Thursday, December 15, 2016

to be honest, it's not okay

This morning Clara Hughes, Canadian hero for her dual-sport Olympic success and commitment to changing the conversation about mental health, posted this brilliant, brave, honest picture and caption on her social media streams:

Click to enlarge
It broke my heart. I like to see the broad, open smile Clara is famous for, even though the reason she is an advocate for mental health is because of her chronic battle with depression, even when she was one of the most elite athletes in the world (go ahead - tell me I'd finally get better if I exercised more). I want her to be well. I want to think that being well is possible, and that if I try hard enough maybe I can get (and stay) there myself. 

And then I read this. And I realised that even if I were 100% sparkling today, there's no way to guarantee I'd stay there. Clara's post also reminded me of something that Freckles said to me last week - that it doesn't help anyone, certainly not myself, when I pretend to be doing better than I am, when I post only happiness on Facebook, when I turn my phone off on days when I can't talk without crying. In short, when I lie. It doesn't help me, it feeds the stigma of mental illness, and it doesn't create a clean path for other people to be honest about their struggle. I said nobody wants to hear it. She said that wasn't the point. 

So, here's the thing. I'm better, but I'm not well. Some days I think I am, or that it's close enough that maybe I will be. I'm well aware of the good in life and how blessed I am - being loved, having adventures, having (at least in this moment) a home I love and food that nourishes. I know that. Knowing makes no difference. 

I see you, Clara. I see you. 
There are still days, like today, when the homeless man outside my favourite bookstore took one look at my face when I apologized for not being able to help and said "stay strong, Sister." 

There are days like today when just getting out of bed was touch and go but the shame of cancelling another meeting outweighed the desire to hide. 

There are days like today when trying to find something to give my sons for Christmas sent me down a rabbit hole of hopelessness and loss thinking of past Christmases, the years between that are littered with dead and dying traditions, the lack of connection, the reality of a Christmas after 11 months on medical leave, and the gaping void between the mom I want to be and the mom they got. 

There are days like today when trying on much-needed winter clothes left me heaving with self-loathing. 

There are days like today when I can't make words string themselves into logical sentences in a meeting or follow the conversation with a girlfriend at lunch. 

There are days like today when just seeing my sweetheart's incoming phone call is enough to make me cry throughout the entire call, and the vicious circle of his sadness at my tears. 

Tomorrow will be different. I suppose it's worth noting that 10 months ago I couldn't have faked my way through a meeting and lunch. So, there's that. That's the way it is right now. Better - sometimes much better - but not well, and sometimes worse. I truly love Christmas. It's extra disappointing (and unusual) to have my unruly brain tarnish this season. And, this year, or at least this night, that's just the way it is. 

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

on Christ, Christmas, and peace on earth

Earlier this week the sign went up - the official 'no real/live Holiday trees in the building' sign that dashed my hopes but also solved my issue of "where to put the Christmas tree in an already too small living room." The notice was professional, as such a piece from a property management company should be. A tad Grinchy, perhaps, but ending with what was no doubt a sincere wish for "Happy Holidays."

It took a day before the first defacement of the sign crossed off "Happy Holidays" and scrawled "Merry Christmas." I was going to respond then and there about pharisees, and loving thy neighbour, and including others not negating you, but I, oddly, didn't have a pen in my purse. The next time I took the elevator the Merry Christmas had been scratched out (angrily enough to tear the paper) and Happy Holidays written back in with exclamation marks. This morning I stepped in the elevator to find the bottom third of the notice torn off and a note "such anger. Why?" in the margin of what remained.

I am a Christian*. I believe in all the tenets of the evangelical Christian faith. I don't say it often because my faith is a private thing, and, increasingly, because there is a vocal minority of Christians that make me cringe at claiming my faith. I want another term - I want to be differentiated from the legalistic, petty, angry, threatened mass that gets so much air time but represents so little of Christ.

But this trifling, indignant, cowardly "war on Christmas" rhetoric really ticks me off. Keeping Christ in Christmas doesn't begin with excluding others, or with being threatened by language choice, or with imposing your beliefs on everyone around you. If you can't be loving and inclusive at Christmas, what earthly good are you? 

