Sunday, December 19, 2010

December haiku

where leaves were now hangs

pendulous the hornet’s nest

great and globed and gray

Monday, December 6, 2010

The Tale of Good Enough

The Tale of Good Enough

The Betterthans were a large and vigorous clan, known to all in the village. Each member of the family was superior in one way or another, and sometimes in several ways. It was no wonder that every villager looked first to the Betterthans to find a husband or wife, an employee, or a friend.

Choosing the right Betterthan was no simple matter, however. It wasn’t like picking out one of the Bests (who, if they had ever really lived in the village, had left long ago). For every Betterthan had, along with undisputed fine points, one or more flaws. Sometimes obvious, sometimes hard to spot. Sometimes trivial, sometimes serious indeed. Over time they would emerge. Eventually you might find yourself with someone whose outstanding qualities more than made up for a few minor defects. Or you could wind up with someone whose superficial virtues paled beside egregious faults.

Knowing this, some people jumped in with their first instincts, made their choice of Betterthan and hoped it would pan out. Others conducted long and anxious deliberations, which somewhat improved their ability to predict, but also, not infrequently, wore them out.

Sometimes, to one worn down in just this way, there appeared a member of another clan: the Goodenoughs. They made no promise larger than their name.

And the one seeking a spouse might conclude, “Leave Betterthan for later. For now, this Goodenough will do.”

And the one seeking a worker, “Goodenough will do.”

And the one in need of a friend, “Goodenough will do.”

And, sure enough, the marriage, factory, friendship was built with Goodenough as the ground floor. And seeing that it could be done, others followed suit. And soon none, or very few, bothered with the risky spin of Betterthans. And none, or very few, perceived a loss.

And almost no one would undo the intricate expanding architecture—kids, houses, factories, relationships, whole movements and histories—predicated on the once-provisional choice of Goodenough.

Only once in a great while would one, remembering the shine of the Betterthans, round with vehemence upon a mate or tradesman or friend, and exclaim, “You’re not Goodenough. You’re not even Good. You’re Horrible. You’re a Disaster.”

Only to receive the mild retort: “I’m none of those. And never claimed to be.”

“You said you would be Goodenough.”

“I never did. I said I was Goodenough on the day we met. And so I was, then. Goodenough.”

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Before there was PhotoShop...

...there was Window Glass.

Highland Train

Return Ferry

Thursday, October 28, 2010


Three times today the radio (different channels) announced the murders of “three prostitutes.” Not women; not persons—it struck me that it is commonplace to refer to sex trade workers by their livelihood, deferring, or omitting entirely, any mention of their humanity. One station mentioned that the victims were women a few sentences later; the other two never bothered.

When did you last hear a crime story lead paragraph about the murder of three mechanics, or administrative assistants, or genetic researchers, or claims adjusters?

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Bill Had

Bill Had

Two deaf parents who taught him sign language
which he forgot after they died.
Next to mine, the best beat-up old denim jacket
in the crew.
Small hands for such a big man.
Thick dark hair, greenish-brown eyes, and one of the handsomest
faces I’ve seen outside of movies.
A talent for mimicry.
An irritating habit of taking things too far.
An endearing one of apologizing when he did.
Small learning and large curiosity.
A pretty short attention span.
An unshakeable belief that women ejaculated
when they came.
Many girlfriends.
Dozens of friends, including ex-girlfriends.
A part-time DJing job where he met many of his friends
and girlfriends and scored high-quality drugs.
Inoperable colon cancer at age 28.
A cop costume so good it almost got him beaten up
by Halloween partyers who had flushed their dope
until he shared out his own which was better.
A filthy apartment piled with pizza boxes.
A grin no one could resist.
Nimble feet, with which he performed amusing untrained
tap, soft shoe, and jig.
Zero ambition.
Occasional mean moods but no cruel bone in his body.
A Jimmy Cagney routine in which while singing “Yankee
Doodle Dandy” he ran at a wall and up it and back-
flipped off of it, landing on his feet,
which never should have worked because Cagney
was a shrimp and Bill was linebacker-sized
but I saw it, many times, from 1981 to 1985,
during the long afternoons when the galleries
were empty.

Old Master Memo

Old Master Memo

Not how it happens,
old friend, not how it starts:

The choir doesn’t erupt in full throat
off the bat. They fidget and scrape,
murmur and stir, sing scales
and snatches of old tunes;

they’ve been known to bellow stale limericks
or hum a kazoo
before launching into
what they really intend.

It’s an indispensable rite
which gives a foretaste
of precisely nothing.

How could you of the icy
blue caves forget that?

How much

How much might change if you just started admitting, to yourself and to others, what does and does not interest you? How much might follow from just that start?

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Limits of a Holiday

Limits of a Holiday


Saturday, August 28, 2010

A Gain

The riches are not where you thought.
And though you canʼt say where they are,
whether Tantalus-close or Hubble-shift-far,
they are not, or not all, where your care/fears
had placed them. At least youʼve found that.

Saturday, July 31, 2010

The Sole Question

How may the heart be closed
and then reopened,
the seal in miser’s blood
stamped, cooled–broken?

Monday, July 26, 2010

Wednesday, July 14, 2010


So many, many, many misfits
hanging barely on just this side of quit
and fall;
half-fits, ex-fits, never-to-be-ever fits
knocking beyond the banquet hall–

If no Great Tailor or conspiracy of shits,
what stint of heart or intellect fashioned the fit
so small?

Saturday, July 10, 2010

My Television Appearance

The Throw

In late January of 2006, my novel Catalogue Raisonné was nearing the end of its short run. Since publication in October, it had sold 150 copies and received one lukewarm review in Books in Canada. I’d read at the launch, at a literary festival, and at a library book club. All well before Christmas. No other venues had panned out and I’d had no communication about the book from anyone in several weeks. Time was almost up.

Television might be my last best shot, I thought. I had no idea how one got on it but I thought I had an angle.

I looked up the local station for my hometown and found the online contact for the director of the noon program, a half hour talk show with a male and female host. I crafted an e-mail pitching me as a guest on Mac’n Mo.

I’d grown up in the city, I explained, which had figured in all five of my books. More importantly, my current novel was a mystery set in the city’s art gallery circa 1984 and featuring many well-known neighbourhoods, restaurants and nightspots.

The show was light, I remembered. Short badminton rallies between the quipping hosts. To be considered as their birdie, I played up the local colour and mystery angles. While working in prizes, shortlists and reviews as entry credentials. It was a more delicate writing job than I expected. At one point I deleted the phrases “I’d be pleased” and “available anytime.” Then reinserted them. It was harder than a job application, since I could form no firm picture of the person at the other end. Who he was, what might impress him.

I read it over a few more times and pushed Send. You never know, I thought.

Five minutes later the phone rang in the other room. The director.

As soon as he’d confirmed that I was the e-mail writer, he asked:

“Why haven’t I heard of you?”

Surprised by the question, I mumbled awkwardly.

“Why haven’t I heard of you?” A hard voice, hurried. It got my back up.

How many small-press Canadian authors have you heard of? I wondered. Or large-press?

But I got out some jocular platitudes about small-press invisibility, “flying under the radar,” that seemed to reassure him. Perhaps mainly that I could quip under pressure.

“We can fit you in Monday,” he said. “But I need to see the book.”

It was Thursday. I looked at my watch. “I can ExpressPost it today. You’ll have it by tomorrow.”

“Fine. If you don’t hear from me, we need you in the Green Room by 10:30.”

He was gone. I sat by the phone, thinking: How is this possible? This haste. Whatever I thought of most of its shows, I thought of TV, the medium, as a big, sought-after deal. Then I thought a bit longer. Two other guests, he’d said. Five days a week. 15 X 52. Say, 700 bodies a year, allowing for some regulars and repeats.

A lot of content.

I bubble-packed the book and got it to the post office two minutes before it closed. Heard nothing further. I was on.

The old station was gone, or perhaps just covered. A dull silver cube occupied exactly the same square of ground, leaving the strip of grass and parking lot I remembered. It looked as if a huge box–wrapped in aluminum foil, shiny side in–had been lowered over the previous building.

Low-budget sci-fi, I thought, looking at the gray sheen from beside my car. The colony outpost. Or Silverfinger’s lair. I recalled the shining cubes of Woody Allen’s Sleeper, including the quaking, closet-sized “Orgasmatron” he’d stumbled blissfully out of.

You don’t know, I reminded myself sternly.

You don’t know was a kind of mantra I’d hit on, the sum of the self-coaching I’d given myself before my first TV appearance. You don’t know anything about TV (true). Don’t default to easy cynicism. Stay open. Remember what you’re there to do: talk about the book.

