walk on the perimeter
of your dreams. it’s not
that the roads are blocked
but that the hearts have
given into the violence of the wind
“Friday, March 25 at 4PM”
Etel Adnan, translated by Sarah Riggs
Into the second week of February and here we are, still living in interesting times, as the apocryphal expression goes. The past three years have brought disease, war and natural disaster, and have, sadly, served to demonstrate just how little we can care for one another. For many of us, it has also been a time of deepening isolation, especially for those with fragile connections to the community and outside world.
For days now I have debated putting my feelings into words, uncomfortable, as always, in talking about myself, even if most of my non-review related writing falls into the sphere of the personal essay. Of late, I have mostly written about how even that avenue feels fraught with barriers and challenges that my own sense of self worth cannot overcome. Then, when I turned to look at some of my occasional journal notes, I found that what I am feeling now I had already clearly articulated two years ago. Little has changed, except that the despair runs deeper and the mental health resources that were so important to me are now gone. I had overstayed my welcome in a system that is buckling under the pressures currently crushing healthcare services here and elsewhere.
Since the pandemic started, I have crossed into my sixties, encountered new medical challenges—none especially serious, as far as I know, and as of yet, no Covid—but I have not been outside the city limits and, apart from my immediate neighbours and my children, I have engaged in little social interaction. Finances have been a major factor, as have problems at home, yet I fear I have become increasingly withdrawn over this period. Trapped even. I go out every day, marking kilometres on the trails but the satisfaction that used to come with a good outing is increasingly elusive. I want to travel again and yet I cycle between anticipation and anxiety and keep pushing possible departure dates back.
I feel old, I feel tired and overwhelmed by loneliness. I fear I am drifting. It’s hardly a new sensation but it somehow seems that the past few years have made me feel at once anchored and anchorless.
I am also troubled by a continuing anxiety about my identity. Or lack thereof. At a time when identity has become such a loaded term, for better or worse, I can’t understand how people take some measure of pride, even comfort, in being queer or trans or something. I feel that the layers of my fundamental identity—sex, gender, sexuality, nationality, politics, religion—have all been stripped away. I am worse than naked. I am emotionally and socially flayed. Who am I now? Better yet, what am I? I have no job, no title, no vocation, no partner, no value.
I read. I write about the books I read and publish my thoughts in this space, typically trying to remain to the sidelines of my reviews. Any other words I try to write spiral into the void. I distract myself with little satisfaction, little connection, and a meagre measure of confidence. What do I have to show for sixty-two years? A differently gendered past rendered invisible on the outside that has left me in a body I will forever be at odds with? And a chronic psychiatric condition that has robbed me of the freedom of trusting my own worth, my own sense of self, my own existence.
There are far more books dealing with gender identity and mental illness on the shelves these days than there were twenty-five years ago when I was navigating crisis after crisis on both counts, but at this point in my life most of them seem to be speaking to someone alien to me. Rarely do I hear a discussion on either subject and think: Ah, yes, that’s so familiar. I wonder who I might be today if an understanding of the two separate and yet interwoven conditions that set me apart from such an early age had been available when I needed it. I might have had a different life, but I’m not convinced it would have been better. By the time one reaches sixty, the tangled complications of a life lived are impossible to unwind and reimagine. One can only look ahead.
In recent weeks I’ve been reading Etel Adnan’s collection Time. Published when she was well into her nineties, the poems in this handsome volume would have been composed when she was in her late seventies and early eighties. Clear and precise, her poetry crosses borders and time, touching again and again on myth, memories of war, desire, the body and the inevitability of death. With wisdom and grace, the poet untangles, reimagines and reminds me that life is marked with beauty and longing even as the end looms closer.
So where should one write? Back to the past or into the future?