Surfacing: Some reflections on the general messiness of life

I have been quiet these last few days. Not entirely absent, but definitely lying low. I’ve needed to claim a little cleansing time, hold social media at arms length for a while and, you know what? It feels really good. My life has taken on a fine shade of hell lately–at the least serious end a recalcitrant major household appliance, and at the most serious, an alcoholic adult child who confessed to making active suicidal plans. And since this is real life, there have been a few more critical pressure points in between, familial and financial.

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With the worst of the most critical crises calmed, but of course not “over,” I thought I would emerge a little and take a deep breath.

Today I submitted my latest outside review and I am looking forward to spending a little time reading simply for the sake of reading. I may write about what I read, I may even write reviews, but I am keen to lose myself in words and ideas for a while without the pressure of dragging a notebook along. Fortunately I have no reservations against marginalia, love a book with a few blank pages at the end for notes, and never read without a pencil handy.

I have recently acquired a number of collections of short stories and essays that I am anxious to explore, I realize that I am almost a year from my trip to South Africa and I have barely touched the stacks of books I dragged home, and I am presently making my way through some works that I hope will contribute to my own writing. So I will not be at a loss for reading material, which is a good thing because my book budget has just been ruthlessly slashed by unexpected expenses.

CounternarrativesBut first and foremost I am caught in the absolute brilliance that is John Keene’s Counternarratives. This collection of short stories and novellas has me captivated. After noting it in my peripheral vision for months I finally bought a hardcover copy just before the paperback was released. Now that I am into it, I take it everywhere on the chance that I might have even a few minutes to slip back into it. I can’t remember the last time a book had me in it’s thrall like this one.

And when I am finished I might even write about it. But for now I just want to read.

 

PS. Warm thanks to DC, MM and JT for supportive words over the past few days. Who says you can’t meet some fine folks on Twitter?

January 2016: A slow start to my reading year (and why does that bother me?)

The first month of 2016 has almost slipped away and I am feeling overloaded. Too many stressors have collided to take a curious toll on my ability to read and blog. My reading continues to be fractured. Books are not the same refuge they were a few months ago. Not that they don’t keep arriving (or rather following me home) and haunting me as the stacks pile up, staring at me, daring me to read faster. But my reading is slow, and the books I had expected to venture into by month’s end have not yet been cracked.

And then there is life, the one that doesn’t exist in books, the one that can’t be shelved or put aside for a later date or, as much as I would love it sometimes, be tossed into a pile to go out to the next charity sale. It is hardly a surprise. Over the past month I have had to face some extraordinary challenges on the home front – some new, some long standing, and others simply arising from the financial reality of owning a car and a house, both of which are well past their prime. Some matters have been resolved – one mechanic and two plumbers later – I just have to figure out how to pay for them; others are less concrete, more emotionally corrosive and resolution is not in sight. If another well meaning person says, “This too shall pass,” my reaction may be less than generous.

Copyright JM Schreiber, 2013 The last time I had a month with two separate plumbing calls I took this shot to celebrate the joy of a clear drain that had been blocked for more than four weeks.
Copyright JM Schreiber, 2013
The last time I had a month with two separate plumbing calls I took this shot to celebrate the joy of a clear drain that had been blocked for more than four weeks.

Through it all I have been reading but by some weird twist of logic my attention has been drawn toward much more intensive review projects. Blogging is fine but for each review I write I spend 4-6 hours, so when I encounter an ambitious, complex, postmodern novel like Klaus Hoffer’s Among the Bieresch, forthcoming from Seagull Books; I can’t resist the desire to read into the varied subtextual materials, especially the works that I don’t know well and – with luck – explore the novel in a space with greater critical elbow room and a much wider audience than my blog commands. There’s a voice in my head that says “Are you out of your mind?” and, maybe I am but, at this moment, I seem to be most comfortable burying myself in demanding critical projects, losing myself I suppose. At the same time, I am also spending more time on my own writing: a personal essay I hope to enter in a contest and a piece of experimental prose.

Tell me then, what is with this book blogging pressure I feel? It’s not a numbers game. No one is going to disown me if I don’t read and review two books a week. Reading and writing about books is supposed to be fun. And, heaven knows, the spaces I that want to write for, on or off my blog, are literary acts of love and, as such, there’s typically no money involved.

So blog posts may be slower for a while. I am reading. I am writing. And I am dealing with all the messy business of living.

Draw me a map to my self

Yesterday I took a small road trip with my son out to visit my parents. It’s about a two hour drive each way and this is the first time I felt that I had sufficient stamina and concentration to manage it since my breakdown in June. The countryside is beautiful but the journey did not really offer me more than time to sit and fret behind the steering wheel.  I thought about how I used to need a road map to navigate the back highways when my 86 year-old father’s ongoing retreat from civilization first drew them out there a few years back. I no longer need a map and know the route well.

