I have resisted the act of writing my self. Writing about myself. The conceit of imagining that my own experiences hold a value, interest or point of connection for others. I wanted to tell stories, inventions, creations that were removed from the inexorable ordinariness of my own life.
I am not sure I have that gift. I fear that all the stories I have that are worth telling are real. Not true stories. I do not believe there is an objective truth to the stories we tell ourselves or others. But they are real.
For many years I worked as a storyteller. Not in the conventional sense of the word. I worked with survivors of acquired brain injury and their families. Whether I was meeting with clients, advocating with professionals or leading support groups stories were my medium. I had hundreds of stories, I had a facility for remembering the broad details of the experiences of our clients and their families. Tales of courage, tales of horror, tales of the ordinary and the everyday. I was able to pull out an example whenever I required one to offer warning, hope, validation. And I was able to do so without revealing identifying details.
As always I was the master of ambiguity. After all that was how I engaged with the world myself. But what is essential in a professional capacity is crippling in a personal sphere.
I have touched at the edges of my own stories, in so far as I am learning to articulate them, in this space from time to time. And I am beginning to wonder whether it is a folly for me to assume that I have the capacity to make up stories, to entertain with carefully constructed lies.
Or if this mess of a life that has piled up in front of me like heavy wet snow against a plow has to be cleared, examined, transformed into words on a page before I can even begin to figure out if there might be something here that someone else might want to read.
In the coming days I will officially be two months out from the night a blood clot very nearly took my life. My chest still feels tight, bruised and cracked ribs are slow to heal completely, but I can finally get out and walk with comfort – something that was still impossible a few weeks ago. Rat poison is my friend.
I took my camera out into the neighbourhood this afternoon. The foliage is turning colour, the sky is crystal blue, yet I found my attention turning to the cracks in the road, the fallen leaves in the gutters. I photographed the little things that caught my eye and tried not to think too much.
As I look back on a month which began, at least as I can best remember, in a hospital bed on the cardiac unit, it seems oddly serendipitous that my final read for August is a book that begins in the chest clinic of an Austrian hospital. I did not know much about Wittgenstein’s Nephew in advance beyond the fact that it dealt with madness, one of Bernhard’s common themes. I had ordered it, in all honesty, to reach the free shipment minimum on an Amazon order for a quality adaptor for my trip to South Africa. It’s long been on my wish list so I just tucked it in. I picked it up off the pile on my coffee table yesterday and could not put it down.
Bernhard is a favourite. I always find him, in his characteristic vitriol, to to be funny and wise. But this book is less caustic and more sentimental than I could possibly have anticipated. It is also a tribute to his real life friendship with Paul Wittgenstein, in truth a relative of the famous philosopher. In one singular paragraph that extends over a mere 100 pages, the narrator, one Thomas Bernhard, orchestrates a grand meditation on health and illness, sanity and madness, and the singular power of a friendship grounded in common interests and mutual intellectual respect.
As this novella opens Bernhard is recovering from surgery to remove a tumour from his thorax. While he lies in his hospital bed tormented by his roommates and ignored by the nursing staff, he comes to learn that his dear friend happens to be confined to the mental ward of the same facility, ironically in the Ludwig Pavilion. Paul, who may well have suffered from manic depression, is given to recurring bouts of madness. For Bernhard, the causes and courses of their conditions are analogous:
“Paul went mad because he suddenly pitted himself against everything and lost his balance, just as one day I too lost my balance by pitting myself against everything – the only difference being that he went mad, whereas I, for the selfsame reason, contracted lung disease. But Paul was no madder than I am: I am at least as mad as he was, as he was said to be, though I have lung disease in addition to my madness. The only difference between us is that Paul allowed himself to be utterly dominated by his madness, whereas I have never let myself be utterly dominated by my equally serious madness; one might say that he was taken over by his madness, whereas I have always exploited mine. Paul never controlled his madness, but I have always controlled mine – which possibly means that my madness is in fact much madder than Paul’s.”
