Monday, February 1, 2016

Me Before You - a book club review

There was more to Jojo Moyes' novel Me Before You than I anticipated, but not quite as much to it as their could have been. I know that in general we are discouraged from judging a book by its cover, but that's like saying not to judge people for how they present themselves - a nice idea, but a little naive. When a book looks like the prototypical 'chick lit,' I don't have high expectations. 

The characters in Me Before You, particularly the lead character Louisa, are complex and sympathetic, except when they're not meant to be. Louisa's parents are well drawn, perfectly flawed, struggling, inadvertently cruel and loving, unfair without malice, and limited by their own concerns. Her sister - the favoured daughter despite being completely self-absorbed and having quit college due to an unplanned pregnancy - is quintessentially sisterly. Loving when she's not being a bitch, and there when the chips are down. 

Though the plot of Me Before You sometimes verges on the maudlin and overwrought, it kept my attention and moved at a compelling pace. It didn't rush the reader or the characters, but their development over time was believable and rewarding. I sometimes thought the author was being manipulative, but that's because my reading was flawed by a misleading spoiler. I wish I could read it again for the first time and see if I still felt that way. 

Me Before You is set in a small English town, and as our book club hostess said "is Pride and Prejudice with a gang rape." In fact, though, the gang rape is one of the most poorly managed aspects of the plot. The main story is between charming, lackluster 26-year old Louisa who is perfectly happy with her job at a diner and living with her parents until the diner closes and she take a position as a 'carer.' Her client, Will, is the epitome of the entitled, public school attending, man of action, upper middle class Englishman. He's also bitter and suicidal since being hit by a car left him a quadriplegic. 

Despite all it has going for it, Me Before You fails to deliver. It broaches gang rape, teen pregnancy, the rights of the disabled and assisted suicide, and yet my over-all impression was of whip cream: it looks great and tastes good, but really doesn't satisfy. The fault lies mainly in the low reading level - it's a rare writer who can address complex issues with simple language; Moyes is not one of those writers. I do recommend the book; it was thought-provoking in a 'table topics' kind of way - it raised the point, but did little to really inform. 

What a brilliant woman our Teacher Lady is - her family was in the middle of moving this month but she didn't want to miss her turn hosting, so she booked a suite in a lovely downtown hotel and hosted us there. 

Downtown drinks after were an option. A dip in the pool could have been an option (if it hadn't been closed for maintenance). More ladies showed up than have attended in a year (in fact, everyone except Little E was there, her excuse being 39 weeks pregnant), and the food was outstanding.  It was, in fact, the perfect book club night. 

I wish I could have stayed over with Teacher Lady. It was a great reminder that we live in a beautiful city that people visit from all over the world. 

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

20 reasons why i need Bell's Let's Talk Day*

It's time once again for my becoming-annual Bell Let's Talk post (2015, 2014). And this year let me just say, stuff you and your cynicism about corporate greed. You can bitch about an organization that's at least doing something - as flawed, or inadequate, or self-serving as you may judge it - or you can get out from behind your computer screen and do something yourself. 

Want government change? Organize for it. Want to make a difference for people with mental health - ask them what they need. Want to change society so mental illness kills fewer of our young people and stifles fewer people who might make THE difference for themselves and others if they were well - do something that will change our conversation about mental health. 

Do I know what the answers are? No, obviously not. I'm busy trying to get well. But let me tell you what I do know: 

Why I need #BellLetsTalk:

  1. because if I was on medical leave with any other diagnosis, people would be bringing me meals and asking how else they can help*
  2. because telling my boss why I saw my doctor so frequently was a bad career move
  3. because when I met with a new counsellor the other day and started telling him what I've been dealing with, he teared up and I ended up managing his response instead of getting support
  4. because when my trainer asked who I can tell everything to and just be supported, I couldn't answer, and then I couldn't breathe*
  5. because every time one of my sons has a bad day I think A) will it kill him this time AND B) it's my fault - kids can't escape their mother's mental illness
  6. because the last time my son reached out to someone other than me on a bad day the police pushed into his apartment, called him a liar, took him to the hospital in just gym shorts and an undershirt, stole his medically-approved marijuana, and left him locked up overnight with no money to get home. He couldn't leave his apartment for a month after that, and I was too far away to do anything about it. 
  7. (EDITED JANUARY 29) because when my son was in the hospital for 3 weeks after his last suicide attempt, only his grandparents visited him or sent him a card, chocolates, or whatever else people in every other ward of the hospital get**
  8. because the stigma of mental illness keeps my son from asking for the college support service he has a right to and that would make his success approximately a billion times easier for him
  9. because suicide is the second highest cause of death among Canadians age 10-24, and instead of helping them we call them moody, hormonal, attention-seeking, self-absorbed or "just going through a phase"
  10. because when a woman cries over something we don't understand we call her a crazy bitch instead of asking what she needs
  11. because I'd rather stay home alone than have to bear the weight of a false smile
  12. because children from single-mothers households are 5x more likely to commit suicide than those from two-parent households, yet there aren't supports for divorced/divorcing families
  13. because my child's depression is more likely to kill him than your child's cancer, but there's no McHappy Day to battle that
  14. because in Canada, for all our hoorah and sudden coolness and bragging about our (not at all free or effective) universal medical care, only 1 in 5 depressed youth who require medical support will receive it despite the knowledge that early intervention saves lives and minimizes the frequency and severity of relapse
  15. because I am creative, intelligent, educated, adventurous, loving, fun, loved and beautiful, and some days I can't stand to leave my house
  16. because the man I love had to tell me every day for weeks that I wasn't okay before I heard him and asked for real help
  17. because I just want my sparkle back, and I can't find it on my own
  18. because 32 years after my first depression diagnosis I have only now given up caring what you think about it so I can focus instead on what I can do about it
  19. because it's okay for a stranger on the street to tell me I'd be prettier if I smiled, but not for me to tell him why I can't
  20. because even after reading all this, you won't believe that mental illness is a "real illness"
I keep re-reading this list, and each time it gets longer. I am one person with chronic mental illness. I love AT LEAST 4 other people with diagnosed chronic mental illness. Every one of them (and me) is so much more than our diagnosis, and none of us are getting the support we need to be truly well. I have seen my doctor at least 12 times in the 9 months I've been home and my depression (now coupled with anxiety) continues to worsen. 

