Ropes across the abyss: How Shostakovich Changed My Mind by Stephen Johnson

The opening pages of music broadcaster and composer Stephen Johnson’s How Shostakovich Changed My Mind detail what is clearly one of the most moving interview experiences of his career. He is in the St Petersburg apartment of Viktor Kozlov, one of the few surviving members of the orchestra that performed the triumphant debut of Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony in 1942. He describes, with the clarinetist’s assistance,  how that performance was pulled together against all odds. Leningrad, as it was known at the time, was under siege, and Stalin not only wanted an opportunity to galvanize the beleaguered citizens, he wanted to send a message to Hitler who was waiting within earshot to celebrate victory. As an artist within a system that could turn against him in a heartbeat, the burden on Shostakovich to deliver a suitable masterpiece was immense. In the end, it was a rousing success. He managed to speak directly to the people’s emotions, and give them a reason to feel united in a time of war. The invigorated audience responded with an ovation reported to have lasted over an hour.

But here was something else too: that puzzling conundrum I had noted so often when pondering the appeal of Shostakovich’s music, but which now struck me with heightened force. In the Leningrad Symphony, Shostakovich had held a mirror up to horror, and reflected that horror back to those whom it had all but destroyed—and in response they had roared their approval, their delight, their gratitude to the composer for giving form to their feelings.

When Kozlov’s account of the event was complete, Johnson asked him a most formulaic question. He wanted to know how that same music made him feel when he heard it today, completely unprepared for the response. Both the elderly musician and his wife burst into tears—it was a question beyond any possible answer.

It is this ineffable power of music to reach into the deep emotional spaces in our lives where words often prove ineffectual, to give voice to that which we ourselves cannot express—especially in times of anxiety and distress—that becomes the very personal focus of this most fascinating book. Part musical biography, part memoir, part psychology and philosophy, this book-length essay draws its greatest strength from Johnson’s passionate affection for and deep connection to the music of Dimitri Shostakovich. His association with the composer’s repertoire reaches back to his own difficult adolescence when, ignorant of the world of rock ’n roll, he sought comfort in the Shostakovich’s thundering chords. Blessed with an acute musical memory, he was able to carry fully orchestrated movements in his mind in a manner he compares to a romantic teenage infatuation, during the times when his mercurial and unstable mother’s volatile behaviour made life otherwise unbearable. This uncanny musical aptitude serves him well as a writer. His ability to breathe life into complex orchestrated passages and open up the key elements at play in major works, is likely to inspire readers to download or stream the pieces under discussion, or pull dusty records or CDs from their shelves. It is not necessary to engage an aural experience in the reading, but it does tend to be difficult to resist the inclination to do so.

As one might imagine, given the unusual title, How Shostakovich Changed My Mind is an intimate account of the intersection of music with the personal drama, and trauma, of life lived. Johnson draws on literary, philosophical, neurological and psychological resources as he explores the connection between music and the brain, an area of growing interest and investigation, but he anchors his inquiry in the story of Shostakovich’s life and work during some of the most tumultuous events of the twentieth century—a thoroughly fascinating account in its own right—while tracing out his own particular relationship to this music and the role it played , not only in adolescence, but in his own adult challenges with bipolar disorder.

Shostakovich’s music can be wildly moody, shifting abruptly from lighthearted to savage to slow and achingly sombre. But it is not without structure. In listening carefully, Johnson became attuned, early on, to the thematic connections that he describes as ropes stretched across the composer’s own abyss, a bridge of sorts. It is a fundamentally important discovery for someone with a mood disorder—a condition I also understand too well:

As a bipolar sufferer, I know what it is to experience manic flight. At its worst it has been truly frightening, like a bad, drug-induced trip. Even when I’m not manic, I’m aware of how my conversation can go off on sudden tangents. Some of my friends have found it entertaining; others have found it bewildering, even alarming. It certainly alarmed my mother although she could be as dizzyingly tangential as anyone I’ve ever known. It was another aspect of my behaviour that provoked my father into panic-stricken attempts to close me down. I became seriously concerned about my own ‘intoxicating and leapfrogging’ thought processes—until, that is, I came to know Shostakovich’s Fourth Symphony. As I found Shostakovich’s connecting ropes and pulled them taut, it was though he personally was reassuring me. The exhilaration I felt was not dangerous; it was controlled, expertly rounded off by this extraordinary music.

If Shostakovich reached one troubled and alienated youth, it is not this particular music alone that holds the key. Johnson muses if he had been exposed to rock music he might well have found similar comforts and a peer group to share it with as well. But it matters not. The magic, if you like, lies in a link between music and listener, through a mechanism folded into the evolutionary structure of our brains. One that has the power to ease isolation, to unify, and to move both the individual and the crowd from “the ‘I’ to the ‘we’” as witnessed on that August night in Leningrad in 1942.

