Reading and writing my way through uncertain times

These are anxious times. It is easy, if you think too much, to wonder about the value of putting pen to paper with an atmosphere of doubt lingering so heavily in the air. But then, if you think a little further, wavering gives way to urgency. Reading and writing become acts of resistance, distraction, and revitalization. Or, that is what I remind myself.

I don’t want to venture too far into politics, but it would be naïve to pretend that we are not facing an unpredictable future. This uneasiness has been heightened for me over the past few weeks by an unproductive job search and increasing concern about my financial security as I’ve watched my cash buffer dwindle. The truth is though, with a will awaiting grant of probate, I stand to eventually find myself in a much better financial position than I had ever could have imagined. It doesn’t mean I won’t have to secure some outside income, hopefully some of that ultimately coming from writing related services, but I do dare to dream of finally having more freedom after years of struggling with identity, mental illness, and the challenges of a state of single parenthood that has extended far beyond my expectations.

2015-08-09 17.37.38So, world affairs aside, what right do I have to be anxious and insecure about writing? I suppose it’s enough that I am human, but I am also plagued by the unshakable feeling that I’m an impostor. All my life, the only thing I ever really wanted to be was a writer. And no matter how difficult writing is (and always has been), I still feel deliriously guilty to have been afforded, over the past two years of stress leave, the time and space to connect with writers, readers, translators, and publishers. It is a gift I am not ready to give up, rather I want to mould a life that will allow me to continue to read, write, edit, and grow.

And yet, every time I sit down with a pen and paper, or open a blank Word document the same fear that I will never write another solid review or creative essay sets in. Impostor.

I have two longer term projects—an extended personal essay/memoir and a constraint-driven experimental piece—in the early formative stages. Consequently, much of my present reading is directed towards exploring the ways ideas can be developed and stories can be told.  But every now and again I come up against a work that triggers my insecurity.

loiteringCase in point: I am slowly making my way through Loitering by American essayist and short story writer, Charles D’Ambrosio, and after each essay I feel temporarily overwhelmed. I can easily see why the friend who kindly sent me this book speaks of it so highly. Rather than attempting to review the entire collection at once, I want to pull out and look at some of the individual pieces along the way. They are that good.

First of all, D’Ambrosio notes in his Preface that, for him, the right to doubt is essential to the successful personal essay. “Loitering,” the title piece, is a perfect illustration of how and why this works. The setting: The middle of the night, outside a residential complex in the Belltown district of Seattle. Yellow police tape cordons off several blocks, while a large contingent of policemen and a cluster of journalists and TV news reporters wait in the rain. D’Ambrosio arrives at the scene around 2:00 AM, drawn by the reports of domestic violence and a possible hostage taking. With a Hollywood-tinged sarcastic romanticism, he imagines the scenario:

This guy—the Bad Guy—apparently thought he was just going to drink a few beers and bounce his girlfriend against the walls and go to sleep, but instead of a little quiet and intimate abuse before bed he’s now got major civic apparatus marshaling for a siege outside his window. No sleep for him tonight, and no more secrets, either, not at this unholy intersection of anomie and big-time news.

The clichés he arrived with quickly fall away as he joins the vigil. Quite frankly he is in rough shape himself. One of the key drawing cards for D’Ambrosio on this night is simple lack of human contact. A recent fishing trip has left him with severe atopic dermatitis due to contact with neoprene and he’s just spent a week isolated at home—his fingers, neck, feet, and legs swollen and covered with weeping sores.  Medication and the constant tingling sensation prevents him from sleeping, crackheads have stolen his duffle bag from his truck leaving him without a belt or a raincoat and now, armed with file cards and a pen lest he find a story, he is standing in the dark, soaking wet with his pants falling down. Nothing like setting a memorable scene.

