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.

For the love of gravy

Today I am thinking about gravy.

There is a dish which has become ubiquitous in Canada – fries smothered with gravy and cheese curds – the French Canadian artery clogging delight called poutine. Many years ago when I lived in Ottawa it was a treat to cross into Québec, follow some back road instructions to a truck, seemingly parked in the middle of nowhere and order the authentic dish complete with cardboard container and plastic fork. Personally my tastes have changed in 30 years, so while some version resembling poutine can be found at most of your favourite fast food haunts, but I will leave you to it. My kids, on the other hand, love gravy – with or without the cheese curds.

poutineToday my wish for my son is gravy. At 24 he has been struggling with an addiction to alcohol for several years. He is aware that underlying the addiction is the mood disorder that knits so much of our family together. Yet his experiences in anything resembling conventional mental health care have been quite horrific for an intelligent, gifted child. As far as he is concerned, alcohol is preferable to medication or therapy. I can appreciate where he is coming from but I chose to take my risks with the prescribed meds and I have been spared the temptation to turn to alcohol that has marked many other family members over the years. Not that it has prevented me from falling ill again but life has no guarantees.

Living with mental illness is not easy. Addiction adds to the burden. But I love my son unconditionally and understand that, in the end, his life is his own and he is the only one who can really come to terms with his own blessings and curses.

Lately we have been fooling ourselves with the idea that he can maintain a minimal alcohol intake and get by. However, this morning after a night of heavier drinking and the inevitable conflict such situations evoke, he finally admitted that he cannot live without alcohol and that it is interfering with everything he wants in life. He poured out every remaining drop and gathered all the empty cans and bottles to return.

Will it hold? It is a critical start, as close to bottom as I have seen him reach to date. So I want to offer him gravy. Poets, artists, musicians and writers who nursed their muse with alcohol or drugs are well known and a tragic number paid a steep price. But I want to offer my son Gravy, a poem composed by the incomparable Raymond Carver after a diagnosis of cancer. Although illness took him early it was not for alcohol – that was a battle he won and was rewarded with the time to create a body of poems and short stories that have inspired and moved so many. And that is a victory he celebrated as, of all things, gravy:

No other word will do. For that’s what it was.
Gravy.
Gravy, these past ten years.
Alive, sober, working, loving, and
being loved by a good woman. Eleven years
ago he was told he had six months to live
at the rate he was going. And he was going
nowhere but down. So he changed his ways
somehow. He quit drinking! And the rest?
After that it was all gravy, every minute
of it…

Excerpt from Gravy by Raymond Carver,                                                                         All of Us: The Collected Poems, edited  by Tess Gallagher, Vintage (1996)

Time – too much or never enough

During the past year, I was haunted by an overwhelming pressure that I needed to be able to slow down, take stock of my feelings. I was becoming aware of a wall coming down between myself and my emotional grounding.

At work a toxic environment was brewing as our director became increasingly paranoid and unstable. My daughter was trying to impress an unreasonable employer at her own workplace while, at home, my son who has long struggled with his own mental health and addiction issues was going through an especially difficult, potentially violent series of conflicts with friends. Just to keep my head above water I was going through the paces. A familiar process. Single parents tend to develop this coping skill.

It is strange how life gives you time to reflect when you need it the most.

Summer grassAlthough I have lived with the ups and downs of a mood disorder for most of my life, a full manic break and diagnosis did not come until I was in my mid 30s. Until that time I felt like I was lost at sea, battling waves I could not put a name to, but hanging on and, as much as possible, faking my way through the years. After all, unless you know better, you figure that everyone else is essentially doing the same thing.

With the diagnosis and other critical underlying issues that subsequently came to light, my life started to make sense. I felt I had some answers, some sense of a guideline. It was not an easy prescription and there were costs, including the end of a long marriage, but I prided myself that I had persevered, that I had survived. Although I was late to the game I was able to build a career that allowed me to support my children, buy home and start to put away some money for the future.

Now the reality of the diagnosis has cruelly returned to confront me leaving me unable to know if returning to the job I had is either possible or even desirable. I find myself re-evaluating what I want for myself.

Something that haunts me this go round is the notion that people with mental illnesses, bipolar in particular, have a shorter life expectancy. Although the reasons, methods of study and populations under consideration is not clear this is not a factor I ever considered before. Funny thing, we are bombarded with the message that we have to be prepared to support ourselves financially for longer than previously expected and yet we see people die prematurely – of natural or unnatural causes – all the time.

Fact is, life offers no guarantees.

Read. Travel. Write.

Either everything has meaning or nothing has meaning.

Too anxious to read?

It should be a luxury to be freed from the demands of a regular work schedule, with no shortage of books to read and time to stop and reflect on where one is at in life. In fact that is the mandate, so be it, of my present circumstances. I am on sick leave with no pressure to return to the workplace and an expectation of a reasonable income to see me through the next few months. At the moment I know I am too fragile to consider working anywhere and my employer has been less than forthcoming as to whether they foresee a place for me in the future. I just know it would be reckless to engage in any employment related discussion or decision making for a while yet. So I find myself with time on my hands.