Moving deftly between the artistic, the scientific, and the autobiographical, this extended essay, never gets bogged down or off track. It makes no effort to be exhaustive, after all, at the core of the book is the relationship between the music of one very enigmatic Russian composer and the author whose life has been influenced, possibly even saved by it. Johnson’s own story unfolds like a well-crafted symphony itself, building through layers, in and out of the various streams of his narrative, to reach the point at which he was caught at the opposite end of the bipolar dance—in such an agonizing state of despair that suicide seemed the only way out. Again, he captures well the reaction of others to this side of the manic-depressive experience. In his darkened, unreliable state of mind, he came to believe that ending his life would not only ease what had somehow become an unbearable emotional pain, but would free up his wife Kate to get on with her life without the burden he felt he was invariably placing on her:

Depressives can be immensely frustrating for those who live with them. They tend to go around in the same anxious, obsessive circles endlessly; to the worried onlooker, it can seem that they actually don’t want to be helped; and they can be horribly irritable. For my part, I had still to learn that exasperation is more often a sign of love than its absence.

It was, ultimately, a fortuitous sequence of events that led him to his therapist’s office when he had intended to cancel; a lucky mistake that enabled an emotional breakthrough—or breakdown—that would turn the tide. However, Johnson can’t help but wonder if Shostakovich’s Eighth String Quartet had played even a small role on his road to recovery.

A year earlier, he had been given an assignment to prepare liner notes for a new recording of the popular Quartet, a task that had necessitated close engagement with a work composed when Shostakovich himself had been suicidal. He wonders if the writing and playing of the piece in which the composer famously places himself—or notes corresponding to his initials—as the central motif, had made him change his mind about killing himself, or whether it was simply the fact that a friend had intervened and removed the vial of sleeping pills he’d had on hand. And there’s the challenge: Music can do many things in times of emotional distress—reaching us in our darkened state with an image that is more accurate than the bleak self-portrait we cling to. However:

it cannot, in the broader sense, ‘see’ us. It can prepare us for the moment when we are seen; it can function as a life-raft in the most terrifying seas—for years, if necessary. But the moment of salvage needs a real living other, to see us and to know us, to signal to us that we are still worthy of rescue. Music could not do that for me, not quite—but it brought me very close.

How Shostakovich Changed My Mind is a rich account of the life and work of one of the most important composers of the twentieth century, a wide ranging discussion of the ability of music to provide expression and meaning in times of joy and sorrow, and, most importantly, a personal memoir of how music can serve as a means to navigate madness, especially in those times when, from inside, all one knows is that something is not right. This is a book for a wide audience, but for myself, as someone who also suffers from bipolar disorder, it has given me a lot to think about and reflect on looking back at my own relationship to music—and this illness—over the years.

How Shostakovich Changed My Mind by Stephen Johnson is published by Nottinghill Editions in the UK and distributed by NYRB in North America. Shostakovich: A Journey Into the Light, the 2011 BBC radio documentary that sets the groundwork for this book can be found online here.

 

We all have a cruel month, mine is June

June lengthens, rising toward the longest day of the year. This is my most painful, impossible month and this year my awareness of the layering of repeated circles around the sun is taking on a new intensity.

Like a film flickering at the edge of my field of view, Junes of the past keep rolling in and out of focus. This week. Convergence.

Twenty-two years ago today, I was released from a period of involuntary hospitalization. The psychiatric ward was a strange place, with strange characters from the requisite Jesus dispensing wisdom in the dining room, to the young orthopaedic surgeon on suicide watch. I recall my time on the unit as the first opportunity I’d had in years to worry about no one but myself—and plenty of medication to ensure that I didn’t do too much of that either.

I was a manic patient in the process of coming back down to earth.

*

Eighteen years ago this week I had my first shot of testosterone. My partner of twenty-one years moved out the next morning. I cried for fifteen minutes, dusted myself off and moved on into a new reality. A single parent. A shape-shifter, slowly masculinizing.

Out of madness and into manhood. Or something.

Five years ago this week—summer solstice, 2014—I summited the heights of mania, once more, after a long steady climb over the crumbling rocks of my own sanity. I can only imagine the spectacle I’d become over the final months at the office. I remember trying to hold together an agency that seemed to be coming apart at the seams, everyone looking to me to fix things and ultimately taking the fall when I lost my grip. Nobody intervenes with a madman if that madman is doing a job no one else wants.

Nobody catches him when he falls or helps pick up the pieces. No one sends flowers.

