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.

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