Inside, a security guard reading a magazine didn’t look up as I passed. The corridor hadn’t been cleaned recently. The elevator at its end was ancient, confirming my sense of a sheath-like facade. When the doors opened, I was taken aback by the amount of grime on the walls. A crumpled chip bag lay in one corner.

Off-camera, I thought. The exterior, which could be hosed down, might be needed for some establishing shots. Or a new intro sequence. Not this, though.

You don’t know

The Green Room was dirty. My housekeeping eye isn’t stringent, but a glance showed me dustballs, more crumpled snack bags, styrofoam cups with dried dark sediments, dust everywhere. As I perched on the edge of the ratty couch, I thought of Saturday’s dry cleaning bill for my suit.

Another guest arrived. A woman with two little dogs. She was wearing slacks and a T-shirt. I felt stiff in my suit and tie. She asked why I was there. Said she did a pet spot two or three times a year. Looked at ease, a takeout bag in her hand.

Rick, the director, came in.

We shook hands. “Hey, Judy!” he said. As he ran through procedures with me, he kept glancing at his watch. A large wall clock was right beside us.

I felt You don’t know losing ground to sleaze and haste. Like a sand castle eaten by dirty little waves.

“Ed’s late,” he said, to Judy. “Mike, you’ll go first. Judy, you’ll be our sandwich filling.” A grim smile. Did he have another kind? Then he left.

The lead dog lunged forward, got stubby legs around my calf. Its companion followed. The dry cleaner’s courteous old face came into my mind. I looked at Judy. She pulled back mildly on the leash, then let them go at it.

The makeup woman was overweight and sloppily dressed, badly made-up herself. Thick orange lipstick. Bright rouge circles. (No one will believe this, I thought. How could every cliché be true?)

In the hallway Rick and another man passed us, muttering.

“They haven’t heard from Ed,” said the makeup lady.

“Who’s Ed?”

Her eyes popped in surprise. “Our political analyst? The main guest?”

I’d forgotten completely about the federal election. It was today. And they were still short a guest on Thursday?

“Can I see where I’m going?” I asked.

Another eye-pop. “The studio?”


We went through the door beyond makeup. Two brown plaid couches, of the faded recroom quality we used to call fart-catchers, made an L on a square of blue. White light. The setup small. Just enough to furnish a lens. Beyond it, a dimness with machinery, a man on a stool eating a candy bar. He dropped the wrapper on the floor.

The set looked like what a family of modest means, forced to move in a hurry, had decided to leave with Goodwill.

You don’t know
was gone. Dissolved.

Get through this
had replaced it.

I sat in a high swivel chair, like a barber’s chair. The makeup woman swabbed orangey-brown onto my face.

“Close your eyes,” she said.

When I opened them, two well-dressed people with orange faces were looking at me. The man was grinning.

“Bryan,” he said. We shook hands. “And this is Sherry.” She smiled at me. “So you’re our author.”

I nodded, caught myself gaping in the mirror. Closed my mouth. TV was making me mute. The one thing I’d told myself must not happen.

The hosts exchanged a look. Bryan punched me lightly on the shoulder. “Just be ready when we throw to you, okay, Mike?”

Then asked me how to pronounce the title of my novel. I told him. Friends had warned me I’d regret using a French art term. That had come true.

“We’ll introduce you, then throw to you here. Then you come on. That’s it!”

They were gone. Except for the makeup woman, now slouched in a chair sipping a Coke, everyone here just popped in and out. Nothing lasted longer than thirty seconds.

The throw
. Outside of sports–where you could throw a ball or a game–my only association with the phrase came from Holden Caulfield’s elevator pimp: “Five bucks a throw, fifteen bucks till noon.”

But I could gather the meaning here. A batter-on-deck shot of me in the dressing room.

Judy came in for her makeup. The makeup woman warned her to stay out of my throw line.

“How many times, Bev?” said Judy. She had a chilly smile. Where were her dogs?

I fell into another of the dazes I’d warned myself against. The place had a lulling effect, or I lulled myself defensively against it. Dissipating all the adrenaline and sense of mission I’d felt coming in.

Mac’n Mo the last names, I thought idly. First of the last....Mac-something, Mo-something. Speculations like little clouds drifted through my mind.

“CAT-A-LOGUE R-R-R-AI-SON-ÉE!” boomed suddenly through the air. Bryan’s drawn-out roar sounded uncannily like fight announcer Michael Buffer bellowing the name of an unknown challenger.

And then a camera of unseemly size was jostling into position below me in the cramped space. Pointing up.

“Don’t watch the monitor,” Bev hissed quietly.

Too late. My eyes darted around, taking in slivers of herself and Judy, then found myself, my face, orange and elongated, open-mouthed. I closed my lips on a vapid smile.

“Let’s hope he doesn’t write in a couple more victims, eh, Sherry?” I heard, even louder. Closer yet nowhere.

The smile in the monitor tightened. The eyes stared.

The camera swivelled abruptly away, the cameraman scrambling after it.

“Go!” Judy’s hiss and shove between my shoulders.

At home in the bathroom, I wiped at the crusted makeup with a damp cloth. It had got on my shirt collar and my suit lapels–more dry cleaning. I washed my face. Then stripped and showered.

So now you know

Did I know? TV must have degrees, like everything else. Mac’n Mo wasn’t Charlie Rose. But something told me they would share essentials. The worst fast food franchise still preps you for the best.

About my time under the lights I remembered little. What I’d done or said was a blank. Afterwards, I stayed on for the dog lady and the election analyst. The dogs molested my legs at intervals, creating a running gag. The cameraman dropped another wrapper. I could see litter everywhere beyond the lights. Crumples of crap and heaped junk, all of it under the mildly shining, shawl-like dust.

The makeup marred some people more than others, I noticed (it helped no one). It most nearly suited Bryan's booming bonhomie, like a jock’s painted-on tan. But it made the quieter Sherry look older. Drying, it gave her fine wrinkles, so that I was surprised to see, close-up, an unlined, youthful face within it.

(I had only lurid clues of what it had done to me. Despite a wipe-off that had felt thorough, Bev left me with warpaint smears on my cheeks and forehead. I didn’t see the orange slashes until I got home. Yet no one had given me a second glance when, on my way back, I cast my ballot at the elementary school near my apartment. Truly, a universal franchise.)

A few days later, two friends dropped by with a tape they’d made of the show.

“You watch it,” I said. “I’ll make the drinks.”

But their barely suppressed barks of laughter brought me back out of the kitchen. What the hell, I thought.

The elongated leer of the throw, in merciless close-up, couldn’t help but summon Norma Desmond at the end of Sunset Boulevard. “I’m ready for my close-up, Mr. DeMille.”

But the face was middle-aged male, shot from way below (why?), with the already large forehead made bigger by the thin, swab-slicked hair. A very long, bulbed effect. The black hole of mouth. Familiar, somehow.


Munch’s O-mouthed screamer on the bridge.

But that was only awful and, yes, hilarious. Not surprising. What surprised was my five minutes of talk. Given the state I’d been in, I expected awkward silence broken by prompted blurts. But I was lucid. Animated. Cogently summarizing my novel. Leaning forward into questions. Engaged. What I’d wanted after all: talking, really talking, about my book.

And totally wrong. As wrong as my throw-scream.

We turned it off and, drinking, analyzed why. Genuine interest and enthusiasm, unless coolly muted, came out as geekish caricature on camera. Those film actor interviews where they talked about scaling down from the stage. Minimalism.

Either that or strongly over-the-top. Bryan’s braying gags right on. Right for the noonday box. They shot, somehow, clean over the moon to land safe in clownish fraternity.

The box had its laws and skewed by them. Judy’s chill warmed up a degree in the lens, suggesting sophistication. Sherry’s flitting anxiety became solicitude, the mother to Bryan’s goofy teen.

Only ardency, earthbound eagerness, went badly wide.

Bryan and Sherry were too experienced to look concerned. And maybe they weren’t; I was talking at least. But they kept trying to lighten it up, tossing me lines to quip with (“Er, Hannibal Lector doesn’t make an appearance, does he?”). I tapped these back (“Saving him for the sequel”) and continued talking. Not manically, but with obvious engagement. But next to Bryan, engagement looked like obsession. The long, fat wink he gave me at commercial, after Sherry had thrown to Judy (who caught it smartly), looked like the visual equivalent of a gasp of relief. Over and out.

