Last minute solstice check-in: The gift of the outback

With one hour left, in my timezone, to the longest day of the year, I have decided to forego the solstice updates I have written for the past three years. On this day in 2014, I found myself unable to work and facing the fact that I had become very ill under extreme workplace stress. A job I loved was no longer mine and years of living a deeply closeted existence left me without a close friend to turn to.

Three years later, I have a job interview tomorrow morning for a position that, should I be fortunate to get it, would involve outreach and advocacy within and beyond the LGBTQ community.

When I left for Australia in May I carried three personal objectives. One was to challenge myself physically. The second was to open channels to the grief I am carrying. The third was to seriously reflect on my ongoing disconnection from queer community. Each one of these goals was met, albeit in ways I had not anticipated. I returned changed in small but profound ways.

I came back carrying the outback in my soul. There is hardly a day that I wake up without dreaming about being in the red centre. It is in my system and the experience of the place and the people has coloured the way I see and want to live here, back at home.

Today, on summer solstice in the north, winter in the south, that is all I want or need to say. Except that, appropriately, this is also Aboriginal Peoples Day (renamed Indigenous Peoples Day) here in Canada.

Another year of roughghosts has passed, my blog is three years old

“be a ghost gum rising from the waterhole in each heart”
— Rico Craig

Birthday Waterhole, in the photo above, is perhaps the most stunning and isolated campsite we stayed at along the Larapinta Trail. The line, quoted from Rico Craig’s newly released collection Bone Ink, seems to me to capture so much of the past three weeks—from my own peculiar challenges with walking (or more often, not walking) the trail, through to lunch with the poem’s author on my final full day in Australia. But more about all of that later. The key word at the moment is birthday.

A few days ago, WordPress kindly reminded me that my blog is three years old.

The past three years have been marked by tremendous growth for myself as a writer, amidst loss, trauma, and great adventure. What continues to amaze me is the degree to which the internet, for all its shortcomings, is able to connect people across the miles. Over this past year, many of my casual blogging and Twitter contacts have grown to form a rewarding and productive creative environment that I value very deeply. But it is always a special treat to meet an online friend face to face.

My recent trip to Australia was instigated by an invitation from a fellow book blogger to join his annual “Larapinta Extreme Walk” in support of the NPY Women’s Council in the Northern Territory. Unfortunately, I arrived with what soon developed into a severe head cold that still lingers, tinged once again with jet lag, as I write this. I’m still processing my disappointment at not even being able to know how I might have managed the trail under healthier conditions, but the experience was incredible and invaluable nonetheless, and everyone was so friendly and supportive. I will write about it at greater length in a few weeks time and share more images of the incredible desert landscape.

After two weeks in central Australia I spent a few days in each Melbourne and Sydney. I met with five online contacts during that time, including a long-time friend from the Pentax Forum (a camera as obscure, relatively speaking, as my literary interests tend to be). Every single encounter was wonderful in its own way. Strangely, online banter clears away the space for good solid conversation of the sort one is often at loss to find in the communities we regularly exist in. Naturally, a strong common interest tends to set the course.

So today, as I look back on three years of blogging—and my subsequent forays into Twitter and to a lesser degree, Facebook—I am especially cognizant of how much warmer and richer my world has become. And not only have I been publishing my own original writing beyond this space, but when I suffered a series of losses last year with the deaths of my parents and a dear friend, the outreach of sympathy and support far exceeded anything I received in real life. Which is both heartwarming and sad when you think about it.

I won’t make any predictions or set any goals for roughghosts in the year to come. I don’t want to be reckless or foolhardy in my ambitions. This blog is, first and foremost, a forum where I can call attention to books I read, without necessarily indulging in the rigour I apply to critical reviews for publication elsewhere. It also provides a space to exercise my writing skills and toss out ideas or work through emotions that are troubling me. The beauty of a blog is that you can directly track the response and reaction to your work—you have a sense of the book reviews that draw readers and the musings that resonate with others. That feedback is vital. I imagine that this will remain the primary purpose of this project.