I am going to go decorate my home now, listen to my holiday CDs, make some sorrel, and try to restore myself to the peace, love, joy and wonder of the season. In the words of Pentatonix "Merry Christmas Happy Holidays."

* My faith is not a simple thing - I sit in a sparsely populated place between those like my family and friends who are pillars of their churches and the agnostic/atheist/Jewish/Muslim/Jehovah's Witness/Mormon/Buddhist/Hindu/etc majority. Having been kicked by my church when I was down, my belief is not unthinking. I worked through my hurt and disappointment in people to return to the God of love, grace and justice I was raised to believe in. But I won't be returning to the church. I have had people ask me "how can you, an intelligent woman trained in critical thinking, believe in a virgin birth, Christ's death and resurrection, angels, heaven, hell, the ultimate divinity of God, etc" (actually, it's never asked that respectfully) and my answer is always the same: "If I could explain it it wouldn't be faith."

Monday, December 5, 2016

the ear-worm circles of hell

I often suffer from ear-worms - those unshakable partial stuck-tunes that swirl around and around in your head turning a song you may once have enjoyed into a form of mental torture. For the record, and before you read further and I infect you, I do know a fairly reliable antidote: sing "Oh Canada" or "Happy Birthday" all the way through. These songs are familiar and automatic enough to replace the stuck tune, but not catchy enough to get stuck themselves. 

This insight into ear worms started yesterday, as I yet again argued with Alanis Morissette that it was not, in fact, at all ironic when it rains on someone's wedding day. Arguing, and a superior definition of "irony," of course, did nothing to stop the 4 known phrases of that song from continuing to replay ad nauseum. Which got me thinking. 

I am prone to ear-worms because I love music. I often think in music, and my mom and I both have a tendency to burst in to song if you say certain opening phrases to us. For example, if you start a sentence with "up on a hill" you are likely to get "was a lonely goat herd" sung at you before you can finish your sentence. Music is fun. It's enlivening. It's a keen mood booster (except when it's not - it's also great for wallowing a la Whitney Houston's "Didn't We Almost Have it All"). I love music. But I like to move from song to song, and to have them leave when the party is over. 

And so, as 1995 Alanis was so tenaciously abusing a literary term last night, I wondered - if ear-worms are a form of torture, which circle of hell would different songs inhabit? Clearly "Isn't it Ironic" is the absolute worst, but what other songs are catchy enough to get stuck in a loop and drive one to the verge of insanity? 

Here, for your judging ease, is my matrix of ear worm assessment:

Tenacity = a song's stickiness. If it has a catchy hook, simple rhymes, obvious melody or harmony, it will score high in tenacity. 

Inanity = a song's lyrical IQ. A really stupid song is a really annoying song. If a song has a great message/story, it's probably less annoying to have it stuck in your head. Maybe it makes you think or feel. However, a song like, say, "Wake me up before you go-go" (although I LOVE WHAM! I ALWAYS HAVE AND I ALWAYS WILL. I WILL NOT APOLOGIZE!) is just silly and fluffy and full of nonsense that for some reason my brain clings to. 

Repetition = "Tub Thumping" - need I say more? Because repetition is one way our brains build memories, repetitive songs have an increased likelihood of being remembered and of becoming ear worms. Repetition could also apply to how often a song is heard - say a jingle in a radio ad or a TV theme song. Whatever the source of the repetition, it makes ear worms both more likely and more annoying (see also inanity) 

To play on Dante's circles of hell I had planned to list the 9 most egregious songs in order, but really it changes from day to day and from ear worm to ear worm. And because it's the Christmas season there would be some seasonal influences on the list as well that might not be there in June (does anyone actually like "Deck the Halls" or "The 12 Days of Christmas" or "The Little Drummer Boy"? Talk about inane and repetitive!). So I'll settle for the example I've already given, and be grateful that Miss Morissette has since moved on.  

Now isn't that nice. 

