Winter solstice 2018: From now on each day gets brighter

It seems as if each year, as I come to my customary winter solstice year-in-review post, I am looking back at another bleak year—not entirely bleak of course, but on the northern hemisphere’s shortest day, it’s easy to allow the dark days to slide into one’s imagination. Last year, I ended my post on a high note, enthusiastic about my son’s sobriety. It did not last, but a solid alcohol-free stretch is a start. I was at once cautiously optimistic and typically cynical, knowing how my life has been playing out in the recent past.

And so, yet another year of ups and downs nears an end.

2018 began with the excitement of getting ready to head to India, to spend two weeks in Kolkata. I was, I told myself, going to get some serious writing done. I gathered all of my fragments and half-finished pieces of work, backed up in the cloud, and packed a stupid number of books and too many warmer clothes “just in case”. I wrote little, read nothing, bought even more books to drag back home, and had the time of my life. If the city’s particular character overwhelmed me for the first few days, it won my heart before long. I was able to spend time at the office of Seagull Books, taught a class at their school of publishing and met Ngūgī wa Thiong’o. I had a chance to meet and spend time with friends, contacts from blogging and Twitter, reinforcing my experiences in Australia the year before—this online space can translate into real life contact, contact that sometimes builds into deeper lasting friendships. As I write this, I am looking forward to returning to India this coming February, this time for a full month, visiting  Calcutta for a week, but expanding my journey to include Kochi, Mumbai, and wherever else time and circumstance affords.

However, my failure to meet any of my, perhaps unrealistic writing ambitions during my stay in India turned out to be prophetic for the rest of 2018, especially with regard to my ability to make progress on the increasingly phantom memoirish project I keep fretting over. I’ve spent much of the year doubting the value of writing about the self at all, and then wondering what, if any, stories I have worth telling. So, apart from a few photo essays, a short poem and a handful of reviews, I’ve published no significant personal work at all. Instead, I channelled a fair amount of my writerly energy into editing for 3:AM Magazine. Admittedly there is an element of productive procrastination at play, but I truly find editing, especially for such a respected and unclassifiable journal, to be a highly rewarding activity. Over the year, I’ve had the honour of working on some really fascinating and original projects with a wide range of gifted writers.

I also had the honour of being invited to San Francisco this past summer to host an event in honour of translator Isabel Fargo Cole and the release of The Tidings of the Trees by Wolfgang Hilbig. Meeting Isabel and having the opportunity to visit the offices of Two Lines Press and the Center for the Art of Translation was a thrill. The trip also afforded me a chance to catch up with my cousins whom I had not seen for close to forty years. Our mothers, now both gone, were sisters making this precious opportunity extra special.

On a personal level, 2018 was another year of upheaval. I have lived without income for several years, a result of a series of unanticipated  traumas and a reconsideration of what is really important at this point in my life, but well aware that this is unsustainable in the long run. So I decided to sell my house, move to a smaller, more manageable space, and invest the proceeds (just in time for markets to plummet, as would be my luck). The sale and purchase went well, but the move was devastating. My son and I made the time-honoured mistake of thinking that because we were moving less than a kilometer, we could handle most of it alone. Downsizing from a house I lived in for twenty-four years to a two-bed apartment condo was impossibly heartbreaking—especially for my son who was grieving the recent overdose death of his best friend, someone who had spent a lot of time at our home over the last dozen years—and the physical stress of trying to unload and move a quarter-century of life and living.

As I settled into my new place, an older low-rise building above an embankment of Douglas fir trees, just steps away from one of my favourite natural areas in the city, I was hopeful that the change of environment would mark a new beginning. I hoped for a fresh surge of creative energy, a renewed focus, and an opportunity to move beyond the losses and loneliness of the past few years. But, of course, when you are facing challenges deeply rooted within, your problems simply move with you.

Over the fall, as the days grew shorter, my world grew darker. I found myself feeling increasingly isolated socially and emotionally. When I did go out with others, I would come home and feel like gouging my heart out. Online I often pulled away so as not to post anything as dark as the thoughts I was harbouring. Cautiously, much of this was released in a post I published in late November, Who am I now? Slouching toward queerlessness. It stands as the most popular new post on my blog this year—misery loves company? I’m not sure. Ostensibly a brief essay about the difficulty of trying to address a truth of experience, however subjective, in a world—and for me that world is queer and differently gendered—that only values certain truths. The subject, hardly a new one on this blog, is still valid. But some friends heard the acute pain just beneath the surface and reached out.

I’m happy to report that my psychiatrist heard that pain too and recognized it for more than my usual seasonal blues or the lingering effects of a bad cold. To be honest I was more concerned than I dared to admit. By early December I had become so weak that I was wondering if I’d even have the energy to manage my trip to India. Yet, I was reluctant to believe that a small increase in my psych meds would help. With my doctor’s encouragement I agreed to give it a try. Within days, the pain in my arms and shoulders lifted and the world looked brighter. I celebrated the renewed energy and focus. Depression is an insidious foe, fooling you into believing it’s all your own fault. I was diagnosed bipolar in my thirties, but until recently elevated moods were my demons; serious downswings are still a new territory.