I should be reading more. Yet I feel like I read more when I had barely a minute to spare.

I have been cocooning myself with stacks of books and, like any book addict, have continued to browse for and purchase more. I have four underway – two old school paper format, two electronic – one serious literary, one non-fiction, one genre fiction and a collection of short stories. Each one is excellent but I seem to be struck with some inability to stay put without great anxiety building and the sense that I should be somewhere else. Or rather in some other book. So I put down one and pick up another.

Sometimes I try to take a walk, grab my neglected camera hoping to find inspiration, or at least distraction, in these gorgeous summer days. That’s what I did today, but I happened across a sidewalk sale outside the most fantastic bookstore along my way and came home with six more books!

I’m not used to anxiety. It seems to eat away at an ability to focus in a way that neither the ups or the downs of my regulated mood disorder ever has. The overwhelming sense of unease, the unknowns, the uncertainties appear to be keeping me from finding solace in the written word.

Boardwalk into the darkHopefully this shall soon pass because it would be a crime to worry away such valuable reading time.

Reflections on a most intriguing Booker nominee – The Wake

6898212431_742cf14ae7_zSo the Booker Prize Longlist for 2014 was announced this week and, as much as I like to think that this is a list that does not hold quite the same seal of approval and impact that it once had for me I must confess that I am a sucker for these lists all the same. Generally, over time, I do manage to read more more than a few of the long and or short listed titles, and in doing so, I am invariably exposed to authors I might not have otherwise read. I am not likely to radically alter my looming to be read list just to have a go at a few of these titles in advance, but I did want to take a moment to look back on the most unlikely contender and, as it happens, the only one of these books that I have already read. The Guardian review that brought this title to my attention was so deeply intriguing I just had to read it as soon as possible. I have only just learned that it was a crowd sourced project, a factor that makes its appearance on the Booker Longlist that much more, shall we say, against the norm.

The Wake by Paul Kingsnorth is an historical novel set in the years immediately following the Battle of Hastings from the perspective of the very ordinary and simple farm and townspeople who were watching the world they knew turned upside down by a foreign invader. The magic of this amazing tale comes through a very creative and effective use of language. It is written entirely in a shadow tongue designed to evoke the feel and mindset of Old English while retaining accessibility for those of us who are not OE scholars. It may sound like a gimmick but the approach actually affords a unique immersive experience.

WakeKingsnorth relies on much authentic vocabulary without being unnecessarily rigid, while recreating the syntax and common spellings of Old English (using only the letters in use at the time). As a reader it takes a while to develop a feel for the language. At the beginning I found myself translating the directly in my head, the way I do with my rudimentary French, but soon that process fell away. It helped when I discovered that there was a most illuminating author’s note on the reasons for his approach to creating this language and I would suggest that a reader review this early on. I read the book on a Kindle as that was the only edition readily available in Canada at the time so I did not realize the supplementary sections, glossary and extensive bibliography existed until I was well into the book!

What takes this small novel beyond a purely literary or historical exercise is the skill with which Kingsnorth brings his chosen narrator to life. Buccmaster of Holland, is a proud socman or freeman landholder, who leads a small band of self-styled greenmen in guerilla warfare against the Norman invaders. They make for a rather motley crew and our leader is no Hollywood inspired superhero. As the tale unfolds we become increasingly aware that this coarse, paranoid, prejudiced man is clinging to a deeply superstitious tradition that was on its way to being replaced by Christianity long before the French arrived. We find ourselves bound to an increasingly delusional man with dark secrets of his own. Kingsnorth himself describes this novel (his first) as a post-apocalyptic tale set 1000 years in the past. Of course it also has strong echoes in the vast number of occupations and conflicts, large and small, that continue to haunt communities and cultures throughout the world today.

I first read this novel three months ago and loved it. However I look back on it with some measure of discomfort as I now continue to come to terms with the fall out of from a serious manic episode. In the leadership role I held at my workplace I became increasingly stressed under mounting pressure and, although I can’t remember, I must have seemed erratic, irritable and well, unstable. The truth of madness, is that you cannot see it from inside. For a long time you may sense that something is wrong but in the end you lose all insight and judgement. The narrator who guides us though The Wake, is a complex troubled character, but given his challenges and his panic at seeing his world – on the fundamentally economic and spiritual level – slipping out of his grasp, his sanity is at stake. I cannot imagine I would have fared any better.

Literary prescription: The Sound of Things Falling

I am now a few weeks beyond the significant manic episode that has ground my life and work to a halt and precipitated a sudden crash into depression, anger and frustration. The crisis did not happen overnight and the healing will take time but I feel some measure of relief that my ability to lose myself in a book has been returning. Some additional anti-anxiety meds are helping too but I am trying to remain open to literary whims – reviews, suggestions from readers I respect, stray quotes that catch my attention. It seems to be critical medicine for me.

