Tuesday, January 28, 2014

let's talk

"Let's talk" - it's an interesting phrase. On Bell Let's Talk day, it's an invitation, a movement, a corporately sponsored conversation. But there's another reading - it can also be an enreaty: "Let us talk - oh lord, please let us talk!" Let those of us with the lived experience of mental illness share that experience. Let us tell our stories not for sympathy or attention but just because they are our stories. Because we have the right to be heard. Let us educate you. And let us move forward without pretending. 

I remember a conversation with my dear grandma probably 15 years ago. She was talking about a close friend of hers, a neighbour in her seniors' condo complex, who had been hospitalized because her depression was threatening her life.

This friend did not like to take her medication. Apparently she didn't know that you can keep working with your doctors until you find a medicine that works for you. Apparently her depression convinced her not to be a bother, not to fight, or whatever other lie it needed to tell her. Regardless, the friend had ended up in the hospital. 

When my grandma thought things were ridiculous, she had a tendency to become a bit irate. She did not suffer fools. So as she told me about her concern for her friend, she started to get that tone in her voice - that tone that says that behind these words, I think my dear friend is being a bit of an idiot. Finally she said, "it's so stupid; if she had diabetes she would take her insulin and not be embarrassed. This shouldn't be any different. Just accept that you need the medicine for the rest of your life and take it!" 

Her saying that made all the difference for me. It gave me space to accept medicine as one tool that helps me when I need it. I have a pretty full tool belt - counselling, knowledge, books, a support system. And yet, sometimes, that most important tool - the right to speak freely and without shame about my and my son's experience is harder to come by. People don't want to know. It's inappropriate. The subject must be changed. 

It all makes me feel a little ... rebellious. I think maybe I don't want to be shushed. Maybe the problem is not so much my speaking, as the listener's discomfort. And maybe if they listened more they'd get over that. And maybe the more people who hear me speak, the more people who will feel free to tell their stories as well. 

Monday, January 27, 2014

Always Looking Up, Adventures of an Incurable Optimist: a book club review

Despite my bias against short men I have had a long and pleasant mini-crush on Michael J. Fox - Alex P. Keaton; Marty McFly ... what warm-blooded teenage girl of the 80's didn't love the little guy? So, I was pretty thrilled when his 2008 book Always Looking Up: Adventures of an Incurable Optimist came up on our book club list for this month. I had my doubts, to be sure. A cutesie-pie high school drop-out celebrity writing an intelligent book? 

I was wrong to doubt. Michael J. Fox is beyond intelligent. He's thoughtful, articulate, wise, compassionate and, most of all, optimistic. He's also laugh out loud funny and clever on many levels. Just look at the title - it includes a short joke and a reference to the incurable disease that is slowly claiming his body, yet it gives a clear and accurate sense of what the book is about - optimism, faith, and hope. 

This is not Fox's first biography, if biography is the right term for it. Apparently his first book, Lucky Man, is more of a traditional biography that outlines Fox's life chronologically up to 2001. In Always Looking Up Fox focuses not on chronology but on four main themes that he says have supported his positive outlook on life: work, politics, faith and family. It makes for engaging and inspiring reading. 

I did get a little hung up now and then on Fox's frequent mentions of other celebrities. It would be easy to see some of the references as name-dropping, until you remember that this is just the water he swims in. Robin Williams, Lance Armstrong, Ryan Reynolds, Usher, Meg Ryan - they are mentioned not for their star power but for their relevance: help with establishing & active support of the Michael J. Fox Foundation. Genuine and long-standing friendships. Family relationships. Neighbours in their tony Manhattan neighbourhood. I realised somewhere in the reading that it wouldn't make sense if these other celebrities didn't populate their lives.

What is obvious throughout the book is how essential that fourth pillar of Fox's life, his family, really is. They are last because they are the most important. His Canadian family of origin is still clearly connected, grounding and cherished. His wife of 25 years Tracey Pollan, though so much of their marriage has been shadowed first by Fox's alcoholism and quickly thereafter by his Parkinson's diagnosis, yet clearly is the kind of partnership we could all wish for. There is no doubting that Fox was blessed in his choice of a partner, and that he knows that. Their four beloved children, while well spaced out, seem to be consciously planned, very much wanted, and as normal as offspring raised in those circumstances could be.

