Tag Archives: books

Roland Muller

7 Jun

You get two biological parents in this life. If you’re lucky, you get to have at least two people (though not necessarily the two people whose genes you share) conduct you through the first eighteen or so years of your time on this planet, using that time to help you create a map that will, hopefully, allow you to spend the rest of your days navigating this confusing world.

But it’s not just parents who participate in this amateur cartography, is it? I mean, they do the majority of the work, and maybe they do the toughest work, but they don’t get all the credit, do they? So many people contribute to helping any given child flesh out their map, adding towns, rivers, and signs that say “Here There Be Dragons.” Children chart the world with their parents, yes, but also with their aunts and uncles, their grandparents, their babysitters, their neighbours, the old Korean couple who own the convenience store on the corner, that nice crossing guard who can’t speak English, and most of all, and especially, their teachers. Their dozens of daycare teachers, primary and high school teachers, and even college professors, all those people who work tirelessly fill their heads with words, numbers, new thoughts and hopefully a little bit of common sense.

Not all of your teachers will be good ones – for some of them, the best that you can say is that you only had to spend one semester in their class. A great teacher, though? A great teacher is worth their weight in gold.

A great teacher will stick with you for the rest of your life.

Roland Muller was a great teacher, maybe even the best. I was in the last ninth grade English class that he taught before retiring, and I will forever be thankful for whatever stars aligned to place me there, in the second row of that dingy first floor classroom at Eastwood Collegiate Institute, during the first period of day two (we had a day one, day two schedule instead of being semestered).

Mr. Muller was old-fashioned. He was impatient with, sometimes even downright uninterested in, newer teaching methods. He taught us English grammar, even though it wasn’t on the curriculum. When we misbehaved, he had us write lines. In fact, I still have the lines that he made me write – fifty of them – because I talked too much. They read, “henceforth, I will not babble incessantly in class.” I don’t know why I kept them, except that I thought that it was sort of nice and funny that I’d had to write lines. Like a character in one of the English boarding school books that I loved so much.

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In spite of all of this, or maybe even partly because of it, we loved Mr. Muller. He was, hands down, the all-time favourite teacher of the majority of the students in his classes. And you know what? He loved us in return. I’ve rarely had a teacher who cared so damn much about his students. And I’m not sure that I’ve ever had a teacher who put in so much extracurricular time, both with academic issues and with any and everything to do with the Arts Package that he helped found in 1988.

And sure, sometimes his teaching methods were a little stuffy for some of us, but holy cats did that man ever love reading, writing and the arts. His classes fascinated and captivated us, and he found ways to make even the dullest subjects interesting. He was funny, too, sarcastic and snarky in the best way possible. And he was kind. And attentive. And interested in us, this scraggly pack of know-it-all fourteen year olds.

I was his pet that year. I don’t know why or how he took a liking to me, but he did, and I’m forever grateful for that fact. He was the first person who told me that I was going to be a writer, a thought that I found flattering but unlikely. When the school organized a special enrichment “Mystery Writing Tour” field trip for English students, he chose me to be one of only three ninth grade students invited along. When I was having a hard day, he always had a smile or a hug for me. During what was the first full school year after my father had left, he was kind of, sort of, maybe a little bit like a father to me, and I will always, always be grateful for that. I’m grateful for everything.

14-year-old me on the English enrichment "Mystery Writing Tour."

14-year-old me on the English enrichment “Mystery Writing Tour.”

I saw Mr. Muller just a little over a month ago at the 25th anniversary of the Arts Package. He didn’t recognize me right away (which led to me yelling, BUT MIS-TER MU-LLER, I WAS YOUR FAVOURITE STUDENT, I WAS YOUR PET), a fact that honestly isn’t surprising considering how many students he’d had over the years. It wasn’t long, though, before he’d figured out who I was. Once he realized that I was the girl he’d once spent a year referring to as Little Orphan Annie, I got this huge, irrepressible grin on my face. He grinned right back at me then turned to Matt and said, “See that smile? That smile is how she wrapped me around her little finger. How could I ever forget that?”

I only spoke to him briefly at the anniversary, partly because there were so many other former students who wanted to reconnect with him, and partly because I had some very important drinking and dancing to do. Although I hadn’t seen him in well over ten years, I figured that there would be other times, other places when we would be able to catch up or reminisce. I always think that I will have other chances; I never, ever think that anything is happening for the last time.

I wish I’d known that it was the last time.

Rest in peace, Mr. Muller. I know that I probably wasn’t an especially amazing kid to have in your class, and I’m sure that I don’t really stand out among all the other students you had, and I know that I talked waaaay too much. I’m not by any means your brightest or most successful or most talented former student. I wish that I had more to show for the year that I spent in your class, because that would give some kind of indication of how very much of an impact you had on my life. I guess the most that I can say is that now, sixteen years after I had you as a teacher, I’m finally coming around to what you knew all along: I’m a writer.

And if I’m at all a good writer, and if my words have any kind of impact in this world, a large part of that is because of you.

So thank you.

Roland Muller giving a speech at the Eastwood Arts Package Reunion, April 2013

Roland Muller giving a speech at the Eastwood Arts Package Reunion, April 2013

Desert Island Books

5 Apr

The funny thing is that you’re very rarely enough of anything for anyone.

When I write about radical-lady-type-stuff, I’m always too feminist for some people, and not feminist enough for others.

When I get worked about something, I’m always too outspoken for some, and not outspoken enough for others.

When I wrote that post about Easter, I was, according to commenters, either too Christian or else too atheist.

A few commenters even wondered if I was a pantheist, the thought of which sent me scrambling to my bookcase, scanning the shelves until I finally found Ann-Marie McDonald’s Fall On Your Knees.