The undignified end of my career forever unresolved. June 20, 2014, a day I can barely remember. A day I will never forget.

Exactly one year later I sought my own closure. Booked a trip to South Africa—the first and sadly only chance I would ever have to spend time with a close friend, queer and bipolar like me, but down a much deeper darker road, one with no escape, as it would turn out.

I timed my arrival so I would be in Cape Town on June 20, 2015. Imagining that I would invert my fortunes by marking winter solstice in the southern hemisphere. That I would stand and face the sun going down and bring to a close a difficult twelve months. Put it all behind me and move forward into a renewed life.

Reinvent myself again.

But of course, closure is a myth and life writes its own lessons. I would have to come to terms with death first. Very nearly my own within a month of returning home. Then my mother’s, my father’s, my friend’s.

I was torn open. Again. I’m still pulling myself together.

*

This June, for all the added hours of daylight, it’s darkness I am fighting. The malaise, the murky waters of the bipolar cycle were never my habitat until these past few years. To feel my spirit and energy ebb as the seasonal shift ushers colour into this dead brown world is difficult to bear. With the added rainbow intensity of Pride Month, ever reminding me of everything I cannot find within my own queered reality, I keep falling further into the dark corners of my own imagination.

All month I’ve been pushing against this current of discontent.

I can’t stop thinking ahead. This October brings my 59th birthday. Next year I turn 60. I don’t even know how I got here. No other milestone has pressed down on me like this one. I have a number of friends who are over 60, but not one of them is facing their seventh decade alone.

Alone. That is what I didn’t expect at this age. Or if I suspected it, I didn’t think it would hurt like hell. Alone is not a lack of people in your life. It is a lack of something you know is missing, that you cannot even fully define so it’s hard to know how to fill it. A close friend? A lover? Something to give your life meaning?

For me feeling alone is something pervasive. Embodied. Written into the physical and gendered trajectory of my existence. Here. In June. Once again.

*

June lengthens, rising toward the longest day of the year.

Passing rain. An image that stirs, the shifting light, sun, darkening skies and sun again, on a wet and glittering world. This is summer. Not quite but almost.

I simply have to hold fast.

Winter solstice 2018: From now on each day gets brighter

It seems as if each year, as I come to my customary winter solstice year-in-review post, I am looking back at another bleak year—not entirely bleak of course, but on the northern hemisphere’s shortest day, it’s easy to allow the dark days to slide into one’s imagination. Last year, I ended my post on a high note, enthusiastic about my son’s sobriety. It did not last, but a solid alcohol-free stretch is a start. I was at once cautiously optimistic and typically cynical, knowing how my life has been playing out in the recent past.

And so, yet another year of ups and downs nears an end.

2018 began with the excitement of getting ready to head to India, to spend two weeks in Kolkata. I was, I told myself, going to get some serious writing done. I gathered all of my fragments and half-finished pieces of work, backed up in the cloud, and packed a stupid number of books and too many warmer clothes “just in case”. I wrote little, read nothing, bought even more books to drag back home, and had the time of my life. If the city’s particular character overwhelmed me for the first few days, it won my heart before long. I was able to spend time at the office of Seagull Books, taught a class at their school of publishing and met Ngūgī wa Thiong’o. I had a chance to meet and spend time with friends, contacts from blogging and Twitter, reinforcing my experiences in Australia the year before—this online space can translate into real life contact, contact that sometimes builds into deeper lasting friendships. As I write this, I am looking forward to returning to India this coming February, this time for a full month, visiting  Calcutta for a week, but expanding my journey to include Kochi, Mumbai, and wherever else time and circumstance affords.

However, my failure to meet any of my, perhaps unrealistic writing ambitions during my stay in India turned out to be prophetic for the rest of 2018, especially with regard to my ability to make progress on the increasingly phantom memoirish project I keep fretting over. I’ve spent much of the year doubting the value of writing about the self at all, and then wondering what, if any, stories I have worth telling. So, apart from a few photo essays, a short poem and a handful of reviews, I’ve published no significant personal work at all. Instead, I channelled a fair amount of my writerly energy into editing for 3:AM Magazine. Admittedly there is an element of productive procrastination at play, but I truly find editing, especially for such a respected and unclassifiable journal, to be a highly rewarding activity. Over the year, I’ve had the honour of working on some really fascinating and original projects with a wide range of gifted writers.

I also had the honour of being invited to San Francisco this past summer to host an event in honour of translator Isabel Fargo Cole and the release of The Tidings of the Trees by Wolfgang Hilbig. Meeting Isabel and having the opportunity to visit the offices of Two Lines Press and the Center for the Art of Translation was a thrill. The trip also afforded me a chance to catch up with my cousins whom I had not seen for close to forty years. Our mothers, now both gone, were sisters making this precious opportunity extra special.

