Monday, December 31, 2012

Asylum Walk (4)

(circa 1966)
Boys from an adjacent subdivision wriggled under a wire fence to play baseball on the asylum grounds. The diamond was well maintained, its grass cut, the base paths raked, but never, except by them, used. Patients sometimes wandered by, singly, during the games. They hung back by the chestnut trees, watching, occasionally stepping unsteadily through the outfield. The boys were not afraid or very interested; after the first time they seldom pointed or joked. One day one of the boys hit a hard grounder past the shortstop. The pale figure in the outfield watched it sizzle through the grass, like a man watching a comet in green air, his head moving in short stiff arcs. Never did it occur to the boy rounding the bases that one day he would live in such a place. How could it?

(September, 1972)
They first kissed, each the other’s first, after Canada beat the Russians in the seventh game of the 1972 series. Jubilance in a basement. And after their friends left, they returned to the couch downstairs, the TV warmly off. After the astonishment of the kiss, embracing seemed the deeper and more secret pleasure: holding another humid body close after the years away from childhood hugs. So solid, pressing.

He walked her home for dinnertime through the asylum grounds, and after that it became their habit. He lived adjacent on the south-west side, she nearly adjacent on the north-east. Shunning the right-angled and public sidewalk, they strolled a rambling hypoteneuse through lawns and groves, pausing to kiss against a rough chestnut trunk, lounging in autumn sunlight on the grass. Seldom did they see anyone else, only, in the distance, doctors and nurses leaving in their cars from the small parking lots beside the newer buildings. Dim clanks and muted bursts of speech, muffled imperatives, floated out from the mesh-covered windows. Very occasionally they heard a sharp scream, and saw an all-white—sheeted or gowned—figure in a distant doorway, but they could never make sense of the sound, if it had any, and hands, two or four, always pulled the figure back inside within moments.

Imagination one of the things she said she loved in him, yet it never occurred to him that he would one day live there. How could it? Though he liked the silence and space, the patterns of sunlight and shade around the trees and buildings, and often lingered there on the way home, dreaming and remembering.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Asylum Walk (3)

Everyone hears voices from the future. An everyday example: The inner call to act in a certain way, which you reject today as a wild idea but which later becomes an axiom of the way you live, a principle you try to adhere to. Guidance comes from the person(s) you are becoming and will become as well as from the person(s) you have been. A chestnut develops in accordance with the lineage of all chestnut trees it comes from and in accordance with the particular chestnut tree it will become. Yet at the moment—now—it is a chestnut.

Asylum Walk (2)

Richard Dedekind, who died 92 years ago on this date, originated his “Dedekind Cut” as a means of avoiding the gaps, or discontinuities, implied by a number line continuum composed of discrete numbers. At any point on the continuum where a rational number does not occur, the mathematician creates an irrational number, thus ensuring continuity. For example, √2 is that point on the number line between, to its left, all numbers whose squares are less than 2 and, to its right, all numbers whose squares are greater than 2.

Is our sense of “now” a kind of Dedekind Cut? Behind it, to its left, lie all events, including mental states, that have occurred (“the past”); to its right, ahead, lie all events that will occur (“the future”).

In mathematics, an irrational number cannot be expressed as an integer (a whole) nor as the quotient of two integers (a fraction). Likewise, “now,” though it permits of feelings of wholeness, does not comprehend any whole or ratio of wholes. It is flux and partialness and the perception of flux and partialness. It both moves and does not move along the time continuum. Perceived as a still point, it yet consists of ceaseless movement. At every instant, consciousness is constructing and becoming the future, and constructing and becoming the past, advancing and building and revising in both directions, left and right, without pause—yet it does so from a point of notional and experiential stability that it calls, irrationally and necessarily, “now.”

“Now” is a moving Dedekind Cut.

Friday, December 28, 2012

Asylum Walk (1)

We are designed to detect the true, but above all, to detect what we need, which may not fall within the true.

Asylum Walk (introduction)

The images that follow were taken on 20 April 2007, from 2:32 to 3:47 p.m., as I walked through the grounds of what used to be called the Hamilton Psychiatric Hospital (HPH). The text below each image comes from a longer mental stroll undertaken more than a year and a half later, as I set down the recollections and reflections spurred by the images.

The HPH, at that time, flocked with memories for me: some of the most carefree and joyful memories of my life, as well as some of the bleakest and most searing. They floated and traded places during my 75-minute walk, like the blossoms, leaves and snowflakes I had, at other times, seen drift, meander and rush through those wide spaces.

As a child living nearby, I played, alone and with other children, on the vast lawns (including a baseball diamond) bordered by towering chestnut trees. Quite often a patient would wander through our outfield or watch us from a distance, pale hand on a tree trunk. Later, as a teenager, I walked my first love through the asylum grounds to her home on a street just east of them.

During my eighteen-month stay on the psychiatric ward of St. Joseph's Hospital, there were discussions—so I was told—about how long they could legitimately keep me on an acute ward before sending me to the HPH for long-term care. “Bagging,” we patients called such a transfer: the final disposal of a hopeless case. I escaped that fate. But once, by a strange fortuity, I got a foretaste of it. It was during a record snowstorm in the winter of 1978 or, possibly, 1979. I had been granted a weekend pass to visit home, which I could reach by walking up the escarpment stairs and crossing the HPH grounds. As I crossed the howling white plains, the whipping snow obscured all landmarks. I groped, blind as Gloucester, to a chain link fence—beyond, I knew, was a straight drop down. I stumbled to another solid shape—a tree; another one—a locked shed. Finally—who knows how?—I must have come to the brick wall of a ward and followed it to a door that opened. Apparently my family found me the next morning lying on a blanket in a hallway, warm and fed, among other snowbound travellers (cars had left the road and veered onto the grounds), stranded staff, and those who called the place home.

They tell me the old buildings, even the Victorian mansion that was a wealthy family’s home before it was the first Hamilton Hospital for the Insane, are being torn down. The wide green lawns and the surrounding groves are being torn up too, excavated for the foundation of a huge new hospital and its outbuildings. “It seems like we’re going backwards,” said the person who told me. “You’ll hate it when you see it.”

I don’t plan to look.