So go ahead with your cynicism if it makes you feel cool and clever. But who's going to stop the spread of this epidemic? Lord know those of us caught in it are busy just staying afloat.  

*I hope that the 10 people in my life to whom this post doesn't apply know who they are and how much I love and appreciate them.

**(ADDED JANUARY 29) NL read this last night and told me grandma & grandpa visited him, as well as one aunt and cousin from his dad's family. I appreciate knowing that, and the correction.

Friday, January 22, 2016

life in the time of hyperbole

I am sometimes accused of being a drama queen, of playing things up, or (at best) of "having a way with words." Part of that comes from being writerly, some from a vivid imagination, and some from my ongoing mental health battles. But it occurs to me that in this present culture, hyperbole is the norm - a cacophonous crescendo as too many voices work to be heard.

Dramatic tension is the life-blood of all fiction and most non-fiction writing - whether that's for TV, short stories, 'creative non-fiction', or, increasingly and perhaps problematically, journalism. If the story doesn't capture the reader's imagination, some other flashing headline will. I have taken a small and meaningless stand against the mental spam, click-bait, formulaic video and article headlines that are the standard pap of Facebook these days. No matter how compelling the story might otherwise be, if you use one of these ridiculous overstatements, I will not reward you with a click:

Ugh. My head. 

No video has yet changed my life. 
No laughing baby has made me re-assess my philosophy.
No rendition of "Let it Go" has driven me to rhapsodies of spirit and soul.

And yet, I am pulled to play that game. When the whole of society has turned the volume up to 11 and crying wolf is the most common form of communication, how do you make yourself heard, and how do you find the room to think?

That's the task before me for the next 17 days - to create quiet and find a way through the yowling morass to a high place where I can see clearly.

Friday, January 1, 2016

i believe...

I believe. 
I believe in the magic of a new year;
in the possibility of a clean page. 
I believe in fresh starts and umpteenth chances. 
I believe in taking a moment to catch your breath, dust off your scraped soul, and rise again. 
I believe that even though our numbering of hours, days, months and years is a social construct, they are imbued with the power we assign them.
And I assign these days of transition the power of completion and resurrection. 
I believe in the year before me. 
I believe in me. 

Saturday, December 26, 2015

God rest ye, merry, gentle man.

The phone call came in the middle of Christmas evening, freeing us from a hilarious/painful card game, and bringing life and family into clear focus. My Uncle Stan had waited for two of his three sons to arrive and wish him Merry Christmas before escaping the cancer he's been fighting for two years. As with any cancer death, there is relief in the sorrow. Uncle Stan was clear-minded, appreciative of a life well-lived and grateful for the love that surrounded him. He had relatively little pain, and his wife and other care-givers were spared many of the ongoing indignities and cruelties of cancer  - the pain, the loss of bodily control, the dwindling self. 

And still, he is gone. My cousins will again bury a parent taken by cancer. My mom and her surviving brother have lost the big brother who looked out for them all their lives. Last evening when my mom returned to the table after the phone call from my cousin, she said to her surviving brother, "it's just the two of us now." And my sister quickly pointed out that it's the two of them, and their spouses; their children and grandchildren; their nephews and nieces and friends old and new, some of whom grew up with my parents and uncles in the kind of small town that creates friends-who-are-family. They have lost their brother, and they are not alone. 

We will all mourn Uncle Stan in our way. I am reminded again of the circles of grief - to offer support to the inner circles and accept support from circles further out. For me, I have lost one of the several men in my family who are both traditionally masculine - provider, fixer, doer - and gentle souls - a humourist, a musician, a man who felt and loved and displayed his love. When Uncle Stan said "hi sweetheart, how's it going; how are your boys" they were never idle questions. He was the father of sons, the grandfather of grandsons, and knew what it means to raise men. He also never failed to ask, with genuine hope and interest, if I had written anything new. I thought he asked me because he was loving, but then my mom said he asked her often about my writing as well, and ... maybe it makes no difference to anyone else anywhere, but it mattered to me that he was out there waiting to read what I wrote. 

Yesterday was Christmas, and I was reminded, once again, that the best part of Christmas is still my family. An easy, laughter and gift-filled morning with my youngest son, one sister & her partner, and my parents. A small quiet interlude, then dinner at which we were joined by an aunt, uncle and cousin. Much food, slightly less wine, and even more laughter filled my parents' home.

And then the phone call we all expected and did know whether to dread or hope for came, and the voices that had rung with laughter became our comfort. Family. It is our beginning, and if we are truly blessed it is there at the end. 

And so, to my sweet loving Uncle Stan I say, God rest ye, merry, gentle man.  

Just a little video from 2014 of my mom singing with her brother - sorry my voice is louder than theirs. 
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