On a personal level, 2018 was another year of upheaval. I have lived without income for several years, a result of a series of unanticipated  traumas and a reconsideration of what is really important at this point in my life, but well aware that this is unsustainable in the long run. So I decided to sell my house, move to a smaller, more manageable space, and invest the proceeds (just in time for markets to plummet, as would be my luck). The sale and purchase went well, but the move was devastating. My son and I made the time-honoured mistake of thinking that because we were moving less than a kilometer, we could handle most of it alone. Downsizing from a house I lived in for twenty-four years to a two-bed apartment condo was impossibly heartbreaking—especially for my son who was grieving the recent overdose death of his best friend, someone who had spent a lot of time at our home over the last dozen years—and the physical stress of trying to unload and move a quarter-century of life and living.

As I settled into my new place, an older low-rise building above an embankment of Douglas fir trees, just steps away from one of my favourite natural areas in the city, I was hopeful that the change of environment would mark a new beginning. I hoped for a fresh surge of creative energy, a renewed focus, and an opportunity to move beyond the losses and loneliness of the past few years. But, of course, when you are facing challenges deeply rooted within, your problems simply move with you.

Over the fall, as the days grew shorter, my world grew darker. I found myself feeling increasingly isolated socially and emotionally. When I did go out with others, I would come home and feel like gouging my heart out. Online I often pulled away so as not to post anything as dark as the thoughts I was harbouring. Cautiously, much of this was released in a post I published in late November, Who am I now? Slouching toward queerlessness. It stands as the most popular new post on my blog this year—misery loves company? I’m not sure. Ostensibly a brief essay about the difficulty of trying to address a truth of experience, however subjective, in a world—and for me that world is queer and differently gendered—that only values certain truths. The subject, hardly a new one on this blog, is still valid. But some friends heard the acute pain just beneath the surface and reached out.

I’m happy to report that my psychiatrist heard that pain too and recognized it for more than my usual seasonal blues or the lingering effects of a bad cold. To be honest I was more concerned than I dared to admit. By early December I had become so weak that I was wondering if I’d even have the energy to manage my trip to India. Yet, I was reluctant to believe that a small increase in my psych meds would help. With my doctor’s encouragement I agreed to give it a try. Within days, the pain in my arms and shoulders lifted and the world looked brighter. I celebrated the renewed energy and focus. Depression is an insidious foe, fooling you into believing it’s all your own fault. I was diagnosed bipolar in my thirties, but until recently elevated moods were my demons; serious downswings are still a new territory.

So, although the core concerns visited in my Who Am I? post still exist, the creative juices have started flowing again after almost two years in abeyance. I am reading and writing with purpose. With luck (knock on wood) it will continue for a while.

And so, at last, to my year in books.

This year was a little different. I read a lot of strong books, including a fair number that I didn’t end up reviewing, most often simply due to lack of time. However, when it came to prose—fiction and nonfiction—there were fewer standouts, whereas with poetry, I had a hard time narrowing down my favourites. Poetry was a constant and essential companion this year. At times it was the only literature that could hold my attention.

The best two books I read in 2018—and no matter what else might slip into the final days this will not change—are Esther Kinsky’s wonderfully evocative novel, River (tr. Iain Galbraith) which I reviewed for Music & Literature and Ursula Andkjær Olsen’s awesome collection of experimental poetry, Third-Millenium Heart (tr. Katrine Øgaard Jensen) which I responded to experimentally and poetically at Minor Literature[s].

Beyond that, these are some of the books that I have continued to think about often since I read them:

Fiction:
Bergeners by Tomas Espedal (tr. James Anderson)
The Tidings of the Trees by Wolfgang Hilbig (tr. Isabel Fargo Cole)
Where the Bird Disappeared by Ghassan Zaqtan
Murmur by Will Eaves

Poetry:
Adrenalin by Ghayath Almadhoun (tr. Catharine Codham)
Brink by Jill Jones
The Little Book of Passage by Franca Mancinelli (tr. John Taylor)
Jonahwhale by Ranjit Hoskote
Footnotes in the Order of Disappearance by Fady Joudah

In most parts of the planet, winter solstice is likely over, but where I am, this post makes it under the wire. Regardless, best of the season to all.

Musing about maintaining wellness on World Mental Health Day

World Mental Health Day. In the handful of years that I’ve been maintaining this blog, I have yet to stop for a moment to acknowledge this annual effort to raise awareness of mental health issues around the world.  In fact, I rarely address the subject even though mental illness, and the stigma it carries, has profoundly impacted my life. With significant costs.