I flipped to the end of the book, the section that’s an excerpt of Kathleen’s diary, and, after re-reading all of her love scenes with Rose, found the passage I was looking for:

O Diary. My loyal friend. There is love, there is music, there is no limit, there is work, there is the precious sense that this is the hour of grace when all things gather and distil to create the rest of my life. I don’t believe in God, I believe in everything. And I am amazed at how blessed I am.

That’s the kind of paragraph that makes me want to take a long drag on a cigarette, exhale the smoke oh-so-slowly , and mutter, Yes, yes, exactly, yes.

 Fall On Your Knees was my favourite book when I was a teenager. I mean, Jesus, what’s not to love about it? It’s a huge, generation-spanning Canadian epic that takes place in early 20th century Cape Breton (NOVA SCOTIA REPRESENT) and jazz-age New York. The writing is teeth-achingly beautiful, not to mention clever, funny and smart as hell. The characters are brilliant, multi-faceted and all that other good stuff that actual literary-type people say in actual book reviews; in fact, I think that my first ever girl-crush was on Frances Piper.

When I was in university, I had the chance to go see Ann-Marie McDonald give a reading from her latest, The Way The Crow Flies. She was gorgeous and articulate and funny (naturally), and I was totally smitten. Afterwards, I got the chance to meet her and have her sign my copy of Fall On Your Knees. I felt like I was meeting a movie star; my palms were sweaty, my mouth was dry, my chest felt tight. I felt light-headed, and kept having to remind myself to breathe.

When I made it to the head of the line and she asked me my name, I somehow managed to squeak out that her book had really been important to me. I knew that it was going to sound stupid and trite before I even said it, but I didn’t know what else I could say. Here was this person who had strung together the loveliest, smartest, best words possible to create an absolutely perfect story, one that I could disappear into any time that I needed a break from the real world. I wanted to tell her everything that I loved about her book, from why Frances was my favourite character all the way to how her brief mention of Nova Scotia’s Africville had spawned an hour-long conversation with my grandmother about Halifax’s racial landscape.

But how was I supposed to do that with the auditorium lights shining in my face as if I were being questioned for a crime I hadn’t committed? How was I supposed to tell her all this with my clumsy tongue and my woefully inadequate vocabulary?

So I told her that it was important. And she smiled and thanked me and scrawled For Anne, From Ann-Marie McDonald inside the front cover of my book. Afraid that I might embarrass myself, I hurried away, stumbled down the steps, and, while walking home, thought up a million brilliantly witty remarks that I could have made to McDonald if only I’d had the wherewithal.

(Hint: I very rarely have any wherewithal whatsoever)

All of which is to say – oh my dear sweet Jesus I love books so fucking much.

I love reading books, I love buying books, I love writing about books and I love talking about books.

So with that in mind, I asked you guys what your all-time favourite, desert-island books were.

Here’s what you had to say:

The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy by Douglas Adams

Watership Down by Richard Adams

Little Women by Louisa May Alcott

In The Time Of The Butterflies by Julia Alvarez

Behind The Scenes At The Museum by Kate Atkinson

Cat’s Eye by Margaret Atwood

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

Pride And Prejudice by Jane Austen

The Long Walk by Richard Bachmann/Stephen King

The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks

Oz series by Frank L. Baum

The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle

Summer Sisters by Judy Blume

Dandelion Wine by Ray Bradbury

The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury

The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë

Villette by Charlotte Brontë

The Master And Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov

The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett

If On A Winter’s Night A Traveler by Italo Calvino

Alice In Wonderland by Lewis Carroll

Claudine series by Colette

Little, Big by John Crowley

The Alchemist by Paulo Cuelho

The Red Tent by Anita Diamant

Tam Lin by Pamela Dean

The Devil’s Teardrop by Jeffery Deaver

Crime And Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

The Neverending Story by Michael Ende

The Master Butchers Singing Club by Louise Erdrich

Wyrm by Mark Fabi

The Refugee Summer by Edward Fenton

Headhunter by Timothy Findley

White Oleander by Janet Fitch

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

The Pillars Of The Earth by Ken Follett

American Gods by Neil Gaiman

The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran

Neuromancer by William Gibson

China Court: The Hours Of A Country House by Rumer Godden

Memoirs Of A Geisha by Arthur Golden

Oblomov by Ivan Goncharov

The Wind In The Willows by Kenneth Grahame

Twenty Thousand Streets Under The Sky by Patrick Hamilton

The Hottest State by Ethan Hawke

The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne

Red Planet by Robert A. Heinlein

Stranger In A Strange Land by Robert A. Heinlein

Dune series by Frank Herbert

Les Misérables by Victor Hugo

Brave New World by Aldous Huxley

A Prayer For Owen Meany by John Irving

Winter Of Fire by Sherryl Jordan

The Dharma Bums by Jack Kerouac

It by Stephen King

The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver

Prodigal Summer by Barbara Kingsolver

The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera

She’s Come Undone by Wally Lamb

Operating Instructions: A Journal Of My Son’s First Year by Anne Lamott

Love In The Time Of Cholera by Gabriel García Márquez

One Hundred Years Of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez

Swan Song by Robert R. McCammon

Fall On Your Knees by Ann-Marie McDonald

If Nobody Speaks Of Remarkable Things by Jon McGregor

The Virgin Cure by Ami McKay

Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell

Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Maud Montgomery

Fool by Christopher Moore

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov

Apathy And Other Small Victories by Paul Neilan

The Good Mayor by Andrew Nicoll

Popular Music From Vittula by Mikael Niemi

1984 by George Orwell

Down And Out In Paris And London by George Orwell

Haunted by Chuck Palahniuk

Invisible Monsters by Chuck Palahniuk

A Catskill Eagle by Robert B. Parker

Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig

The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

Night Watch by Terry Pratchett

The Shipping News by E. Annie Proulx

His Dark Materials series by Philip Pullman

The Rapture of Canaan by Sheri Reynolds

Skinny Legs And All by Tom Robbins

Still Life With Woodpecker by Tom Robbins

Harry Potter series, specifically The Prisoner of Azkaban, by J.K. Rowling

The God Of Small Things by Arundhati Roy

Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie

The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell

The Catcher In The Rye by J.D. Salinger

Franny And Zooey by J.D. Salinger

The Cat In The Hat by Dr. Seuss

Love Is A Mix Tape by Rob Sheffield

A Tree Grows In Brooklyn by Betty Smith

White Teeth by Zadie Smith

There’s A Girl In My Hammerlock by Jerry Spinelli

The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck

To A God Unknown by John Steinbeck

The Log From The Sea Of Cortez by John Steinbeck

The Eagle Of The Ninth by Rosemary Sutcliff

The Queen Elizabeth Story by Rosemary Sutcliff

The Secret History by Donna Tartt

Miss Pym Disposes by Josephine Tey

Fear And Loathing On The Campaign Trail ’72 by Hunter S. Thompson

A Complicated Kindness by Miriam Toews

The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien

Lord of the Rings trilogy by J.R.R. Tolkien

A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole

Mary Poppins series by P.L. Travers

The Making Of A Psychiatrist by David Viscott

Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut

Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut

A Room Of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf

The Chrysalids by John Wyndham

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

Please feel free to add your suggestions in the comments, and I will add them to the list!

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Nostalgia Machine: On Re-reading Sandman

11 Mar

Matt and I have recently been re-reading Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series, something that I’ve been putting off doing for a few years now.

I’m not sure why we decided to dive back into those books now, exactly – I guess part of it might be because I recently started following Mr. Gaiman on twitter and suddenly remembered how amazing he is. It’s also probably due to the fact that we just recently found the last couple of volumes needed to complete our collection for cheap at a discount bookstore. Mostly, though, I think it came out of how much I’ve been thinking about my friend Annie lately.

The thing is, I’ve been missing her like crazy, and I can’t think about the Sandman books without being reminded of her, and vice versa.

Annie moved in with me in the spring of 2004, just at the tail end of my annus horribilis. She was a friend of a friend, someone I barely knew, but I desperately needed a roommate, and she desperately needed a room. Although I’d met her a handful of times, at parties and theatre department events, I’d only ever spoken to her once. At some get-together or other I somehow found myself standing next to her, and I figured that I should try to make conversation. I racked my brains for something to say, and wound up complimenting her on this pin on her bag that said, “Go Fascinate Someone Else.”

She looked at me as if I’d said the most mundane, meaningless thing possible, took a drag from her cigarette, and said in her smoky, vaguely European voice,

“Yeah. I like it too. Obviously. Or I wouldn’t be wearing it.”

What I want to make clear here is that Annie was a super badass who dressed all in black, smoked like a chimney and never refrained from speaking her mind, even when she knew it was going to get her into trouble. She was a brilliant actress with a mysterious Soviet past and a deadpan stare that could wither just about anyone. Half the city admired her, half the city was afraid of her, and half the city wanted to sleep with her. And no, I didn’t accidentally say “half” instead of “a third” – I just mean that there was a lot of overlap between all three categories.

I had no idea why she would ever want to be my roommate.

I would estimate that there are four people who have had an enormous influence on my outlook on music, clothing, art and life in general. The first was Emily, who I met at a performing arts camp when we were twelve and who introduced me to vintage clothing, the Kids in the Hall and, music-wise, everything from Ani DiFranco to Sonic Youth. The second was Kat, who had first hated then later befriended me in while we were at university, and who is responsible for introducing me to pot, Sylvia Plath and the joys of being loud and obnoxious in public. The most recent one was my friend Audra, who has helped shape my take on third-wave feminism, internet activism and dance movies. The fourth, of course, was Annie.

I’m not sure, exactly, how Annie and I became friends. I think that it happened slowly, by degrees, with me making tentative friendly overtures like buying her beer and lending her books. Then she invited me out to her birthday and I went, bravely talked to a few of her friends*, then left early. I’m not sure what time she came home at, but the next morning she was still drunk. When I got up, she was lying sprawled out on our couch, her tank top askew and her already-short skirt hiked up even higher, and she kept giggling over everything I said. I made us both breakfast, and then suddenly, magically, all of my awkwardness melted away and it was like we’d known each other forever.

Mostly it feels like Annie and I have the kind of friendship that twelve year old boys have. I mean, you know that part in Stand By Me when they’re sitting around the campfire talking about pez candies and Wagon Train and whether or not Goofy’s a dog? And then narrator-Gordie says, “We talked into the night. The kind of talk that seemed important until you discover girls.” That’s what our friendship felt like then, and still feels like now. And if you’re an aficionado of Stand By Me in the same way that Annie and I are, I probably don’t have to explain that she’s Chris Chambers, and I’m poor old Gordie Lachance with the leech on his balls.

Anyway, that summer, the summer of 2004, Annie introduced me to the Sandman series. And as I worked my way through them, she re-read them, and together we fed each others’ obsessions. We would sit out on our North End stoop as the late afternoon cooled into evening, drink whatever we had on hand, share Annie’s pack of cigarettes and try to pull apart the Sandman universe. We teased out each layer, or at least the layers that we could find, and laid each thread of plot bare to examine it. We researched everything, trying to figure out which characters were historical figures and which were just plain made up. I think at some point we even made a flowchart or graph to keep track of our discussions. It was perfect.

That summer was like gorging on everything wonderful in life all at once, and if I could bottle it up and sell it, I could be a millionaire, like, tomorrow.

We eventually started casting ourselves and our friends as the Sandman characters. Annie, at the time, was a dead ringer for Death (PUN SO INTENDED):

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And I felt a weird kinship with Delirium:

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I’m not including a picture of myself because I look nothing like Delirium, but when I first read those books, I felt like her. I understood the stuff she said, even when most other people, both fictional and real, seemed to have no clue.