Copyright JM Schreiber 2013
Copyright JM Schreiber 2013

I could, however, use a personal map or trail of bread crumbs to follow back to make sense of the past year or two of my life.  A mood disorder can wreak havoc on one’s internal compass. In the hazy debris of an extended period of hypomanic energy sliding into manic, I am finding it impossible to make sense of where I was or where I go from here.

At a deeper, more fundamental sense I have lost faith in myself. Or rather my ability to make sense of my self.

It is likely that this is the affect of depression. It’s hard for me to know because I have rarely ever experienced the sort of black dog depression that many others describe. I tend toward anxiety and a bone weariness that weighs me down, but I do not crawl into bed and pull the covers up. I don’t sleep well, in fact I tend to insomnia. But I don’t recall experiencing the all pervasive lack of physical energy that haunts me now. I find it hard to remember how I ever managed to accomplish all of the projects, personal and professional, that I tackled during the many years of relative stability I experienced over the past ten to fifteen years.

At the moment, the fact that’s really eating away at me is that the last impression I left at work was of a manager who was increasingly high strung and finally quite stressed and obnoxiously concerned that he alone had the skills and perspective to resolve the challenges facing the agency. The manic Mr Hyde side. But how long was he showing his face? And now that I am living with a shy, anxious shadow of my Dr Jekyll self (assuming I even have one) I wish I had GPS system of some kind to help me retrace my steps.

A good therapist would help, and I do have one, but at $180/hour I won’t be seeing her much and if I am going to spend that much I would rather wait until I have figured out where I have been so she can help me figure out where I go from here.

Or maybe it’s better to accept what cannot be changed and look forward instead…

Shame, guilt and absolution

Shame: A painful emotion caused by a strong sense of guilt, embarrassment, unworthiness, or disgrace.
Copyright JM Schreiber 2014
Copyright  JM Schreiber 2014

A severe manic episode leaves a residue of shame that no magic formula can resolve or wash away. Your behaviour, actions, words and deeds – no matter how out of character – are remembered by others while you, yourself, have only the foggiest sense of a hellish few days or weeks.

As the weeks pass I find myself unable to shake thoughts of my workplace, the environment in which my manic drama played out. I don’t think about returning to work and I know that at this point I could not even mentally or emotionally entertain that notion even if they would accept me. I realized today that it is the unbearable shame I feel for actions and words I could not control and can never properly apologize for that is eating me up inside.

A post on a blog I follow inadvertently put me in mind of a poem I discovered in the wreckage of my first manic psychosis many years ago. The poem, “Deceptions”, by Philip Larkin was inspired by an account from Henry Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor of a young girl who was drugged and raped by her master.

The poem is exacting in its depiction of her grief and the poet admits, unapologetically, that there is no consolation he can give her; recognizing that both victim and perpetrator were deceived in the violent act. I think it is this very measured recognition that there is nothing that he can offer to absolve grief and shame in the sufferer whether the event is recent or buried by the sands of time that gives the poem its power. The following lines struck me when I first encountered them and this time around, perhaps because my manic episode was a much more public event, they clearly articulate the feelings with which I am currently trying to come to terms.

… light, unanswerable and tall and wide,
Forbids the scar to heal, and drives
Shame out of hiding.  All the unhurried day,
Your mind lay open like a drawer of knives.

This too shall pass, I know, and I will ease the drawer closed and the emotional scars will fade with time.

Absolution is not the issue. Mental illness is not a sin.

Too anxious to read?

It should be a luxury to be freed from the demands of a regular work schedule, with no shortage of books to read and time to stop and reflect on where one is at in life. In fact that is the mandate, so be it, of my present circumstances. I am on sick leave with no pressure to return to the workplace and an expectation of a reasonable income to see me through the next few months. At the moment I know I am too fragile to consider working anywhere and my employer has been less than forthcoming as to whether they foresee a place for me in the future. I just know it would be reckless to engage in any employment related discussion or decision making for a while yet. So I find myself with time on my hands.

I should be reading more. Yet I feel like I read more when I had barely a minute to spare.

I have been cocooning myself with stacks of books and, like any book addict, have continued to browse for and purchase more. I have four underway – two old school paper format, two electronic – one serious literary, one non-fiction, one genre fiction and a collection of short stories. Each one is excellent but I seem to be struck with some inability to stay put without great anxiety building and the sense that I should be somewhere else. Or rather in some other book. So I put down one and pick up another.

Sometimes I try to take a walk, grab my neglected camera hoping to find inspiration, or at least distraction, in these gorgeous summer days. That’s what I did today, but I happened across a sidewalk sale outside the most fantastic bookstore along my way and came home with six more books!

I’m not used to anxiety. It seems to eat away at an ability to focus in a way that neither the ups or the downs of my regulated mood disorder ever has. The overwhelming sense of unease, the unknowns, the uncertainties appear to be keeping me from finding solace in the written word.

Boardwalk into the darkHopefully this shall soon pass because it would be a crime to worry away such valuable reading time.