Like Holden, I’d fumbled the throw and what came after, undone by a more pressing need for conversation.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

A review of my novel Catalogue Raisonné

The Antigonish Review
161. (Spring 2010): 99-101.
Review by Darryl Whetter

Catalogue Raisonné

Mike Barnes
238 pp.
ISBN 0-9735971-9-4

With its keen, imaginative attention to the varied operations of a mid-sized Canadian art gallery, Mike Barnes’s novel Catalogue Raisonné invites an obvious architectural metaphor. Quite simply, Catalogue Raisonné has a superb blueprint, and its many successes follow from its enabling design. From its inception, the novel triangulates art, careerism and society. Barnes shrewdly augments those triangulated inquiries in choosing a gallery security guard as his protagonist. Paul and the other guards are steadily reminded of their low status in the gallery’s repeatedly articulated pecking order. Circling the gallery’s many rooms and deepening scandals, Paul generally enjoys his view from the margins, at least until events turn deadly.

With the foundation of a gallery setting and its marginal protagonist, Catalogue Raisonné manages to avoid Can Lit’s two most common mistakes in writing about work. Generally, too much of our fiction falls into the Hollywood trap of ignoring the workaday necessities of earning a living. Paul and Angela, his romantic cohabitant, both work at the gallery in low-paying jobs. Refreshingly, we see characters who worry about rent increases and can only afford cocaine for really special occasions (the novel is set in 1984). Barnes can and does write illuminatingly and rewardingly about the intricacies of brushstrokes and shading, but never gratuitously fills pages with a homework-heavy techno-porn devoted to the chemistry of oil on canvass. He’s confident and reader-friendly enough to show his own eye for art without ever losing his story, as when he refers to the “suicidal stasis” in an Alex Coville painting. Unlike Michael Ondaatje, Jane Urquhart or Carol Shields, Barnes knows he’s writing a story, not a how-to manual. Refreshingly, this novel includes normal, clock-punching citizens who happen to paint, not an arts aristocracy or speculation about some past European master.

Plot has become an endangered species in Canadian fiction, yet Catalogue Raisonné cradles its varied strengths of characterization, lively prose and a keen social and psychological eye within a steadily evolving plot. Paul, a former punk musician, is not the only misfit working security. Sean, or Mumbles as the others call him, prefers to police the most remote and empty rooms of the gallery to better work on his epic poetry. Another attendant, Robert, works endlessly on a symphony and cohabits with his sister Claudia, a neurotic painter. Paul and Robert discuss the gallery, art, and life during their regular chess games. When these idle speculations turn to how a painting could be stolen from the gallery, Robert’s mental instability is only the first shocking discovery.

As a genuine novel, Catalogue Raisonné is less concerned with the what and how of art than with its why. Barnes, the author of five books of fiction and a memoir, writes knowingly about “the self-doubt and self-pity and rivalry and envious gossip that were the artist’s lot.” In his perpetual place on the sidelines, Paul notices that the gallery’s “Outreach” coordinator made it impossible “to distinguish the genuine from the artificial in a true ‘people person.’ That was what being a people person meant.” Romantically, Paul is the kind of guy who privately admits he likes the relationship he’s in for now, and yet doesn’t exclude that relationship from his (under-stimulated) intelligence. As the art theft plot turns deadly and the stress rises, Paul sees both the strengths and the weaknesses of his relationship: “Angela had begun to use words like ‘supportive’ and ‘nurturing’ far too often, but she actually was those things. It was partly why I loved her. It was also why I hated to hear her talk that way. And if it was true that her tenderest sympathies usually found their way back round to herself, was she any different from the rest of us in that? From me? At least her feelings made the outward journey first.” The novel is fuelled by a dynamic plot but also draws interesting material for both the head and the heart in its wake.

The commitment to plot, however, also produces the novel’s only shortcoming. Near the end, Barnes sprints too quickly for the finish line and strains credulity, interest and sympathy. Inexplicably, worry doesn’t rise when the body count does. Major ethical and legal considerations are brushed aside in a race for the finish. A late romantic development is prepared on only one front when it should have been prepared on several.

Catalogue Raisonné is much, much more than a novel with an interesting setting and subject. As a mid-career writer, Barnes writes knowingly and intriguingly about one art world while working in another. With the multiple strengths in prose, character and plot he shows here, Barnes deserves a good, long run.

Darryl Whetter is a creative writing prof at Dalhousie. His latest book is The Push & the Pull, a novel of love, death and bicycling. See for details.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Highway Song

The roads, the roads are mad
and I am mad to use them–
my mind is metal, my soul is tar
my heart is a pit of hi-beams

Tuesday, June 22, 2010


I wanted to walk without anything in my hands

I wanted to walk without anything

I wanted to walk without

I wanted to walk

I wanted


Saturday, June 19, 2010

Hurricane Chimes

This Says

Some write a thousand poems
Others cry a million tears
I do both and that is how
I navigate these hurricane years

But what about the Laughing Way
The balms of friendship, song, and wine?

I help myself to that help too
No way’s untried, they all are mine

And when I sink beneath the storm
And wear the face I cannot hide
If someone says, He lost who strove
This says I lived and, living, died


How do you get from here to there?
Climb down the river and swim up the stairs
How do you journey back again?
Follow Time’s ghost whistling “Now and Then”


Heart is a muscle
So is brain
Together they squeeze
Brute rock into rain

Dance with who’s pretty
Dance with who’s not
Go home with yourself
If that’s where it stops

One wind to batter
One wind to cool
One wind in the vane
Of Ruler and Fool

The Adversary’s Grapes

My dustpan is dusty

And when I pass
the vacuum brush
over my electronic keyboard

It sings
The Adversary’s Grapes
in a key too high

For me to follow

Monday, June 14, 2010


In the dream I stand
in the first room we lived in
together nearly twenty years ago
the light strong and shining
on the bare white walls
and old flecked carpet
so that they glow as if
illuminated from within

and it is by that glow
(too strong and even for the small
west facing window) that I know
–with gratitude like a spring
rising through dry leaves in my chest–
that I am seeing not just
the room but what it meant
and means I am standing in it

and I realize too (another marvelling
mystery) that all these years
we have gone on renting here
paying the landlord $450/month
which we could not afford
yet though we never visited
even for the possibility of
this light it was a bargain

And then the dream in slow
stages like a ship turning awkwardly
undoes itself or a part of itself
and I see there are no pictures
on the walls no row of paperbacks
around the room no cushions no kitchen table
it is not the room we sparely
furnished but the pure space we

unlocking found or locking left behind
and the mystery of the $450
withdrawals we never saw
on any bank statement becomes clear
why would we pay in that
way for the room we live in
what is ours this light this
space we carry with us waking—

Happy I say more...solid
when you ask me over coffee
how the dream (or this poor cousin
I can tell) makes me feel
but really it is a smaller and deeper
change I am aware of
an almost shy adjustment
to the scope and grounds of here

like someone leaning toward
a fogged window
and rubbing a small patch
bare with his sleeve

Sunday, June 13, 2010


“Has the prisoner
anything to add?”
Judge Doom.

“Give me Life
and a capo
Dust My Broom.”

Friday, June 11, 2010


Three days, one man
guiding us through
the snarling zones,
first on York Mills
near Yonge, then
on Bayview
south of York Mills,

finally on Leslie
where it snags
by the Toyota dealership
just north
of Eglinton.

Portly, peaked cap,
whistle and
fluorescent green vest
he commands we
leave off eating
talking drinking dreaming
and attend

he stops us
dead, straightening
four lanes
with straightarm jabs
the way I
just stabbed dead

The Pet Shop Boys
Stairway to Heaven
and Michael Ignatieff
on my radio

and whistles through
three buses
a dozen Metro shoppers
and a shocking number
of car salesmen
trying to
get home.

He makes us stop
he lets us go
his jerking thumb
is our rainbow

For precious minutes
he is all we know:
one fritter-heavy
keeping the gridlock

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

A New Basketball

Of the eight possible limbs
an octopus or married couple
might bring to this
we have between us
maybe three

a left arm (mine)
to hook vague shots
at the netless rim
that clanks and wobbles
with a racket
somehow more encouraging
than swish

and your two legs
dance-trained, still strong
to shag my misses
and your own
loping toward a father
and two sons playing
round the schoolyard’s other basket

who smile good-naturedly
at a face
I can’t see (though I can)

as the gravestones
in the old Jewish cemetery
just beyond the
wrought iron fence
lean to catch
the tremor
of the drum of ball on asphalt

It was a good idea
buying this
a good idea whether or not
it loosens up the five
absentee limbs or brings blood
to the eroding cordilleras of bone
between them, they have

all been
all our years
together, a good idea–

It is not yet night
or quite dusk
though long past day
as we walk home
down the empty street
bouncing the ball
by turn between us
your hand mine
“So loud” you say
the people all inside

Light rain starts
and I see (so clearly now)
dark splotches
on the headstones clustering
and the father and his sons
packing up quickly

Monday, June 7, 2010

Short Cry While Driving

Rosemount, Roseview, Rosehill, Rosedale–
How many ways they got to tell themselves

(Note: Xs to be read as spaces. I’m screaming in a Blogger straitjacket. See previous post.)