At the moment though, I have four books I’d like to write about here, and a review to prepare for Numéro Cinq. And after months of battling writer’s block, I find that words are starting to flow again, so I am hoping to carve out some time to write and work on ongoing projects of my own.

And that seems as good a way as any to celebrate three years of roughghosts.

 

* Image copyright Joseph Schreiber, 2017

On my nightstand, a selection of current touchstones in lieu of a personal canon

I have been on Facebook long enough now that I have begun to get those sunny reminders of what I was up to one year ago. Yesterday I discovered that it has been a year since I published my first piece of personal creative writing. The essay, Your Body Will Betray You, remains pinned to my Twitter timeline and continues to generate conversation. Readers have found it informative, inspiring, and, in one important case, a ground for opening a conversation that had been unspoken in that person’s life. And that particular response made baring a piece of my soul like that worth it. A writer may write for him or herself, or to entertain or educate, but to speak to the very core of one reader who needed those words more than anything… that is a gift.

My most recent piece of writing to be published comes deep within the pages of the new issue of The Scofield 2.2: Conrad Aiken & Consciousness. This issue marks my first opportunity to edit the work of other writers—a tremendous honour and thrill, with deep thanks to Tyler Malone and Dustin Illingworth for their faith in me. Putting a publication of this size and scope together is an enormous task and my role is a modest one, but I am proud to be involved. My written contribution is even more modest. I wrote several hundred words about Damon Galgut’s In a Strange Room for the “On Our Nightstand” section (it’s on page 287 if you care to have a look, the issue can be downloaded for free and has a wealth of good reading). In this piece I talk about my evolving relationship to this book by one of my favourite writers. I turned to it as a possible avenue into the task of writing about one’s self—which, for me, after more than a decade of deeply closeted existence and a life lived in two genders, seemed terrifying and overwhelming.  Galgut’s attempt to record three distinct experiences in his own life was so spare, so translucent, that I could not begin to imagine taking an approach like that to my own. In the end he comes to believe that memory necessarily fictionalizes our “truths.” I am, at this point, closer to and yet less troubled by that conviction than I was three years ago when I started to understand that I needed to write. I go back to In A Strange Room often. As I say in my Scofield piece:

This book has become one of my touchstones, an elegant example of the way personal experience can be pared down to its essentials and explored through the lens of time and memory. It remains, for me, some of the most meditative and precise writing about what it means to be grounded, in one’s self and in relation to others; the allure of the road and the ambiguity of home; and most vividly, the way that all truth lived is, in essence, a fiction.

In other words, if I had a personal canon, which I would argue I don’t, this book would be on it. And I do keep it on the shelf inside my nightstand.

In the past few years, as writing has become more urgent, my reading has become more explicitly targeted. I am especially drawn to smaller, quirky, experimental works and, in many cases, books by people I have been fortunate enough to come to know—writers who have become part of a virtual network people who inspire me and suffer my creative ideas. The majority of those books are literally on (or technically inside) my nightstand. In lieu of a personal canon, here are the books that are currently fueling my literary scribbling. (Links to reviews, if applicable)

Beastlife by J’Lyn Chapman — I am always on the lookout for unique approaches to the personal essay. I have a large selection of books waiting to be read, but this little meditation on life, death and taxidermy is a treat.

Fear and Trembling  by Søren Kiekegaard — Well, just because.

Intimate Stranger by Breyten Breytenbach — This is a collection of essays and poems to a young poet. I ordered it when I came back from South Africa; it arrived when I was in the hospital recovering from cardiac arrest. I’ve mentioned and quoted from this book several times, but the post I’ve linked was written shortly after  I returned from the hospital. It addresses one of the key concerns—loss of a memory—that I am taking with me into the outback this month.  Reconciling one’s own near death is no small matter. I carry it deeply and have not yet found a way to write it out.

Thy Decay Thou Seest by Thy Desire by John Trefry — This little caprice or, as we’re advised, “Meditations for Sedentary Labourers,” is so delightfully eclectic that I found in it inspiration for an experimental project that, in contrast to the deeply personal work I write, will allow me to distance myself from the salvaging of the language I use and, depending on the constraints I set, some of the construction. I am proud to count John among the writer friends the internet has afforded.

