Beginning to write through grief: A reflection & link to my poem at the Sultan’s Seal

I am, as many know, dealing with a multi-layered, complex grief—my mother, my father, and one of my closest friends—all lost within the last six months. When my parents died in July, I entertained an immediate grief project, my own mourning diary, an echo of Roland Barthes. I started with a subdued passion, an ache as intellectual as emotional. In truth, my emotions were, I can now see, constrained and intellectualized.

I was numb.

Others reached out to me in those early weeks, sharing their own stories. The terrain of grief is rocky, I was warned. The journey long. The pain uneven. But, although I am in mid-life, a loss of this nature—doubled and complicated—was something I had never faced.

Then my friend took her own life sometime on September 1st. Even though I knew, in my heart, that such an event was almost inevitable, the pain and anger tore me apart. I knew she had tried every available option she could afford to fight an erratic and devastating variation of bipolar disorder, and I fully respected her decision and her right to make it. But suddenly my world was a darker, lonelier place.

And she had lived half a world away.

Again, the first thing I thought of was to write. This time, my distance from her demanded and informed my need to write—and I knew exactly what I wanted to do. I wanted to gather words and sentences from her writing and our communications, and together with some photographs from my trip to visit her in South Africa, create an elegy.

An offering.beach

Drawing inspiration from a prose piece by Breyten Breytenbach, and the sound driven writings of my friend, Daniela Cascella, I set to work. And I knew exactly where I wanted to publish this memorial if I was able to realize my vision—The Sultan’s Seal, a most wonderful space created and curated by Egyptian writer, Youssef Rakha.

The result, “And I will Tell You Something,” was published this past weekend. Three hundred words, five images and almost three months shaping, reshaping, listening and accepting the silence that emerged. This is perhaps the most emotionally demanding piece I have ever written. Yet, now five days after my words were finally set free in the world, I feel a tremendous sense of rightness. An element of peace. I still ache, but, with this prose poem, I feel I can begin to heal.

And I hope that others may find something in it too.

Personal reflections on identity, for better or worse, on Canada Day

Today, July 1, is Canada Day.

Exactly one year ago I was in Cape Town. I arrived back in the city that day at 5:30 in the morning after seventeen hours on a bus from East London. Dragging my luggage with its maple leaf ID tags I encountered many who would note the flag and say “Ah, Canada, that’s just about the perfect country, isn’t it?” Invariably I was hearing this from black or coloured South Africans and, I have to confess, at that time in my country’s recent political history I was feeling most despondent, embarrassed even, to be Canadian. For the very first time in my life.

What a difference a year makes.

canada-159585_960_720Hard to measure the shifting sands in the glass but while our Federal election last year brought home to the ruling Conservative Party the cost of divisive politics, the limits of denial and disrespect, and the risk of stoking xenophobia to sway sympathies; we now seem more and more like an island in a sea of unrest. And, I don’t pretend that we are immune to hatred, or that we don’t have a legacy of shame four “our” treatment of the First Nations on this land, but this is a huge and vastly underpopulated place so there is greater room to breathe.

At least for now.

As Canadians we also have another advantage: an identity that is relatively amorphous, ambiguous, sometimes even apologetic. A contest held in 1972 on the CBC Radio program, This Country in Morning, famously invited listeners to finish the statement: As Canadian as ________. The winning entry?

As Canadian as possible under the circumstances. And proudly so, I say.

Which leads me to wonder about identity, a question that has been troubling me of late.

There is a series of advertisements running on the television for a company that, for a fee, will analyze your DNA and tell you what your ancestry is, in percentages, no doubt with colourful pie charts to justify the cost. Perhaps you’ve seen them or something similar. You know, there is, for example, a man who always believed he was of German heritage but thanks to a little DNA sleuthing he discovers he is Scottish. He promptly trades his lederhosen for a kilt. And there are other variations but you get the drift.

How can your DNA define your cultural and ethnic identity? It might and then again it might not. Peoples migrate, borders shift, cultures evolve. An aboriginal survivor of the 60’s Scoop that literally pulled First Nations youth out of their homes and communities and deposited them in white foster homes may justifiably have a need for healing and reconnection with their heritage, but a DNA test that simply reflects possible ancestral bloodlines going back centuries or longer does not tell you who you are. Cultural and ethnic identity are complex and cannot be understood divorced from lived experience.

