Our uncertain stories: Immortal for Quite Some Time by Scott Abbott

There is a fortuitous intersection between my first, and to date, only attempt to capture a memoirish reflection on the page, and Scott Abbott’s memoirish reflection, Immortal for Quite Some Time. My Minor Literature[s] essay was published a year ago this past May, just as Scott was proofing his book. I followed that process via his blog, The Goalie’s Anxiety. We shared concerns about opening oneself to strangers. When my small piece went live, his reaction was so immediate and gut-level, that I returned to his positive words repeatedly in the weeks that followed. Now, my reading and my attempt to record my reaction to his finished book comes at a time when I am seriously beginning to build on the project that started with my initial essay and flesh out a life twice lived—my own. And although, on the surface, the circumstances driving our explorations would seem very different, both involve fundamental, human questions of identity, belief, and family. As a result, my reading of this work is decidedly idiosyncratic.

Immortal for Quite Some Time is, as Abbott states in his epilogue, a “fraternal meditation,” an attempt to answer a question posed by his brother John, who died of AIDS in 1991, at the age of forty. Estranged from his devout LDS family for several years prior to his death, John’s question is simple: “Are we friends, my brother?” Scott’s reply, complicated by his loss of faith, conflicts with the rigidity of the Mormon church, a loveless marriage, the demands of parenthood, and a deeply ingrained homophobia, is ultimately more than two decades in the articulation. Presented in the form of diary excerpts, highlighted with images, outtakes from John’s notebooks, and the input of a critical counter narrative voice, Abbott struggles to reach a place of comfort with the answer he so dearly wants to offer. Thus, we are warned, from outset, that this is not a memoir: “The story is uncertain, the characters are in flux, the voices are plural, the photographs as troubled as the prose.”

It is this disclaimer that promises an honesty that respects all the shadowed corners one encounters looking into a life lived—whether that is someone else’s life or one’s own.

Immortal opens in the morgue in Boise, Idaho. The image of John’s body on the examination table forms a stark pivot point that his brother’s thoughts return to again and again: “His feet are livid.” From there, the narrative swings back to Farmington, New Mexico, 1950, midpoint between the births of Scott and John, only fourteen months apart, and moves, with broad strides, through the 50s, 60s and into the 1970s. Scott’s missionary obligations and academic aspirations take him to Germany, where an intellectual infection will begin to work its way into the assumptions and presumptions of his strict Mormon upbringing. John will go to Italy and, for years, his family will speculate if that is where he was “corrupted,” or whether he was “lured” into homosexual behavior at some earlier point. One of Scott’s first steps to reconciliation and acceptance of John’s orientation will involve coming to understand that sexuality has a biological basis. Not that that understanding provides a desired comfort with his own, decidedly heterosexual, attractions for many years.

Scott’s belief in God slips away from him much more readily than his homophobia. However, he continues to uphold the expectations imposed on him by his background. He marries young and before long is supporting a brood of seven with a teaching position at Bringham Young University. John, despite strong grades and an interest in pre-med studies, ends up working as a cook in a series of cafés. His contact with his family is limited and strained. His notebooks reveal little about his personal life. Abbott is clearly troubled by his brother’s isolation and sadness. It was not easy to be gay in the 1970s and 80s, but coming from an uncompromising religious tradition made it much more difficult. It still is today.

Throughout this work, John is a memory, a ghost, as much as a loved and lost brother and son. As readers, we only hear his voice filtered through time. See him peering from old photographs. In that sense, Immortal for Quite Some Time, reads like a fraternal love letter, an apology, and a reckoning. Scott Abbott is wise enough to know that the only story he can really tell is his own. And it is a fascinating, raw, and honest exploration of the intellectual, emotional, and political conflicts that have made him the man he is today. As his story progresses, a critical voice intervenes to challenge his recorded recollections, forcing him to answer and clarify his statements. Toward the end John is also granted a greater presence. (The use of italics, bold type and font facilitates these imagined exchanges in a manner that is simple and effective.) This is more than stylistic device. It is a reminder that we can never and should never stop questioning ourselves even in telling our own stories. It is a good lesson for me to keep in mind too.

As I made my way through this book, I encountered many questions I need to ask myself in piecing together my story. I do not come from a rigid religious background, but in my case I am the outcast, the one set apart by sexuality and gender. I sought to conform to a different, but equally confining set of rules and expectations. I mourn the loss of a sibling, a stillborn sister I never had, and the imagined image of her that I could not be.

The person I have to answer is myself, finding the courage to ask the question is my goal. That will require a memoir of some kind. Just as, in spite of himself, Scott Abbott ended up with a memoir of sorts to answer his brother.

Immortal for Quite Some Time is published by The University of Utah Press.