A blend of fiction and memoir, fans of Bernhard’s trademark crankiness will still delight in his rants against psychiatrists, German newspapers, simple minded people, literary prizes, actors and in the end, the cruel inevitability of death. But the beating heart of Wittgenstein’s Nephew is an ode to the life sustaining value of a true friendship. Paul is remembered as “the only man I had ever been able to talk to in a way that was congenial to me, the only one with whom I could discuss and develop any topic whatever, even the most difficult.” They shared a passion for music, an inherent restlessness of spirit, and a love of philosophical discussion and debate. A most rare and precious bond.
Ultimately, especially after the death of his wife, Paul’s spirit deteriorates. He starts to die long before his final breath is drawn, and as his friend witnesses this decline he finds it increasingly difficult to be in his presence. Bernhard pulls away, a rejection driven perhaps by the fear of dying engendered by those on death’s doorstop. This slender volume is a eulogy to a man of wisdom and spirit who could not maintain his grip on a world that is perhaps more mad and unstable than he ever was.
Thanks to the fallout from the clot sitting in my lung and the cardiac arrest it triggered, I am presently experiencing a faint taste of what chronic sufferers of lung disease like Bernhard might have known; yet, like Paul, I have also been diagnosed with a serious mental illness. At one point, Bernhard talks about returning home from the hospital and the reckless urge to do more than one is physically capable of managing. This leads to a rant about how the healthy fail to understand the chronically ill. This is an unfortunately valid observation, one that is especially true when the illness is psychiatric. A year ago this spring I suffered a serious manic break after 16 years of stability and although I am still “technically” employed, no one from my former workplace is allowed to contact me. I am a leper. Admittedly I have built a new community of support since that time, but I have had many more offers for assistance after my recent health problems than I can handle. It is quite a contrast. Last year I was prone to a few rants of my own about how I suspected that my employers would have been much more sympathetic had I had a heart attack.
A month out now from an event that still haunts my thoughts and emotions, I am gaining strength each day. Sometimes I overdo things and have to rest. A high level of smoke in the air from distant forest fires kept me housebound for week causing me to feel a little edgy. But I have read a decent number of books, including a few that may be among my best of the year thanks to the Women in Translation challenge. Winding up August with this heartfelt ode to friendship is perfect, after all there a couple long distance calls to South Africa on my cell phone bill. There were a few moments in those very early days in the hospital that there was only one voice I needed to hear.
Originaly published in 1982, this translation from the German by David McLintock was first published in 1989.
It is rare that I indulge in sharing a significant quotation simply because it speaks to the space in which I find myself but I keep returning to these words from Intimate Stranger by Breyten Breytenbach (Archipelago Books, 2009).
“Writing is fishing for memory in time. Viscous. Time black. Sometimes you see it flitting just below the surface – memory – miming time. Memory takes on the blackness of time. Memory will be time surfacing. Use word as bait. Beat the water. Beat the weird beat of baited words. Bloated. Wounds. The bleeding words like wounded boats on a black sea. Let the fleet wash up. The coast is the beginning of the sea’s wisdom. It comes with the territory.
Words have their own territory, they return home as in a song. The fish only discovers the water once it is removed from it. This land is a memotory.
But not peaceful. Memory as trigger for territory and tongue. The mind is full of bloody pieces staked out by tongue. Is there room enough? Memory killing memory.”
This book, a selection of meditations on reading and writing, was waiting for me when I returned home from the hospital just 10 days ago. I have been keeping it close and dipping in and out of it. Breytenbach is a South African poet, writer and painter but his life, his work, his vision is borderless. In this collection he offers practical advice, shares poems and reflections on the power of the word, drawing on his own experiences as well as the wisdom of a legacy of gifted writers.
Memory is the foundation of writing. One draws on experience when putting pen to paper – poetry, fiction, memoir alike. And it is memory that is weighing me down, threatening to drag me beneath the surface; a memory that haunts and obsesses me because although it involves me, I will never access it.