I loved Delirium. Loved her. I think my adoration for her was part of the reason I put off reading the Sandman books again for so long – because, of course, it’s dangerous to revisit anything that you’ve known too well, loved too deeply, or somehow view as having helped shaped who you are. It’s dangerous to expect something to feel the same after years and years of memories and expectations. Sometimes, if you’re lucky, those old books, movies and places are able to stir enough nostalgia to allow you to overlook all of the failings you’re suddenly able to see, but mostly going back to the things that you view as influential and formative is nothing but a disappointment. First of all, they can never live up to the hype that’s built up in your mind for the last ten or fifteen or twenty years, and second of all they’re often just plain terrible and end up making you feel as if a huge chunk of your childhood or young adulthood is somehow tainted.

And, see, Delirium is a character who would be ripe for this kind of adult realization. I was worried that, as a 30 year old, I would find her character to be ridiculous, and my love of her incredibly pretentious. I was worried that re-reading Brief Lives, my favourite Sandman of all time, would leave me rolling my eyes SO HARD at my younger self and her habit of being overdramatic about, well, everything. I was worried that, this time around, I would hate Delirium, or at the very least no longer love her and know her the way I had. And somehow, that would feel like a huge loss.

But you guys? Sandman is still amazing. And Delirium is still amazing.

Maybe it’s because when Annie moved in with me, I was just coming out of a major depressive episode, and I’m in a not-dissimilar place in my life right now. Or maybe it’s because I haven’t changed as much in nine years as I’d thought. Whatever the reason, Delirium still kills me in all the best ways possible. She says things, and I think, ohhhh, I get that. I’ve felt that.

Like this:

“I feel like … I don’t know. Someplace nobody ever goes anymore.”

Or this:

“It all keeps moving and it won’t stop and I just want it to stop and then I think what if it gets worse? You know? What if it gets worse?”

Or this:

“I like airplanes. I like anywhere that isn’t a proper place. I like in-betweens.”

Or this:

“What’s the name of the word for the precise moment when you realize that you’ve actually forgotten how it felt to make love to somebody you really liked a long time ago.”

Or this:

“You’ve never apologized to me. You just act like you know stuff I don’t know that makes everything you do okay.”

Ahhhhhhh (that is a sigh of total satisfaction after having a fictional character explain what’s in my heart)

I’m not really sure how to end this, except to say that I find myself back in the same curious, dreamy state that Sandman put me in the first time. I mean, it’s probably not just the books – it’s probably also the fact that spring is so close that you can taste it, and that my house is clean for once, and I ate some really transcendentally great yogurt today. But whatever it is, I’ll take it. I like this feeling. I’ve missed this feeling. It makes me feel floaty and insubstantial and wondrous in a way that I haven’t felt in years.

I just wish Annie was here to share this all with me, instead of being half a continent away.

I wish we were back on our stoop, eating Rassy’s pizza and drinking Kahlua cocktails and watching the sparrows hopping around eating our crumbs.

I wish I knew what to do with this feeling, now that I finally have it back.

———————

*It was actually only one friend, the nicest guy imaginable who would deliberately seek out shy, awkward people and talk to them at social gatherings. Seriously. The nicest.

Sylvia

11 Feb

Today marks the 50th anniversary of Sylvia Plath’s death.

Is this something that people do? Celebrate the anniversary of someone’s death? Certainly celebrate is the wrong word – mark is probably better, or even observe.

Today I am observing the 50th anniversary of Sylvia Plath’s death.

It’s no secret that I love Sylvia. I mean, I named my blog after her only novel (actually, I named it after what I would have called my all-girl rock band if I’d had one, but the band was named after the novel, so really it all amounts to the same thing). I’ve read everything she’s ever written. I have a weird sort of embroidered picture of her hanging on my dining room wall.

I’ve even joked about being her reincarnation. I mean, there are a few similarities between us, right?

We’re both depressed, oversharing lady-writers, for one thing. We both come from families whose finances went into decline at some point during our childhoods. Her father died when she was eight; mine left when I was thirteen. Of course you can’t compare death to a divorce, but I think it would be fair to say that those events left us both dealing with what are colloquially referred to as “daddy issues.”

Oh, and my son shares a birthday with her son Nicholas. So there’s that, too.

Of course, this is basically where the similarities end. Sylvia worked hard throughout high school and ended up attending Smith College on a full scholarship. She then went on to receive a Fullbright Scholarship to Newnham College, Cambridge. Meanwhile, I burned out early in high school, too tired and sad and stupid to get my shit together, and went from being an honour roll student in grade nine to receiving mostly Cs and Ds in my final year. I did get into Dalhousie University (though just how I managed that, I’m still not sure), and while there had all As and Bs, but still, I was never the academic star that Sylvia was.

Sylvia published her first poem when she was eight, and went on to publish several poems and short stories before she finished university. One of her stories, Sunday At The Mintons, won her a coveted spot as a guest editor at Mademoiselle magazine in New York.

I published my first poems and short stories, well, never, and I can’t even properly edit my own stupid blog, let alone a whole magazine. I’ve also never been to New York, although I have watched a lot of Friends and Mad Men, which is basically the same thing, right?

I guess that, all in all, Sylvia and I aren’t much alike, at least not on the surface. But when I read her writing, I feel that, as The Bell Jar‘s Esther Greenwood says about her friend Doreen, everything she writes is like a secret voice speaking straight out of my own bones.

I get Sylvia Plath. I mean, I get her. I get her dark, sad, humour, and I get her anxieties, and I get her hopelessness. Up until now, I’ve used her as a sort of guide in the darkness, reading and re-reading my well-thumbed copies of her books, looking for passages that will get me through my fits of sadness. A paragraph here, a stanza there, a kind of spiritual sustenance to tide me over until things get better. For most of my adult life, I’ve looked up to her.