So, although the core concerns visited in my Who Am I? post still exist, the creative juices have started flowing again after almost two years in abeyance. I am reading and writing with purpose. With luck (knock on wood) it will continue for a while.

And so, at last, to my year in books.

This year was a little different. I read a lot of strong books, including a fair number that I didn’t end up reviewing, most often simply due to lack of time. However, when it came to prose—fiction and nonfiction—there were fewer standouts, whereas with poetry, I had a hard time narrowing down my favourites. Poetry was a constant and essential companion this year. At times it was the only literature that could hold my attention.

The best two books I read in 2018—and no matter what else might slip into the final days this will not change—are Esther Kinsky’s wonderfully evocative novel, River (tr. Iain Galbraith) which I reviewed for Music & Literature and Ursula Andkjær Olsen’s awesome collection of experimental poetry, Third-Millenium Heart (tr. Katrine Øgaard Jensen) which I responded to experimentally and poetically at Minor Literature[s].

Beyond that, these are some of the books that I have continued to think about often since I read them:

Fiction:
Bergeners by Tomas Espedal (tr. James Anderson)
The Tidings of the Trees by Wolfgang Hilbig (tr. Isabel Fargo Cole)
Where the Bird Disappeared by Ghassan Zaqtan
Murmur by Will Eaves

Poetry:
Adrenalin by Ghayath Almadhoun (tr. Catharine Codham)
Brink by Jill Jones
The Little Book of Passage by Franca Mancinelli (tr. John Taylor)
Jonahwhale by Ranjit Hoskote
Footnotes in the Order of Disappearance by Fady Joudah

In most parts of the planet, winter solstice is likely over, but where I am, this post makes it under the wire. Regardless, best of the season to all.

Author: roughghosts

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

11 thoughts on “Winter solstice 2018: From now on each day gets brighter”

  1. Well, this sounds brighter, and not just on my side of the planet.
    You have not just had some achievements that would be remarkable in any literary soul’s CV, you’ve also survived moving house (which I’m sure you know is rated one of the most stressful events there is.)
    And now the creative juices are flowing…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Lisa. I tend to feel like a bit of an impostor to have these achievements without the writing to warrant it. The year was good in so many ways, but the stress, depression, and sense of alienation were never far away. The writing, as much as I worry about it, is not so much to have something to show for myself as a “writer” but to work my way beyond the grief and loss of the past few years.

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      1. Maybe you could just try to take life as it comes, and acknowledge if not celebrate the small steps… and along the way that goal might come closer. Who knows what your forthcoming trip to India might bring? We cannot replace our loved ones, but life can bring other kinds of contentment, sometimes in the most surprising places…

        Liked by 1 person

  2. I want to say something about how important meaning is to you (you insist on reading strong books, and writing strong assessments of them when you can) – and how the roaring requirement for meaning makes our days – our days with things, our days with people, our days with words – dark and dismal much of the time. Yeah, I want to say that, but maybe I’m just describing my condition and have no real insight into yours. Your writing, and the FACT of your strong reading, are very important to me – you show me. often, how it is done, or at least how it is approached. May the coming year be better for you. That sounds like a preboxed sentiment, and I hate to have said it, but I mean it. The reaching for meaning and exactitude can be painful. Keep your voice. I thrill to it, sometimes.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, Hilary. It has not been a bad year, more one that felt unproductive—emotionally and creatively. But at this point I feel it was a necessary transitional one, that moving and coming to some personal decisions needed to be put past me before I can begin to move forward (or be ready to face the next crisis with a little more wisdom and grace). I appreciate that you are out there listening.

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  3. A thoughtful and powerful post, Joe. If I’ve learned anything over 40 years of writing and publishing, it’s that the work takes the time it takes. And when I’m writing something I’ve needed to write, I realize that months, years, have been accumulating; the actual written lines are the end of a long process of thinking and ruminating. I wish you a happy and healthy year ahead.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Very wise advice, Theresa. As a late-starter, 2016 through early 2017 was the most productive for me as a writer in terms of pieces I am proud of. But that was perhaps the most seriously traumatic in terms of personal loss. That writing was, in some cases, borne of stories I’d been telling/living for almost two decades. some of the work inside me now is still fermenting. Best wishes to you too. I hope we will be able to meet before long, perhaps when you visit Edmonton sometime.

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  4. You have been through some difficult times this year Joe, but I’m glad things are beginning to seem brighter. The right meds are important (some of my Offspring have found this after periods of trial and error) and hopefully the positive turn for the better will carry on in the new year. All the best to you and I look forward to following your reading and writing and living adventures next year. x

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Karen! There was a lot of good this year, even if some of it was very stressful. The lack of writing and identity issues drag me down internally, but finally understanding that some of it may have been coloured by lower med levels is a relief. It affords a little distance. I was becoming a real miserable misanthrope. 🙂 Best to you and your family over the holidays!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Ah, this sounds very familiar: ‘Depression is an insidious foe, fooling you into believing it’s all your own fault.’ There is not much that can be said or done from a distance, other than that I’m glad you seem to be on an upward curve now. I know how important your reading and writing is to you, so I hope these two things go well in the New Year and help to balance you.

    Liked by 1 person

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