And yet, compared to many of the people I have known, worked with, and cared about, I am lucky. I am capable of functioning well with medication and therapy. Mind you, I was well into my fifties with a ruined career behind me before adequate support for my bipolar condition was finally in place. It shouldn’t be so hard to access care, but it is, and continues to be so no matter where one lives.This morning, with another fresh snowfall on the ground, only a week after we were treated to an entirely unseasonal 40 centimetres of the stuff, I made my way downtown to volunteer with our annual readers’ festival. As I walked through the cold and fog, my mood was bleak. The importance of a strong social network is regularly stressed for the maintenance of mental health and well-being. However, in this city where I’ve lived for most of my life, I have no strong social connections. I have family, but we are not close. I have children—a daughter who is making plans to move to the US to marry her boyfriend and an adult son I live with who has his own long standing mental health concerns, but they really need to be living their own lives. Close friendships, meaningful relationships, continue to elude me. My closest friends, even my last partner, have been at a great distance.

A sense of loneliness, growing deeper and more pervasive in recent years, has become my most constant companion.

*

The city’s damp, misty streets seemed to feed negative ruminations as I walked. Much of a mood disorder is, to be certain, beyond one’s immediate control—my darkest, near suicidal depressions have come at times when things in my life were positive—but I am fully capable of falling into dark spaces when I allow myself to dwell on what I don’t have. My losses. My failures.

Fortunately, although the weather remained dismal, my day brightened. I made three runs to the airport to pick up visiting authors and, as a result, I was able to enjoy in depth conversations about life, literature, and writing with journalist and author Rachel Giese, and novelists Rawi Hage and Patrick de Witt. I was kept busy, engaged, and interacting with writers.  A good day—good for my writerly self and really good for my mental health.

So on this World Mental Health Day, I suppose I want to say that access to appropriate mental health care is vital. And for each person that can look  very different.  But the reality of living well with a serious mental illness, even with medical support, is a daily effort. For myself, being able to engage with others who are passionate about reading and writing is a vital part of maintaining wellness. It’s one of the factors that keeps me engaged with an online literary community, but it is always nice when I can enjoy a good conversation in person.

A constant procession of ghosts: A reflection

August has passed, it seems, with little to show for itself. Smoky skies and an air quality rivalling that of some of the most polluted cities of the world curtailed much outdoor activity here. Further to the west, where the smoke originated and forests burned, it was worse. Now, as skies clear, temperatures are dropping and summer’s fading fast. Leaves are turning yellow. Autumn nears.

Two years ago today, September 1st 2016, a dear friend took her life. A second attempt after years of trying to fight off crushing bipolar depression. Unable to work and living on savings, treatment often meant driving to a public hospital, an hour each way. She lived in a small village in the Eastern Cape Province of South Africa. We only met once. I spent a week with her in 2015, but from the moment we first met online, it was as if we had known each other forever. We could joke and riff off each other, falling into a regular routine as a dysfunctional divorced couple that often fooled others. In truth, we were bound by queerness, books, and bipolar disorder. Soul mates shipwrecked in our own lives.

But, of course, I couldn’t save her.

In the months before Ulla died I held a certain distance. I was reeling from the recent death of my mother, followed closely by that of my father. Knowing that she was fragile, and, after three years, still grieving her own mother, I was unable to reach out to her to seek or offer support. We were both drowning, but her sea was darker and more deadly. It had been for a long time.

With my parents’ sudden and tightly timed deaths, I had imagined the possibility of an exercise of writing immediate grief—echoing Barthes and Handke—but the burdens of being an executor distorted and distended the mourning experience and, for the most part, these losses remain unwritten. Then again, my parents were in their eighties with long lives, well-lived, behind them. My friend’s death, at forty-six, was more complex. I knew it had to be addressed, not simply for myself but for a community of followers who responded to her actions intently and personally. It took three months to salvage words and craft a 300-word piece which was published, with my own photographs, in late November of 2016. Each time I come back to this eulogy I realize how much of my immediate grief is contained there, perfected and concise.

Who, and what, in the end, do we write grief for? If we are looking for catharsis, a way to move beyond grief, we may be disappointed. Perhaps grief simply moves with us, evolving and softening over time.