A few thoughts about July 27: The days that haunt us

It is, in my time zone, still July 27th, and all day I have debated whether I should call attention to what this date means to me.

For many years, July 27th was, quite simply, my wedding anniversary. Celebrated with affection for years and then, as my marriage became increasingly untenable, barely noted in passing. Since my marriage ended the date typically passed like any other, but every now and then something would occur that caused me to remember the distant significance of the day. Like a fading echo down the years.

Today, my brothers and I accepted an offer on our parents’ house—just shy of one week after it was listed, just over one year after they died. Good news given the poor economy and the less than prosperous state of the village they lived in. But, money and estate matters tend to stir up family tensions. A testy conversation earlier this morning has left me feeling defensive, angry even. And no matter how hopeful it is to be one step further in the process of moving beyond the aftermath of our parents’ unexpected and overlapping deaths, it is not easy.

But the July 27th that I cannot even begin to address involves another encounter with death. My own.

Two years ago today, shortly after midnight, I went into cardiac arrest. I have written very little about this episode because I have no memory of the incident or the days immediately before or after. It has been difficult to process this event, or what it means. The cause was a pulmonary embolism, likely related to travel. I survived because my son happened to hear me, called emergency, and started CPR. But it’s not that simple. Family dynamics again.

Several times I have contemplated writing through the trauma. Try to understand why I survived. What it means.

If this near-death experience had gifted me some magical insight into the preciousness of life, I could write one of those finely crafted inspiring pieces filed under the category: Creative Nonfiction.

I have tried. That’s not my style. I am beginning to understand that my life only makes sense in scraps and fragments, even more now than ever.

I am forever in the process of writing myself into being.

 Time to gather those scraps and fragments.

Image copyright Joseph Schreiber, 2017

One year on, thoughts about loss, and a link to a piece I wrote for my mother.

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.

You can find it here. With thanks to Saudamini Deo.

Another year of roughghosts has passed, my blog is three years old

“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.

 

* Image copyright Joseph Schreiber, 2017

On my nightstand, a selection of current touchstones in lieu of a personal canon

I have been on Facebook long enough now that I have begun to get those sunny reminders of what I was up to one year ago. Yesterday I discovered that it has been a year since I published my first piece of personal creative writing. The essay, Your Body Will Betray You, remains pinned to my Twitter timeline and continues to generate conversation. Readers have found it informative, inspiring, and, in one important case, a ground for opening a conversation that had been unspoken in that person’s life. And that particular response made baring a piece of my soul like that worth it. A writer may write for him or herself, or to entertain or educate, but to speak to the very core of one reader who needed those words more than anything… that is a gift.

My most recent piece of writing to be published comes deep within the pages of the new issue of The Scofield 2.2: Conrad Aiken & Consciousness. This issue marks my first opportunity to edit the work of other writers—a tremendous honour and thrill, with deep thanks to Tyler Malone and Dustin Illingworth for their faith in me. Putting a publication of this size and scope together is an enormous task and my role is a modest one, but I am proud to be involved. My written contribution is even more modest. I wrote several hundred words about Damon Galgut’s In a Strange Room for the “On Our Nightstand” section (it’s on page 287 if you care to have a look, the issue can be downloaded for free and has a wealth of good reading). In this piece I talk about my evolving relationship to this book by one of my favourite writers. I turned to it as a possible avenue into the task of writing about one’s self—which, for me, after more than a decade of deeply closeted existence and a life lived in two genders, seemed terrifying and overwhelming.  Galgut’s attempt to record three distinct experiences in his own life was so spare, so translucent, that I could not begin to imagine taking an approach like that to my own. In the end he comes to believe that memory necessarily fictionalizes our “truths.” I am, at this point, closer to and yet less troubled by that conviction than I was three years ago when I started to understand that I needed to write. I go back to In A Strange Room often. As I say in my Scofield piece:

This book has become one of my touchstones, an elegant example of the way personal experience can be pared down to its essentials and explored through the lens of time and memory. It remains, for me, some of the most meditative and precise writing about what it means to be grounded, in one’s self and in relation to others; the allure of the road and the ambiguity of home; and most vividly, the way that all truth lived is, in essence, a fiction.

In other words, if I had a personal canon, which I would argue I don’t, this book would be on it. And I do keep it on the shelf inside my nightstand.

In the past few years, as writing has become more urgent, my reading has become more explicitly targeted. I am especially drawn to smaller, quirky, experimental works and, in many cases, books by people I have been fortunate enough to come to know—writers who have become part of a virtual network people who inspire me and suffer my creative ideas. The majority of those books are literally on (or technically inside) my nightstand. In lieu of a personal canon, here are the books that are currently fueling my literary scribbling. (Links to reviews, if applicable)

Beastlife by J’Lyn Chapman — I am always on the lookout for unique approaches to the personal essay. I have a large selection of books waiting to be read, but this little meditation on life, death and taxidermy is a treat.