Roland Barthes: Mourning Diary, Camera Lucida, and Incidents Three works that intersect for me, at a personal and literary level at this moment. Incidents, may well be one of my very favourite Seagull Books as well.

Will Eaves: The Absent Therapist and The Inevitable Gift Shop. Experimental, insightful, and devoid of pretension. Fragmentary works fascinate me. It seems to be a bit of popular device lately, but in my mind, these books—one fiction, the other essay/memoir—work very well. Eaves has a presence that is immediate and personal, he is good company.

In a Strange Room by Damon Galgut (see above)

The Surrender by Scott Esposito — This is one of those books I watched and waited for. I am cautious about trans themed writing but I knew this one would be different. This book holds infinitely more for me than I included in my review. My reading of this book coincided with the release of my own Minor Literature[s] essay, and the beginning of a valued friendship.

Aphorisms by Franz Kafka. Yes, I also love The Castle — one of the few books I own in multiple translations, but this is the Kafka I need to have close at hand at the moment.

Róbert Gál: Signs & Symptoms and On Wing — When I was first looking for a way to begin to write about my life and experiences, I was looking to fiction. But in defiance of conventional narrative form, I wanted current, accessible, experimental models. I read In A Strange Room and The Absent Therapist in late 2014 but it was almost a year later when I picked up On Wing. It remains a book that I read all the time, it has impacted my thinking in ways I cannot describe (because we ideally absorb and filter the work that drives and inspires our own—it should not be obvious in the final product) and Róbert was one of the first writers to suggest I should write a book. I don’t know where that book is, but it is no accident that a quote from On Wing opens Your Body Will Betray You.

Daniela Cascella: En Abîme and F.M.R.L. It may not be evident, but getting to know Daniela and her work has revolutionized the way I engage with language. Her enthusiastic approach to reading, listening and hearing work into being is wonderful. I find I am so much more attuned to sound when I read now. Maybe it will come through in my own writing one day.

Proxies by Brian Blanchfield. Again, this is another work that asks questions and contains ideas that are important to me. Essays that make me think about writing essays are my favourite kind.

If there was enough room, W.G. Sebald’s The Emigrants and Austerlitz would also count as work of current relevance. (They would probably be in that non-existent canon too, if I had one.)

Remembering my father and the gift of a love of literature

My father was born on this day, April 26, in 1928. Marking his birthday for the first time since his death last July is bittersweet. My father was a difficult man, he rarely played with us or talked about his childhood—I would not even begin to appreciate why he was this way until I was in my 40s—but he gave me my love of literature. He would regularly run out on Christmas Eve and bring home books especially for me, starting me early on children’s abridged classics: Hans Brinker, Treasure Island, The three Musketeers and my very favourite, Tales of King Arthur and His Knights of the Round Table. I have spent the past few months combing through his library as we clear out our parents’ house. I selected the books that were suitable for donation to charity, decided which were not worth saving, and brought home the books I could not part with.

My father loved history, poetry and Russian literature. Much of the poetry I had already acquired, piece by piece, over the years; the war history will, I’m confident, find new homes; and I saved for myself his Russian lit (more Gorky than I expected) and his fancy editions of Western literary classics. I have gathered his Russian collection on a small shelf in my office and hope to salvage language from these books to create an experimental composition in his memory. But, as I made my way through his library, I found a few little treasures that speak to his years in New York City in the 1950s—a magical time he was forever trying to get back, long after that New York was gone.

He was in his early 30s when he was finally able to attend university. His parents were not supportive of academic pursuits. He studied electrical engineering and would never complete his degree for lack of funds, but while he was at Columbia his great joy was to write for the student newspaper. He reviewed opera and concerts. He would have been well suited to the life of an academic if he had had the support to take an Arts degree. But that was not to be although he would go on to be a highly respected, if difficult, electrical designer and contractor. Among his books I found a program of concerts from 1950–51, along with a charming contest entry for a chance to win an “Easter outfit,” and a couple of mini pamphlets of “The Raven” and “Annabel Lee” (the last book he gave me a few years back was a complete collection of Poe’s poetry and prose).