If Ulla’s death sits especially heavily at this time of year, at the moment there is an extra weight. Earlier this month, my son’s best friend lost a difficult battle with opioid addiction. He had been at our house quite a bit in the last weeks, and although clean at the time, he was really struggling. My son is devastated. He’s been seeking refuge in alcohol and routinely breaks down in a flood of tears and despair. His sister and I feel a loss too; Dylan was a common presence in our lives over the past twelve years, but to be honest, in recent times I wasn’t always happy to see him on the doorstep. He and Thomas have both, at twenty-eight, been fighting their own mental health and addiction issues for a long time. And they were not always good for each other. They could be up all night arguing—usually about politics, but sometimes about really “important” matters like the difference between a canon and fugue. Things could get violent. One morning Thomas broke his hand on Dylan’s head (and glasses). But music was their real bond. They wrote and recorded songs together and spent hours busking on street corners over the years. They believed in each other when neither could believe in himself.

As a parent it is agonizing to watch my child in pain and know that his is a mourning song I cannot write.

*

As September begins, I am aware more than ever that we are surrounded by a constant procession of ghosts. I’ve bought a two-bed flat and, at the moment, I’m deeply engaged in the process of emptying out closets, cupboards and rooms of accumulated stuff so that, by October 1st, my house will be empty and I will be settling into a much smaller space. The sheer volume of junk that needs to be dumped, donated, or moved is overwhelming. And with it, reminders of the losses of the last few decades keep resurfacing when I least expect it.

Out in my unfinished garage where I have amassed a mound of old, damaged furniture and broken objects waiting for pick up, I found a windshield propped against the wall. I have no idea what it was for or why it is there, but I know it was something my father must have picked up and forgotten. I’m surprised how much of him I couldn’t part with after his death—his Russian literature, a bust of Beethoven, a grandfather clock—all tangible reminders of a man who was so elusive, so hard to know.

Of my mother, there are few objects I wanted to bring home but her presence permeates so much of my life. Especially the one I tried to live in her image. As a girl and woman. Packing up children’s clothing for donation I find the beautiful outfits she crafted for her precious granddaughter—lined coats, fancy dresses—her attentions to Ginny’s wardrobe becoming ever more feminine as I, her only daughter, transitioned to male. I also unearth all the outfits I myself made for both my children in their early years when I was still determined to play the part birth had granted me. A part that, ultimately, has nothing to do with gender at all. I truly enjoyed creating beautiful things for my children. It just didn’t alter the sense that I wasn’t female.

And so, this house is also haunted by ghosts of myself, the selves I wanted to be, the self I became while living here. The self I still don’t know what to do with. I haven’t even uncovered the boxes filled with all my childhood photographs or angst-ridden adolescent writing. But documents with my old names, once-treasured possessions, and even a wedding dress have been revealed. Some will be retained, others hastily stuffed in bags and carted off to Goodwill.

Then last night, another more recent, unresolved ghost emerged. In a closet I found a manual from a leadership workshop I took a number of years back. At that time I was confident, more secure in my sense of self than I would ever be. My transition, in my mind, was complete and a success. But within a few years, my brief, yet promising, career in not-for-profit management would be destroyed by circumstance and my own mental illness. A loss I still have not come to terms with and yet it seems like something that belonged to another person. As if my life has just been a series of reincarnations that seem to leave me no wiser or further ahead.

And no more certain who I am.

And then there is my own addiction: books. Spread through three rooms, with most shelves double stacked, I shudder to think how many boxes there will be. No mercy for old magazines and outdated textbooks. They are bound for the recycling bin. But every time I scan my bookcases to collect charity sale donations, my decisions about what to hold on to shift. My anthropology and ecology texts are now gone, but my philosophy, classics and ancient Near Eastern history volumes remain. I notice that so many of the books I bought during my years of bookstore employment in the early 80s are still valued, even if I didn’t appreciate some for decades after purchase, whereas the literary bestsellers I devoured in my thirties and forties have been, and are, regularly pruned and sent off to new homes. Some of the obsessive tangents reflected in my collection are held dear, others are an embarrassment.

The books we read, and perhaps even more tellingly, the books we buy with the intention to read them, reveal a lot about who we are, who we want to be, and who we want others to imagine we are. More ghosts in our own lives.

And I suppose moving is one more opportunity to encounter, reshape, and even resolve a few of those ghosts—our own and those of others whom time, distance, or death have taken away.

Maybe even grieve.

Continuing the conversation: Four years of roughghosts

The neighbourhood I live in runs across the top of a steep embankment carpeted with tall Douglas fir trees. Long before the city expanded this far west, the Bow Bank Quarry, one of fifteen quarries operating in the Calgary area prior to the First World War, mined a seam of sandstone along this ridge. Remains of the mining operation and the small settlement that housed the stonemasons who worked at the nearby brick factory and their families can still be seen today. But the only formal recognition of Brickburn is the sign that stands alongside the railway tracks.