Lines from a Book on Famine

(found in Famine: A Short History, by Cormac Ó Gráda)

During the Leningrad blockade
of 1941-43
an emaciated mother whose breast milk
had run out
a vein in her arm
and put her baby’s mouth
to the wound

which it sucked eagerly.

mother and baby

(Note: Xs to be read as spaces. Whenever I try to deviate from the left margin, Blogger, like a demented pedagogue, slams me back to it. A similar thing happens when I try to put an extra space under the post title: Blogger eradicates it. If anyone reading knows a way around this, permitting more flexible spacing, could you advise me care of I would appreciate it greatly. These primitive expedients take me back to my mimeo days. A not entirely unwelcome regression, but still....)

Saturday, June 5, 2010


Enspelled but trying to awaken

peering peering with eyes closed

till castle, kingdom, Evil One

secede. Forest. Owl-roost. Road.

Thursday, June 3, 2010


(for absent friends)

warm slabs ringing
char manifest the
endless wheel our
sparks surging into
black its infinite
white hot braille
in no human
tongue though some
return whizzing back
in avid smears
shooting alive this
nearer air they
crash down mimicking
mere stones famished
for shared heat
they join another
circle around flame

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Edge Scene

Opposite a footbridge
over a narrow chasm
a lone green-headed
mallard stands at the lip
of a rushing fall
of water, distant

from the chuckling
platoon of other waterfowl
paddling the sunlit
pond this pine-draped
cascade descends from,
around which children
chase and jostling
wedding groups assemble;

right-angled to the
current, not
on a judicious rock
but planted full
in the surging stream,
mere inches from the verge,

he keeps a motionless
vigil or a trance,
his webbed unlikely feet
anchoring a lone observer.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

The Hummingbird

Smashed in flight
against the window glass,
it has fallen to this most
unlikely perch, a
seated man’s shoulder.

In the photograph
his profile, Rushmore huge,
gapes across three inches
at the iridescent head
and pipe bowl body
anchored on thread feet
stitched to denim.

First miracle batted
to the ground
brings down the lot,
and well may these small
wings folded flat
resume their blur
and lift him
to his feet again.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Slohand 1 (27 April 2010)

Translation, not travel.

It’s warmer to walk than wait.

The larva does not survive the butterfly.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Talking the Walk (26)

On Doctors (Very Briefly)

I would think that for someone with your experience, it would be a very short leap to an anti-doctor position?

Agreed. And it’s a short leap I’ve taken often. But the trouble with short leaps is that they often lead off cliffs, or into swamps, or other places you don’t want to be. As sure as I am that the battery of phenothiazines and electroshocks I received did me substantial harm, I’m equally sure that the decades I spent shunning professional help, fearing the mental health system but also unable to help myself adequately, also harmed me significantly. For twenty or twenty-five years, I got by, barely...but I didn’t thrive.

That’s a long time not to thrive.

Often, when I read statements by anti-doctor, specifically anti-psychiatry groups, I find my reactions following a Yes...Yes...Huh? progression.

Yes to the horror stories (I’ve seen and lived them). Yes to the dismay at, the doubt and criticism of what psychiatry too often is. The Huh? comes when I get to the end of the article or website and there is no mention of an alternative person or organization I should contact when I am about to cut or kill myself, or am disabled by depression or hallucinations...or when someone I know is in these dire straits.

That is one thing that complicates the doctor picture.

Here is another: I have a wonderful psychiatrist at the moment. I trust her completely. Strange, yes, and sad, that it took me thirty-five years and perhaps a dozen psychiatrists before I could say that. But I’m saying it now. Better late than never.

Here’s another complication: Most of the people who harm you don’t mean to. May mean, in fact, to help you. But harm you nonetheless, because they make mistakes, don’t know enough...or because nobody, currently, knows enough. It’s hard to be robbed of a villain. It leaves you with no one to blame outright for your suffering. A doctor performed an unnecessary surgery on my knee when I was eighteen, removing a part of the joint that I needed. With each limping, progressively arthritic step since then, I’ve wondered: Did he know? Though at times it’s simplified things to think so, I don’t really believe it. He was doing his best as he saw it...and I happened to be there.

That is one of the hardest kinds of accidents to accept. And one of the most common.

Only the platooning system of medicine interests me now. Meaning: myself as my chief doctor, consulting other doctors as need be.

The more you learn about yourself, a subject that is endless because it is always changing, the better able you will be to become your own doctor. Not a replacement for the doctor you have, but a colleague, a partner for her or him. After all, you are the world’s foremost expert on your condition. What treatment could possibly succeed without your input? Assuming, of course, your doctor will welcome a colleague. And assuming, equally, that you are willing to shoulder some of the responsibility for your own treatment.

Become–and keep becoming–your own doctor. Since no one has all the answers, look carefully and critically for the best colleagues you can find. Consider what they have to say, and decide each case–all cases being your case–as best you can. Evaluate the results, and learn from your mistakes. Even the best doctors make them. So will you.

Talking the Walk (25)

...It Exacts a Full Look at the Worst

“Where's the hope?” That question again. And I have to go to my lifeline, Thomas Hardy: “...if way to the Better there be, it exacts a full look at the Worst.”

All right, then, here is a little two-item inventory of the Worst.

1) As I’ve realized, this past year especially, there isn’t a corner of my life that hasn’t been affected, and to some degree disabled, by mental illness. Romantic relationships, friendships, family ties. Ability to work productively and consistently, even to hold a job. Ability to learn (it was mental illness, I now realize, that caused me to take 13 years to get my B.A., not, as I often told myself, boredom or stupidity or the need to focus on creative writing). And the most fundamentally disabling aspect of losing self-definition, self-identity, because the narrative of life keeps getting blown apart. Today is October 27. Will I be able to read and understand these thoughts on November 27? I hope so. I am on a new combination of drugs that shows promise; I really hope to avoid hitting those depths. I want so badly to keep working and living more consistently. I want to stop living part-time, and try it full-time. I’m ready.

2) I’ve been told that I am an unusually high-functioning example of someone with a severe bipolar condition. Despite the crippling depressions, the equally dangerous manias, the suicidal spells; despite all this and more, I’ve managed to keep my self-employment as a tutor for the past fourteen years, I’ve published seven books, I’m happily married, I’m blessed with rich friendships. “You’re a success story,” my doctor tells me...and I believe her.

But...what is wrong with this picture?

If I am the success story, the fortunate exception, what about the rule? What about all the others? You hear people say, “He or she has a mental illness, but it is well-controlled.” Or: “They’re all right as long as they take their medication.” But: What does well-controlled mean? What is all right? What is functioning? Functioning how? By whose standards?

It is only a personal sample, but listen to this: In my year and a half living on a psychiatric ward, I met many seriously ill patients: schizophrenics, manic-depressives, suicide survivors. Over the years, I’ve run into many of these people–perhaps two dozen of them. Not one of them–not one–has ever returned fully to the life they were living before they became so drastically ill. I don’t pretend that’s a scientific, or exhaustive, study. But doesn’t it give you pause? Doesn’t it make you think?

While I was writing The Lily Pond, I met two people I went to high school with. James and Callie, I’ll call them. Both wrote poetry, were bright and vivacious–magnetic people with a risky lustre in their eyes. Both were carried, literally kicking and screaming, into Emergency wards in their twenties, and from there admitted to psychiatric wards. This happened many times, throughout their twenties and thirties. Our paths crossed on wards and in outpatient services. Once I was the one who wrestled Callie to the floor and frog-marched her to ER–one of the most horrible things I’ve ever had to do, and one of the most necessary. I lost touch with them. When I met them again, two years ago, at a conference our doctors had pressed us to attend, they both told me they were doing well on their drug regimens. They hadn’t been hospitalized in years. That was the good news. The bad news, from my persepective, was: glassy-eyed, slow-moving people, whose lined faces and missing teeth made them look ten years older than they were; their poverty, working at subsidized part-time jobs and living in group homes; their obvious cognitive impairment, speaking in simple, gappy sentences and utterly disengaged from their previous passion for literature and art.

