Good words and a smile (oh and a good book too)

Wordfest, our annual literary festival is underway. After several months struggling with the fall out from a serious mental health episode this week is my first serious self test, my chance to explore my level of stamina and commitment. It is also an opportunity to spend time with people who love books and listen to great writers talk about their work.

I started with two volunteer shifts and some selected presentations I wanted to see and, as you might suspect, the volunteer commitment portion quickly expanded.

Am I exhausted yet? A little. I will likely sleep for a day when it’s all over but I have so desperately needed to get out in the world. Admittedly I am buffered with medication but the creeping anxiety stays in the car when I get into the venues.

Now if I can find a way for the medical system to prescribe a literary solution I might just be able to live with this bipolar beast. I just have to be able to afford to eat too!

Today has lifted my spirits more than I can remember in months. I had one single volunteer shift as a bookseller at one of the smaller venues, but I was nervous simply because I was expecting a panel discussion featuring one of my favourite authors. When I arrived to discover that the other writer had been forced to cancel at the last minute, the presentation had been redesigned as an hour long one-to-one interview with South African novelist Damon Galgut.

The host was scrambling but I could not have been happier.

American edition of Arctic Summer in case anyone is wondering -a nicer cover than the Canadian/UK I think.
American edition of Arctic Summer in case anyone is wondering -a nicer cover than the Canadian/UK I think.

I have always been apprehensive about meeting my heroes, for fear of disillusion. Nonetheless I had come prepared to have my books signed and hopeful for even a few words with a writer whose works I admire so much. Although we did have books to sell I noticed that I was not the only person who had arrived with their own copies of his latest work, Arctic Summer, already in tow. This novel is an imagined biographical account of the complex personal and emotional factors that led E M Forester through the extended  writer’s block that ultimately produced his greatest work, A Passage to India. As an historical novel it is a departure for Galgut (and one he admitted he would be in no rush to repeat) but rich with a deep affection for India and the driving forces of unrequited desire.

I confess I abandoned my post presentation bookselling duties early to make sure I didn’t miss out on the opportunity to have my copies of In a Strange Room and Arctic Summer signed. To be honest I have yet to see an unpleasant author at any of the events I’ve helped with, but it meant more than I can measure for Damon to take the time to, ask me about myself and encourage me that it is never too late to start writing. I am grateful for his kind words.

This experience, simple and important for me, has lifted my spirits in a way that feels healthier than the meds alone. It feels good to be human again. I have commitments with Wordfest right through until Sunday evening, but for now I am enjoying this warm feeling.

When even a sibling’s love is not enough – All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews

The title and binding imagery that fuses the latest novel from Canadian author Miriam Toews comes from a poem by Samuel Taylor Coleridge to his friend, the poet Charles Lamb. Both men had their own struggles with mental illness but Lamb’s beloved sister Mary had an especially prolonged and devastating battle. Coleridge commiserates with his friend’s tireless care for his sister, reflecting that he, Coleridge had had a dear sister upon whom he “pour’d forth all his puny sorrows”. Elfreida (Elf) the suicidally depressed character at the centre of this novel drew her signature theme from this line , but it is her sister Yolandi (Yoli) who brings her to life and devotes herself to trying to keep her alive as she narrates this funny, heartbreaking tale. As such, All My Puny Sorrows is well named.

all my puny sorrowsColeridge was the first poet who caught my adolescent attention, much to the shock of my high school English teacher. However I confess it was the rugged adventure of “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” and “Kubla Khan” that sparked my enthusiasm. The Romantic poets, so many of whom seem to have suffered from mental illnesses seemed kindred spirits ( although this would have been long before my own diagnosis). They loved passionately, often tragically, and became addicted to opiates. For the teenager falling well short of cool, the appeal is not hard to imagine.

SamuelTaylorColeridgeFor Elf and her sister growing up in the confines of a small Mennonite town, the arts were an acceptable outlet. Elfreida channels her energy into the piano eventually taking to concert stages around the world and winning the love of a man so patient he’s surely destined for sainthood. Yolandi opts for a less glamorous route, including a couple of failed marriages, children, meaningless affairs and a career pumping out rodeo themed YA novels.

I was attracted to this book when I heard Toews on the radio explaining that this novel began from a deeply personal space. Her father, a respected teacher despite a lifelong battle with depression, took his own life in 1998. Almost 12 years to the day later, her only sister followed suit in the same very way and location. Having already memorialized her father in non-fiction, Toews felt that fiction would free her up to address this very real and difficult subject more openly. But that is also where it falls apart for this reader.

