Continuing the conversation: Four years of roughghosts

The neighbourhood I live in runs across the top of a steep embankment carpeted with tall Douglas fir trees. Long before the city expanded this far west, the Bow Bank Quarry, one of fifteen quarries operating in the Calgary area prior to the First World War, mined a seam of sandstone along this ridge. Remains of the mining operation and the small settlement that housed the stonemasons who worked at the nearby brick factory and their families can still be seen today. But the only formal recognition of Brickburn is the sign that stands alongside the railway tracks.

I’ve been walking the pathways through this storied region for decades. Now only a short distance upstream from the downtown core, a precious wildness has reclaimed the embankment. To hike the challenging Douglas Fir Trail is to slip into a space that feels and smells like being in the mountains, in the middle of this city that sits where the foothills of the Rockies give way to open prairies. One can lose oneself in the beauty of the forest, but echoes of the past are ever present—in the rocks and trees, in the spirits of the Indigenous peoples who traversed the land and rivers for millennia, and in the traces of the settlers whose early industrial efforts transformed the river valley for better or not.

At one time, years ago, I sketched a few notes for a possible story about the years of mining and brick manufacturing in this location, or rather, about the rough ghosts that abandoned communities harbour. The thoughts I hastily gathered in a notebook were later uncovered by chance when I was searching for a title for what was an undefined blog effort. And thus, four years ago today, roughghosts was born.

I’ve mentioned before that this blog was created on a whim, about three weeks before months of increasingly unstable behaviour escalated into full blown mania, essentially ending in a nightmare that would cost me my career. I crawled home wounded, relieved to be away from what had become a very toxic, dysfunctional workplace, but suddenly found myself alone in the world. I had loved my job, it was my life. I was angry and hurt that things had been allowed to come apart so completely. I had worked in a disability field, was open about my own disability, but no one understood how desperately ill I had become and what that really meant. Cut off from all resources, I was left unsupported and isolated. I didn’t even have proper mental health care to turn to. Nor did I have any friends. No partner. My parents were aged and far away.

In the end, starting this blog when I knew it was the last thing I had time for, turned out to be the thing that kept me going in those early months following my breakdown and beyond that, through further challenges I could never have anticipated, including my own very-close-to-death experience, the sudden loss of both of my parents, a friend’s suicide, and a period of intense depression. It also gave me a forum to write. About mental health, about anxiety and loneliness, about sexuality and gender, and of course, about books. And it is the latter, that ultimately opened my world.

 In the past four years I moved from occasional musing about books I read, to writing critical reviews and creative essays for publication, and, most recently to editing for 3:AM Magazine. I have made friends around the world, and have travelled—something I thought I would never have a chance to do—visiting South Africa, Australia, and India. Had I not lost my job, I likely would have not moved beyond the idle musings and I would have continued to hide the truth of my personal history.

From the time I was a child, the one thing I really wanted to do was write; I was always bursting with ideas. But in adulthood, I found that stories began to elude me. I have stacks of notebooks filled with rough sketches that never moved past the vaguest of outlines. With each year, creative writing became a more desperately difficult act. I was losing a sense of self to anchor my writing. In searching for characters I was hoping to find myself. Yet what I ultimately came to appreciate was the truth that if I was going to feel whole, I would have to be able to live in the world in the gender I’d always sensed inside. But rather than freeing up my stories, transition threatened to bury them for good. As I devoted myself to a new reality as a single male parent, building a new career out of nothing, I quickly learned that my mis-gendered past—the first forty years of my life—could only be addressed in the most neutral terms. Being out as a differently gendered person was not an option. I had no supports within a LGBTQ community which, as it existed at the time, was alien and unwelcoming to me. So my stories, now that I’d started to understand them, had no audience.

Being freed from a closeted work existence has given me a voice, even if only a portion of my writing and my blog address queer issues. Meanwhile, in the real world, being “out” has proved to be an uneasy reality for me to navigate. My people, I know, are book people. Gender, sexuality, age or location are all secondary.

Roughghosts—as a blog and a Twitter handle—has served as my introduction to the world as a reader and a writer, under my real name. I still struggle with loneliness and depression, I’ve continued to face a tremendous amount of loss and challenge, and I grieve the years and opportunities I missed in this long queer journey of life. But this space has become an important outlet. It is a space to write about books, poetry, travels, and to offer the odd tortured reflection about the messy business of living. Literature will, I hope, continue to be the core focus of this blog.

Thank you to everyone—friends, fellow readers and writers, translators, and publishers—who have entertained my meanderings thus far. I’ve really come to love my blog, as place to talk about books, and a ground to explore writing ideas. It is one space that truly feels like home.

Author: roughghosts

Literary blog of Joseph Schreiber. Writer. Reader. Editor. Photographer.

28 thoughts on “Continuing the conversation: Four years of roughghosts”

  1. And we love your blog too. Book people always love a good book blog and yours is one of the best.
    But I would say something else as well: if I may speak for those of us who are not from the LGBTQIA community, your openness to writing about your own journey has enriched our view of the world. Gender, as we have known it in a gendered society, has come both to matter more, and to matter less. I have learned that the way society pigeonholes people into gendered boxes does matter because there are people who don’t ‘fit’ even in societies more open to same-sex relationships, and having gender reassignment doesn’t ‘fix’ that. But I have also learned that it doesn’t need to be that way, that gender does not have to be and should not be a cruel straightjacket, because it is the person who matters, and where they might be on a continuum of gender not its binary mask, doesn’t matter at all if we would just stop trying to sort people into categories that actually have no importance at all.
    And when you think about the number of people this blog has reached, and the people like me who have not only changed the way they think but are also talking about it so as to spread the understanding among people who may never read your blog, then what you are doing here with your amazing skill with words is beyond mine to express.
    Lisa

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you Jacqui. And it’s so nice to have you back. It is a community and you worry about people when they disappear in a way that absences in real life settings are often overlooked. That’s what makes it special.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. So beautifully put, Joe, and I agree with everyone – book blogs and book bloggers are the nicest people. You’ve had quite an intense four year journey and I’m so glad that this space has become a home and a help. And I agree so much with what Lisa says – your openness on gender issues is so important, and if it reminds us that we should encounter people as simply other human beings and not put labels on them then it’s done something vital. Looking forward to the next four years! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I once posted a photo from the Douglas fir trail as an example of one of McFarlane’s Word of the Day tweets and he responded that he would love to visit it. One of the few joys in a city I have never loved despite living in or around it most of my life.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Beautiful post. I loved these words “. My people, I know, are book people. Gender, sexuality, age or location are all secondary.”. I started my Blog nine years ago. It has ended up getting me through very dark times, connecting me to The great book Blog community and makes me feel less alone. Buried in Print steered me here.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I’ll never forget the early days of your blog and my horror about how you were treated at your workplace. It was to me distressing and horrifying, particularly given the sector you were working in. So, it’s been wonderful seeing you commit to this blog journey with such openness … and not surprisingly seeing book people respond in the way book people do. I’m not sure whether reading makes people more open and tolerant or whether open and tolerant people like reading, but either way, the community of readers is a wonderful one.

    I enjoyed this post immensely Joe. I don’t comment here much but you are a special part of my blog community.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Life is always a challenge I’ve decided – though I admit that the challenges are tougher and/or more intense and/or last longer for some. We are in this together, though, I agree – and calling on friends – physically or cyberly is a valuable thing to do.

        Liked by 1 person

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