As the night wears on he spots a man, angry, looking a reporter, someone to listen to his story. He makes his way through the crowd of journalists but no one wants to hear him out—a wretched resident displaced by the hostilities unfolding in his building, he is not on their agenda:

He’s now caught in between, trapped in some place I recognize as life itself. It’s obvious he hasn’t been sober in hours and maybe years. If it could be said that these big-deal journalists have control of the story… then this guy is the anti-journalist, because in his case the story is steering him, shoving him around and blowing him willy-nilly down the street. The truth is just fucking with him and he’s suffering narrative problems. He began the night with no intention of standing in this rain, and his exposure to it is pitiful. As he moves unheeded like the Ancient Mariner through the journalists I feel a certain brotherly sympathy for him, and I’m enamoured of his utter lack of dignity.

Our hapless would-be reporter knows the man will be back and knows that he alone will listen to him. And so he meets Dennis, a vet, and his friend Tom, a Native American man. Through them he will learn more, in so much as anyone knows anything about the armed man holed up inside in one of the sparse low-income units, and the story, through the eyes and words of this most astute and sensitive observer becomes one of the tragedy of the poor and dispossessed rather than a dramatic shootout and fodder for the six o’clock news. After years of working in human services, the tableau D’Ambrosio paints of the evacuated residents relocated to a city bus to wait out the proceedings rings true—a scene that could easily be played out in my city, or any other North American centre for that matter:

Inside this bus what you see is pretty much a jackpot of social and psychic collapse, a demographic of bad news. Everybody in there’s fucked up in some heavy way, dragged out of history by alcohol, drugs, mental illness, physical decrepitude, crime, old age, poverty, whatever. Riding this bus in your dreams would give you the heebie-jeebies big-time. There are maybe ten or fifteen people on the bus but between them if you counted you’d probably come up with only sixty teeth. In addition to dental trouble, there are people leaning on canes, people twitching and barefoot with yellow toenails curled like talons, gray-skinned people shivering in gauzy nightgowns, others who just tremble and stare. They’ve been ripped out of their bedrooms and are dressed mostly in nightwear, which is something to see—not because I have any fashion ideas or big thesis about nighties and pj’s, but rather because, this surreal dawn, the harsh, isolated privacy of these people is literally being paraded in public. The falling rain, the bus going nowhere, the wrecked up passengers dressed for sleep, the man with the gun—these are the wild and disparate components of a dream, and I haven’t slept, and it’s just weird.

This passage, in fact the entire essay, left me breathless. This is not beautiful. It is raw, honest and real. In telling the story D’Ambrosio allows himself to be vulnerable and despite flashes of humour, one senses he is defeated by the sheer sadness of the whole affair. The reporters will head off to other stories, but he will be left on hold, filled with doubt, open to questions. Upon first reading I felt a sense of writerly inadequacy descend on me; returning to write about it and copy out significant passages I feel re-invigorated, inspired even.

I don’t know when this essay was originally published but it doesn’t matter. It contains a certain urban timelessness that stretches back through the twentieth century, yet is especially relevant today, with the pending threats to affordable healthcare and Medicaid in the US under the new administration. And so, I’m back where I’m started… uncertain times…

Loitering by Charles D’Ambrosio is published by Tin House Books.

January 2016: A slow start to my reading year (and why does that bother me?)

The first month of 2016 has almost slipped away and I am feeling overloaded. Too many stressors have collided to take a curious toll on my ability to read and blog. My reading continues to be fractured. Books are not the same refuge they were a few months ago. Not that they don’t keep arriving (or rather following me home) and haunting me as the stacks pile up, staring at me, daring me to read faster. But my reading is slow, and the books I had expected to venture into by month’s end have not yet been cracked.

And then there is life, the one that doesn’t exist in books, the one that can’t be shelved or put aside for a later date or, as much as I would love it sometimes, be tossed into a pile to go out to the next charity sale. It is hardly a surprise. Over the past month I have had to face some extraordinary challenges on the home front – some new, some long standing, and others simply arising from the financial reality of owning a car and a house, both of which are well past their prime. Some matters have been resolved – one mechanic and two plumbers later – I just have to figure out how to pay for them; others are less concrete, more emotionally corrosive and resolution is not in sight. If another well meaning person says, “This too shall pass,” my reaction may be less than generous.