As I find myself, midway upon my life’s journey, to paraphrase Dante, I carry two questions of identity that, to some degree, offer an understanding of myself that reaches back into childhood and adolescence. But even if they are grounded in some understanding of a genetic/epigenetic heritage I own, the degree to which they can and do form part of my identity is troublesome. Identity is, as far as I am concerned, a choice. That is not to say it is not grounded in fact and reality at some level, but what does it mean to say “I identify”? And how is that to be differentiated from “I am”?

I have bipolar disorder (I touch on this in some of my earliest blog posts) and I was born with a pervasive sense of a gendered self that was at odds with the sex/gender that I appeared to be (I address this most explicitly here). I did not begin to understand either of these facts until I was in my mid-30’s. But they are inextricable from my experience of myself in the world, they are formative and I have no idea what it would be like to have existed without either although I have learned, with greater or lesser success, to live with each one. Both are treated, neither is cured. I have written about both, but I would be hard pressed to say that I identify as either bipolar or transgender. Would someone identify as a diabetic? Would you say you identify as brown-eyed?

I know people who do hold a mental health diagnosis or a gender identity with pride. Perhaps I did too at one time. Perhaps I still do even though I don’t want to admit it.

Recently my psychiatrist suggested, having reviewed the only records she had from my past—the report of an inpatient stay during acute psychosis almost twenty years ago, the turning point at which I finally began to unravel the fractured and unhappy state against which I had raged for several years—that she did not believe I was bipolar. That cheerful announcement set off weeks of rumination in which I replayed all of the episodes of depression and hypomania I had surfed for so many years, blaming myself for a failure to commit to any single course of study or employment. I began to appreciate how my understanding of the place I find myself at this point is contingent on having an explanation, an illness to blame. Combined with acute gender dysphoria I can assuage the sense of failure that haunts me. Justify all the paths I took or did not take.

Or, as my therapist challenged me yesterday, have I been using bipolar as an excuse to avoid grieving the losses I have experienced?

I don’t even know how to begin to grieve and the thought terrifies me. And, if I find my way through it all, perhaps I will write about it. But I do believe it may be the one path I have not yet dared to take.

Finally, what of gender? That is a topic for many essays I’m afraid. My differently gendered existence is essential to who I am, but again, it is not my identity. If forced, I “identify” as male, but prefer to understand myself simply as a man, and every time I qualify myself by appending trans* I feel reduced, dehumanized. One only has to exist within the LGBTQ community, such as it is, as a man attracted to men, to feel the full force of transphobia from within. And to have transitioned when I did, before it was fashionable and trendy to be trans, other transgender men were often exceptionally homophobic toward anyone who identified as gay. For everyone who claims to defy gender binaries there is a whole cast of characters propping them back up. I’m probably in there myself.

pride-flag-meaningSo, although I tick three out of the five basic boxes in LGBTQ, I have no Pride. But then I have no shame either. And identify? Well, here I stand I can be no other. Even if I don’t feel I belong. June is always tough for me. This month with all the difficult emotions stirred by the Orlando shootings has been especially hard.

I actually do belong to an LGBTQ community and have good friends there. My very closest friends are all queer. And yet I always feel like I am on the outside looking in. An impostor. But in what way? And who decides who belongs and who does not? Even apparently marginalized groups seem to find a way to splinter and divide.

Which brings me full circle to the angry racist, xenophobic, sexist and homophobic aggression and violence that threatens us all, at a time and in a world in which we should know better.

At least, for now, and on this day, the one thing I can say is: I identify as a proud Canadian.

To write one’s self: reflections on the stories we have to tell

IMGP2473 - Version 2

Don’t write yourself
in between worlds,

rise up against
multiple meanings,

trust the trail of tears,
and learn to live.

             – Paul Celan

 

I have resisted the act of writing my self. Writing about myself. The conceit of imagining that my own experiences hold a value, interest or point of connection for others. I wanted to tell stories, inventions, creations that were removed from the inexorable ordinariness of my own life.