But then, for all of my life until now, she’s been older than me. Wiser, hopefully. Maybe even more mature.

What do I do now that I’m about to out-age her? She’ll be thirty years old forever, but I’ll only be thirty for a few more months.

How do I continue to look up to someone who will soon be younger than me? Will I still love her writing in 10 years’ time? In 20? Will I look back someday and, instead of finding inspiration in her words, discover that all along she’s been a boring, self-obsessed, talentless hack?

What happens when you outgrow the people you admire the most? Probably nothing. Probably it’s normal.

But in a strange way I feel that by letting go of Sylvia and moving on, I’ll be abandoning her. In a funny way, I feel that she needs me, as much as I need her.

I’ve been thinking a lot about her last few weeks alive. Not much is known about what was going through her mind, since Ted Hughes burned her last journal, but we do have a handful of poems dating from late January and early February and, of course, a few firsthand accounts.

We know that the quality of her poems changed in those last weeks, becoming less about the self, their mood more disembodied, alien. We know that her incandescent poetic rage, that rage that has made her so famous, had begun to fade in her works, replaced by a sort of resigned hopelessness. We know that she worked feverishly, producing poem after poem, trying to translate her tangled thoughts into perfectly-ordered words.

We know that Sylvia went to her doctor and told him that she felt as if she was heading for a breakdown. We know that she began taking antidepressants and sleeping pills. We know that she reached out to her friends, Jillian and Gerry Becker,  for help and a place to stay. We know that several days before she died, her doctor began trying (unsuccessfully) to find her a spot in the hospital.

Each night that she stayed with the Beckers, Sylvia would take her sleeping pills and recite a sort of monologue about all of the people who had wronged her, all the men, beginning with her father, who had deserted her, and how utterly miserable she was. She would go on and on, ignoring any questions that Jillian put to her, as if she was in a trance. Eventually she would pass out.

Having Sylvia stay with them began to be a strain on Jillian – she had to do everything for Sylvia and her children, cleaning, feeding and entertaining them. When Sylvia announced on Sunday, February 10th that she wanted to go home, Jillian didn’t press her to stay. There was supposed to be a nurse coming to help Sylvia the next morning, and besides, surely the doctor would find a hospital bed for her soon. And also, as Jillian said in the article I linked to above, pity tires the heart.

Gerry drove Sylvia home Sunday afternoon, and she wept the whole way there.

That night Sylvia left the window in her children’s room open, and shoved cloths and towels underneath their door. She also placed tape all around the door frame, to stop up the cracks. She then turned the gas taps in her oven on all the way and, placed a little folded cloth in the oven to act as a pillow, and laid down.

She was found the next morning by the nurse and a handyman working on the property who broke into her flat when no one answered the door.

By that point, she’d been dead for several hours.

Her children, though cold from having slept next to an open window in February, were fine.

And pity tires the heart.

I think that there’s a state that you sometimes get into when you’re deeply depressed. You feel as though you’re walking along a sort of knife’s edge between artistic inspiration and suicide. In an instant, all the dead, flat hopelessness you’ve been feeling gives way to an ecstatic misery. You suddenly feel as if you’ve been given a special insight into how the world really is, and you work like mad to get that insight down on paper or on canvas or whatever. And you know that you’re playing a dangerous game, but you also think that it’s worth it.

It’s worth it to go that close to the edge, if there are rare, exotic gifts to bring back.

It’s worth risking death, so that you can tell everyone else what it was like.

It’s worth almost everything, if it means that you’ll write something great.

It’s like circling round and round a black hole, getting a few inches closer each time. You’re discovering all kinds of amazing things that no one has ever known before, but you never imagining that you yourself might be drawn in.

It’s like standing at the edge of a lake of poison, and knowing that the poison, if taken in small enough quantities, will give you brilliance and genius that you’ve only ever dreamed of. The poison, if taken one spoonful at a time, will give you an enormous drive to create. And you want that. Oh, how badly you want that, want all of it.

But even though you know that the poison could kill you, you’re not overly wary of it. You’re that you’ll be able to set limits. You’re confident that you’ll be able to stop when you need to. But after taking one sip, you talk yourself into taking another, and then another. And you feel fine, not sick at all. You drink and drink and drink, and maybe even dive right in.

And it’s not until it’s too late that you realize what a mistake you’ve made.

And maybe there’s no one to save you. Because pity tires the heart.

I am trying so hard not to tire all of your hearts.

Sylvia, I am thinking of you today. I promise that you do not tire my heart.

sylvia_kids

My Life As A Tree

14 Jan

Have you ever seen a kudzu vine? They’re all over the south, their bright green leaves waving gently in the hot, humid air. At first you’ll think that they’re kind of pretty, but once you realize that they’re capable of, you’ll never look at them the same way again.

They’re an invasive species, the kudzu vines; native to Japan and China, they were introduced to America to help prevent roadside erosion. They spread quickly – statistics show that they’re taking over the American South East at a rate of 150,000 acres annually. Kudzu will grow nearly anywhere, on anything, and its advance seems impossible to stop.

Once kudzu starts to take over a field or a forest, it slowly but surely replaces all existing vegetation. It starves the trees and undergrowth by cutting them off from sunlight; once the kudzu has done its work, all that remains is a swath of green, leafy vines, still in the shape of the things they have killed.

kudzu

Sometimes I think that kudzu is the most accurate metaphor for depression that I can come up with. Not just because, at times, it feels like I’m overwhelmed with depression, suffocated and blinded  by it, but also because sometimes I wonder how much of my actual self has been choked off, starved to death. I wonder how much of the me under there is already dead.