Which is higher functioning? A fast–too fast–living poet, whose dangerous mental states put her or him as well as others at risk, and lead to hospitalization..or the “walking shadow” of that person, who is never hospitalized, but lives within vastly truncated horizons? I don’t have an answer to that terribly complicated question. But I hope you’ll agree with me that it’s a question worth asking.

One more note on this very thorny subject. Health care workers, and others close to the patient, will often call mental fogging or memory loss “an acceptable cost.” But acceptable to whom? Let’s reverse the roles. A doctor comes to me in severe psychological crisis. I say: here’s a pill that will alleviate your distress, at the acceptable cost of memory and thinking difficulties, attention deficit, sexual dysfunction, and a certain numbness and disengagement emotionally. Still acceptable? Let’s say the doctor tries the drug, and finding herself unable to practice as a doctor on it, unable to tolerate the disconnect with others, elects to stop taking the drug and accept the risk of further disabling episodes. Is she irrational? Is she “non-compliant”?

This is why I’ve chosen–to the frustration of some who know me–to err on the side of risk, opting for a mild regimen that stabilizes a little while risking bad episodes...if I can still be me. I have to keep pushing the envelope, because a life in which I cannot write, cannot think clearly or deeply, cannot feel passionately, cannot connect with others emotionally or physically...this is not my life as I ever want to define or live it.

People say: What if you have to accept it? Well, if I have to, I’ll try to. Like anyone backed into an ultimate corner, I’ll try my damndest to make my peace with it. But I’ll fight to the last second before it comes to that.

Talking the Walk (24)

If Way to the Better There Be...

“...if way to the Better there be, it exacts a full look at the Worst.” Thomas Hardy wrote that, in 1895. If you want to build a foundation for anything, including hope, you need first to take rock and soil samples from the place where you plan to dig. You need to know the ground.

In the service of trying to build such a foundation–a platform for hope–I’m going to share some soil samples with you tonight.

I felt apprehensive as the publication of The Lily Pond approached, in ways I never had with a book before. After writing and reflecting on the matters in the book for a couple of years, I felt I had made my peace with them; but I worried about what others would think and feel, especially others close to me. The anxiety became very bad; I had terrible nightmares. My fears were well-founded, but I had their direction backwards. Most of the people around me were supportive; I felt that some of my relationships took on new meaning and solidity by having this intimate subject now more in the open. What staggered me, however–I’m still reeling from it–was the realization of the extent to which manic-depressive illness has deranged, and continues to derange, my life. It was as if the book, along with talking about it afterwards, showed me the true dimensions of an adversary that, for my own protection, I’d only been able to see partially, in glimpses. I thought that, after decades, I knew all about it...but I didn’t. I know much more now. What I’ve learned has frightened and dispirited me...but also, through those blocks of black asphalt, sent a few new shoots of hope.

Here is an entry I wrote in my journal before the book was published: Bad dreams nightly. In the day without warning, smacked feelings of airlessness, of choking or being strangled. Hands to neck, chest. Dr. George [she’s my psychiatrist] says: “What you wrote may have unearthed a box. It may have been sealed for a you could keep functioning. Now it may be time to open it, or at least peek into it. Cautiously.” I still feel, often, that I’m strangling, or sinking and drowning. But I’m still peeking into that unsealed box. Staring at its contents. Looking, looking, looking.

Where’s the hope?
A woman asked me that after one talk. I’d been discussing the ongoing process of recovery, how it involved successes but also fall-backs, downturns, slides; and she said: You say you’re better, but you also say you still go through terrible periods. Where’s the hope?

I answered her as best I could, but she still wasn’t satisfied. Where’s the hope? is a good question, and one that I’m trying to answer more fully tonight. It’s in the background of everything I say.

My first answer to her was: I’m here. I’m talking to you. You’re talking to me. Considering that it could have been otherwise, many times, for me–and maybe for you–that is no small thing. In fact, it’s everything.

But an answer like that won’t begin to equate with hope, or even the beginnings of it, if what you’re looking for is a cure, a final end to troubles. To some people, only that means hope. But I can’t conceive of any part of life being finally resolved; I don’t think I even want to. I can only think of hope in terms of continuous, evolving process: an ongoing experiment, struggle, which success is measured not by once-and-for-all victory but by incremental gains in understanding, strength, courage, grace.

I’m trying to learn to be a better dancer. My partner is the black bear of chronic, recurring illness. Its steps are savage and crude; it leads thoughtlessly. I really wish I’d drawn a better partner–but when the music started, there we were. My wife Heather has a similar partner, which makes for a crowded dance floor, the four of us waltzing awkwardly in our apartment. Thankfully, sometimes the the ugly and ungainly others take a break, and Heather and I have a slow dance by ourselves.

Where’s the hope? (She is insistent. And why shouldn’t she be?)

I’ve written a book, a memoir of mental illness. Starting four years ago, I sat down every day, before and after my paying job of tutoring, and tried to sort out my thoughts about a part of my life I’d never written down before. Not directly, though I’d touched on it in my six previous books of poetry, short stories, novels. All books are fundamentally hopeful, whatever their subject matter; without hope, no one would try to wrestle raw, chaotic experience into the coherent patterns of art.

Where’s the hope? Again I hear her question.

And again: I’m here. No one would grapple for nearly 40 years with an illness pulling him down, pulling him apart, unless he had equally strong allies (internal and external) pulling him up, pulling him together. Those allies include love, joy in life, and a strong and resilient spirit. They are not unique to me. Any survivor has them. And they are rightly to be cherished, as wellsprings of pride and constant renewal.

Where’s the hope, where’s the hope, where’s the hope?

All right, then. It’s in the process, hidden behind catastrophe. In going out...and coming back in. In falling down..and getting up. It’s in disaster’s classroom...if you’re able to attend.

It’s in yourself. And in other people. When you’re ready and able to meet them.

It’s nowhere if you’re looking for a cure.

It’s everywhere if you’re searching for a way.

When and where is it?

When it goes, nowhere. When it returns, everywhere.

But surely there must be some way to court it, encourage it?

There is. Stop looking for hopeful signs, and do one hopeful thing.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Talking the Walk (23)

Through the Lens of a Mood

People have asked me what role spirituality, what role God, has in living with mental illness? It is a fair question. If the mosaic of mental management has room for a SAD light, omega-3 pills, almonds, “the truth of and”...and umpteen other interventions... might not a Supreme Being be slotted in?

It might well. For a believer, I don’t see how it couldn’t be. But I don’t believe in a God. Not as “God” has ever been defined for me, and perhaps not at all, by any name.

(Perhaps “belief” is the problem. I’ve never believed in anything. I know things or I don’t know them. Take Santa Claus. I knew he existed, and then I knew he didn’t. Knowledge doesn’t require a leap of faith. I suspect the problem comes from knowing something that is difficult to put into words, or knowing something you expect others to doubt or disparage. Trusting that kind of knowledge may well require a leap of faith, or at least a credo that includes good manners: I believe my knowledge is valid, though I can’t prove it and can’t convince you of it.)

Still, I am no “just this-just here” dogmatist (that faith has never snared me either). I have my spiritual yearnings and intuitions, my cosmic or oceanic glimpses that will not fit under the rubric of the everyday explainable. And it is curious how they dovetail with the question “Now what?” as if to answer that imponderable with a commensurate vastness–or vagueness, some will say. Fair enough. Except that there is nothing vague about the comfort I have found in contemplating those vistas–like the inviting fogs in a Turner painting–where hard lines blend into permitting light and space.

And if this is mysticism, why would I deny myself the solace of the mystical (a solace tested true for decades) when I am willing to submit myself to a molecule turned on a chemist’s lathe? What the science of help must exclude–inscrutable aid; remediation by agents not yet, and perhaps not ever to be, explained–the art of help can welcome with a fine carelessness.

Squinting through the lens of that mood–

Now what? can't be less that the sum total of moments in a life, beautiful and hideous, extraordinary and humdrum...all that vast array of small, glittering tiles that make up the mosaic of a life. Amor fati, counselled Jung. And so did Nietzsche, who defined the Latin phrase this way: amor fati: that one wants nothing to be different, not forward, not backward, not in all eternity. Not merely bear what is necessary, still less conceal it—...but love it. Love your fate. Embrace it, however awkwardly or reluctantly. Clasp the actual, the torrent of lived particulars you swim in and that swim in you. That sounds like clutching at water–but what other choice is there for the omni-amphibian that is a human being? Sometimes it will mean grabbing mere air, other times it will mean contact with the earth: mud, sand, clean stone, fertile ground. And if we’re using the four elements of antiquity, including fire, sometimes it will mean being burned alive. And...hopping out again. As I have seen toads do from campfires built unthinkingly over the stone they were sheltering under.