IMGP2477 (1)I am not sure I have that gift. I fear that all the stories I have that are worth telling are real. Not true stories. I do not believe there is an objective truth to the stories we tell ourselves or others. But they are real.

For many years I worked as a storyteller. Not in the conventional sense of the word. I worked with survivors of acquired brain injury and their families. Whether I was meeting with clients, advocating with professionals or leading support groups stories were my medium. I had hundreds of stories, I had a facility for remembering the broad details of the experiences of our clients and their families. Tales of courage, tales of horror, tales of the ordinary and the everyday. I was able to pull out an example whenever I required one to offer warning, hope, validation. And I was able to do so without revealing identifying details.

IMGP2465 (1)As always I was the master of ambiguity. After all that was how I engaged with the world myself. But what is essential in a professional capacity is crippling in a personal sphere.

I have touched at the edges of my own stories, in so far as I am learning to articulate them, in this space from time to time. And I am beginning to wonder whether it is a folly for me  to assume that I have the capacity to make up stories, to entertain with carefully constructed lies.

Or if this mess of a life that has piled up in front of me like heavy wet snow against a plow has to be cleared, examined, transformed into words on a page before I can even begin to figure out if there might be something here that someone else might want to read.

IMGP2461 - Version 2 (1)In the coming days I will officially be two months out from the night a blood clot very nearly took my life. My chest still feels tight, bruised and cracked ribs are slow to heal completely, but I can finally get out and walk with comfort – something that was still impossible a few weeks ago. Rat poison is my friend.

I took my camera out into the neighbourhood this afternoon. The foliage is turning colour, the sky is crystal blue, yet I found my attention turning to the cracks in the road, the fallen leaves in the gutters. I photographed the little things that caught my eye and tried not to think too much.

 

 

Further notes from South Africa: Wildlife and quiet times in the Eastern Cape

I have been in South Africa for just over a week now. It’s been an amazing opportunity to meet people and observe the country on its own terms. The closest I have had to a typical tourist experience has been our day trip to Addo Elephant Park. Nothing quite prepares you, on your first visit, for the sight of these huge majestic beasts looming ahead on the road, appearing out of the bushes. And there is so much more to see than elephants. We were stoked to encounter two young rooikatte along the roadside. These lynx are a rare sight at the best of times and we were able to sit and watch them for 15 minutes.

Rooikat
Rooikat
Addo Elephant Park
Elephant  – Addo Elephant Park, South Africa

The value of taking time to relax, soak in the countryside, meet fascinating individuals and spend quality time with my friend has been exactly the medicine I needed. In a few days I will make my way back to Cape Town for the much more urban, cosmopolitan side of my stay which will, in its way, be quiet and introspective. Cities can be good for being alone too.

Old sheep
Old sheep
Eastern Cape farm garden
Eastern Cape farm garden

My endeavour to gather more South African literature to bring home is going well. So far I have collected a stack of second hand books from a little shop in East London here in the Eastern Cape and have another stack waiting for me back in Cape Town. I have been digging through my friend’s bookcase for titles to look for here or back home and last night I was thrilled when my favourite author, Damon Galgut, won the Sunday Times Literary Award for South African fiction for his novel Arctic Summer. So, a fine literary excursion to date.

South African sunset - All photos copyright JM Schreiber
South African sunset – All photos copyright JM Schreiber

Otherwise it has been a relief to step back from my normally heavy engagement with news and social media. I did read with dismay about the terrorist attacks in France and Tunisia. I was relieved that my American LGBT brothers and sisters have achieved a long overdue milestone. But I came to South Africa in large part to put as much distance between myself and my life at home as possible for a few weeks and, for now, watching waves crash on the shore or sitting on the stoep and watching the sky burst with colour in the evening or listening to Breyten Breytenbach reciting poetry in Afrikaans is therapy of the best kind.