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

may they stay forever young

Ron, Ronnie, Bobby and Dale. For most of my childhood these four boys surrounded me. First at Sunday School, where for years I was the only girl in the class and, probably not that secretly, liked it that way. And then in our wee high school where age differences were less important than whatever bound us. All four of them were a year older than me, and I can't count the hours I spent pining after each one in his turn. They (and my sons) are who I think of when I hear this song

Ronnie was, in that sweet innocent way of childhood, my first boyfriend. When I went to his 11th birthday party I was not the only girl, but I did get to wear a tiara to set me apart. Our relationship consisted mainly of holding hands in Sunday School, and occasional walks during other church related events. When I "broke up with him" he gave me a darling bunny to try to regain my favour. I joked to Shiny about naming it Dale.

Ronnie moved away shortly after that. In my mind he is forever 13, protective, and slightly angry at the world. I'm not sure why angry - maybe I added that last bit after his mom died way too early. We were pen pals for years. And then that stopped. I often wonder where he ended up and if he's happy. I hope he is. I'm often sorry I never kissed him; by rights he should also have been my first kiss.

All four of these friends were special - Ron was a true and dear friend even after we both managed to leave that tiny town for university, find partners, and start families. Of the four, Ron was the one I had the most in common with. As is the way of growing up, we too eventually lost touch. It's only through the glory of social media that we have reconnected, shared stories of the challenges of our now young adults, seen the changes in once familiar faces. The smile is still the same though, as is the laugh that reverberated down the line when we finally chatted on the phone last year. 

Bobby (decades ago he requested we start calling him Bob. I can't) is the least clear to me. Tall and strong and blonde and quiet, I never knew quite how to talk to him. He had a way with horses that still stands out to me. Picture a cross between Robert Redford and Brad Pitt, in soft focus and with a breeze blowing in a field behind him. Bobby was someone I worshiped from afar, if across the school parking lot or from the back of a church dinner can be called afar. We caught up once 15 years ago. I'm not even sure how he knew how to find me, and it might have been our only one-on-one conversation in 30 years of knowing each other, but it settled me. Recently divorced and unsettled, that conversation reassured me that I was going to be okay. I imagine that's how horses being trained by Bobby feel about him.

And then there was Dale, I'm not sure how Dale developed such an aura around him, but to me he always had the appeal of the slightly naughty charmer. It could have been his amazing grin. I remember him having his mom absolutely wrapped around his finger, and laughing with a bit of wonder at their interactions. He was sweet and inclusive in a town that didn't encourage that in boys and men. He was a flirt, though always within reason. My crush on him waxed and waned over 15 years. 

I don't remember where this photo came from. It could be one my Dad took and gave to me knowing of my lingering crush. Or it could be one I snuck under the guise of the yearbook club. Either way, it is how I always remember Dale - smiling, at ease, happy, 17. 

Dale died last night. I didn't know he'd been sick with pancreatic cancer - perhaps his wife didn't want to deal with the Facebook response while they tried to make the most of the time they had left. It was the first post I saw this morning - her loving tribute to the man she'd shared 22 years and three sons with. They'd been raising Dale's nephew as well, since Dale's sister died of breast cancer last year. 

My sadness is a quiet one. My heart aches for Dale's wife and sons, for his parents who will bury their oldest son, for his brother who has now lost both siblings to cancer. 

But for me, the post was a reminder. I often disparage that small town I grew up in. I do not look back on it fondly or think of it as a place of opportunity or support. I left at 19 and took little time to look back. When I returned for my 10 year grad reunion two bar fights broke out AMONG MY CLASSMATES. I miss very little of that town. 

And then I think of Ron, Ronnie, Bobby and Dale. I think of Shiny, Ali, and Brenda, and the teachers who saw something in me. I think of the parents of my friends and the friends of my parents and sisters. I wouldn't know them. I wouldn't remember them. They wouldn't have shaped me if I hadn't lived in that small town. 

