This afternoon I was out in the yard. My overgrown mess of saskatoon berries and renegade daisies revealed random branches laden with nanking cherries. Last summer, July was a blur—wet, grey, and grim. My mother died on the 9th, she slipped away quite rapidly while my brothers and I were focused on the state of our father who had received critical injuries in a car accident. A year ago today we were watching him slowly fade. By the 20th he was also gone.
It has taken a full year for the loss to begin to feel real. Their house is now clean, repaired and ready to be listed. None of us, not even their grandchildren are particularly attached to this rural dwelling where they spent the last six years of their lives. Now, more than ever it feels like a shell, hollow.
I grieved my father as I dissembled his library. I had to travel to central Australia to begin to grieve my mother—and that process has only just begun. It started with a dream. She came to me and lingers with me as an absence. This weekend my first effort to verbalize this absence was published in RIC Journal along with altered images from my time in the red centre.
With one hour left, in my timezone, to the longest day of the year, I have decided to forego the solstice updates I have written for the past three years. On this day in 2014, I found myself unable to work and facing the fact that I had become very ill under extreme workplace stress. A job I loved was no longer mine and years of living a deeply closeted existence left me without a close friend to turn to.
Three years later, I have a job interview tomorrow morning for a position that, should I be fortunate to get it, would involve outreach and advocacy within and beyond the LGBTQ community.
When I left for Australia in May I carried three personal objectives. One was to challenge myself physically. The second was to open channels to the grief I am carrying. The third was to seriously reflect on my ongoing disconnection from queer community. Each one of these goals was met, albeit in ways I had not anticipated. I returned changed in small but profound ways.
I came back carrying the outback in my soul. There is hardly a day that I wake up without dreaming about being in the red centre. It is in my system and the experience of the place and the people has coloured the way I see and want to live here, back at home.
Today, on summer solstice in the north, winter in the south, that is all I want or need to say. Except that, appropriately, this is also Aboriginal Peoples Day (renamed Indigenous Peoples Day) here in Canada.
“be a ghost gum rising from the waterhole in each heart”
— Rico Craig
Birthday Waterhole, in the photo above, is perhaps the most stunning and isolated campsite we stayed at along the Larapinta Trail. The line, quoted from Rico Craig’s newly released collection Bone Ink, seems to me to capture so much of the past three weeks—from my own peculiar challenges with walking (or more often, not walking) the trail, through to lunch with the poem’s author on my final full day in Australia. But more about all of that later. The key word at the moment is birthday.
A few days ago, WordPress kindly reminded me that my blog is three years old.
The past three years have been marked by tremendous growth for myself as a writer, amidst loss, trauma, and great adventure. What continues to amaze me is the degree to which the internet, for all its shortcomings, is able to connect people across the miles. Over this past year, many of my casual blogging and Twitter contacts have grown to form a rewarding and productive creative environment that I value very deeply. But it is always a special treat to meet an online friend face to face.
My recent trip to Australia was instigated by an invitation from a fellow book blogger to join his annual “Larapinta Extreme Walk” in support of the NPY Women’s Council in the Northern Territory. Unfortunately, I arrived with what soon developed into a severe head cold that still lingers, tinged once again with jet lag, as I write this. I’m still processing my disappointment at not even being able to know how I might have managed the trail under healthier conditions, but the experience was incredible and invaluable nonetheless, and everyone was so friendly and supportive. I will write about it at greater length in a few weeks time and share more images of the incredible desert landscape.
After two weeks in central Australia I spent a few days in each Melbourne and Sydney. I met with five online contacts during that time, including a long-time friend from the Pentax Forum (a camera as obscure, relatively speaking, as my literary interests tend to be). Every single encounter was wonderful in its own way. Strangely, online banter clears away the space for good solid conversation of the sort one is often at loss to find in the communities we regularly exist in. Naturally, a strong common interest tends to set the course.