Like a tree that’s been covered by kudzu, I don’t look very different from the person I was. I maintain the same shape, the same colour. Outwardly, I’m indistinguishable from someone who isn’t living with depression. And if there are subtle signs that something is wrong – a funny look in my eyes, or a slump to my shoulders – well, those things are easily written off or ignored. With enough effort, I can pass as a person who doesn’t long to spend her days sprawled out on the couch watching re-runs of M*A*S*H, eating chocolate and sobbing.

I am a person who used to be happy. I am a person who used to look forward to things. I am a person who used to laugh, frequently.

It’s not hard to see how much being depressed has altered my life.

What I really wonder, though, is how much of the self I used to be is still intact. When depression first claimed me, I thought that it would be a matter of a few pills and then I would be back to my old self. Now, after years of fighting what Winston Churchill referred to as his “black dog”, years of thinking of it a disease, a medical condition, something that I could recover from, I wonder if it’s possible that the depression is me.

Certainly my life, my choices and my very self have been warped and shaped by depression. At this point, it seems impossible to separate who I really am from all the grinding misery, sadness and negative self-talk that my brain has put me through. When I think about the bad decisions that I’ve made, the not-so-great life choices and the hurtful things that I’ve said, I wonder who or what I’m supposed to blame for them. It seems ridiculous to say that depression didn’t play a part in the fact that I chose to lie in bed, crying and reading trashy novels, instead of doing any homework for basically all of 11th and 12th grade. But it seems just as ridiculous to say that I, myself, the non-depressed, rationally-thinking person who lives somewhere inside of me had absolutely no control over the situation. Surely, at some point, that part must have lacked the will-power or the desire to do what it knew was right.

On especially bad days I begin to believe that I let myself become depressed. I believe that I didn’t fight hard enough or long enough or well enough and, through laziness or lack of discipline, allowed depression to consume me.

Blaming yourself for feeling bad is a slippery slope that never leads anywhere good.

I often think about getting well. Most days it’s the only thing I think about. The truth is, though, that I don’t even know what well is, or what it looks like, let alone how to get there. If I’m being honest with myself, the way that I’m living now feels normal, because it’s the same way that I’ve been living for over half my life. I don’t remember who I was before all this started, and I don’t remember what it was like not to feel like this. I don’t remember what it’s like to get up in the morning and not dread every single thing that has to happen to me before I can finally make it back to bed again.

Someone said to me recently, accusingly, that my problem is that I don’t want to put the necessary work into getting better. The funny thing is, they’re right. I don’t. I’m too tired to do any kind of work. It’s bad enough that I have to get up every day and drag myself through yoga and parenting and writing; I don’t want to have to do any extra work on top of that. Thinking about having to work in order to get well makes me feel exhausted before I’ve even started. Of course I want to get better, but maybe the truth is that I don’t have the energy to do that right now.

It doesn’t help that I don’t really know what people mean by work. Do they mean endless doctor’s appointments? If so, check. Therapy? Check. Medication? Check. Buying self-help books that I’ll never read? Double-check. And, I mean, it’s not like these things are totally useless (except maybe the books), but they’re not really fixing anything, either; mostly they just keep me afloat until the real help arrives. Except that I’m not sure what the real help is, or if it even exists.

The other night, as I was reading through decade-old journal entries, I was struck by how little I’ve changed. I mean, my circumstances have changed, certainly, but the sadness and fear and naked self-loathing I found scrawled on those pages haven’t. Not really. I might be better at hiding those things, better at handling myself in social situations, but truth is that I’m still just as miserable now as I was when I was twenty.

Ten years is a long time to be that miserable.

I also found a quote that I’d copied from Margaret Atwood’s short story, The Sin Eater, which seems just as fitting now as it did then. It’s part of a conversation between the narrator and her therapist, discussing coping skills for her emotional problems:

‘Think of it as a desert island,’ he said. ‘You’re stuck on it, now you have to decide how best to cope.’

‘Until rescued?’ I said.

‘Forget about the rescue,’ he said.

‘I can’t,’ I said.

I can’t forget about the rescue, either.

Because it’s not a nice desert island that I’m stuck on, not one of those tropical ones where you befriend the wild animals and make bras out of coconuts. My desert island is some craggy mass in the North Atlantic, maybe off the coast of Nova Scotia. It’s grey and miserable and wet here, and everything edible tastes like cardboard. It’s always cold, even in the middle of summer. The wild animals are mean, ugly and prone to biting.

The worst part, though, is that the mainland is so close that I can see everyone I used to know going about their daily business. I can even hear them as they talk about all the things that I used to care about. And I’ve tried to get back there. I’ve built boats, dozens of them, to try to cross that narrow strip of water; you can see them there, lined up on the shore of my island, with names like Zoloft and Psychiatry and Therapy painted on their prows.

Nobody ever taught me how to build a boat, though. My crafts are hopeful, but never seaworthy.

Can somebody please send me instructions on how to build a boat?

The Past Is A Foreign Country

2 Dec

In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep, etc.

And then God created the Garden of Eden, and made a dude out of mud to be in charge of it. Then one day when this dude, Adam, was sleeping God took one of his ribs (ew) and from that rib magically made Adam a lady-friend, Eve. Then Adam and Eve lived in paradise for, like, three days, until Eve, the original third wave feminist (she embraces diversity, change and choice!), took some bad advice from a phallic symbol serpent and ruined everything.

And we’ve been nostalgic ever since.

Sometimes I think that nostalgia is the human condition. I mean, we’ve got a minimum of three major religions based on this yearning to get back to a past that none of us remember or even understand; the most we know about it is that Adam thought it was awesome. Then again, Adam also thought that wearing fig leaves was awesome, and was married to someone who was basically his clone (I mean, is that how it works? what with the rib and all? what’s the science here? anyone?). Anyway, what I’m trying to get at is that I’m not sure how reliable of a source he is.