Monday, November 28, 2016

Norwegian Wood: a book club review

Haruki Murakami is one of those author names of mythic proportions that you hear mentioned as the inspiration for some of the top writers of the day, yet whose novels you may not know. Admittedly, I didn't. When the Newlywed announced Norwegian Wood as her selection for book club this month, I was excited to finally have a nudge to read the great Murakami. I was not disappointed.

Norwegian Wood is not a simple read. As is so often true of novels I sink fully into, it was more character than plot driven, and more poetic than prosaic. It lingers in the dark corners of life - mental illness, suicide, cancer, loss. And yet I felt comforted by it. I obviously can't read the original and compare it to the translation, but I can't imagine a more beautifully written story. It all started with this -

"All I knew about the well was its frightening depth. It was deep beyond measuring, and crammed full of darkness, as if all the world's darknesses had been boiled down to their ultimate density."

I read that sentence and fell in love with this book. There's nothing like a well turned metaphor to capture my heart and mind: 
  • “I really like you, Midori. A lot.”
    “How much is a lot?”
    “Like a spring bear,” I said.
    “A spring bear?” Midori looked up again. “What’s that all about? A spring bear.”
    “You’re walking through a field all by yourself one day in spring, and this sweet little bear cub with velvet fur and shiny little eyes comes walking along. And he says to you, “Hi, there, little lady. Want to tumble with me?’ So you and the bear cub spend the whole day in each other’s arms, tumbling down this clover-covered hill. Nice, huh?”
  • "How much do you love me?' Midori asked.
    'Enough to melt all the tigers in the world to butter,' I said.” 
But there's more to Murakami. An insight into humanity. An understanding of life and love and death that is simultaneously scary and sad and encouraging and enlightening: 
  • "What happens when people open their hearts?"
    Cigarette dangling from her lips, Reiko clasped her hands together on the table. She was enjoying this.
    "They get better," she said.
  • Don't feel sorry for yourself. Only assholes do that
  • “Letters are just pieces of paper," I said. "Burn them, and what stays in your heart will stay; keep them, and what vanishes will vanish.”
  • She's letting out her feelings. The scary thing is not being able to do that. When your feelings build up and harden and die inside, then you're in big trouble.”
  • "Person A understands Person B because the time is right for that to happen, not because Person B wants to be understood by Person A."
    "So is it a mistake for me to feel that I want to be understood by someone - by you, for example?"
    "No, it's not a mistake," answered Nagasawa. "Most people would call that love ..."
And then there's the sheer poetry:
  • “Colors shone with exceptional clarity in the rain. The ground was a deep black, the pine branches a brilliant green, the people wrapped in yellow looking like special spirits that were allowed to wander over the earth on rainy mornings only.” 
  • “let the wind change direction a little bit, and their cries turned to whispers.”
  • “Everything was too sharp and clear, so that I could never tell where to start - the way a map that shows to much can sometimes be useless. Now, though I realize that all I can place in the imperfect vessel of writing are imperfect memories and imperfect thoughts.” 
  • “The world was big and full of weird things and strange people.”
  • In the pale evening gloom, when the soft fragrance of magnolias hung in the air, my heart would swell without warning, and tremble, and lurch with a stab of pain.
No list of quotations though, however long, can sing you the music of this novel. It's like hearing a beautiful chord from a song and thinking you know the melody. 

Norwegian Wood resonates, through the softening haze of remembrance, with the culture of the time and with anachronistic memories from earlier times - The Great Gatsby, Catcher in the Rye and other classic American novels. The Doors and The Beatles (obviously) and music and art great and minor. 

When a book is beautiful and full of poetry it lends itself easily to gentle conversation and pure, simple, satisfying food. The Newlywed provided both in her first time hosting book club. The most sumptuous ramen buffet of unctuous broth, fresh vegetables, and perfectly poached eggs. Warmly spiced pots au chocolat. A smooth, friendly Malbec.

Maybe it's only because this is the first book in several months that I've completed before book club. Maybe it was the intimacy of our small gathering or that I needed to be among people who love and appreciate me. Whatever melange created this evening, it was exactly what a book club evening should be. 
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