She is able to make some very astute observations about the failings of the mental health system and sadly demonstrates that, in the end, there is no way that anyone or any system can ever do more than delay the efforts of someone truly committed to stepping off this mortal coil. However I never felt that Elf was more than a tragic figure in a hospital bed. Yoli’s childhood memories and the accounts of her sister’s glorious career rang hollow. The real strength of this book for me lies in the the indomitable spirit of the characters who survive against all the odds and resist the despair that mounts around them.

And maybe that is the point. It is not for us – friends, family, observers or readers to judge. In a few weeks I will be able to see Miriam Toews take part in a panel exploring the ability – or limitations – in being able to make sense of the darkness in life through literature. I will be interested to hear what she has to say.

Inhale deeply : Reflections on Breath by Tim Winton

Take a deep breath and hold it as long as you can… I imagine there are few children who have not engaged in some variation of that form of super hero training. I am aware that some push it to an extreme, driving for the physiological high induced by oxygen deprivation, but in my day it was an exercise in imagining oneself capable of surviving one of the daring challenges we set up for ourselves. Where I grew up that generally involved challenging one another to crawl through one of the long corrugated metal culverts under the rural road ways. I never heard of any unfortunate incidents resulting from such an activity but my overactive childhood imagination manufactured many. Either way, being able to hold one’s breath for at least 60 seconds seemed to be skill worth developing.

At this end of life I no longer maintain this practice, but despite the fact that tests have assured me that I actually have very good lung capacity, panic and anxiety attacks can leave me struggling to fell like I am getting enough air. Breath deep, stay calm, focus on your breath.

1414720The arrival at the scene of an apparent suicide is the impetus for paramedic Bruce Pike, the narrator of Tim Winton’s novel Breath, to return on the pivotal events of a summer many years earlier and the struggle to relieve himself of the baggage he believed he carried on well into adulthood. What follows is a gripping coming of age tale featuring the young Pike (or Pikelet), a slightly bookish, awkward outsider, growing up in an unremarkable mill town on the edge of western Australia. His encounter and ensuing friendship with Ivan Loon (Loonie), the restless and reckless son of the local publican, leads him away from the safe an predictable confines of life with his reserved parents and into the aura of a former champion surfer who becomes their surfing coach, hero and guru.

Under Sando’s fickle attention the boys are introduced to the thrills of confronting nature in one of her most dangerous and unpredictable forums. Even if you have never fancied that you have an interest in surfing, Winton’s spare, confident writing pulls you right into the swell, creating vivid and heart stopping scenes that leave you gasping for air. Under the equally reckless attention of the aging surfer’s bitter and damaged young wife, our narrator is left with emotional scars that are even slower to heal than any physical beating inflicted by the surf.

This is my first encounter with the work of Tim Winton, chosen at the fine recommendation of whisperinggums as a suitable (i.e. shorter) introduction to his work in advance of his visit to Wordfest next month. It will definitely not be my last. I reveled in the exotic setting, a sharp contrast to my own landlocked prairie childhood, yet I fully related to the awe with which Pikelet and Loonie held their flawed hippie heroes. As a teenager in the 1970s myself I can remember clearly how the hippie movement of the 60s still held this magical allure that had not yet faded. On an even more personal level I was moved by the sadness and regret that drives the narrative on into the complications of adulthood. Pike’s adjustment is not easy. He has a breakdown, makes a mess of his life and has to find his own way to pull it together.

This wonderful book is more than a classic Bildungsroman. Youth and adolescence are never the full picture. When has anyone truly come of age? And by what measure of ordinariness are the true heroes assessed? Ask someone trying to live well with a mental illness.

The right book at the right time: Just Like Someone Without Mental Illness Only More So

“There are no people anywhere who don’t have some mental illness. It all depends on where you set the bar and how hard you look. What is a myth is that we are mostly mentally well most of the time.”
– Mark Vonnegut, MD 

A couple of years ago I happened to hear an interview on CBC radio, as part of a series on mental illness. I was, at the time, of the mind that my own issues with mental illness were well managed. A present fact but a distant reality. However, something about this conversation stayed with me.

The guest was Mark Vonnegut, son of the late author Kurt Vonnegut Jr. Mark grew up in Cape Cod, in the years before his father’s writing brought fame and fortune. I listened with interest to his very personal account of how, despite diagnosis with a serious mental illness, he applied and was accepted to Harvard Medical School. He went on to become a respected pediatrician. After my breakdown this summer I debated returning to the the fine accounts, like An Unquiet Mind, that had originally guided me to an understanding of my newly acquired label. Then I remembered Mark’s memoir Just Like Someone Without a Mental Illness Only More So and within minutes it was on my Kindle. But I only decided that I really needed to read it this weekend as my symptoms and anxieties continue to persist.