I expected to read this and feel somehow less - like I should be more optimistic and more grateful that I haven't faced his challenges. I expected to be challenged as well as inspired. In the end, there was none of the former and less of the latter than I expected. I am inspired, but not in a revival camp sort of way. More like sitting by the sea and remembering and dreaming. It should be required reading for human being.

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Our first book club meeting of 2014 felt like it was a long time in coming, perhaps because our December meeting was earlier in the month than usual. It was so great to see the ladies again, to be welcomed into a new home, served a fabulous dinner, and be surrounded by great conversation. I was feeling distracted and somewhat quiet (for me) tonight, and it was so nice to be allowed to just be wherever I was. 

For some reason, this book was more divisive than any previous option. I loved it so much that I was shocked when the room was evenly split on liked/didn't like. What I really love about book club though is that in all that conversation - which ranged from Lance Armstrong good or evil to Jewish heritage/culture/religion - no one took anything personally. 

I will admit that what I really wanted tonight was to be secreted away somewhere with a bosom friend having a heart to heart and a good cry and drinking until I stopped aching. This was better.

By the way, I brought dessert tonight (while everyone tries to cook gluten free, I figure if I bring dessert I know that for sure I can eat that. Miss out on salad, no problem. Miss out on dessert? I don't think so!). We also happen to have a member who avoids dairy and egg, so there was an added challenge for dessert. I was a bit stumped, and then I remembered Wacky Cake. 

This cake was comfort food for me when I was growing up, and one of the first things I ever learned to bake. I love it warm and spread with butter, but iced is good to. To class it up a little for tonight I made almond brittle, then crushed it and added it to the buttercream. Wacky Cake just happens to be dairy and egg free, and I made it gluten free using Robin Hood gluten free flour and xanthan gum. The ladies liked the cake so well they asked for the recipe, and I figured if I post the recipe here then I'll get at least 5 clicks on this post. ;-) 

Wacky Cake

1 1/2 C. flour                                 1 C. sugar
4 T. cocoa                                     1 T. vinegar
1 tsp. baking powder                     1 1/2 tsp. vanilla
1 tsp. baking soda                          5 T. vegetable oil
1/2 tsp. salt                                    1 C. warm water

Preheat oven to 325 F.
Lightly grease 8 x 8 pan.
Sift dry ingredients together into pan.
Make 3 evenly spaced holes in the dry mix.
Pour oil in one hole, vanilla in the second, and vinegar in the third.
Pour water over top and stir well (be sure to scrape the sides and corners to get all dry ingredients mixed in).
Bake 45-50 minutes. 

Saturday, January 25, 2014

i dreamed of africa - review

I suppose in some circles, I Dreamed of Africa is a modern classic. Perhaps that's simply because a (truly terrible) movie was inspired by the book in 2000. I had forgotten about the movie when I received the book at my book club's Christmas gift exchange, and was just excited to read an autobiography of a woman who, like me, dreamed of living in Africa and, unlike me, made that dream come true. In fact, when I started reading the book I was so excited about it that I wrote a preview, something I've never done before. 

I enjoyed the book enough to pass it on today, but it was not without issues. The writer, Kuki Gallmann, grew up in Italy dreaming of Africa, and eventually moved to Kenya with her young son and second husband. Things happen (it would be hard to mention any plot points without spoiling the story, though Gallmann is really the queen of the spoilers in the story) and she continually dusts herself off, take a philosophical stance, and moves forward. I read autobiographies with a touch of disbelief at the best of times, but Gallmann's memories of her own response to unspeakable loss are really tough to take. Her children are perfect; her husband is perfect; her friends are perfect; her lovers are perfect; she is perfect. It's all a bit ... tiresome. 

Gallmann is a fine, poetic writer for whom English is clearly a second language. It's not that her English is flawed - the impression is more that it's a little too studied. Like her attempts at philosophy and her characters, the language tries too hard. While she has a mastery of image, those images lose their impact in their studiousness. It's like watching someone play a piano with technical precision but no passion. 

