Saturday, January 16, 2010

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.

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