7816284Mark writes in an honest and matter of fact way about the trail madness has left through his family, tracing a legacy of depression, suicide and alcoholism going back generations. His mother heard voices and received message from license plates but once the episode passed she was able to rationalize it. When Mark’s aunt and uncle died within a month of one another leaving four troubled orphans, his parents took them in even though they had neither the money nor the capacity to manage. His oddly prescient mother had been stockpiling supplies for their arrival in advance, as her helpful voices had advised.

Mark was a loner spending a lot of time fishing and playing imaginary games in the woods around his home in Cape Cod. The oldest child of the family he grew up poor in the fallout of the the Depression. His father was a ineffectual used car salesman for many years. Mark was 21 before his father became a rich and famous author seemingly overnight.

Caught up in the hippie movement of the 60s, Mark followed many of his peers to Canada to join a commune in BC. He lived off the land, contemplated the meaning of life and experimented with drugs. And that is where he first encountered his own voices. In 1971, at the age of 23 he experienced three major psychotic breaks that landed him behind the locked doors and plexiglass windows of a Vancouver hospital.

“Among the things I grew up thinking about mental illness was that it was caused by other people or society treating you badly.I also knew that once people were broken they didn’t usually get better and the ones least likely to get better were paranoid schizophrenics, which is what I seemed to be.”

Retrieved by his father, Mark returned to the US where, with ongoing treatment, he continued to recover. The voices faded to the background. He published a book about his experiences and articles advocating for an understanding of mental illness as a biochemical condition, in strong opposition to the RD Laing inspired philosophy that was popular at the time (and has recently resurfaced). Somewhere along the way he decided that he wanted to go to medical school himself. Against all odds, and with pathetic math and science marks, he applied to one school after another. Incredibly Harvard gave him a chance.

Over the years that followed, Mark dedicated himself to his studies and his internship. By this point he had recognized that he was bipolar (not a schizophrenic who responds to lithium as he had been told), but even then, the schedule of an intern is grueling. During these years he also married, bought a house and started a family. The model of normal and healthy he figured his mental health issues were history.

Then 14 years after his third psychotic break, several years into a successful pediatric practice, the voices returned to taunt him. The trigger was his realization that he was fueling his high stress schedule with a two pack a day smoking habit along with 5 or 6 beers, half a bottle of wine, a few shots of bourbon and a sleeping medication to round off the day! Hardly a surprise then that his effort to quit cold turkey should trigger a psychotic break.

Although he sensed things were falling apart he resisted seeking help in a hospital. Driven by an absolutely irrational fear planted in his head by his voices he attempted to throw himself through a third story window. The window smashed but he fell back into the room. Unfortunately he ended up in a straightjacket on a gurney in the hallway of the very hospital where he had completed his internship and taught a course.

Although my own manic resurgence following an extensive period of wellness was somewhat less dramatic than Mark Vonnegut’s, it is only a matter of degree. Yet in time he was able to return to work and it has now been more than 25 years since his last manic break. His ability to rebuild his life and career even in the face of abject humiliation is an inspiration. And I am fortunate that I have neither smoking or alcoholism to contend with. But his story stands as stark reminder that with bipolar you must take the medication that keeps you stable and monitor your own level of energy. If we become complacent we risk an unwanted replay, no matter how long we have been well.

This book was published in 2010, so It was not available when I was first coming to terms with my diagnosis. Perhaps if I had read it when I first heard the interview I might have been able to head off my more recent experience. But then again, a manic person is a slow learner because that high just feel so good. Especially in contrast to the draining and  despondent opposite end of the cycle.

I would recommend this memoir to anyone interested in mental illness, especially those who understand what it is like to experience psychosis. Its casual, relaxed style makes for an easy read but, as a practicing physician, Vonnegut has some depressing observations about the decline of health care in his own country. Most importantly though, he leaves those of us who live with mental illness with a sense that we can get better, we can stay better and if we fall, we can get up and move forward.

That is exactly what I need to remember right now.

The detective and the end of the world: The Coming by Andrej Nikolaidis

If you are a bit of a news junkie like I am, there is a lot of bad news on our TV screens and computers each day. Violent political upheaval, deadly viruses, floods and fires. But it is scattered and for so many of us our complaints are relatively minor, isolated. What if the signs suddenly started to rapidly multiply and spread across continents and communities. Would it herald the end of the world? Would we know or even agree on the meaning of the signs? Assign them to God, reduce them to science?