Associate link to order this book on Amazon

My biggest issue, as I suspected it might be going in, was the author's seeming unawareness of the impact of Europeans on the health, happiness, ecology and quality of life of Africans. Yes, there is a complex and violent history between the many peoples of Africa. Yes, colonization brought progress (though I struggle to put aside my questions about how much of a benefit that is). Yes, even Gallmann herself eventually became a major player in the conservation of the flora and fauna of the area around her considerable ranch. But she seems to be completely devoid of any self-awareness - the story takes place largely in the 1980's, and yet if I Dreamed of Africa was all you had to go on, you might be lead to believe that Europeans were still in charge in Kenya although it had been an independent republic for 20 years.

While Gallmann is frequently on her remote ranch with little other adult company, the adults who surround her are clearly no more friends than the animals on the farm. In fact, they are less intimately related to than the dogs. In one late scene Gallmann and her young daughter are honoured by the warriors of a nearby Pokot clan. On noticing that she and her daughter are the only women present, Gallmann surmises, "Our European origin, my status as guardian of this land, gave us, I supposed, the status of men." I could write a thesis on everything that is galling in that statement.

You might be wondering at this point if I actually enjoyed this book. I did. Although it was emotionally flat and culturally awkward, my long love of Africa and my fascination in particular with Kenya kept me reading. I also freely acknowledge that Kuki Gallmann and her daughter have done incredible things for Kenya. She transformed her 100,000 acre ranch into a nature conservancy that also supports regional peace, the sharing of ethnobotany knowledge, and archeological research. If I could go to Kenya and work for the foundation and conservancy, it would be amazing. But that doesn't diminish the issues in the reading.

I liked the book. I just wish I could have liked it more - to have felt the story, to have learned something new, to have been somehow invested in the outcome. 

Sunday, January 19, 2014

the richness of words

It would be difficult for someone of my temperament to sit in the quiet, dark privacy of a movie theatre absorbing an ode to books, words, stories and the hunger for them and come away without a sense of urgency about living in honour of them. 

I spent this afternoon alone watching The Book Thief in a small theater, second row from the screen. It wasn't how I had planned it, but it was what was meant to be, I suppose, and it was perfect.   

The timing was ... telling. Just last night STG and I had been talking about 'A Year of Living ...' - the kinds of challenges that seem to be rising in popularity and that, for some reason, call to both of us in some way as a way to add some richness, challenge, growth in our lives. I had just discovered last evening Brittany, Herself and read her hilarious and thought-provoking post about having sex with her husband every day for a year. This on the heels of reading Gretchen Rubin's The Happiness Project, chatter about the guy who spent a year living Biblically, and some blog post I read (the headline of) the other day about a former pastor who is spending a year as an athiest. Year-long personal challenges are all the rage, and we pondered what we each individually might do. And yes, STG was a fan of the sex-every-day idea. 

In part of that pondering, STG asked the inevitable question, "well, what makes you happy?" and I answered pro forma "singing, writing, reading." But I couldn't make of that something that I could/would do every day for a year. Something was lacking. It isn't just the reading and writing that I enjoy, it's the luxury of space and time to savour the words, to revel in them, to share them, and to be restored by them. 

In The Book Thief the love of words and stories and books is so clearly seen as a humanizing influence that result, in the words of young Liesl, in 'people being people.' They form bonds between people that form the basis of survival. They are a bridge to being ... something more both individually and relationally. They are calming, moving, healing. 

I sat through the movie as though I were Liesl - so drawn to books that I become unaware - or uncaring - of the danger that may lay in their acquisition. I am not. I am not an adolescent German girl in a city on the brink of war. I have not survived that kinds of human trauma. I am not a made-up girl.

On the drive home the question that kept banging about my head was why did I abandon them? I know what made me happiest - the time my life was richest, in many ways - was when I was in grad school surrounded by and immersed in reading and writing and teaching writing. I didn't just read - I was challenged to read with more insight, and to develop a new facility for  sharing my learning with others. I read new things, and discussed them with the people who had recommended them. I spent my days and evenings with people similarly immersed, devouring existing works of art while often creating their own. Words oozed out of us. An observation from the top floor of the library became a poem. A personal revelation during a reading became the basis of an essay. The more I read and wrote, the more I wanted to read and write. Life expanded with the wealth of words at my disposal. 