I have lost a space in time. Like a bruise it bleeds beyond the boundary of the injury, reaching backward and forward from the instant a clot in my lung threatened to stop my heart. Days are absolutely gone, the day or two before the incident, the day or so in ICU and the first days after waking. But I can’t let the blackness go. I cannot let it wash out to sea. I want to hold the moments, hours, days in my hands but I cannot. They do not belong to me. They are about me. They will never be mine.
I have read my discharge summary until I know it inside out. I have pestered my anxious son with questions. What was it like to find me in distress? How did you get to the hospital? How did you feel? Stupid questions. I am struck with shocked disquiet to realize that my family did not know if I would survive.
If I had not survived the blackness would be complete. Viscous. Time black. Inanimate from my perspective. My own memories lost. The sole distorted possession of those who knew me, no longer mine.
Sands are shifting. I have some fishing to attend to before the next high tide.
As soon as I was coming around a few days after my recent near death encounter (and I don’t mean that in any mystical tunnel of light sort of way) I told my kids that I wanted them to bring me books. I could barely stay alert long enough to get an entire sentence out but I wanted books. They obliged me. Wisely I asked for one of the few books on my shelves which might count as a mystery – Lost Ground by South African author Michiel Heyns – which has proved to be fine company indeed though I have only been able to read attentively for a few days now. They also brought along one of my endless stream of incoming purchases, a gem from Twisted Spoon chosen for Women in Translation Month – Primeval and Other Times by Polish writer Olga Tokarczuk. A surreal and fantastic work it looks good but I may have to push it a little further down the month. Reading is tough work after cardiac arrest. Go figure.
Now that I am at home, facing three blood tests each week and a host of other medical appointments all over the city when I have been told I can’t drive for 6 months, I find myself reading and re-reading my discharge report. I am living on warfarin – rat poison – afraid of bleeding too much or worse, clotting too easily and having a stroke. The devious little pulmonary embolism that triggered this whole adventure (a likely souvenir of a hellish 24 hours of flight time packed tightly into 28 hours on my recent return from Cape Town) is still sitting in my lung and will, they say, eventually be absorbed. My left leg is swollen and bruised due to a hematoma, a probable complication of the resuscitation process. I watch people jogging by outside on this hot summer day and feel like some sort of Frankenstein creature, dragging this heavy black and blue leg around.
Even though my friends have been amazing – I had a steady stream of visitors throughout my hospital stay and have no shortage of offers for rides around town – I feel a despair settling in. I don’t know where to turn, where to dig into the towers of books surrounding me. I wonder what would have happened had I slipped off this mortal coil two weeks ago. What would my family say about all these books on which I have squandered my limited funds? For heaven’s sake my open shelved coffee table loaded with books and stacks of journals – Granta, Paris Review, Music & Literature – came apart when the paramedics tried to pull it out of the way. I feel overwhelmed rather than excited about diving in to all the new books I have acquired in the past month. I had to buy an extra bag, after all, to get my haul of books home from South Africa and now they too sit on the shelf taunting me.
Will the magic of reading come back with my health?
I have also wondered if this experience is that final kick in the behind that I need to get serious about my own writing. I’m in my mid-50s. I’m not getting younger. Coincidentally while in the hospital I signed my first contract for the publication of an essay in a book coming out next Spring. It is a niche project – a collection aimed at gay, bisexual and transgender men – but my first professional publication credit all the same. So how much life with all its mess, joy and agony does one have to drag his or her sorry self through before there is enough fodder for a story? I wrote throughout my youth, being a writer was always my dream, a strength in every course I completed in university and every job I have ever held. But when it came down to creative writing I always insisted that I had to live a little first.
At this moment I feel that I lived so much that I don’t know where to begin. And now I have almost died too.