Translated by Will Firth Istros Books, available through Dzanc Books in North America
Translated by Will Firth
Istros Books, available through Dzanc Books in North America

The Coming, a wonderful novella by Montenegrin novelist Andrej Nikolaidis explores such questions from a rather unconventional perspective. Our hero is a private detective, a small town Philip Marlowe based in the ancient city of Ulcinj. He finds himself most comfortable providing his clients with the answers they want, regardless of whether or not he even manages to find the truth behind a crime or infidelity. This approach makes him popular with the locals who prefer to approach him  rather than the authorities. Consequently the quiet life he seems to desire tends to allude him. As the book opens he has become obsessed with the particularly brutal murder of an entire family which appears to have coincided with the burning of the local library.

Yet even stranger phenomena begin to threaten his routine. Snow starts to fall in June and does not let up. Around the world catastrophes – earthquakes, floods, raining amphibians – are reported with alarming intensity. Is this the Apocalypse, is the Second Coming finally at hand?

For our poor detective who faces this most peculiar string of circumstances with cynical humour and frustration, there is an added factor. Emmanuel, a child he fathered during a brief affair with an irresistible client, is now grown and has tracked him down from an asylum in the Alps where he has been confined after some serious mental breakdown. Through a series of emails Emmanuel shares details of his childhood with the father he has never met and offers his curious knowledge of messianic mystics, millennial cults and numerous attempts to calculate the date of the end of the world throughout western history. Perhaps because he himself has a mental illness, Emmanuel interprets the reported behaviours of many cult members or their charismatic, wildly erratic leaders in reference to what would be probable modern psychiatric diagnoses.

For myself, personally, in the months that followed my diagnosis with bipolar, I struggled to make sense of the role of my illness in the intensely spiritual experiences that I had periodically encountered growing up. During full blown psychosis, I could imagine that the frantic notions that I had the answer to the meaning of life were indeed in keeping with mania. I had the cramped and panicked nonsensical documents to prove it. But what about the earlier visions and spiritual experiences? Far less dramatic, frequently beautiful, these moments had filled me with such an assurance of the existence of God that I completed an honours degree in philosophy without once being troubled by any ontological questions. I could argue for or against the existence or nature of God while my own personal spirituality remained intact.

However, as I started to read about psychotic symptoms, I began to recognize similar features in the visions of Biblical prophets, the martyrdom of saints, the trance states of mystics and other ostensibly spiritual experiences. I could not divorce my own experiences from an underlying framework of biochemistry. My sense of personal faith crumbled.

Over the years as I have watched good people of faith rejected by their churches following mental breakdowns, I have been increasingly concerned by the double standard. After all who draws the line between mystical vision and clinical madness?

The Coming sees no need to draw those distinctions. I loved the way the pragmatic emails from the detective’s estranged son reach out to a world that may well be facing its final hours with the observation that the human desire for an Apocalypse can be compared to our urge to fast forward through a detective movie because we can’t wait to see how it ends.

We want answers – but we those answers to come from God or from science, not from the visions of those who are determined to be not in their right minds.

Leaving the Atocha Station – The neurotic American poet in Spain

I recently read Ben Lerner’s acclaimed first novel Leaving the Atocha Station. I bought the book in 2012 but had put it aside, uncertain I wanted to spend time with a narrator I expected to be a misanthropic American slacker poet slouching his way through the streets of Madrid. When I happened to catch the replay of a CBC radio interview with the author my interest was rekindled, especially in light of my recent breakdown and the therapeutic comfort I have been finding in poetry.

indexSure enough our narrator Adam Gordon is an ambivalent and emotionally insecure young poet who has chosen to spend a fellowship year in Madrid. Ostensibly his aim is to explore, in verse, the impact of the Civil War on Spanish society although he seems to have precious little direction or inclination of how to begin his project beyond attempting to improve his comfort with the Spanish language. He seems to have a cultured skepticism in the value of art and the validity of the artistic experience which in turn causes him a healthy dose of self loathing. He passes his days smoking hash and cigarettes, while relying on the security of tranquilizers and mood stabilizers. He reads Tolstoy, Cervantes, and John Ashbery. Beyond that he parties and awkwardly attempts to conduct love affairs with two Spanish women.