Only this kind of openness–the curiosity and courage that lets you live in, and learn from, all the times of your life–permits you, as the late Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., advised, to “Bargain in good faith with destiny.”

What does that mean? I don’t know exactly. But I like the sound of it. I like the hope, and the sense (even if it is illusory) of cosmic comradery, parleying and wrangling with the unfathomable forces of the universe. It’s not something I can think about too long without my head swimming. But, of course, as you realize by now, I like to let my head swim. Even still...even after everything. It’s a proclivity that has led me into deep waters...and will again. Still, I can’t help marvelling at those little threads of destiny, pattern if not purpose you can tease out and examine sometimes, the only fractions of a great unseen tapestry we are permitted to glimpse.

Like the thread that connects me sitting down at a table three and a half years ago to try and write a story I’d never written before...which somehow, in some deeply mysterious way, led me to this room, to talking with you for the past 45 minutes. Writing brought me here, writing about mental illness. Which must mean, in some way, that that disturbed and bleeding young man in the emergency ward in 1977...brought me here.

I call that a miracle. Without overt religious connotation, but also without embarrassment, since I don’t know what else to call it.

And when I try to imagine, which is all I can do, the multiple branching paths that led each of you through the mazes, gardens and forests of your own lives to arrive here in this room–

Well, I know that also is uncanny. A strange and wonderful set of convergences lies behind every meeting. And though I can’t call it an end without contradicting everything I’ve said here today, I am happy to accept as a point of pause that genuine miracle.

Talking the Walk (22)

Now What?

“Now what?” is a question you hear often in discussions of mental illness. (You hear it in discussions of any difficult problem.) Now what?, or its inversion, What now? I understand the impulse to ask it. A life has come unglued, fallen apart–your own life or that of someone close to you–and emerging from the hospital ward or the doctor’s office, you would very much like to have all the helpless looming uncertainties resolved into definite causes and cures.

I understand where the question comes from, but as a question, it either makes perfect sense or no sense to me.

As a question about what to do now, i.e. of the best next step, it makes perfect sense. In that form it is the necessary question the car mechanic or cook or surgeon asks many times every day. I’ve done steps 1, 2, and 3...Now what? This is one of the best mental health questions to ask, since no matter how bad a crisis is, there is always something–an action to take, a circumstance to adjust–that will make the situation better or worse. Often, the patient knows exactly what this is (turn on/turn off a light, eat a favourite food, take a walk, take a nap, talk with someone, talk with no one and lock the door...). Curiously, though, this first form of Now what? gets asked too seldom. In the frantic search for Cure, we bypass help. Peering into the distance for Help, we overlook the many small helps at hand.

Now what? in its second form is partly to blame. Like all ultimate questions, it refuses to divide the Grail of the big answer into smaller, more local quests. Now what? in the large sense means: How do we solve this problem once and for all? (i.e. Make it go away.) This is understandable. A trunk of horrors has appeared in the living room, troubles spilling out from its gaping lid. Now what?! Now what?! Yes. But the least effective way to unpack a trunk, or close its lid (even temporarily), is to wish the trunk would vanish.

Second form Now what?–ultimate Now what?–makes no sense to me. Which doesn’t mean I don’t waste time on it. But I give it less time than I used to. In fact I have been helped precisely to the extent I have been able to take What now? angst (Where is all this leading to? What will become of me? What does it all mean?) and break it down to What now? approachables (What might I change? What helped the last time this happened?). It is transferring the dread of fog to the search for road signs, landmarks, and places to pull over.

The Lily Pond supplies many details about both kinds of Now what?–details horrible at times, hopeful at others–but it can’t supply a beginning and an end that are not in sight. (Beginnings and ends are typical second form imponderables.) In “Hunters in the Snow,” the second section of the book, I track back from my fiftieth birthday party through childhood memories, finding evidence that things were going awry for me psychologically–“sliding out of focus” as I said in one interview–many years before I officially began my psychiatric career at age seventeen. But no matter how much attention I train on it, eventually the trail peters out, becomes invisible in the forest. As I write at one point: These things begin with such branching subtlety, twining tendrils of the new around old roots and branches, that there is no way to pinpoint their origins–not at the time, and not even in retrospect. Not until the process is sufficiently underway do you spot an outgrowth, a flower–a symptom. And deepening the confusion is the fact that what is new seems like a thing–not me, not my life–and yet it is a thing that can only grow and express itself through a life, mingling inextricably with it. You may feel that something is subverting your will, betraying it–and something may in fact be doing so, if what you mean by your self is your self-in-health–but if so, the invader can only work by annexing your will, working through your will. It is a stealth attack, to which most of the incestuous terminology of modern warfare applies: diplomatic maneuverings, pressure points, secret cells, covert agents, sleeper agents, terror tactics, propaganda, appeasement; most importantly, resistance and collaboration.

Causes are hard, at this point impossible, to pinpoint.

Is it in the genes? It must be, partly. Which puts the beginning where? Some day or night in November, 1954, when I was conceived? The day William Barnes and Mary Green first set eyes on each other? A mutation long ago, on the savannahs, that allowed for too much mobility of mood, too much permeability of perception–the proverbial “loose wires...loose screws”–but which somehow compensated its possessor for these perils with...with what? With a survival advantage of some kind, however slight? Or with a disadvantage that, while trying, wasn’t fatal? As I said, the trail, though fascinating, grows fainter and fainter, and peters out.

So, in true bipolar fashion, I’ll switch abruptly to the end, which I’m afraid isn't definitive either. In fact the first comment my publisher Dan Wells made after reading the manuscript was, “It doesn’t end.” His tone of voice told me he wasn’t voicing a criticism, but rather an essential truth about the story. An ailing mind is not something like a broken car, which can be either fixed or scrapped decisively. Or even a physical problem like a toothache, which again can, and will, be resolved one way or the other. Mental illness, like life itself, is a whole complex of intertwined challenges, which can only be met and managed, grappled with, more or less successfully, with success being measured not by absolute or even continuous victory, but by small, incremental gains in understanding, workable strategies, and a certain grace, hard to define but certainly including humour, about dancing awkwardly with the black bear of chronic and recurring illness. That is not everyone's idea of hope. But to me it is hope real and tangible. Light visible, to invert John Milton’s and then William Styron’s phrase.

Writing The Lily Pond, I felt frightened as I neared the end. Frightened because I was writing, in the last section, of my wife Heather’s mental illness as well as my own. Now we were, officically, two mentally ill people struggling together, which at its best feels like two old pros who know how to prop each other up, and at its worst like two drowning swimmers flailing towards the bottom. All of these things were in my mind, forty years of illness as I wrote, and who knows how many more to come, and I thought, fearfully: How will this end? Because I knew I would write down honestly what I felt, not fudging. So I was greatly relieved to find my way to a moment of hope, which I recorded as the book’s last sentence. I was glad, though not, on reflection, surprised. No one could go to the bottom as often as I have, and return, without a strong and resilient love of life. No swimmer would kick that hard against the tide unless he loved the land and wanted, desperately, to stand on it again.

But to hope, in flood times, to stand on land perpetually? Isn’t it much–isn’t it enough–to say: I swim much better than I used to. I find my way to shore more often.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Talking the Walk (21)

Zero and Back

Which brings me back to my United States of Self, the Continuity Clause I started with...and to why the frog, that symbol of a resilient traveller between elements, is such an important image in The Lily Pond’s last section. Multiple and often conflicting selves are a reality for anyone, not just someone with a diagnosed mental illness. For anybody, on any path, it is true: Parts of you are leaping ahead, parts are lagging behind, parts are stuck in the mud, parts are fleeing in the opposite direction. Ignorance of all these different momentums or, worse, denial that they are occurring, will only hinder your ability to find the direction you need and are capable of taking now.

Only by granting legitimacy to the very different states, purposes and abilities that are known collectively as “I,” can a united self–a republic, if you will, of recognized selves, each with its rights and limitations–be made possible...and a pace be found, variable and humane, permitting that manifold self to move and act in the world.

The smoothness of that phrase may make it sound easy. That is the peril of rhetoric. It is not smooth or easy. It is the hardest, most necessary, thing I know.