Copyright JM Schreiber, 2013 The last time I had a month with two separate plumbing calls I took this shot to celebrate the joy of a clear drain that had been blocked for more than four weeks.
Copyright JM Schreiber, 2013
The last time I had a month with two separate plumbing calls I took this shot to celebrate the joy of a clear drain that had been blocked for more than four weeks.

Through it all I have been reading but by some weird twist of logic my attention has been drawn toward much more intensive review projects. Blogging is fine but for each review I write I spend 4-6 hours, so when I encounter an ambitious, complex, postmodern novel like Klaus Hoffer’s Among the Bieresch, forthcoming from Seagull Books; I can’t resist the desire to read into the varied subtextual materials, especially the works that I don’t know well and – with luck – explore the novel in a space with greater critical elbow room and a much wider audience than my blog commands. There’s a voice in my head that says “Are you out of your mind?” and, maybe I am but, at this moment, I seem to be most comfortable burying myself in demanding critical projects, losing myself I suppose. At the same time, I am also spending more time on my own writing: a personal essay I hope to enter in a contest and a piece of experimental prose.

Tell me then, what is with this book blogging pressure I feel? It’s not a numbers game. No one is going to disown me if I don’t read and review two books a week. Reading and writing about books is supposed to be fun. And, heaven knows, the spaces I that want to write for, on or off my blog, are literary acts of love and, as such, there’s typically no money involved.

So blog posts may be slower for a while. I am reading. I am writing. And I am dealing with all the messy business of living.

Easing back into reading

As soon as I was coming around a few days after my recent near death encounter (and I don’t mean that in any mystical tunnel of light sort of way) I told my kids that I wanted them to bring me books. I could barely stay alert long enough to get an entire sentence out but I wanted books. They obliged me. Wisely I asked for one of the few books on my shelves which might count as a mystery – Lost Ground by South African author Michiel Heyns – which has proved to be fine company indeed though I have only been able to read attentively for a few days now. They also brought along one of my endless stream of incoming purchases, a gem from Twisted Spoon chosen for Women in Translation Month – Primeval and Other Times by Polish writer Olga Tokarczuk. A surreal and fantastic work it looks good but I may have to push it a little further down the month. Reading is tough work after cardiac arrest. Go figure.

Now that I am at home, facing three blood tests each week and a host of other medical appointments all over the city when I have been told I can’t drive for 6 months, I find myself reading and re-reading my discharge report. I am living on warfarin – rat poison – afraid of bleeding too much or worse, clotting too easily and having a stroke. The devious little pulmonary embolism that triggered this whole adventure (a likely souvenir of a hellish 24 hours of flight time packed tightly into 28 hours on my recent return from Cape Town) is still sitting in my lung and will, they say, eventually be absorbed. My left leg is swollen and bruised due to a hematoma, a probable complication of the resuscitation process. I watch people jogging by outside on this hot summer day and feel like some sort of Frankenstein creature, dragging this heavy black and blue leg around.

Even though my friends have been amazing – I had a steady stream of visitors throughout my hospital stay and have no shortage of offers for rides around town – I feel a despair settling in. I don’t know where to turn, where to dig into the towers of books surrounding me. I wonder what would have happened had I slipped off this mortal coil two weeks ago. What would my family say about all these books on which I have squandered my limited funds? For heaven’s sake my open shelved coffee table loaded with books and stacks of journals – Granta, Paris Review, Music & Literature – came apart when the paramedics tried to pull it out of the way. I feel overwhelmed rather than excited about diving in to all the new books I have acquired in the past month. I had to buy an extra bag, after all, to get my haul of books home from South Africa and now they too sit on the shelf taunting me.