The resulting novel is a surprisingly humourous and engaging exploration of the struggling artist who refuses to struggle. Adam spends much time trying to make sense of what his new Spanish friends are saying and attempting to compose the facial expressions that he assumes will be appropriate for the circumstances. If in doubt he hides behind the prop of a cigarette. Yet it is not only the dislocation of being in a foreign country that accounts for Adam’s feeling of always being one step out of sync. He also believes himself to have bipolar disorder although it is never entirely clear that this is a confirmed diagnosis or a justification for the little yellow and white pills that he relies on. I’m not certain if Lerner, himself an established poet, is playing with the idea that neurosis is an essential element of the artistic process. Nonetheless Adam embraces it fully, manipulating his medication to ramp up the production of poems for a Spanish translation without any real sense if he is producing anything of worth.

Ultimately he crowns this phase of intense creative production with a grand manic splurge, thanks to his parents’ credit card, to impress one of the women he imagines himself in love with. An insanely expensive dinner and a night at the Ritz Carlton coincides with a tragic early morning blast at the busy Atocha Train Station, the 2004 attack by Islamic militants that killed 191 commuters. The street protests and the involvement of Adam’s wealthy young Spanish friends in the demonstrations and elections that follow this terrorist attack serve to force him to ground himself, even just a little.

The most engaging aspect of this book for me was the continual sense of self consciousness that pervadesAdam’s thoughts, plays with his confidence and keeps him from ever feeling that he is at home in any setting. His anxiety causes him to sabotage his potential relationships (or at least believe he is sabotaging them). He is alternately cocky and absolutely certain everyone else is humouring him. He spends time composing his face, adopting poses and pulling himself together in public settings. If you have never lived with a mood or anxiety disorder such obsessing might seem like poetic license. I found it uncomfortably familiar.

And those little pills Adam keeps reaching for… I have had to rely a lot on those myself lately.

The courage to write

For some 30 years I have packed and unpacked, shelved and reshelved a library full of books that I have not yet read but would not dream of carting off to a charity sale. Naturally I assume that the day will come when that book will come to my attention and, conveniently I will have it at hand. Of course, in the meantime a wealth of new books have joined my libraries, actual and electronic, so that all those long held treasures run the risk of absolute obscurity. I suspect more than a few book addicts can relate.

And sometimes the tendency to hoard a book pays off, though sadly that time is too often heralded by the death of the author.

20140809_222130I must have purchased Nadine Gordimer’s Burger’s Daughter, in the very early 1980s. I was studying anthropology and working part-time in a bookstore. South Africa and the struggles against Apartheid would have held a particular resonance for me through the presence of a number white South African ex-patriots who had found their way to the Anthropology department of a Canadian university for their own safety. However, had I read this novel when I first bought it, I am not sure if I would have been able to fully appreciate this powerful testament to those men and women, white and black, who risked their freedom and too often their lives to fight for justice. But with 30 year’s perspective, the hard won experience of middle age and the political changes that have marked South Africa in deeply complicated ways both positive and negative – as history tends to unfold in real life – this is one of the most rewarding reads of the year for me to date.

Ms Gordimer’s writing is rich, complex and worthy of a careful read. The shifting perspectives take the reader in and out of internal monologues that Rosa Burger, the daughter of a doctor and Communist activist who has died in prison, holds with the many individuals she encounters or remembers as she struggles to find an identity for herself in the huge shadow cast by her famous father (a fictionalized tribute to the lawyer who defended Nelson Mandela). In the infinite wisdom of Wikipedia, Burger’s Daughter is described as historical fiction. Of course, it is no such thing. Rather it is a time capsule, a deliberately political novel, but written without the advantage of knowing that Mandela would walk to freedom, become President, and pass away leaving a society where so many still live on a razor’s edge even if the tapestry has changed.

The final pages of Burger’s Daughter paints an uncertain future. Yet like life itself, the novel is brimming with vibrant, colourful characters brought to life with keen and loving detail.  The complexity of the politics presented at the time of writing combined with the critical distance of three decades impressed me deeply. It takes courage to speak to injustice. Nadine Gordimer herself knew that her work not only took risks but would also be forever defined by her colour. Moving beyond colour, religion, ethnicity, culture, gender, ability, orientation or the myriad of other divisions we seem to be able to construct as to divide us as humans is a seemingly impossible task. But by taking that one piece to which a writer, by virtue of fate or circumstance, is able to address and telling the stories that matter, small changes may be possible.

“Writing is making sense of life. You work your whole life and perhaps you’ve made sense of one small area.” (Nadine Gordimer)

Nadine Gordimer was a writer of courage and I am ashamed that it took her death to bring her into my focus.