Reflections on a most intriguing Booker nominee – The Wake

6898212431_742cf14ae7_zSo the Booker Prize Longlist for 2014 was announced this week and, as much as I like to think that this is a list that does not hold quite the same seal of approval and impact that it once had for me I must confess that I am a sucker for these lists all the same. Generally, over time, I do manage to read more more than a few of the long and or short listed titles, and in doing so, I am invariably exposed to authors I might not have otherwise read. I am not likely to radically alter my looming to be read list just to have a go at a few of these titles in advance, but I did want to take a moment to look back on the most unlikely contender and, as it happens, the only one of these books that I have already read. The Guardian review that brought this title to my attention was so deeply intriguing I just had to read it as soon as possible. I have only just learned that it was a crowd sourced project, a factor that makes its appearance on the Booker Longlist that much more, shall we say, against the norm.

The Wake by Paul Kingsnorth is an historical novel set in the years immediately following the Battle of Hastings from the perspective of the very ordinary and simple farm and townspeople who were watching the world they knew turned upside down by a foreign invader. The magic of this amazing tale comes through a very creative and effective use of language. It is written entirely in a shadow tongue designed to evoke the feel and mindset of Old English while retaining accessibility for those of us who are not OE scholars. It may sound like a gimmick but the approach actually affords a unique immersive experience.

WakeKingsnorth relies on much authentic vocabulary without being unnecessarily rigid, while recreating the syntax and common spellings of Old English (using only the letters in use at the time). As a reader it takes a while to develop a feel for the language. At the beginning I found myself translating the directly in my head, the way I do with my rudimentary French, but soon that process fell away. It helped when I discovered that there was a most illuminating author’s note on the reasons for his approach to creating this language and I would suggest that a reader review this early on. I read the book on a Kindle as that was the only edition readily available in Canada at the time so I did not realize the supplementary sections, glossary and extensive bibliography existed until I was well into the book!

What takes this small novel beyond a purely literary or historical exercise is the skill with which Kingsnorth brings his chosen narrator to life. Buccmaster of Holland, is a proud socman or freeman landholder, who leads a small band of self-styled greenmen in guerilla warfare against the Norman invaders. They make for a rather motley crew and our leader is no Hollywood inspired superhero. As the tale unfolds we become increasingly aware that this coarse, paranoid, prejudiced man is clinging to a deeply superstitious tradition that was on its way to being replaced by Christianity long before the French arrived. We find ourselves bound to an increasingly delusional man with dark secrets of his own. Kingsnorth himself describes this novel (his first) as a post-apocalyptic tale set 1000 years in the past. Of course it also has strong echoes in the vast number of occupations and conflicts, large and small, that continue to haunt communities and cultures throughout the world today.

I first read this novel three months ago and loved it. However I look back on it with some measure of discomfort as I now continue to come to terms with the fall out of from a serious manic episode. In the leadership role I held at my workplace I became increasingly stressed under mounting pressure and, although I can’t remember, I must have seemed erratic, irritable and well, unstable. The truth of madness, is that you cannot see it from inside. For a long time you may sense that something is wrong but in the end you lose all insight and judgement. The narrator who guides us though The Wake, is a complex troubled character, but given his challenges and his panic at seeing his world – on the fundamentally economic and spiritual level – slipping out of his grasp, his sanity is at stake. I cannot imagine I would have fared any better.

Reining in the manic mind

Manic thinking is big thinking. Massive. As mania progresses it becomes impossible not to become overwhelmed by the hugeness of the circumstances you perceive them. It is not unusual to feel caught up in the frantic spin of galaxies, astronomical or closer to home. Thinking is logical but as speeds ramp up, your judgements and interpretations can slide off the rails. The first time I was seriously ill, back in my 30s, I am sure there were some very grounded personal and even hormonal factors at play but, in the spectacular end I was experiencing definite delusions.

They say you mercifully forget those moments of rambling, crazed phone calls, strange behaviours. The kids crying in their rooms. The morning the ambulance finally arrives. I have not been blessed by such amnesiac elements.

With my recent breakdown, the stressors building to the moment of collapse were situational, profound and prolonged. They built over months, a year maybe. Then the roller coaster crested and the decline came on rapidly. And I was the last to notice. My workplace had been through a period of turmoil but as we tried to move forward I became increasingly obsessed by the massiveness of the work that I felt needed to be done to pull the agency together and make up for years of underfunding and failure to plan for the future.

My anxieties may not have been entirely misplaced. But I could no longer stop and see the good, to measure the necessity to take one step at a time and realize that moving forward is a process, not an emergency. I was so consumed with the forest that I lost sight of the trees.

Rainy day solitudeAs I am beginning to heal I am aware that I am still prone to a significant measure of massive thinking but I am also starting to doubt myself. I find myself wondering if the entire nightmare was of my own making. I have to remember that I was not the only staff member to express serious concerns, and that everyonewas impacted by the stress. One co-worker has battled stomach ulcers, another who is never ill was laid low by the flu for weeks.

I almost lost my sanity.