Will the magic of reading come back with my health?

2015-08-09 17.37.38I have also wondered if this experience is that final kick in the behind that I need to get serious about my own writing. I’m in my mid-50s. I’m not getting younger. Coincidentally while in the hospital I signed my first contract for the publication of an essay in a book coming out next Spring. It is a niche project – a collection aimed at gay, bisexual and transgender men – but my first professional publication credit all the same. So how much life with all its mess, joy and agony does one have to drag his or her sorry self through before there is enough fodder for a story? I wrote throughout my youth, being a writer was always my dream, a strength in every course I completed in university and every job I have ever held. But when it came down to creative writing I always insisted that I had to live a little first.

At this moment I feel that I lived so much that I don’t know where to begin. And now I have almost died too.

Roughghosts is one year old today: Looking back and ahead

Today I received a notification from WordPress congratulating me on my first anniversary. Well happy anniversary to my alter ego roughghosts who was born on this day from a scarp of creative writing I uncovered in one of my endless unfinished notebooks. I never was very clever with user names; most of my aliases amount to little more than my initials and the first 5 letters of my last name.

Copyright JM Schreiber, 2014
Copyright JM Schreiber, 2014

I have become quite fond of roughghosts. It suits me, more than I might have imagined, or at least been willing to admit on May 31st of last year. To be honest, I created this blog to engage with other WordPress blogs and, I don’t know, maybe reflect a little, and explore some creative writing. At the time, a little voice I the back of mind said this looks like a rather manic move. After all I was under a soul crushing amount of stress at my workplace, had a major fundraiser and annual report due, and had not slept for more than a few hours a night since the previous November. But I shrugged it off, forged ahead only to crash and shatter into a thousand pieces a few weeks later.

Today, I have managed to rebuild myself to a point. There is still a lot more glue, stitching and healing required. Mania has subsided to a simmering depression with doses of anxiety and a pill that I do not like but is presently necessary as a sleep aid. And roughghosts the blog has evolved from a space to moan about the shock of realizing that, yes, I still have a mood disorder and all the fallout that a major breakdown entails, to a book based blog with a strong focus on translated and international literature.

Over the past few months I became involved with a jury shadowing the International Foreign Fiction Prize (IFFP), a challenging and highly rewarding experience. It taught me to read faster – still no speed demon, I – and read more deeply with a specific goal to being able to rate and write a constructive review for each book. I have started scribbling in margins and filling notebooks when I read. As a reader and a writer this has been invaluable. The camaraderie of reading and discussing the books together was an added bonus, introducing me to a great group of book bloggers. My subsequent expansion of activity on twitter has further enhanced this community of readers, publishers, authors and translators.

Then, close on the heels of the IFFP came the Best Translated Book Award (BTBA) with a challenging and exciting longlist and a selection of small North American independent publishers to discover. Adding to this embarrassment of riches for lovers of translated literature was the conjunction of the biannual International Booker and the writers I want to explore from that list of finalists. And, on top of all this, my longstanding interest in South African literature will be further nourished by a trip to that county in a few weeks with a list of books I hope to obtain.

I am, I hope, reading my way back to wholeness. Preparing to write my way back into the world, or rather document my very real journey into the world in a full and honest way for the first time in more than half a century of living.

This past week’s awarding of the 2015 IFFP and BTBA prizes saw the celebration of female authors and translators. The IFFP honoured Jenny Erpenbeck and Susan Bernofsky for The End of Days, a decision that coincided with our shadow jury’s esteemed choice. This is a most important book with a timeless theme spanning the whole of the 20th century. About an hour later the 2015 BTBA was awarded to The Last Lover by Chinese author Can Xue and translator Annelise Finegan Wasmoen. I encountered this book as a longlisted IFFP title and simply fell in love with the surreal, dream-like tale. Notably, Can Xue was also named that same day with six other women and two men as finalists for the Neustadt International Prize for Literature. I’ve been decidedly excited by this celebration of female writers and for those who know me, that is a huge shift in my own approach to literature.