I mean, here’s the thing: I am the queen of nostalgia. Ask anyone – I basically get nostalgic at the drop of a hat.

(Hey, remember that time you dropped a hat? How great that was? How much fun we had? Why don’t we ever have good times like that anymore?)

I don’t just moon over actual things that I’ve experienced either; I spent a good chunk of my childhood feeling nostalgic for just about any time in history, from the ancient world all the way up to The Great Depression (I blame a combination of having an aunt who is an egyptologist, reading excessive amounts of historical fiction, and watching Annie on VHS until the tape wore out). I used to drive my mother bananas by whining at her that I should have been born in the Victorian era (in response to which she would usually remind me of my fondness for indoor plumbing), and nearly every elementary school class photo shows me decked out in some kind of puffed-sleeve Anne of Green Gables floral-printed nightmare, grinning like a Cheshire Cat.

If there was a book at the public library with a picture of a girl in a laced-up bodice and peasant skirt, I’d read it. If there was a weirdo food mentioned in something I’d read (blanc mange, I am looking at you), I’d tried to find a recipe for it. After learning that people seriously believed in fairies until not that long ago, I began to (non-ironically) leave food in our backyard in case the fair folk were hungry for chocolate-covered graham crackers and milk. And you know what? To be honest, my adult self is not that different, although nowadays I would probably eat the cookies, fairies be damned.

What I’m trying to get at here is that I’m totally guilty of romanticizing the past. Totally! That being said, I don’t use that as an excuse to hate the present. I mean, I like flush toilets and computers and being able to vote and science-based medicine and all that good stuff. I am pretty down with modern life (although I am sad that I don’t get to wear bustles or hoop skirts). I guess what I am trying to say is that I am confused by people who think that living a middle-class existence in the western world is basically the worst, ever. I’ve heard women bemoaning the fact that feminism has ruined womanhood (is that even a word? my spellcheck thinks it’s a word), and the fact that women can now vote, own property and work after marriage is somehow preventing them from being stay-at-home mothers or housewives or whatever. I’ve heard people complaining about the “chemicals” in antibiotics, and saying that they only do homeopathic or herbal treatments – nothing “unnatural” or doctor-prescribed. I hear people talking wistfully about the days when science didn’t exist and everything was just natural and wholesome and wonderful.

People talk a lot about “authenticity” when it comes to objects and experiences. They don’t want Walmart to exist; they want everyone to buy things from farmer’s markets and local mom-and-pop pharmacies and department stores. They want to drive to Mennonite country to buy hand-made furniture and hand-dipped candles. They want to practice yoga at sunrise on a mountaintop with someone who has studied in India and can read their chakras. When they travel to South America, they don’t want to go on a guided tour; they want to see the unspoiled part of the rain forest, want to see the “real” locals who are unspoiled by contact with the west. We’re obsessed with our idea of what’s “real”; these days, people worship at the temple of the real.

Sometimes I think that our desire for authenticity has a lot to do with our love of nostalgia. We think that the people who came before us lived lives that were somehow more “real” than our own.

But you know what guys? The past is a foreign country, and so on, and so forth. We don’t know what it was like back then; all we can go by is what we’re told, or by deciphering what’s been left behind. We will never be able to understand how people felt or lived back then; their circumstances, though not totally alien to ours, are different enough that we will never fully be able to grasp their emotions, or beliefs, or the ins-and-outs of their daily lives. We just have to trust that yes, being a woman before feminism was a raw deal, and yes, modern medicine saves lives, and yes, science and modernity serve some kind of purpose. I’m not saying, let’s not be critical of society; what I’m saying is let’s keep pushing forward and trying to make things better instead of daydreaming about a past that we can never get back.

I’m not saying that Walmart is amazing, or that any of the things I mentioned up there are bad in and of themselves, just that it’s hard to have some kind of moral superiority about where you shop when there are kids who would probably starve if there weren’t discount stores where their parents could get a cheap meal. I’m also not saying that our society isn’t obsessed with consumerism, because we are; we’re consumerist as hell. But you know what? People in the past didn’t own less things because they were better than us; it was because they couldn’t afford them. If you want to live a life of simplicity where all you can afford is a mattress on the floor and one change of clothes, then by all means, please go ahead. However, don’t kid yourself that you’re being more “real” than the next person.

Sometimes I think that the appeal of history is that we know how all the stories end. We know who wins the Battle of Hastings, and whether or not Julius Caesar crosses the Rubicon, and whether or not the Titanic will ever reach New York (spoiler: it won’t). And yeah, a lot of history was scary and bloody and downright awful, but at least we know what happens. I mean, better the devil you know, right? Our modern lives terrify us because we don’t know how anything will end; sometimes it seems like we’re careening towards our own destruction, running full-tilt at things like global warming and nuclear war and widespread poverty and famine. I’ve got news for you, though: if these things terrify you, all the hand-dipped candles in the world aren’t going to save you. If you’re scared (and you probably should be), then get up and go do something, for God’s sake. Sitting at home wishing that you lived in Elizabethan England is going to accomplish exactly nothing.

I mean, except reminding you how awesome those giant ruffs were. Can we bring those back, please?

Bustles - the best, right? Baby got back, etc.

Bustles – the best, right? Baby got back, etc.

Bullying Part III (or, all hail Margaret Atwood)

10 Oct

This will be the final instalment of my totally unplanned Bullying Trilogy (seriously, it started out with me just wanting to talk about clothes).

After I made my last post talking about how I was bullied in my teens, my friend Audra asked if I’d read this 2011 article from New York Times, Bullying As True Drama. In fact, I had read it when it first came out and hadn’t really given it much thought. Re-reading it, though, I found myself nodding and muttering, yes, yes, yes under my breath.

So much of this article hits home for me. This part, for instance:

Many teenagers who are bullied can’t emotionally afford to identify as victims, and young people who bully others rarely see themselves as perpetrators. For a teenager to recognize herself or himself in the adult language of bullying carries social and psychological costs. It requires acknowledging oneself as either powerless or abusive.

