Tuesday, January 5, 2010
Talking the Walk (15)
Last October, in Hamilton, I was walking up the street with Holly, a woman who was helping me organize the book launch for The Lily Pond. I remember it was a cool but sunny day.
“Can I ask you something?” Holly said out of the blue.
“Sure,” I said.
“Is your book hopeful?” she asked. “Because I found hope in it.”
She sounded a bit perplexed, even a bit apologetic, as if she might have found something in the book the author hadn’t intended to put there.
“Yes!” I said. “Of course!” 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. But also: 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.
To underline the reality of hope, and to remind myself of it, I’d like to read a passage from the book. A paradox of autobiographical writing is that, as it becomes more vivid and convincing, it tends to obscure–make dubious, even–the real life it purports to record. To suggest totality it must extract, and to convey immediacy must freeze the past, sculpting in ice what was once flowing water. Picture supplants pictor. This is especially true of descriptions of low points: if they live at all, they make ghostly the survivor who has won, at the least, the leisure and the will to recollect.
In May of 1979, the water level of French River reached its highest point in living memory. On a vertical rock just east of Dry Pine Bay, someone chalked and dated a line marking the water’s furthest climb. Just as someone doubtless will note–on paper this time, for a rock would be submerged–the record low water mark attained in the summer of 2005. In 1979, I came north with my parents to open the cottage; I remember loading the boat as it floated beside the gas pumps at the marina, three or more feet above the usual docks even at high water. I remember little else about that springtime trip; probably there was little of me left to remember with. I had only recently been discharged from a psychiatric ward after a year-and-a-half siege. It was really a siege of seven years, beginning with my first serious depression and psychiatric treatment at age seventeen, which cut short my last year of high school and inaugurated a long, chaotic slide away from active and communal life, culminating in the self-mutilation that earned me a diagnosis of schizophrenia and embarked me on the hospitalized ordeal of neuroleptic drugs, electroshock treatments and hydra-headed symptoms that came close to killing me, and, in the sense of obliterating all vestiges of my former life, in a way did kill me. My amnesia of that springtime trip north with my parents seems fitting; I could not have accompanied them except as a dazed and depleted survivor, a convalescent with tremors and scars and a battered brain, a broken and wide-eyed child though nominally a man of twenty-four, gaping at the debris left by the flood.
That is where I was almost exactly thirty years ago. And today I’m standing here in this room. In some ways still the same, in some ways greatly altered.