I’ve been walking the pathways through this storied region for decades. Now only a short distance upstream from the downtown core, a precious wildness has reclaimed the embankment. To hike the challenging Douglas Fir Trail is to slip into a space that feels and smells like being in the mountains, in the middle of this city that sits where the foothills of the Rockies give way to open prairies. One can lose oneself in the beauty of the forest, but echoes of the past are ever present—in the rocks and trees, in the spirits of the Indigenous peoples who traversed the land and rivers for millennia, and in the traces of the settlers whose early industrial efforts transformed the river valley for better or not.

At one time, years ago, I sketched a few notes for a possible story about the years of mining and brick manufacturing in this location, or rather, about the rough ghosts that abandoned communities harbour. The thoughts I hastily gathered in a notebook were later uncovered by chance when I was searching for a title for what was an undefined blog effort. And thus, four years ago today, roughghosts was born.

I’ve mentioned before that this blog was created on a whim, about three weeks before months of increasingly unstable behaviour escalated into full blown mania, essentially ending in a nightmare that would cost me my career. I crawled home wounded, relieved to be away from what had become a very toxic, dysfunctional workplace, but suddenly found myself alone in the world. I had loved my job, it was my life. I was angry and hurt that things had been allowed to come apart so completely. I had worked in a disability field, was open about my own disability, but no one understood how desperately ill I had become and what that really meant. Cut off from all resources, I was left unsupported and isolated. I didn’t even have proper mental health care to turn to. Nor did I have any friends. No partner. My parents were aged and far away.

In the end, starting this blog when I knew it was the last thing I had time for, turned out to be the thing that kept me going in those early months following my breakdown and beyond that, through further challenges I could never have anticipated, including my own very-close-to-death experience, the sudden loss of both of my parents, a friend’s suicide, and a period of intense depression. It also gave me a forum to write. About mental health, about anxiety and loneliness, about sexuality and gender, and of course, about books. And it is the latter, that ultimately opened my world.

 In the past four years I moved from occasional musing about books I read, to writing critical reviews and creative essays for publication, and, most recently to editing for 3:AM Magazine. I have made friends around the world, and have travelled—something I thought I would never have a chance to do—visiting South Africa, Australia, and India. Had I not lost my job, I likely would have not moved beyond the idle musings and I would have continued to hide the truth of my personal history.

From the time I was a child, the one thing I really wanted to do was write; I was always bursting with ideas. But in adulthood, I found that stories began to elude me. I have stacks of notebooks filled with rough sketches that never moved past the vaguest of outlines. With each year, creative writing became a more desperately difficult act. I was losing a sense of self to anchor my writing. In searching for characters I was hoping to find myself. Yet what I ultimately came to appreciate was the truth that if I was going to feel whole, I would have to be able to live in the world in the gender I’d always sensed inside. But rather than freeing up my stories, transition threatened to bury them for good. As I devoted myself to a new reality as a single male parent, building a new career out of nothing, I quickly learned that my mis-gendered past—the first forty years of my life—could only be addressed in the most neutral terms. Being out as a differently gendered person was not an option. I had no supports within a LGBTQ community which, as it existed at the time, was alien and unwelcoming to me. So my stories, now that I’d started to understand them, had no audience.

Being freed from a closeted work existence has given me a voice, even if only a portion of my writing and my blog address queer issues. Meanwhile, in the real world, being “out” has proved to be an uneasy reality for me to navigate. My people, I know, are book people. Gender, sexuality, age or location are all secondary.

Roughghosts—as a blog and a Twitter handle—has served as my introduction to the world as a reader and a writer, under my real name. I still struggle with loneliness and depression, I’ve continued to face a tremendous amount of loss and challenge, and I grieve the years and opportunities I missed in this long queer journey of life. But this space has become an important outlet. It is a space to write about books, poetry, travels, and to offer the odd tortured reflection about the messy business of living. Literature will, I hope, continue to be the core focus of this blog.

Thank you to everyone—friends, fellow readers and writers, translators, and publishers—who have entertained my meanderings thus far. I’ve really come to love my blog, as place to talk about books, and a ground to explore writing ideas. It is one space that truly feels like home.

Looking back in anger: A personal reflection on World Bipolar Day

You might as well haul up
This wave’s green peak on wire
To prevent fall, or anchor the fluent air
In quartz, as crack your skull to keep
These two most perishable lovers from the touch
That will kindle angels’ envy, scorch and drop
Their fond hearts charred as any match.

Seek no stony camera-eye to fix
The passing dazzle of each face
In black and white, or put on ice
Mouth’s instant flare for future looks;
Stars shoot their petals, and suns run to seed,
However you may sweat to hold such darling wrecks
Hived like honey in your head.