I’d like to close by reading two passages from The Lily Pond that illustrate what I’ve been saying here today. The first is short and is quoted on the back cover. I have been there and come back. Come back partly, at least. Return is possible; the door swings both ways. This gets at a paradox I’m learning more about each day. If your view of yourself is elastic enough to allow for downtimes, backslides, failures, even breakdowns–not only are you more likely to get back on your feet after these setbacks, but–and this is the truly magical part of the paradox–you are even less likely to get knocked down in the first place. “The door swings both ways.” You can more easily go out a swinging door, but also more easily come back in. Knowing there is such a door may even mean you don’t need to use it.

Another, longer passage from near the end of the book uses the example of the wood frog to explore this tolerant truth of out...and in. Down...and back up again. The passage is from the book’s last section, called “The Lily Pond,” where the main focus shifts to Heather, as she survives a mental health crisis and is diagnosed herself with bipolar disorder. After a siege of several months, exhausted, we took a cautious week’s vacation in a rented cabin on Lake Temagami.

The television, which we spurned at first, comes in handy after all. Scrolling through its channels, which number into the hundreds, is a good antidote when Heather becomes jittery and tired in the evening, a pattern from home that now resumes despite our lengthy sleeps. There is a lot of channel-scrolling to find a few interesting, and a couple of absorbing, programs. The most absorbing is a documentary on the wood frog’s hibernation. Heather calls me from making dinner to watch it with her. We know, from our book at home, of the astonishing ability these northern frogs have to manufacture glycogen in their livers, turning their blood to a kind of sugary antifreeze that allows their bodies to freeze solid through the winter and then unfreeze safely in the spring. It is one thing to know this; it is another to watch it happen. A scientist in a white coat puts several wood frogs on a tray and places the tray in a freezer. [I recoil from this a little,] but despite his clinical procedures the scientist seems a true and kindly enthusiast about the frogs. There is a video camera in the freezer. As we watch, the frogs’ breathing slows, and slows, then finally stops. Frost crystals cluster, coating them all over, including their eyes, which stay open. The scientist brings them out of the freezer, picks one up and flicks it (again that aversive prickle), then bobbles it in his hand: hard as rock. But in the tray left out on the table, the process has begun to reverse itself; in time-lapse photography, compressing several hours into minutes, we see the ice crystals melt and slide off; the skin soften in appearance, becoming less brittle and more rubbery-looking; one frog, the fastest thawer, draws a breath, a twitch in his small side; after long moments, another breath; then other frogs are breathing, small sides lifting and falling; finally, one makes a small hop. Alive.

Down to zero–close to it–and back again. Neither of us says a word. There is nothing to be said; we saw it.

On our last day, we take the last sections of our watermelon in a plastic bag and paddle to a quiet bay we visited before. Heather turns around in her seat to face me and we drift in the deep green shadows of the pines and cedars, eating pink watermelon and dropping the gnawed rinds into the bag. It is a moment of perfect restfulness, and it ends with a perfect, miraculous discovery. We have seen only one frog up here, a large leopard frog that hopped away once as we landed the canoe. The nights have been cold for late August, a few aspens already tinged with yellow. But today, when we stop on shore to stretch our legs, I see movement in the pine needles at my feet. I am a few moments spotting the small frog, his browns are blended so perfectly with the needles and rock and lichen. I put down my hand and trap him easily; he barely squirms inside my fingers. When I show him to Heather, parting my fingers to let his upper half pop out, then pinning him gently by the legs, we are amazed to see that it is the wood frog from the TV documentary. His black, robber-mask eye markings cinch it. It seems providential somehow, a sign, and standing on the rock admiring then releasing him–he hops away unhurriedly–we are both too moved to speak.

Heather, who has paddled in the bow all week, suggests that she try paddling us home herself. She stays facing me and begins moving us homeward, awkwardly at first, unsure of her steering, having to switch from side to side, but then strongly and more steadily, smiling with shy disbelief as her J-stroke returns to her. It is wonderful to watch; and hard in a way, too. Mental illness–meaning, here, the diagnosis and treatment of it, especially–is working against her confidence, implanting radical doubts in her about her basic capability. It is one of the reasons I feel so strongly that hospitalization should be avoided except as a last resort. If diagnosis means that one is being considered seriously for a position, then hospitalization is confirmation that one has got the job. And it can be a hard position to leave; it can easily become a career leading to retirement, and beyond.

Heather, after a break of many years, has gone back to school this year. This school: U of T. She is picking her own way along the learning curve, as everyone must. She doesn’t need to be reminded of what I’m saying here today as much as I do. In fact, though I said before I had no wish to advise my younger self, it’s not really true. I do in fact sometimes travel back in time to counsel him. He isn’t very inclined to listen–that hasn’t changed–but that no longer deters me from sharing with him what I’ve learned. What I tell him is a sort of footnote to Polonius, that off-and-on pedagogue ironically prone to forgetting himself. His admonition to Laertes as he returns to school, runs, in my amended version, like this: To thine own selves be true. Honour the people you were and will be, not just the person you are today.

Talking the Walk (20)

Know Thy Selves

“Know thyself.” Everyone has heard the ancient Greek injunction, inscribed in the forecourt of the Temple of Apollo at Delphi. For all its wisdom, though, I still think it could be improved. It presumes, in its singular pronoun, a stable and consistent identity, when in fact identity is malleable and multiple, a condition of flux which must be constantly updated, even renegotiated. “Know thy selves,” I humbly suggest, would be a more humane and practical credo.

Something I remained ignorant about for a long time, for example, was the fact that my periodic inability to read–words, these things I loved, going dead and blank, their sequences fuzzy and meaningless–is a common symptom of depression, and doesn’t at all betoken apathy or lack of intelligence. Or at least not permanent forms of those things. What it may mean, though, is a temporary impairment of interest and cognitive ability. And there are far better ways to deal with that than simply dropping out of the life one wants.

Like what? you may be thinking. What are you supposed to do if you find yourself bottoming out just when you need yourself most? Unable to read–but an exam coming up? Unable to write–but an essay due? I can think of some practical approaches to these problems, but outlining them would take us too far astray in a short talk. And I would be the last person to say that these are not serious problems, serious threats. Fluctations in mental health still threaten my job and my personal life; they’re a minefield I am always trying to pick my way through. I have no wish to travel back in time to advise my younger self: he did the best he could, what he had to do, then. But I know a couple of things he didn’t. One is that hiding a problem–from yourself and from others–usually takes more energy than trying to manage it. Coming out is almost always a good idea. What I hope I would do now, when I felt myself slipping, is to approach someone I trust with the facts: I want to do this (finish my course, write my exam, hang on till tomorrow), but for some reason I’m unable to. I need help, something to get me through this. That would be a start. Not a solution yet, but the only sure step I know towards finding one. I don’t say it is an easy step to take.

It seems strange that my eighteen months on a psychiatric ward in my early twenties had not begun my education in these matters. That tumultuous passage had schooled me in many miseries, fears and self-doubts of every kind, but it had not taken me very far at all in developing a practical awareness of myself, how I had changed, and how I might get on with my life, given the fluctuating and rather fragile (though at the same time newly toughened and robust) creature I now seemed to be.

Strange...or not so strange. Many medical mishaps–including a misdiagnosis of schizophrenia, zombiefying tranquilizers, many electroshock treatments and a near-fatal overdose–had given me good reasons to drop out of the standard curriculum of mental health. Again, though, I was an extremist: I shunned the mental health system completely for the next decade, which included some of the lowest and most pointless wandering in my life. Some kinds of learning occur only slowly, in tiny increments. No matter how successfully it is managed, trauma takes time. Time to occur (since it occurs in waves, even if one event precipitates it)...and a long time to come back from. Long, slow time is usually not on offer in an age that idolizes speed and a narrowly defined functioning. These idols of quick-time get stamped out crudely and worshipped thoughtlessly. And is it perhaps yourself–your image and expectations of yourself–that have helped to mold this unforgiving deity? Just because what you need isn’t on offer–or doesn’t appear to be–doesn’t mean you can’t ask for it, claim it. A system may function badly–many do–but it can’t function better than we ask it to. Demand it to. And: permit it to. “Time heals,” we say, but do we act as if we believe it? It takes courage to trust time–the courage to wait and see.