So today, as I look back on three years of blogging—and my subsequent forays into Twitter and to a lesser degree, Facebook—I am especially cognizant of how much warmer and richer my world has become. And not only have I been publishing my own original writing beyond this space, but when I suffered a series of losses last year with the deaths of my parents and a dear friend, the outreach of sympathy and support far exceeded anything I received in real life. Which is both heartwarming and sad when you think about it.
I won’t make any predictions or set any goals for roughghosts in the year to come. I don’t want to be reckless or foolhardy in my ambitions. This blog is, first and foremost, a forum where I can call attention to books I read, without necessarily indulging in the rigour I apply to critical reviews for publication elsewhere. It also provides a space to exercise my writing skills and toss out ideas or work through emotions that are troubling me. The beauty of a blog is that you can directly track the response and reaction to your work—you have a sense of the book reviews that draw readers and the musings that resonate with others. That feedback is vital. I imagine that this will remain the primary purpose of this project.
At the moment though, I have four books I’d like to write about here, and a review to prepare for Numéro Cinq. And after months of battling writer’s block, I find that words are starting to flow again, so I am hoping to carve out some time to write and work on ongoing projects of my own.
And that seems as good a way as any to celebrate three years of roughghosts.
My father was born on this day, April 26, in 1928. Marking his birthday for the first time since his death last July is bittersweet. My father was a difficult man, he rarely played with us or talked about his childhood—I would not even begin to appreciate why he was this way until I was in my 40s—but he gave me my love of literature. He would regularly run out on Christmas Eve and bring home books especially for me, starting me early on children’s abridged classics: Hans Brinker, Treasure Island, The three Musketeers and my very favourite, Tales of King Arthur and His Knights of the Round Table. I have spent the past few months combing through his library as we clear out our parents’ house. I selected the books that were suitable for donation to charity, decided which were not worth saving, and brought home the books I could not part with.
My father loved history, poetry and Russian literature. Much of the poetry I had already acquired, piece by piece, over the years; the war history will, I’m confident, find new homes; and I saved for myself his Russian lit (more Gorky than I expected) and his fancy editions of Western literary classics. I have gathered his Russian collection on a small shelf in my office and hope to salvage language from these books to create an experimental composition in his memory. But, as I made my way through his library, I found a few little treasures that speak to his years in New York City in the 1950s—a magical time he was forever trying to get back, long after that New York was gone.
He was in his early 30s when he was finally able to attend university. His parents were not supportive of academic pursuits. He studied electrical engineering and would never complete his degree for lack of funds, but while he was at Columbia his great joy was to write for the student newspaper. He reviewed opera and concerts. He would have been well suited to the life of an academic if he had had the support to take an Arts degree. But that was not to be although he would go on to be a highly respected, if difficult, electrical designer and contractor. Among his books I found a program of concerts from 1950–51, along with a charming contest entry for a chance to win an “Easter outfit,” and a couple of mini pamphlets of “The Raven” and “Annabel Lee” (the last book he gave me a few years back was a complete collection of Poe’s poetry and prose).
The process of sorting through my father’s books, left me with a clear image of him haunting secondhand bookstores throughout his life. My favourite find was a copy of a red hardcover called Modern European History by Charles Downer Hazen. Published in 1917, the first owner left his name inside the cover. I don’t know who accidentally burned through the binding, but my father left calculations inside the back cover—not simply solving math problems, it looks like he was tracking the number of pages he was reading.
My father had a thing for numbers, he tracked the temperature and the stock market figures every day right through to the end—not so much out of an interest in the markets as far as I know—but as a little bit of mental exercise. He was afraid of dying and even more afraid of mental decline. I’ll have to keep counting for him. Today he would have turned 89.
As I write this, it is mid-afternoon on Saturday, April 15, and it’s +3C with light snow. I am truly quite finished with this endless, last gasp of winter. In one month’s time I will be in Australia (where it will already be the 16th and, if all goes well, the “extreme walk” into the outback I have traveled to take part in will be well under way). I am excited and a little nervous about the challenge ahead, but above all I am looking forward to being “off the grid” for the better part of two weeks with plenty of time to process some of the internal baggage I’ve been carrying as I undertake this long and demanding journey into a landscape I never imagined I would have the opportunity to experience.