Or this:

While teenagers denounced bullying, they — especially girls — would describe a host of interpersonal conflicts playing out in their lives as “drama.”

At first, we thought drama was simply an umbrella term, referring to varying forms of bullying, joking around, minor skirmishes between friends, breakups and makeups, and gossip. We thought teenagers viewed bullying as a form of drama. But we realized the two are quite distinct. Drama was not a show for us, but rather a protective mechanism for them.

And especially this:

“Teenagers want to see themselves as in control of their own lives; their reputations are important. Admitting that they’re being bullied, or worse, that they are bullies, slots them into a narrative that’s disempowering and makes them feel weak and childish.”

Like I said in my last post, bullies can smell a victim. The minute that you admit to yourself or to others that you’re being victimized, then I guarantee you that, barring serious intervention, the bullying will get worse. To make matters even more difficult, many kids (and adults) don’t realize that they’re bullies; this behaviour is so ingrained in our culture that it seems downright normal. I’m certain that most of the kids inflicting “drama” on others have, at some point, been on the receiving end of “drama”. To them, it’s an unpleasant but ultimately unavoidable part of life.

We also need to realize that the ways in which bullying happens have changed; it often occurs online, or through texting; it’s not always public. This, then, is where I think David Dickson, chairman of the Bullying Prevention Initiative of California, really misses the mark with definition of bullying as happening, “typically in a social setting in front of other people“. That definition certainly doesn’t hold true today; in fact, I’m not sure that it’s ever been accurate.

One of the best literary instances of bullying that I can think of is the torment that Elaine Risley goes through at the hands of her so-called “best friends” in Margaret Atwood’s Cat’s Eye. Though all three of her friends are party to the bullying, few outside of that group know what’s happening. In fact, Elaine is pretty clear about the fact, were she to tell anyone about being bullied, she would feel as though she were breaking some kind of sacred code:

“Whatever is going on is going on in secret, among the four of us only. Secrecy is important… to violate it would be the greatest, the irreparable sin.”

A few adults in Elaine’s life seem to have some inclination as to what’s going on; she hears the mother of one of her friends saying that she deserves to be bullied because she’s a “heathen”, and, several years after the bullying occurs, Elaine’s mother makes a vague reference to the girls giving Elaine a “bad time”. Those instances aside, none of the grown-ups seem to know or understand the severity of what’s happening. The three girls are at Elaine’s school, and one of them is even in her class, but none of the teachers seem to notice that anything is amiss with their relationship; even her peers see only a group of “best friends” and nothing more.

Based on all the above, I wouldn’t say that Elaine’s bullying is public; in fact, her tormentors are very careful to maintain the façade of friendship that they’ve built up. Does that mean that it’s not bullying?  Elaine is certainly emotionally, mentally and physically scarred by what she’s going through; not only are her self-confidence and happiness eroded to the point of non-existence, she also begins experiencing symptoms of severe anxiety such as fevers, stomach aches and tendencies of self-harm (among other things, she begins biting her fingers, and pulling patches of skin off her lips and the soles of her feet).

Another important thing to note is that, much like the girls mentioned in the Times article, neither Elaine, her friends, nor the adults in her life ever use the term bullying. Instead, they use euphemisms like giving her a hard time. At one point Elaine’s mother even tells her not to let the other girls push her around, and not to be spineless, as if that’s any kind of helpful advice. So the message that Elaine receives both from her “friends” and the adults in her life is that the way she’s being treated is her own fault.

This, then, helps explain why, when the balance of power shifts between Elaine and her “friend” Cordelia,  Elaine begins to bully her back. While Cordelia spent most of grade school bullying Elaine, Elaine turns around and spends much of high school treating Cordelia equally terribly. In her mind, though, she’s not a bully; she can’t be, because, in Elaine’s eyes and the eyes of the world, her “friends” from elementary school weren’t bullies either.

At one point, when things are at their worst, Elaine’s mother says to her,

I wish I knew what to do.

And that, that right there, is often the hardest pill for both adults and teenagers to swallow – the fact that when bullying or “drama” occurs, the adults involved often just don’t know what to do.

I’m going to go out on a limb here and guess that part of the reason teens started using the term “drama” to sort of re-brand bullying was the realization that, possibly for the first time in their lives, the adults around them had no clue how to stop them from hurting. So the term “drama” isn’t just a protective mechanism for the kids themselves; it’s also their way of protecting their parents and teachers, a way of reassuring them that it’s okay that they have no idea how to help because it’s nothing, just drama, and their help isn’t needed.

Matt and I were both bullied when we were younger, and because of that we’ve talked extensively about what we would do if Theo was ever bullied. I would like to say that we’ve come up with an awesome plan but, really, we haven’t. If things were ever to get really bad and Theo were to express a desire to change schools, Matt would prefer to go ahead and do that, whereas I would rather that he learn to work things through with his peers rather than running away. Of course, Matt doesn’t know what he would do if things were equally bad at Theo’s new school, and I have no idea how Theo is supposed to learn to rationally work things through with a bunch of hormonally-crazed teenagers.

I think, though, that at the end of the day that Times article has it right; instead of focussing on the “negative framing” of bullying, we need to work towards teaching our kids what healthy peer relationships look like and how to be good digital citizens. We need to teach our kids empathy and the ability to recognize when “drama” has gone too far. We need to find ways to empower our kids instead of making them feel weak or victimized.

I know, I know, this is a lot of talk without a lot of substance to back it up, but hey – I’ve hopefully got a few more years to figure it out. And while I’m teaching Theo how to be a smart, confident, independent person, I’ve got him to teach me how to be a thoughtful, wise and effective parent. So far, I think we’re both doing a pretty okay job.