Sometimes you fool yourself. You believe that you are invincible. You know that bad things happen to good people. You know that they have even happened to you. But time and time again we are caught off guard reminded of the wisdom of Monty Python’s idiom: Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition.
If I had had more experience traveling I might not have made the mistakes that may very nearly have cost me my life this past week. I thought that by focusing my first visit to South Africa to longer stays in two areas, I would limit my travel time. But instead I ended up with long plane flights and interminable bus trips. Next time, and I definitely hope there is a next time – *the hematologist looks at me askance* – I hope to take longer and fly between major centres once I get to South Africa. The buses have a certain charm and I definitely got to meet and talk to people in a way I might not have otherwise, but to top off my three week excursion with a three leg flight home with very short turnarounds was a major miscalculation on my part. It sounded great. But I had no idea exactly how tight a three hour stop over is, especially if you have to clear customs. Longer stop overs would have helped. Baby asprins, compression stockings. Everyone has recommendations now.
Yet although I was tired and swollen upon my return, it would take a few weeks before my journey caught up with me. Last Sunday night, or rather, early Monday morning, two and half weeks after I returned home, all swelling and fatigue seemingly gone, I suffered a pulmonary embolism. Well actually, it was not clear what had happened at first. I have very little memory of that day or an evening event I had been to with friends. My 25 year-old son, a creative, troubled but wonderful soul, heard me moaning. Thomas came upstairs to find me disoriented. He called Emergency and started chest compressions.
The kid saved my life. In one of those odd ironies, or twists of fate, toward the end of my time away, Thomas had suffered a couple of acute panic attacks so severe that he twice was taken to the hospital. In the second situation he was referred on to a psychiatric nurse he liked and she suggested a 4 week outpatient program he had just started. Mind you my little detour has interrupted his plans but they will contact him as soon as there is a good point for him to join back in. Me, I will be in the hospital for at least another week, but the more “functional” I am, the more I can spend time reading.
So good with the bad. Who knows? Maybe the two truly are bound more tightly than we realize.
Over the past year I have embarked on a journey that began, unexpectedly, with the recognition that I had allowed pressures at my job to consume me, to drive me to the very brink of a complete breakdown. It was summer solstice when I removed myself from the office, imagining at the time that I would soon be back and on track. I had no idea how sick I was and no real appreciation of how much I had sacrificed to work and children. Now, with work in tatters and children grown I wondered if I had really lived the full and rewarding life I imagined that I had. Finding myself (again) in mid-life has been difficult, dark and lonely – a task I felt ill prepared to take on.
But it has been the very best thing that could have happened.
From a very low point last December, winter solstice, my life has started to change in very real and important ways. A wonderful therapist and proper medical support have been crucial, while finding a supportive community has helped me start to move out into the world in an honest and authentic way. But, much to my surprise, blogging has opened up the world in a way I had not anticipated. I began with no clear objective, fueled with manic energy, spiraled into a little anxiety driven meandering as my world fell apart and solidified this year into a basically book focused blog.
Along the way I made a friend who has become a ballast for me – a touchstone, someone who understands the experience of navigating the storms of bipolar disorder because she rides them herself. Someone who is also queer. And an avid reader.
However, getting together for coffee required a little planning. I live in western Canada, she lives in South Africa. And so I marked this past solstice, trading summer for winter, in Cape Town. Then I boarded a bus for the Eastern Cape province where I am now. I have long had an interest in South Africa, with the literature and history of this complicated and important place. The dust has not settled here.
My friend has given me a gift I will not soon forget. Our friendship has opened a space for us to explore our own personal journeys and to talk about our respective countries – to compare the differences and the similarities.
And I am also guaranteed to arrive home with books.
Today I received a notification from WordPress congratulating me on my first anniversary. Well happy anniversary to my alter ego roughghosts who was born on this day from a scarp of creative writing I uncovered in one of my endless unfinished notebooks. I never was very clever with user names; most of my aliases amount to little more than my initials and the first 5 letters of my last name.
