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.

Aiming to see the bright side

For someone who recognizes the swings of bipolar disorder reaching back into late adolescence or early adulthood, I have had precious little acquaintance with depression. Unfortunately I remember it best as a stepping stone on the way to hypomania and, at worst, the door into a hallway leading up to eventual mania.

Now, on the heels of a drawn out period of manic and mixed state agitation I am settled into a pit of anxious depression. Bone weary I find it hard to sleep. With long days to fill I find it hard to focus. Plans and decisions loom on the horizon but I find it hard to concentrate. I make an effort to go out somewhere everyday but before long I feel nauseated and eager to get home.  And now my psychiatrist is unavailable so my faithful doctor has set about looking for someone else to help me assess the effectiveness of the medication I have relied on for so many years, just in case it is time for a change.

And the thought of a medication change is about as comforting as the thought of having the carpet pulled out from under me without warning.

Copyright JM Schreiber 2014  No sign of last week's storm
Copyright JM Schreiber 2014
No sign of last week’s storm

Today I made my own small effort to take back some control. It was a glorious warm September day, with only the piles of branches that litter the streets, sidewalks and parks giving testament to last week’s unexpected snowstorm. I made my way downtown to the offices of Wordfest, our annual literary festival, to see if they might still have a need for any volunteers.

One advantage of my current inability to work is that for the first time in years I am free to take part in this major festival. Typically it coincided with the busiest time of year at my former job, so volunteering or attending events was impossible. Now I am committed to helping out with two events on the 14th of October. I was cautious to warn them that my energy reserves are uncharacteristically  low at the moment but it is my sincere hope that in a month there will be a little more juice flowing. I can’t quite picture it getting worse.

In the meantime I have a plenty of reading to occupy my time in advance of the special visiting author events I hope to attend over the course of the festival. The support of my doctor and therapist is vital, I know, but Wordfest gives me a tangible goal to look forward to – an essential light at the end of the tunnel when everything else seems so uncertain.

Capturing madness on the page

I started this blog in a fit of manic energy not realizing how very close I was to running over the edge into full blown madness. And now I find myself writing in and around the experience as best I can, unpacking and worrying myself into the future with a level of anxiety that seems to greet me refreshed every morning before I even crawl out of bed.

Taken in the aftermath of major flooding last year this looks like how I feel sometimes... Copyright JM Schreiber 2013
Taken in the aftermath of major flooding last year this looks like how I feel sometimes…
Copyright JM Schreiber 2013

With my original diagnosis I read all the available materials and although it was pre-internet (imagine!) I spent a lot of time at the library. This time around I find myself in world where so many fellow travelers on the road in and out of sanity are busy scribbling their way along. I have been and will always be selective in what I chose to share about myself with others. Great for maintaining privacy, not so great for making new friends. So I struggle every day with how or what to add to the dialogue.

I think I am personally drawn to creative expressions… photography, poetry and writing but am not sure where to start. I suspect madness, sanity and that huge area in between is best met sideways. So no memoirs for me. Photography is good outlet but I lack the discipline to take it to the next level. I would like to capture that moment when reality and one’s experience of reality begin to part ways. It is such a subtle process with manic depression the way I experience it and I imagine I am not alone in this regard. To those outside, unless they are highly attuned to changes in your patterns of behaviour, the transition can be unnoticed for a time.

And then before you know it you are picking up the pieces or retreating from the world or both.

To date, the finest literary account of slowly growing madness, that I have read, is William Golding’s The Spire. This novel imagines the construction of a 404 foot spire atop a medieval cathedral (inspired by Salisbury Cathedral in England) and is narrated from within the mind of Dean Jocelin. The dean is a man who has attained his position by curious family connection rather than earning it on a solid foundation of faith. As he envisions and directs the construction of the spire, tuberculosis in his spine advances to the point of driving him into a psychotic state. At first he interprets the sensation caused by his infection as angels at his back, sure evidence of God’s blessings. However as his pain and madness grows he becomes increasingly erratic, unstable and irrational. It drives him to conflicts with the master builder, sexual obsessions with a woman, paranoia, jealousy and possibly murder.

William Golding - The SpireReading with an online reading group added to the richness of the experience of this novel, but for me personally it captured so vividly the sensation of gradually and fully losing grip on reality that I had during my first severe manic episode. By the final moments before the ambulance arrived to whisk me away I was no longer able to distinguish between what I had interpreted as a mental breakdown that I could handle and the creeping fear that the Devil was tormenting me. It was a horrifying moment.

For poor Dean Jocelin because he is not only mad but dying of tuberculosis, his last days and hours are vivid mental and physical torment. It is up to the reader to decide if his soul finds any peace at the end.

Luckily my more recent manic episode did not end with as much drama as the first because someone finally commented on how fast I was talking and I had the shocking realization that I was sick. But the damage was already done all the same. I just wish I could help those who experienced my behaviour understand but I am not certain they wish to listen. And honestly, can I be a more reliable narrator of my own manic experiences than The Spire‘s mad dean?

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.

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.