Back in late January I wrote a pot in response to a discussion on the Tips, Links and Suggestions blog of the Guardian which had caused me to reflect on the abysmal ratio of female to male authors in my reading and on my shelves. However, my more explicit focus on literature in translation is slowly beginning to shift that balance. Especially if one considers how many of the works I read, if written by men, were translated by women. And I am taking serious note – not only should I endeavour to read more female writers, I can easily fall under the spell of Can Xue, Anne Garréta, Marlene van Niekerk, Olja Svačević or Valeria Luiselli, just to name some of the authors that have really impressed me of late. And I am pleased to report that an increasing number of the books I am currently reading or planning to read feature female writers and/or translators.

Copyright JM Schreiber, 2014
Copyright JM Schreiber, 2014

So, on my first anniversary as a blogger, I look back over an ad hoc journal chronicling an ongoing passage from a terribly messed up state, struggling to make sense of a sudden shock to my self esteem, my confidence and my identity to a place where I have a strong real life community, solid mental health support and a creative environment where I am proud of the work that I publish in this space. Moving forward I hope to explore further writing opportunities, continue to recover and, with luck, make my way back into productive employment.

And keep reading a lot of terrific, exciting and challenging literature from around the world.

A love-hate relationship with a city

The City
         C. P. Cavafy (1910)

You said: “I’ll go to another country, go to another shore,
find another city better than this one.
Whatever I try to do is fated to turn out wrong
and my heart lies buried as though it were something dead.
How long can I let my mind moulder in this place?
Wherever I turn, wherever I happen to look,
I see the black ruins of my life, here,
where I’ve spent so many years, wasted them, destroyed them totally.”
 
You won’t find a new country, won’t find another shore.
This city will always pursue you. You will walk
the same streets, grow old in the same neighborhoods,
will turn gray in these same houses.
You will always end up in this city. Don’t hope for things elsewhere:
there is no ship for you, there is no road.
As you’ve wasted your life here, in this small corner,
you’ve destroyed it everywhere else in the world.
                   (Translated by Edmund Keeley/Philip Sherrard)

My city was new when Alexandria which inspired these words was old but the sentiment  rings across the century, speaking to me.

Copyright JM Schreiber, 2013
Copyright JM Schreiber, 2013

I live in a glass and rock cast stucco bungalow, the kind of finish that will slice your palm if you lose your balance and put a hand out to stop your fall. It sits on a 6500 square foot lot overgrown with 60 foot spruce and spiky hawthorns. The garage stands, roof sagging, without a foundation and no more than a scratch coat for stucco that was never applied, at best a large shed. It is only a matter of time before the sewer line to the street which is already oval shaped, collapses in on itself. After a few years of eager redecorating, projects remain incomplete, even though all the paint and supplies were purchased long ago.

This year my house will be 62 years old, I have lived here for 20 of those years. Due to the location, the lot size and the high property values in this city, it is assessed at a value that shocks me. I have ample equity in this house I own, but no secure income. And you can’t eat equity.

More and more the house is closing in on me. It is filled with the artifacts of 20 years of raising children. And a 25 year-old alcoholic son who seems to have taken root in the basement. After being a single parent for so long, I am done. My career prospects hanging on a thread frayed by mental illness; I feel haunted by the house, the responsibilities that weigh on me, and the fatigue of facing it alone.

And this city is no more a home than it has ever been. Without my job it holds nothing and never has. I love the pathways and wild areas, I love the wide open skies and the mountains on the horizon, the rolling foothills stretching to the west. But the city has no soul, or at least not for me. My relationship with this city, one to which I chose to return at one time, is fraught with complicated anxieties.

It may be my fault. Perhaps I am the one who failed to open up and build connections. But that has never been easy and the more I go out to meet people or attend events, the deeper the loneliness settles in on me the next day. Like it or not, there is a fundamental disconnect between me and this city of glass towers and oil executives.