I have become quite fond of roughghosts. It suits me, more than I might have imagined, or at least been willing to admit on May 31st of last year. To be honest, I created this blog to engage with other WordPress blogs and, I don’t know, maybe reflect a little, and explore some creative writing. At the time, a little voice I the back of mind said this looks like a rather manic move. After all I was under a soul crushing amount of stress at my workplace, had a major fundraiser and annual report due, and had not slept for more than a few hours a night since the previous November. But I shrugged it off, forged ahead only to crash and shatter into a thousand pieces a few weeks later.
Today, I have managed to rebuild myself to a point. There is still a lot more glue, stitching and healing required. Mania has subsided to a simmering depression with doses of anxiety and a pill that I do not like but is presently necessary as a sleep aid. And roughghosts the blog has evolved from a space to moan about the shock of realizing that, yes, I still have a mood disorder and all the fallout that a major breakdown entails, to a book based blog with a strong focus on translated and international literature.
Over the past few months I became involved with a jury shadowing the International Foreign Fiction Prize (IFFP), a challenging and highly rewarding experience. It taught me to read faster – still no speed demon, I – and read more deeply with a specific goal to being able to rate and write a constructive review for each book. I have started scribbling in margins and filling notebooks when I read. As a reader and a writer this has been invaluable. The camaraderie of reading and discussing the books together was an added bonus, introducing me to a great group of book bloggers. My subsequent expansion of activity on twitter has further enhanced this community of readers, publishers, authors and translators.
Then, close on the heels of the IFFP came the Best Translated Book Award (BTBA) with a challenging and exciting longlist and a selection of small North American independent publishers to discover. Adding to this embarrassment of riches for lovers of translated literature was the conjunction of the biannual International Booker and the writers I want to explore from that list of finalists. And, on top of all this, my longstanding interest in South African literature will be further nourished by a trip to that county in a few weeks with a list of books I hope to obtain.
I am, I hope, reading my way back to wholeness. Preparing to write my way back into the world, or rather document my very real journey into the world in a full and honest way for the first time in more than half a century of living.
This past week’s awarding of the 2015 IFFP and BTBA prizes saw the celebration of female authors and translators. The IFFP honoured Jenny Erpenbeck and Susan Bernofsky for The End of Days, a decision that coincided with our shadow jury’s esteemed choice. This is a most important book with a timeless theme spanning the whole of the 20th century. About an hour later the 2015 BTBA was awarded to The Last Lover by Chinese author Can Xue and translator Annelise Finegan Wasmoen. I encountered this book as a longlisted IFFP title and simply fell in love with the surreal, dream-like tale. Notably, Can Xue was also named that same day with six other women and two men as finalists for the Neustadt International Prize for Literature. I’ve been decidedly excited by this celebration of female writers and for those who know me, that is a huge shift in my own approach to literature.
Back in late January I wrote a pot in response to a discussion on the Tips, Links and Suggestions blog of the Guardian which had caused me to reflect on the abysmal ratio of female to male authors in my reading and on my shelves. However, my more explicit focus on literature in translation is slowly beginning to shift that balance. Especially if one considers how many of the works I read, if written by men, were translated by women. And I am taking serious note – not only should I endeavour to read more female writers, I can easily fall under the spell of Can Xue, Anne Garréta, Marlene van Niekerk, Olja Svačević or Valeria Luiselli, just to name some of the authors that have really impressed me of late. And I am pleased to report that an increasing number of the books I am currently reading or planning to read feature female writers and/or translators.
So, on my first anniversary as a blogger, I look back over an ad hoc journal chronicling an ongoing passage from a terribly messed up state, struggling to make sense of a sudden shock to my self esteem, my confidence and my identity to a place where I have a strong real life community, solid mental health support and a creative environment where I am proud of the work that I publish in this space. Moving forward I hope to explore further writing opportunities, continue to recover and, with luck, make my way back into productive employment.
And keep reading a lot of terrific, exciting and challenging literature from around the world.