I think about those days - my sons so young, life so full yet having time for friends and lovers, my ability to work all day and come home to write, being simultaneously exhausted and alive - and I wonder what's missing now. I am older, yes, but so are my sons, so shouldn't that balance out? Shouldn't I still have the internal resources to work all day and write at night? I read, yes, but it seldom seems to fill me to the point that I have enough in the tank to let it spill over onto the page. Is what's missing the conversation? 

I am sorry I didn't fight harder to stay in the classroom, both as a student and as a teacher. As grateful as I am for the life I have, that nagging doubt never really leaves me. I could have this wonderful life with all that's great in it, and still be in the classroom. I wonder what that would take. 


*No, I still don't know what I'd take on if I were to take on a year-long personal challenge.
*Yes, if there's anywhere you can still see The Book Thief I highly HIGHLY recommend it.
*Yes, I am still looking forward to reading the book - as much as I am a book snob, I am not the kind of book snob who thinks that movies are better/worse than books. They are different mediums that I also enjoy, and that I judge on different criteria.
*Yes, apparently I did forget to review The Happiness Project when I read it and I will get on that ... along with 6 other pending reviews in 'draft' mode. 

Sunday, January 12, 2014

here's to a fabulous 2014

Back in December STG posted his 2014 goals over at The Mountain Bike Life. Due to busy-ness, forgetfulness, etc, I only got around to reading them now. I was going to reply there, but decided this might be a better place to post. 

So without further ado, here are some 'off the top of my head' ideas of what I can do in 2014 to enrich my life (though really I stand by what I wrote on January 2):
  • Pursue peace
    • Sing regularly, publicly, happily, freely
    • Have a girls' get away weekend with my bestie
    • Take a retreat - creativity, writing, spirituality, whole health - something
  • Get back to my 2010 weight
    • Resume a regular yoga practice 
    • Ride bicycles - with and without Rivers ;-) 
    • Ride a new bike park
    • (Of course, what I really don't want to say is that I'll eat better. Let's let that one sit for now.) 
  • Add a new stamp to my passport
  • Create writing income
Happy New Year, or whatever. ;-) 

Thursday, January 2, 2014

in quietude

I used to say that I didn't understand shyness, or what it meant to be shy. I used to think that there were shy people and not shy people and that as a 'not shy' person I couldn't really understand what it is is to live with a body and spirit that doesn't want to interact with other bodies and spirits. As a youth I minimized it, thought 'shy' people would get over it if they just tried, thought they just needed more confidence. 

I also, with a great lack of self-awareness, retreated frequently into the quiet of books and the nooks of trees and hidden spaces. I retreated into written words - words I could edit and manage and line up in tidy rows before people jumped in with their interpretations and messed with my words. I performed in life as 'gregarious me' - singing, acting, smiling and laughing, throwing a quick barb, joining in, and thinking that was the preferred me the world wanted, no matter how drained it left me. Sometimes I felt feel that there are two Shannon's fighting it out, dancing in circles as to who is the 'real me.' I forget, sometimes, that there is no 'real me' there is only who I am each moment. That I can choose. I can be both gregarious and quiet, though not at the same time, and neither one for overly long. 

We talk a lot now about introverts and extroverts. It's a very trendy subject about a (not that) old concept. Blog posts, including my own, on the subject are plentiful. But introversion and extroversion are not measurements of shyness - shyness is, I believe, something else, something more anxiety based. Perhaps shyness is an avoidance and introversion is a retreat. For me, the perfect introvert day is the house to myself; electronic umbilicus disconnected;  tea, chocolate and a book in hand. It is not about not wanting to be with others; it is about wanting to take care of myself. 

I am not shy in the traditional sense. But, like Harry in the video below, I live in a shell. It comes and goes. It gets thicker and thinner and sometimes I break out of it. But often, when things are not well with my soul, I live in a shell. It's January 2nd and all around me people are making broad proclamations to be more active, more adventurous, more more more. It all sounds so draining. What calls to me, for this new year, is somewhat less. Less striving and more resting. Less worry and more peace. Less doing and more enjoying. Less irritation and more contentment. And in the end, perhaps, a gentle dissolution of that shell. 


Set the physical brilliance of Harry Shum Jr. against the philosophical tenderness of Ze Frank and what you get is a beautiful, generous understanding of what it is to be shy.
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