—from Sylvia Plath, “Epitaph for Flower and Fire”

I have known mania, and the imagery in this poem sparks with an intensity that excites and disturbs. When I encounter the words of one of the many poets known (or thought) to share (or have shared) the same affliction, I often find an undercurrent that causes me to flinch for just a second. Not that it diminishes the beauty or power of their words in any way—it is rather an echo in the dark, a faint recognition flashing by.

Image copyright Joseph Schreiber, 2012

It is World Bipolar Day, and this is the first time I have stopped to recognize the fact. I have spoken in, and around, my own bipolar diagnosis, but I have never addressed it formally in my writing. Even now I find myself uncomfortable discussing it. On the one hand, I am fortunate. I respond well to medication. I am, to use that distasteful term, “high-functioning.” But I do harbor a deep anger toward this condition that was part of my life many years before I finally careened through a brutal month of manic psychosis and found myself committed, and ultimately diagnosed, at the age of 36. I was, in classic bipolar fashion, the last person to suspect that I had a mental illness. Even though I, and those around me, knew something was terribly wrong, the stigma and lack of understanding around mood disorders—not to mention the radically impaired insight the sufferer has when they are ill—stands as a barrier to timely intervention. And then there is the matter of actually accessing care. One almost has to crash completely—by which time it can be too late.

Between my first manic episode in 1997 and the second in 2014, I experienced more than sixteen years of stability. I transitioned, became a single male parent, built a career out of nothing, and eventually became the Program Manager at an agency dedicated to working with survivors of acquired brain injury. I loved my job. Looking back, I can now see how the last few years of that period were marked by an increasing tendency toward hypomania. With my psychiatrist’s support I cut my medication back. And then things started to fall apart at work—things beyond my control, but it fell to me to try to pull things together. Then I started to fall apart at work, until I spiraled into full blown mania. Not psychotic, but it matters little. The damage was done.

The agency I worked for, dedicated as they are to supporting clients with disabilities including co-morbid mental illnesses, treated me with distrust bordering on contempt. My only contact with them has been conducted through a workplace advocate and my insurance worker. When return to work was discussed they refused to consider any possibility that I could work there again. Almost three years later with long term disability finally at an end, they still have my personal belongings.

Nine years of employment and dedication to that job now stand as a gaping hole in my life—a life already filled with gaping holes. And that is one of the reasons I hesitate to talk about mental illness (although I have never hidden my diagnosis). What can I say? Bipolar is not my identity any more than transgender is. Both fuck up your life. Leave wounds that do not heal. Find you fumbling through mid-life with little to show for your years but a lot of things you can’t talk about. And periods of time you cannot even remember.

So this is why I find it hard to write about my experience with mental illness. There was a time, following my diagnosis, that I devoured everything I could find, just as, a year later I hunted for books on gender identity. Two pieces of a puzzle I had inhabited—the periodic mood swings and the persistent, life-long feeling that I was not the female person everyone else knew me to be—had finally fallen into place. I had two, if you wish to be specific, explanations that come neatly labelled and defined within the covers of the DSM. It was, for a while, a source of relief.

Today I rarely read any literature that deals with mental illness or gender. But I am aware, more than ever, of being doubly stigmatized. And, most painfully, within the spaces where you would expect acceptance—in the human services profession and within the queer community. Thus the anger.

And what is this anger? Grief. The deep griefs I carry, layered now with more recent bereavements. It has become, for me, an existential bitterness that plagues me, an inauthenticity that defines the way I intersect with the world.

The legacy of mental illness is this: after diagnosis I was advised not to dwell on the disease, not to talk to others with bipolar; I was not deemed “sick” enough to warrant outpatient support or psychiatric follow up. I was left, like so many others, to flounder in the dark. It would take seventeen years and a spectacular career-destroying crash before I was able to access proper psychiatric and psychological support. I am still lucky. I am stabilized. And the forced detour into what may become an early semi-retirement has afforded me a space to write.

Now I need to find a way to write my way through this weight of grief. And begin to heal.

I’ll leave the last word to Sylvia Plath, with the final (fifth) stanza of the poem quoted above:

Dawn snuffs out star’s spent wick,
Even as love’s dear fools cry evergreen,
And a languor of wax congeals the vein
No matter how fiercely lit; staunch contracts break
And recoil in the altering light: the radiant limb
Blows ash in each lover’s eye; the ardent look
Blackens flesh to bone and devours them.

—You can find out more about the International Bipolar Foundation here, and a prose poem I wrote to honour a dear friend who lost her desperate and brave battle to bipolar last year can be found here.