The process of sorting through my father’s books, left me with a clear image of him haunting secondhand bookstores throughout his life. My favourite find was a copy of a red hardcover called Modern European History by Charles Downer Hazen. Published in 1917, the first owner left his name inside the cover. I don’t know who accidentally burned through the binding, but my father left calculations inside the back cover—not simply solving math problems, it looks like he was tracking the number of pages he was reading.

My father had a thing for numbers, he tracked the temperature and the stock market figures every day right through to the end—not so much out of an interest in the markets as far as I know—but as a little bit of mental exercise. He was afraid of dying and even more afraid of mental decline. I’ll have to keep counting for him. Today he would have turned 89.

Multi-lane manifesto: Expressway by Sina Queyras

My hometown does not do expressways very well. In places where it would be obvious to have them, we are late to the game. And each one is a crap shoot, even if you know it well. The first time you have to exit and cross three lanes of traffic in very short order, your head swivelled 180 degrees, just to travel from the expressway to the road you were trying to access you have to wonder: did anyone try this out before they opened it to the public?

When I was still in university I had a summer job where I sat in a building the size of an outhouse, just off the Trans-Canada highway and tourists, just entering the city limits, could pull over and ask for directions. This was long before the era of google maps, GPS, even cell phones. We’re talking printed maps and a highlighter pen. I did my best to give instructions but, to be honest, there was—and still is—so little consistency I was often at a loss to say more than: Watch for the signs. I developed a theory that year that I still hold to. I reasoned that every civil engineering student at risk of a failing grade was given a chance to redeem themselves by designing a single interchange along one of the major thoroughfares. And that’s why no two are alike and some simply defy the imagination.

Canadian poet Sina Queyras completed her 2009 collection Expressways while here at the University of Calgary on a residency. I’m curious as to whether our ad hoc roadway system coloured this poetic critique of the social and ecological impact of the spreading network of asphalt arteries and veins that criss-cross our nations.  Her poems speak to the memory of a romanticized landscape of the past on a collision course with an increasingly isolated, technologically driven future. The opening piece “Solitary” sets the tone, with the call to consider what is a risk with the continued push to interconnect places, at the cost of connection to the land and to one another. The final stanzas read:

Wagon train, trail of tears, what aggregate composition,
What filleted history, what strata, what subplates,
What tectonic metaphor, what recoil, what never

Having to deal with the revulsion of self, only
The joy of forward, the joy of onward, then endless fuel:
The circles, the ramps, the fast lanes, the clover leaf,

Perspective of elevation, the royalty of those views,
The Schuylkill, the Hudson, the Niagara, the skylines,
The people in their houses, passing women, men

Dressing, men unearthing, smoke pluming, what
Future? What the apple tree remembered? Not
Even the sound of fruit. If a body is no longer a body,

Where is memory? If a text is no longer a text,
Where is body? If a city is no longer a city, what road?
If future no longer has future, where does it look?

She snaps her cellphone closed: no one. Alone.
The century is elsewhere. She turns her back.
Swallows her words. She will do anything for home.

As ever, I am not an effective critic of poetry. I like it, I read it. Sometimes, but entirely by accident, I write it. But I do know when poet’s work works for me. This collection is a strong, cohesive, and passionate manifesto evoking the poem as a means to challenge the ethics of the expressway—in its concrete and abstract context. A call to recognize what is at stake:

This poem resembles urban sprawl. This poem resembles the freedom to charge a fee. The fee occurs in the gaps. It is an event. It is not without precedent. It is a moment in which you pay money. It is a tribute to freedom of choice.
(from “Acceptable Dissociations”)

At times Queyras echoes of the Romantic poets, even borrows their words. The text of Dorothy Wordsworth’s Grasmere Journals provides the material for “Lines Written Many Miles from Grasmere” which, falling mid-way through the collection, casts a pastoral mood, a look back to the dream of a simpler time, closer to nature. But it is an ideal. The Industrial Revolution was, by 1800, set the groundwork for the technological and economic developments that would ultimately allow for the building of major roadways, and the vehicles to fill them. Other pieces are firmly bound to the present, most notably “Crash” which is assembled from fragments salvaged from google searches. Others stare directly at the future—here darkly, there with a vision of reclamation.