After that, of course, comes the challenge of admitting what you see, and finding room to accept it. Several times each year I still experience what I call my “shut-downs.” These are the periods that have taught me how far beyond sadness depression really goes. In these dead zones my brain and body and spirit–my whole self, really–become, in stages, unable to comprehend or respond to the world. It is a lot like that famous scene in 2001, when Dave Bowman unplugs HAL, and the computer disappears circuit by circuit–busted right down to his programmed origins of “Dai-sy...Dai-sy”–though by that time I have long since lost the urge to sing. At such times I’ve learned to apply what I call the small-circle cure. This means reducing activity and stimulation to a bare minimum. Dimming the lights, unplugging the phone, cancelling social engagements. And, as I feel my ability to think in sequence ebbing away, scaling my reading down from the love life of Anna Karenina to the love life of Britney Spears...and then further down, to just flipping through books of pictures or watching reruns of The Sopranos. To return to the idea of functioning: Someone seeing me lying on my side for hours beside a single lamp, flipping pages of Rolling Stone or People, might see a very low order of functioning...and it is, in a way...but it is a much higher order of functioning than I showed in the years when I tried to keep reading and writing through these spells, which can last six weeks or more, and added terrible frustration to depression when I could understand nothing, produce nothing. Self-acceptance, I’ve come to see, involves a better understanding of one of the simplest words: and. I am a person who reads, and writes, challenging books...and I am a person who, at times, cannot read or write the simplest sentence. The two facts are not mutually exclusive; they mustn’t be, since I’m living both of them.

But that little word and can be a terribly hard word to remember. A major part of my ongoing recovery, including the therapy I do with the excellent psychiatrist I have now, involves trying to remember the truth of and. As I said earlier, there is a degree of amnesia to my condition, so that every time I lurch upward into mania or downward into depression, it feels like the first time, and I lose all memory that I have been here before and gotten through it. Retaining a thin thread of memory, enough that I can say, “I know this place; I was here before, and I left again,” is one of the most important gains I’ve made in recent years. It’s a lifeline to cling to, a thread to guide me out of the labyrinth.

I learned all this again just last fall. Ironically, after my book launch in October, and at the talks I gave subsequently, some listeners said to me, “You seem well now,” as if all the troubles I was describing were safely behind me. “I do feel well,” I said, “” But I could tell they didn’t believe me when I said I knew bad times would return, times they, and even I, could scarcely imagine. Sure enough, within a month, I was floundering, slipping into a netherworld of sleeplessness and incoherent thoughts and depression and even hallucinations. I could barely understand the book I myself had written or the talks I had given about it. But while I felt myself slipping, while I still had time, I did a useful, practical thing. Using what few verbal resources I had left, I wrote myself a letter, a sort of “message in a bottle” from my still-hanging-on self to the unwell self I felt gaining on him. I taped the letter to the wall beside my desk, it is still there, and read it often in the next two months, feeling disbelief but also comfort at its assurances that I had gone to this black place before and had returned from it. I wanted to read it as part of this talk, but it is a little too long. “Letter to Thursday” is a frank and simple statement from one self to another, saying in essence: I know you, even if you don’t remember me. We are in this together.

“In this together” is a sentiment alien to the depressed person, since a feeling of utter desertion is at the core of the predicament. One is abandoned by joy, by purpose, by others, by the world, by oneself. The last is the harshest turning in the lock. Losing this first advisor, ally, friend–this best angel, truly–confirms that the ship has indeed been abandoned and must inevitably go down. Without this “other” there is no self–only a cave where someone used to live. Heaing no word is having no word. Getting a letter, a postcard, a murmur, on the other hand, is evidence that desertion may not be absolute, or at least not final, since somewhere your self-in-health is still speaking.

Talking the Walk (19)

The Continuity Clause

(This passage and the two that follow it are taken from “On and Off the Learning Curve: Notes by a Bipolar Student,” a talk originally given at the University of Toronto on March 11, 2009. To preserve a closely woven argument, it has been necessary in places to repeat material from previous talks. I have shortened or reworked these sections where possible.)

Seven weeks ago, I, along with millions of others suffering a long-term malaise, was given a strong antidepressant. The treatment included watching chopper blades lift George Bush out of sight, and watching and hearing Barack Obama sworn in as the U.S. president. Many of you will remember this vividly, I’m sure, especially if you were a fellow sufferer. Like all treatments, though, this one had its unwanted side effects, one of which was exposure to potentially toxic levels of rhetoric. That same day, I heard a commentator gush: “It’s a brand new country!” Immediately, this was contradicted by a colleague’s more sour view: “It’s the same old place.” Which was true? I wondered. And I decided they both could be. It’s the same old, brand new place.

And within a few days, influenced no doubt by the ceremony to the south, I wrote the following, applied to a person instead of a country. I call it “The Continuity Clause: Amendment to the Constitution of the United States of Self”:

“I” shall still be considered “I” in spite of lapses or contradictions in the behaviour of myself or the partial or complete disappearance of myself for whatever duration and for whatever reason.

So help me...anyone.

What does this have to do with a book on mental illness called The Lily Pond: A Memoir of Madness, Memory, Myth and Metamorphosis? Everything, really. A core theme in the book–addressed both explicitly and implicitly–is the existential conundrum of how to maintain a self and a life, when that self and life are subject to regular and radical disruption. How does chaos become continuity? The answers to that very big question, which I can only begin to suggest, have, I think, a special relevance to education.

The Lily Pond has four sections, which are like concentric rings. I imagine them sometimes as the ripples set up by a frog jumping into a still pond. They might also be seen as a series of lenses, with each lens offering a wider view of the subject. The first view is a close-up of a patient in crisis, me; the second, of the patient’s family, companions and fellow sufferers; then, moving further outward, a view of living in the wider community as a writer and a participant in psychotherapy; and finally, to caring–trying to care–for my wife Heather as she survives her own mental health crisis. The last view, though it involves many close-ups of each of us and of our marriage, is the widest view because its focus is on trying to make use of illness, trying to turn its hard lessons to some positive and outward-facing account.

The book’s four rings, then, move gradually outward from isolation and passivity–lying motionless on a hospital bed–to a life shared with others, including shared illness. They chronicle the journey (as the back cover says) “from the darkness of unconscious suffering to the daylight of mindful recovery.” What I mean by mindful recovery is not a cure–nothing so final or triumphant-sounding. It is more like tugging recurrent problems into better light so they can be worked on, coped with, managed. This is a long, indeed endless process. Ongoing active awareness is what I mean.

I also think of these concentric rings in another way: as my own story of mental illness, inside the larger story of mental health, which in turn fits inside the much larger story of existence and its challenges, for some of which we use the shorthand “mental health.” The story in The Lily Pond spans four decades. There are mentions in it of my stop-and-start university career, but that’s not described in detail. I’d like to look at it a little more closely now.

I got my Honours B.A. on the 13-year plan. I started in 1973 and graduated in 1986. While I have nothing against gradualism, it’s not a schedule I would recommend to anyone. You see, I was never a part-time student, but rather a full-time student who kept being forced to drop out. Interruptions to my course of study included those eighteen months on a psychiatric ward, working (after my discharge) as a dishwasher for two years, stints of unemployment and short-term jobs, all of this in a series of rented rooms–a “tumbleweed life,” I called it once–before I decided, at age 30, to complete the last year of my degree which had stalled at the three-year mark.

Why did it take me so long? And what, since I call the interruptions “forced,” was forcing me?

There’s more than one answer to that question. But the main reason, I think, is one that eluded me for many years; in fact, it was not until fairly recently that I fully acknowledged it.

Mental illness. Plunges into listless or agitated depressions, followed by equally destabilizing flights into rushing manias. And–far more damaging than these swings themselves–my bewilderment about what was happening to me, which led me to ascribe my swings to other, misleading causes.

Here is what kept happening. I’d start a school year with energy and enthusiasm–attending lectures, doing the readings, getting good marks...learning–and then at some point–usually in the late fall or spring, though it was not strictly seasonal–I would simply bottom out. Lose interest in the classes and the readings, start falling asleep over books, have trouble following a line of argument or even a sentence...and I would think: Why am I here? I’m not interested in this stuff. Or: I’m not smart enough, I can’t do this. (Forgetting–for depression has its characteristic amnesia as well as other forms of inattention–that only weeks or days before I had been smart enough, interested enough.) My reading and attendance became spotty, my work and marks trailed off...I dropped out. Usually vowing never to return.

Looking back, I see that what I was mainly lacking, to pursue my education, was not intelligence or desire or diligence, but self-knowledge. I was not well enough acquainted with myself, and not forgiving or understanding enough of those parts with which I was acquainted, to succeed in school. I needed to educate myself about myself before I could educate myself about anything else. Or at least–since the processes should occur in tandem–I needed to be learning about myself while I was trying to learn about Geoffrey Chaucer and John Milton.

Like generations of bad students before me, I aspired to speak passably well about lives and minds and relations in worlds remote from my own, and to do so I turned exclusively to textbooks and experts, disdaining the materials nearest to hand: my life, mind, and relations in this world, now.