Some of my regular readers may know that two years ago, following a trip to South Africa, I nearly lost my life. I should have known better, but I was sorely ill-prepared for the effects of extended travel on planes and buses. I did everything wrong and failed to recognize the warning signs of impending danger. After surviving this critical event, I found myself afraid of risking extensive physical activity, even after receiving a clean bill of health on all counts. This is, I learned, a not uncommon, if misguided, response.
Naturally, I ended up hopelessly out of shape. In pushing myself into an enthusiastic training regime earlier this year, I soon found myself with an inflamed bursa and torn meniscus on my right knee. Cue the physiotherapist. My knee has responded very well—I am walking without pain for the first time in months and now, if only the weather would cooperate just a little, I will be as good to go as I am likely to be.
Which will hopefully be good enough.
This little venture is a mere 223 km/11 day hike over mountain ranges. What could possibly go wrong? (Don’t answer that!) If you are interested, I invite you to check out the site—the Larapinta Extreme Walk is a fundraising event created by fellow book blogger Tony Messenger (Messenger’s Booker) in support of a vital Aboriginal women’s initiative. Donations can be made if desired; every little bit helps.
As much as I am looking forward to this experience as an opportunity to reflect, grieve, journal and, with luck, open up the writer’s block that has dogged me these past few months, I am also very excited to have the opportunity for some serious bookish conversation along the way. And before I head home I will have a few days each in Melbourne and Sydney, where I already have tentative plans to catch up with other readers and literary-minded folk, as well as an online photography friend I have known for years but never met.
So wish me well as I continue to train, and as I get the reading, reviews, and writing I’m presently committed to completed in advance of my trip.
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.
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.
Words are lumpy, awkward, and unwieldy these days. Frozen, they neither form nor flow. I would like to blame it on the times, the weather—anything but this emptiness I can’t shake.
I used to say: I’m a loner, but I’m never lonely.
These days I’m lonely, even when I am not alone.
I am reluctant to write about this. I can remember listening to others complain about being lonely—even when their lives were filled with activities and people—and wonder how they could talk that way. More critically, I blamed them. It must be something in them, I reasoned, a bitterness or despondency that drives others away.
And now that person is me.
I understand the sense of alienation—and the way it can so easily be reflected in a coldness borne of anger and pain. Loneliness engenders a void that fills the space between the self and others. A space that grows and pushes the lonely person farther away.
I’ve been reading about loneliness of late. In an essay published on Aeon last July, Cody Delistraty argues that for all its pain, loneliness can build character. It can be a positive experience.
Assuming one emerges, that is.
Depression, cognitive damage, and suicide are very real risks for those for whom loneliness becomes chronic. Delistraty’s thesis is self-serving. He goes to Paris seeking a period of solitude and finds himself irritated by a lonely woman who desperately craves someone to talk to. Choosing to isolate one’s self for a period of time—to recharge, to create, to write—is a deliberate, and hopefully productive, act. In The Lonely City, for example, Olivia Laing chronicles her experience being alone in New York City. I read it last year and related to her observations, but at that time I was still grounded by two important people in my life. One year later, both of them are gone.
And loneliness is very hard to bear.
As a loner, I was always careful to balance my tendency to isolate against work that was people focused. When I unexpectedly had to leave my workplace several years ago, I instantly became aware of the void that had developed over years of living closeted, as a man with no past. Unable to work, I sought to find a community where I could be out, be myself, but that seems to be a space that exists most authentically only when I write. In my experience, the LGBT “community”—at least in my age range, in my city—is not as supportive of diversity as one might imagine.
So if it is in writing that I find the freedom to be myself, how to exist beyond the page? Alone?
I will have to find a way to write through, above and beyond this loneliness, I suppose.