Expressway works as a rhythmic, lyrical cautionary tale. A call to undo harm. But, roads seem to be growing wider, interchanges multiplying. Especially here in North America where spaces are wide and the car is still king. That is, Queyras argues no reason not to strain to hear above the din of the traffic.

I am weary. I walk and walk and meanwhile the expressway hums . . .

What for weary? We all hum.

I am weary. I have so little hope.

Weary, maybe. But, no hope? For that there is never an appropriate time.

Sina Queyras lives in Montreal. Last fall I had the opportunity to hear her read from her latest work. This reflection/review was written in recognition of National Poetry Month in Canada and the US.

Expressway is published by Coach House Books.

Looking ahead to adventure, challenge, and healing

As I write this, it is mid-afternoon on Saturday, April 15, and it’s +3C with light snow. I am truly quite finished with this endless, last gasp of winter. In one month’s time I will be in Australia (where it will already be the 16th and, if all goes well, the “extreme walk” into the outback I have traveled to take part in will be well under way). I am excited and a little nervous about the challenge ahead, but above all I am looking forward to being “off the grid” for the better part of two weeks with plenty of time to process some of the internal baggage I’ve been carrying as I undertake this long and demanding journey into a landscape I never imagined I would have the opportunity to experience.

Some of my regular readers may know that two years ago, following a trip to South Africa, I nearly lost my life. I should have known better, but I was sorely ill-prepared for the effects of extended travel on planes and buses. I did everything wrong and failed to recognize the warning signs of impending danger. After surviving this critical event, I found myself afraid of risking extensive physical activity, even after receiving a clean bill of health on all counts. This is, I learned, a not uncommon, if misguided, response.

One of my first longer training sessions.
Better weather earlier this week. Did not last.

Naturally, I ended up hopelessly out of shape. In pushing myself into an enthusiastic training regime earlier this year, I soon found myself with an inflamed bursa and torn meniscus on my right knee. Cue the physiotherapist. My knee has responded very well—I am walking without pain for the first time in months and now, if only the weather would cooperate just a little, I will be as good to go as I am likely to be.

Which will hopefully be good enough.

This little venture is a mere 223 km/11 day hike over mountain ranges. What could possibly go wrong? (Don’t answer that!) If you are interested, I invite you to check out the site—the Larapinta Extreme Walk is a fundraising event created by fellow book blogger Tony Messenger (Messenger’s Booker) in support of a vital Aboriginal women’s initiative. Donations can be made if desired; every little bit helps.

Where I’m heading to. From: http://www.larapintaextremewalk.com.au/

As much as I am looking forward to this experience as an opportunity to reflect, grieve, journal and, with luck, open up the writer’s block that has dogged me these past few months, I am also very excited to have the opportunity for some serious bookish conversation along the way. And before I head home I will have a few days each in Melbourne and Sydney, where I already have tentative plans to catch up with other readers and literary-minded folk, as well as an online photography friend I have known for years but never met.

So wish me well as I continue to train, and as I get the reading, reviews, and writing I’m presently committed to completed in advance of my trip.

Looking back in anger: A personal reflection on World Bipolar Day

You might as well haul up
This wave’s green peak on wire
To prevent fall, or anchor the fluent air
In quartz, as crack your skull to keep
These two most perishable lovers from the touch
That will kindle angels’ envy, scorch and drop
Their fond hearts charred as any match.

Seek no stony camera-eye to fix
The passing dazzle of each face
In black and white, or put on ice
Mouth’s instant flare for future looks;
Stars shoot their petals, and suns run to seed,
However you may sweat to hold such darling wrecks
Hived like honey in your head.

—from Sylvia Plath, “Epitaph for Flower and Fire”

I have known mania, and the imagery in this poem sparks with an intensity that excites and disturbs. When I encounter the words of one of the many poets known (or thought) to share (or have shared) the same affliction, I often find an undercurrent that causes me to flinch for just a second. Not that it diminishes the beauty or power of their words in any way—it is rather an echo in the dark, a faint recognition flashing by.