Fortunately there is also that wellspring of rewarding fictional riches, The International Impac Dublin Literary Award. Each year nominations are commissioned from public libraries around the world to create an extensive longlist from which a shortlist of 10 titles is ultimately drawn. It is inevitable that works in translation tend to feature prominently both  in the shortlist and among the archive of winners. Purists can argue over the Booker all they want, this is the award I watch.

winner_slide_2014This year’s winner, just announced in June, is The Sounds of Things Falling by Colombian author Juan Gabriel Vasquez, translated by Canadian Anne McLean. This book had been waiting on my ereader for some time, but in light of its recent honour, I thought it might be time for a closer look. A few pages in and I was hooked. Billed as a literary thriller I was expecting a perhaps an entertaining diversion from my own troubles but in truth I soon found myself  deep in a remarkably intimate account of the impact that traumatic experiences have on those directly effected and those around them in ways we often are powerless to predict or prevent. Whether the trauma results from actions chosen or events over which an individual has little or no control the fallout over days, month and years can lead to fateful decisions, ruptured relationships and deep wounds. At the core of this novel are two strangers, brought together through an act of violence who find temporary refuge in a sharing their own experiences of coming of age in Bogota at the height of the drug fueled wars of the 1970 and 80s.

Personally, as I struggle to make sense of the pressures, stresses and events that collaborated to make such a mess of my recent months, it is difficult not to vacillate between anger and regret. Although I know that mood disorders play havoc from the inside out and that the person who is suffering knows something is wrong, they may be slow or even unable to define the nature of the condition, and most certainly incapable of stopping it on a dime. Playing the “if only” card serves no significant benefit. As Vasquez’s narrator Antonio muses as he sets to record the experiences he wishes to share:

“There is no more disastrous mania, no more dangerous whim than the speculation over roads not taken.”

I was able to lose myself in this novel but it did not serve as quite the distraction I expected from a “literary thriller”. There was a disturbing real world resonance that I could not have anticipated. The Sounds of Things Falling is more than simply a title, it is an experience repeated and echoed throughout the novel. From a airshow stunt gone terribly wrong, to a fatal drive by shooting, to the devastating crash of a jetliner. Because a key character was a pilot, de Saint-Exupéry‘s The Little Prince also features as a beloved childhood tale. It was disturbing to imagine the little prince asking the pilot if he also fell out of the sky when bodies were literally falling out of the sky as Malaysia Airlines MH17 exploded over a disputed region of the Ukraine.

Trauma, small and personal or wide-reaching and global and all shades in between have always marked human existence. It divides and unites us in large and small ways. the complexity of that experience is, for me, one of the primary themes explored in this worthy literary award winner.

Negotiating tangled emotions

The aftermath of madness leaves its own measure of grief.  Because the manic end of the bipolar experience is by nature expansive, the episode is rarely one that occurs in isolation. At the very least, strange, anxious and pressured calls are made. Sometimes to strangers. Sometimes to those you know. Friends and families may observe the cracks as they start to spread. The first tremors may be intermittent. They can look like occasional or periodic moments of stress – the bad days anyone can have. When things start to spiral out of control I suspect it is already too late. For the person inside the experience, the pressure, the racing thoughts, the inability to sleep or find relief from the escalating crisis becomes a space in which all perspective is lost.

And generally there is damage.

At the most severe there can be serious physical harm, violence toward the self or others. More typically major manic episodes impact relationships, bank accounts or jobs, sometimes beyond repair. Yet in the middle of it all is a person who is very ill, who will need time to recover physically and emotionally for whom there is frequently very little understanding or sympathy. Especially when they are isolated.

14629062611_de5f459467_zAs I struggle to cope with the rotating cycles of sadness, embarrassment, anger and fear following my recent breakdown I am aware that because no one from my workplace has contacted me, no one has any idea how severely ill I have been. They just remember the last days of fractured functioning before I was finally able to get away from the office. Four weeks later I am exhausted, still unable to regulate my sleep and uncomfortable driving beyond my immediate neighbourhood. When I am deemed well enough to return to work my employers will be able to imagine this “illness” was all a convenient ruse and I have reason to believe it will be held against me. The nine years I worked there and the senior management position I held under increasingly toxic work conditions will mean nothing because it was always an environment in which your work was never acknowledged or appreciated. My mistake was to care enough to stay because I believed in the work we were doing.

The emotional roller coaster is the worst. It is interfering with the comfort and enjoyment I have always found in reading and photography. It finds me moaning and wallowing in self pity when I’m not trying to push grief and anger behind me. And my young adult kids and 80 year-old mother deserve a break from having to listen to it all.

And I would much rather be blogging about books and ideas, not the black heartache of depression.