Fear and Trembling  by Søren Kiekegaard — Well, just because.

Intimate Stranger by Breyten Breytenbach — This is a collection of essays and poems to a young poet. I ordered it when I came back from South Africa; it arrived when I was in the hospital recovering from cardiac arrest. I’ve mentioned and quoted from this book several times, but the post I’ve linked was written shortly after  I returned from the hospital. It addresses one of the key concerns—loss of a memory—that I am taking with me into the outback this month.  Reconciling one’s own near death is no small matter. I carry it deeply and have not yet found a way to write it out.

Thy Decay Thou Seest by Thy Desire by John Trefry — This little caprice or, as we’re advised, “Meditations for Sedentary Labourers,” is so delightfully eclectic that I found in it inspiration for an experimental project that, in contrast to the deeply personal work I write, will allow me to distance myself from the salvaging of the language I use and, depending on the constraints I set, some of the construction. I am proud to count John among the writer friends the internet has afforded.

Roland Barthes: Mourning Diary, Camera Lucida, and Incidents Three works that intersect for me, at a personal and literary level at this moment. Incidents, may well be one of my very favourite Seagull Books as well.

Will Eaves: The Absent Therapist and The Inevitable Gift Shop. Experimental, insightful, and devoid of pretension. Fragmentary works fascinate me. It seems to be a bit of popular device lately, but in my mind, these books—one fiction, the other essay/memoir—work very well. Eaves has a presence that is immediate and personal, he is good company.

In a Strange Room by Damon Galgut (see above)

The Surrender by Scott Esposito — This is one of those books I watched and waited for. I am cautious about trans themed writing but I knew this one would be different. This book holds infinitely more for me than I included in my review. My reading of this book coincided with the release of my own Minor Literature[s] essay, and the beginning of a valued friendship.

Aphorisms by Franz Kafka. Yes, I also love The Castle — one of the few books I own in multiple translations, but this is the Kafka I need to have close at hand at the moment.

Róbert Gál: Signs & Symptoms and On Wing — When I was first looking for a way to begin to write about my life and experiences, I was looking to fiction. But in defiance of conventional narrative form, I wanted current, accessible, experimental models. I read In A Strange Room and The Absent Therapist in late 2014 but it was almost a year later when I picked up On Wing. It remains a book that I read all the time, it has impacted my thinking in ways I cannot describe (because we ideally absorb and filter the work that drives and inspires our own—it should not be obvious in the final product) and Róbert was one of the first writers to suggest I should write a book. I don’t know where that book is, but it is no accident that a quote from On Wing opens Your Body Will Betray You.

Daniela Cascella: En Abîme and F.M.R.L. It may not be evident, but getting to know Daniela and her work has revolutionized the way I engage with language. Her enthusiastic approach to reading, listening and hearing work into being is wonderful. I find I am so much more attuned to sound when I read now. Maybe it will come through in my own writing one day.

Proxies by Brian Blanchfield. Again, this is another work that asks questions and contains ideas that are important to me. Essays that make me think about writing essays are my favourite kind.

If there was enough room, W.G. Sebald’s The Emigrants and Austerlitz would also count as work of current relevance. (They would probably be in that non-existent canon too, if I had one.)

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.

Thoughts on writing about Witness by Robert Rient for Minor Literature[s]

For all its sins, Twitter is still a terrific way to connect with readers, writers, translators and small publishers and, in the process, hear about books you might otherwise miss. Witness by Polish writer and psychologist, Robert Rient, is a case in point. I came to know of it by way of the translator, Frank Garrett, and was immediately intrigued by this story of a man who grew up gay and Jehovah’s Witness in Catholic Poland. I ordered the book and, as soon as it arrived, I had a quick look and immediately knew it was the type of book for which I would want to pitch a critical review.

I am intrigued by original approaches to memoir writing, that is, rrient-witnessintentional writing about ones’ own experience. In Witness, the story is carried by Luke, the writer’s younger self—the boy and young man torn between his faith community and his sexuality—and Robert, the grown man who marks his break with his past and his rebirth as a whole person, true to himself, by taking a new name and identity. Woven through these two narratives is a fascinating look inside the Jehovah’s Witness church. As someone with a dual identity history, albeit different in nature, I found a lot to admire in the telling of this story, as well as in Robert’s honesty and the powerful transformation he chooses to make to mark his move forward into a new authentic life.

My review is now live at Minor Literature[s]. Thank you to Tomoé Hill for entertaining my contribution.