Image copyright Joseph Schreiber, 2012

It is World Bipolar Day, and this is the first time I have stopped to recognize the fact. I have spoken in, and around, my own bipolar diagnosis, but I have never addressed it formally in my writing. Even now I find myself uncomfortable discussing it. On the one hand, I am fortunate. I respond well to medication. I am, to use that distasteful term, “high-functioning.” But I do harbor a deep anger toward this condition that was part of my life many years before I finally careened through a brutal month of manic psychosis and found myself committed, and ultimately diagnosed, at the age of 36. I was, in classic bipolar fashion, the last person to suspect that I had a mental illness. Even though I, and those around me, knew something was terribly wrong, the stigma and lack of understanding around mood disorders—not to mention the radically impaired insight the sufferer has when they are ill—stands as a barrier to timely intervention. And then there is the matter of actually accessing care. One almost has to crash completely—by which time it can be too late.

Between my first manic episode in 1997 and the second in 2014, I experienced more than sixteen years of stability. I transitioned, became a single male parent, built a career out of nothing, and eventually became the Program Manager at an agency dedicated to working with survivors of acquired brain injury. I loved my job. Looking back, I can now see how the last few years of that period were marked by an increasing tendency toward hypomania. With my psychiatrist’s support I cut my medication back. And then things started to fall apart at work—things beyond my control, but it fell to me to try to pull things together. Then I started to fall apart at work, until I spiraled into full blown mania. Not psychotic, but it matters little. The damage was done.

The agency I worked for, dedicated as they are to supporting clients with disabilities including co-morbid mental illnesses, treated me with distrust bordering on contempt. My only contact with them has been conducted through a workplace advocate and my insurance worker. When return to work was discussed they refused to consider any possibility that I could work there again. Almost three years later with long term disability finally at an end, they still have my personal belongings.

Nine years of employment and dedication to that job now stand as a gaping hole in my life—a life already filled with gaping holes. And that is one of the reasons I hesitate to talk about mental illness (although I have never hidden my diagnosis). What can I say? Bipolar is not my identity any more than transgender is. Both fuck up your life. Leave wounds that do not heal. Find you fumbling through mid-life with little to show for your years but a lot of things you can’t talk about. And periods of time you cannot even remember.

So this is why I find it hard to write about my experience with mental illness. There was a time, following my diagnosis, that I devoured everything I could find, just as, a year later I hunted for books on gender identity. Two pieces of a puzzle I had inhabited—the periodic mood swings and the persistent, life-long feeling that I was not the female person everyone else knew me to be—had finally fallen into place. I had two, if you wish to be specific, explanations that come neatly labelled and defined within the covers of the DSM. It was, for a while, a source of relief.

Today I rarely read any literature that deals with mental illness or gender. But I am aware, more than ever, of being doubly stigmatized. And, most painfully, within the spaces where you would expect acceptance—in the human services profession and within the queer community. Thus the anger.

And what is this anger? Grief. The deep griefs I carry, layered now with more recent bereavements. It has become, for me, an existential bitterness that plagues me, an inauthenticity that defines the way I intersect with the world.

The legacy of mental illness is this: after diagnosis I was advised not to dwell on the disease, not to talk to others with bipolar; I was not deemed “sick” enough to warrant outpatient support or psychiatric follow up. I was left, like so many others, to flounder in the dark. It would take seventeen years and a spectacular career-destroying crash before I was able to access proper psychiatric and psychological support. I am still lucky. I am stabilized. And the forced detour into what may become an early semi-retirement has afforded me a space to write.

Now I need to find a way to write my way through this weight of grief. And begin to heal.

I’ll leave the last word to Sylvia Plath, with the final (fifth) stanza of the poem quoted above:

Dawn snuffs out star’s spent wick,
Even as love’s dear fools cry evergreen,
And a languor of wax congeals the vein
No matter how fiercely lit; staunch contracts break
And recoil in the altering light: the radiant limb
Blows ash in each lover’s eye; the ardent look
Blackens flesh to bone and devours them.

—You can find out more about the International Bipolar Foundation here, and a prose poem I wrote to honour a dear friend who lost her desperate and brave battle to bipolar last year can be found here.