explores the plight and fascination of endangered animals; A Natural History of Love; On Extended Wings, her memoir of flying; and the bestseller A Natural History of the Senses.
Her poetry has been published in leading literary journals, and in the books Origami Bridges: Poems of Psychoanalysis and Fire; I Praise My Destroyer; Jaguar of Sweet Laughter: New and Selected Poems; Lady Faustus; Reverse Thunder: A Dramatic Poem; Wife of Light; The Planets: A Cosmic Pastoral. She also writes nature books for children: Animal Sense; Monk Seal Hideaway; and Bats: Shadows in the Night.
Ms. Ackerman has received many prizes and awards, including a D. Litt. from Kenyon College, a Guggenheim Fellowship, Orion Book Award, John Burroughs Nature Award, and the Lavan Poetry Prize, as well as being honored as a Literary Lion by the New York Public Library. She also has the rare distinction of having a molecule named after her --dianeackerone. She has taught at a variety of universities, including Columbia, the University of Richmond, and Cornell. Her essays about nature and human nature have appeared in The New York Times, Smithsonian, Parade, The New Yorker, National Geographic, and many other journals, where they have been the subject of much praise. She hosted a five-hour PBS television series inspired by A Natural History of the Senses.