As I walk these streets I am haunted by the sense that I have wasted so many years here, not certain what I have to show for it, feeling all is lost, fearing that I am, as the intended recipient of Cavafy’s advice, destined grow old in the same neighbourhood, turn grey(er) in the same house.

And so this is Christmas…

Copyright JM Schreiber, 2013
Copyright JM Schreiber, 2013

Anticipating a quiet Christmas, with circumstances necessitating a modest celebration,  the lack of snow and relatively warm temperatures suit me fine. I am content with a brown Christmas. Oh I am sure there will be some anxious naval gazing over the next day or so. Add to that a Boxing Day trip to visit my parents, always a festive occasion fraught with the tensions and dynamics that only family can create, but for the moment I simply want to wish peace, whatever that means, to everyone.

Throughout the world that is one universal gift humankind is in sore need of, no matter who or where we are.

Reading and anxiety: Proceed with caution

“Then the anxiety set in. If someone told me I had to be depressed for the next month, I would say that as long as I knew it was temporary, I could do it. But if someone told me I had to have acute anxiety for the next month, I would kill myself, because every second of it is intolerably awful. It is the constant feeling of being terrified and not knowing what you’re afraid of. [Anxiety] resembles the sensation you have if you slip or trip, that experience you have when the ground is rushing up at you before you land. That feeling lasts about a second and-a-half. The anxiety phase of my first depression lasted six months. It was incredibly paralyzing.”            – Andrew Solomon

The above passage from a PBS interview with Andrew Solomon, the author of The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression and Far From the Tree, describes the reality of living with anxiety better than any I have heard. I had a bad stretch earlier this year but once it passed I let the memory of this crippling sensation fade. Until now. Anxiety has returned.

Sometimes it helps to get out but that is not an option today. The temperature outside has climbed from the -34C wind chills that settled in late last week to a comparably balmy -7C. But my car sits on the street with a flat tire that cannot be replaced until Friday and a chest cold has left me feeling too ill to walk to the nearby shopping centre to pick up a few necessary items. With my daughter’s 22nd birthday on Wednesday and Christmas on the horizon with no indication that I will even have enough income to pay my bills at the end of the month I can expect to feel a little down. But the anxiety that has coiled its way around my heart is much more devastating.

The worst aspect of anxiety is that it seems to ignite the fears, the loneliness and the paranoia that are already entertaining me during this prolonged mixed hypomanic state. It seems to be impossible to distract myself in any truly functional way – even reading is only a temporary respite.

HungryI have recently emerged from a book, both glorious and heartbreaking, that I would strongly recommend but should come with a warning for the mood sensitive. This book is sad. The book in question is The Hungry Ghosts by Sri Lankan-Canadian author Shyam Selvadurai. This richly sensuous novel begins in Sri Lanka and explores a young man’s complicated and difficult relationship with his grandmother, follows him as he immigrates to Canada with his mother and sister where he struggles to find himself in the gay community of 1980s Toronto. A return to visit his grandmother is marked by a tragedy that will seal his fate, binding him in his own bitterness and pain, to ultimately threaten everything he builds and holds dear in Canada. Buddhist mythology is woven throughout this tale of family, wealth, warfare, race and love. The resulting huge tapestry of life pulls at the very threads of the human heart. But, be warned, this book is sad. Bravely so, something I find missing in much of the Canadian literature I ready today.

The other night I braved the brutal cold, probably the last thing my emerging seasonal illness needed, to attend a reading by the author, the final event of his week-long residency with the University of Calgary’s Distinguished Visiting Writers Program. As positive and rewarding as this opportunity was it served to remind me that my own accomplishments seem to have been stalled by the cards fate (or karma?) has dealt.  I awoke the next morning feeling saddened, empty and anxious.

Adrift in mid-life.