Monday, December 28, 2009
Talking the Walk (14)
Crusoe and the Swinging Door
Another figure that recurs in my book is not a shadowy stalker but an amazed, and dazed, wanderer on a beach. Robinson Crusoe. At one point I talk about the frequent sense I have of “stepping out from [a mist] to stare, alert and surprised, at the present I find myself in. Crusoe mode, as Heather and I call this islanding in the present, has its positive aspect. Washed up on a new beach, you focus intently on the things about you: grains of sand, a shell, the leaves of a new tree, a footprint. You are alive to the life about you in a way you scarcely could have been during the routine and tedium of the voyage.” This sense of witnessing an ongoing miracle–and a newborn baby, if we knew how it thought, must also live in Crusoe mode–was one of the most striking results after I finally got out of the hospital. I hitchhiked across Canada with my friend that summer. It must have been a somewhat harrowing trip for him–I would only sleep an hour or two at night, and often saw strange things, such as the giant, 2-metre-long crow that swooped repeatedly at one ride’s window–but luckily, my friend was a good sport, and even more luckily, a sound sleeper. I remember one day we were in a diner, I think it was in Kamloops, having breakfast, and I was sitting there after my scrambled eggs, watching my spoon glitter in a pool of sunlight, and my friend said, sounding surprised, “You feel good now, don’t you?” Yes, I told him. And more than good: wealthy. He asked me about that and I tried to explain. I was warm and comfortable, I’d been fed, I was free to sit on a vinyl chair and look about, listening to my friend, gazing at a spoon, watching other people...what more than these riches did I need?
To a large extent I’ve never lost that perspective. It’s a permanent gift I received.(1) A legacy of madness. Or, perhaps, a grateful ebullience that was always there, but that madness, or just hitting bottom, heightened. I’m aware of it standing here now. Inside–out of the November elements–invited to talk to people...pretty confident I’ll get a good lunch somewhere. I don’t really need anything more. Except–I need to say something... or else you’ll begin shifting uncomfortably in your seats. And then we’ll all feel bad.
And there’s the rub. How to live in the moment, but move to the next moment. A practical problem for all of us: how to live now, but still be living tomorrow. Which I must have solved somehow, or I would be a skeleton grinning at a dusty spoon in a boarded-over diner in Kamloops.
How did I solve it? I wonder. How do I? I think perhaps, at my best, I solve it by becoming, by living as, a moving now, a moving readiness. A newborn on the move...as newborns always are (even when they're sleeping). A Crusoe with a plan...as Crusoe soon developed.
Continued life does involve forward-thinking. Future-thinking. But...I have trouble with future-thought. For a good and healthful reason–my tendency to marvel at the miracle of the present–but also for a more destructive one, which is a simple inability to believe I can have a future. That it won’t be swept away by another trip through the swinging door of madness.
My current psychiatrist, an excellent doctor, has given me much counsel on this problem, but a lot of it boils down to two of those simple words that call out for attention: “as if.” Live for today, but also “as if” tomorrow will come. Prepare “as if” you will be granted a future as well as a present. A tall order, but a sensible and necessary one.
Doors are another metaphor that run through my book. I think of the altered states of madness as a door that, for someone of good mental health, should properly be a little sticky and resistant. But if it bangs open once, it will open more easily again. It it swings open many times, as it has with me, it starts to resemble one of those screen doors with worn-out hinges that flap at the slightest breeze. You have to learn to live with a door with loose hinges, which means the possibility of something coming in...or something, maybe you, going out. You have to learn to live with a door that is ajar.
There are worse things. Permanently locked doors, for example. Being sealed out...or in.
(1) A blessing and a curse, actually. “Live for the moment,” runs the advice we are always getting–and often, most of us, giving. But it is a counsel of ruin for so many of the important moments we find ourselves in. Moments during a job interview, a consultation about health or finances, a pledge of romance or friendship–when success, when fulfillment, depends precisely on the degree to which we can offer ourselves as a person capable of deferment, someone who can be reliably counted on to bank a portion of every moment’s potential for future spending. Someone prudent enough to have opened, long ago, an RRSP of vital energies and to be committed to making regular, incremental contributions.