Solstice to solstice to solstice: A note from South Africa

Over the past year I have embarked on a journey that began, unexpectedly, with the recognition that I had allowed pressures at my job to consume me, to drive me to the very brink of a complete breakdown. It was summer solstice when I removed myself from the office, imagining at the time that I would soon be back and on track. I had no idea how sick I was and no real appreciation of how much I had sacrificed to work and children. Now, with work in tatters and children grown I wondered if I had really lived the full and rewarding life I imagined that I had. Finding myself (again) in mid-life has been difficult, dark and lonely – a task I felt ill prepared to take on.

But it has been the very best thing that could have happened.

From a very low point last December, winter solstice, my life has started to change in very real and important ways. A wonderful therapist and proper medical support have been crucial, while finding a supportive community has helped me start to move out into the world in an honest and authentic way. But, much to my surprise, blogging has opened up the world in a way I had not anticipated. I began with no clear objective, fueled with manic energy, spiraled into a little anxiety driven meandering as my world fell apart and solidified this year into a basically book focused blog.

Along the way I made a friend who has become a ballast for me – a touchstone, someone who understands the experience of navigating the storms of bipolar disorder because she rides them herself. Someone who is also queer. And an avid reader.

Nobel winners waterfront CT Indian ocean

However, getting together for coffee required a little planning. I live in western Canada, she lives in South Africa. And so I marked this past solstice, trading summer for winter, in Cape Town. Then I boarded a bus for the Eastern Cape province where I am now. I have long had an interest in South Africa, with the literature and history of this complicated and important place. The dust has not settled here.

My friend has given me a gift I will not soon forget. Our friendship has opened a space for us to explore our own personal journeys and to talk about our respective countries – to compare the differences and the similarities.

And I am also  guaranteed to arrive home with books.

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.

Solstice to solstice: Reflections on madness, identity and writing

It is winter solstice, exactly six months since I left my job. At the time, a year and a half of toxic work-related stress had taken its toll. Had been taking its toll for months. But by the time I managed to pull enough awareness together to face the harsh reality that the mental illness I imagined to be long stabilized had resurfaced in full manic glory, irretrievable damage had been done.

I left in shame. A shame that can not be absolved. I have been shut out, I have no idea what my relationship with my employer is, or if I have any income going forward. When I can eventually return to work I wonder where I will go. And so I enter the shortest day of the year reflecting on what I have learned and looking ahead.

Copyright JM Schreiber, 2012
Copyright JM Schreiber, 2012

I loved my job. I managed a small agency supporting survivors of acquired brain injury. I worked with a wide range of remarkable people and their families, walking beside them as they struggled to recover and rebuild their lives, to regain independence, to battle their own challenges and demons. It gave me refuge from the demands of single parenthood, provided human and social contact against my tendency to isolate, and confirmed my value as a man. But the price I paid was huge. I believed it was enough in itself and had not imagined it would end.

Suddenly I was tragically alone in the world. My closest friends were far away. In a city of over a million, there was no one I could call. No one to have coffee with, no place to go, no arms to lie in.

How had I managed that? Well temperament in part. But much more critically I began a transition from an externally female existence, to a more true, coherent identity as male at 40. I built my career in social services after that process began.

In transition I did not move from my neighbourhood, I remained actively engaged in ensuring that the schools my children attended were open and diverse, and experienced no rejection from my family. However to create a whole and consistent space in which I could live where no one knew my past, I guarded my history closely at the workplace. Over time I constructed walls, mastered the ambiguous answer whenever asked about my life, and even managed to successfully neuter and closet myself years after originally coming out.

Somehow this practice bled into my engagement with the community. Fourteen years on it came to colour my identity in the world.

This extended time of reflection from solstice to solstice, aided by a wonderful therapist, has been a time of learning to open and reclaim my identity. To understand how trans, gay and queer relate to me. To put it out in the world. To own it and to write it into being.

As the days grow longer I face an uncertain future financially. Yet slowly I feel the fire of anxiety and agitation that have marked this recovery from my breakdown losing some of its intensity. I have been filling notebooks with writing hoping that maybe some gems might emerge, for the sake of catharsis if nothing else.

Copyright JM Schreiber, 2012
Copyright JM Schreiber, 2012

So more than New Year’s Day, solstice holds the resonance of new beginnings for me this year. Happy solstice – winter to those of us in the the north, summer to my friends in South Africa and Australia.