Tag Archives: depression

Book Review Saturday – ‘Brilliant’

In this slim, seemingly simple tale, Irish writer extraordinaire Roddy Doyle has attempted to do something profound – and very important.

Image: panmacmillan.com.au

Image: panmacmillan.com.au

There is a lot of talk, in Ireland and elsewhere, that we are now ‘pulling out of’ the recession which has plagued Europe and the world for the past seven years or so. We’re seeing ‘an end to austerity’ and an increase, apparently, in take-home pay and a general improvement in most people’s lives. So they say. I’m not sure how equitable this recovery (if it even exists) is, or has been, and there are some sectors of life in Ireland which got off far more lightly than others. People are still suffering, and mental health is a topic of regular discussion. People are being treated for depression and complications arising from it; anxiety disorders are common. Everyone knows someone, usually someone close, who has struggled and/or who continues to struggle. Nobody seems certain what to do about it, or whether it is every going to end.

One thing is for sure, though: throughout this whole period, when every news bulletin and newspaper and TV talk show and radio opinion piece was focused entirely on the recession, the austerity measures put in place by the government, the taxes and levies which were brought in ‘as emergency measures’ and then never removed, the growing queues of unemployed, and the emigration numbers which seemed to have no upper limit, not very many people stopped to think what effect all this doom and gloom was having on the children who had to live through it. How hard it must be to be a child – particularly a sensitive, inquisitive, knowing child, who is aware of the world and the adults around them – watching the future of their country collapse, and wondering what will become of them down the line? This is the scenario we’re faced with in Brilliant, where Gloria and Rayzer (Raymond), a sister and brother living in West Dublin, find their beloved uncle coming to live in their house because the bank has taken his, and he needs some time to ‘get back on his feet.’ His laughter and sense of fun have gone, and the family (who already have Gloria and Rayzer’s granny living with them, too) soon begins to suffer under the strain. Everyone loves Uncle Ben, of course, but living all squeezed up together is not a lot of fun.

One night, as Gloria and Rayzer eavesdrop on a conversation between their parents and their granny, the idea that Ben has ‘the black dog’ on his back comes up. ‘The black dog has taken Dublin’s funny bone,’ says Granny – and Gloria and Rayzer, being enterprising kids, immediately set out to find the funny bone and steal it back. On the way they rope in their very eccentric neighbour Ernie, who has decided to work as a vampire in order to stave off the worst of the recession’s effects (I can’t help thinking there’s a complex metaphor in there about blood-suckers draining the life out of the country!) and as their quest continues, boys and girls from all over the city, all of whom have loved ones who are suffering because of ‘the black dog’, join in their fight.

For the kids have one secret weapon up their sleeves – a magic word which can destroy the black dog of Depression and send him trotting away from Dublin for good.

This is a very straightforward book – there’s no getting away from that. It began life as a short story, and in some ways it does feel a bit ‘stretched’, as if there’s not enough plot to sustain its length. But that hardly matters when you’re reading dialogue which, at times, made me shake with laughter and set-pieces which are so Irish, so Dublin, that reading this book is as good as taking a trip to my fair capital city. I loved that Doyle made the seagulls of Dublin such heroes in his story, because – to be honest – nobody in Dublin likes the seagulls which seem, at times, to be running the place. The cry of a seagull will always remind me of Dublin, and they are absolutely part of the fabric of the city, but they’re also a huge nuisance. So, to see them having a wonderful role in the denouement of this story was refreshing, and fun. There are landmarks galore in here, and the route the children take is one I know extremely well, so I was there with them in my head as they ran, chasing the black dog through the streets. Even if you don’t know Dublin, or the route they take, there’s a handy map (drawn by Chris Judge, who also did the illustrations) inside the front and back covers of my edition (the hardback) to keep you on track.

Most of this book’s appeal lies in its characters, both animal and human alike, and in the sheer fun of the dialogue. A lot of it is very Irish, and might cause a bit of confusion if you’re not used to it, but in most cases context serves to sort out what’s happening. The plot is uncomplicated, the action is all driven towards driving the black dog out of the city, and the simple power of the book lies in the reality behind it – the fact that we know, as readers, exactly how hard it is, and has been, to live through the past few years, and how many people that black dog has squashed out of existence. The actions of the kids – coming together, and fighting as one – might be the best answer anyone has yet come up with to fighting off the darkness; maybe we adults could do worse than actually listen to them, for once.

O Captain, My Captain

I’ve been sitting at my desk for almost an hour now, trying to convince myself that it’s not frivolous or silly to want to write a blog post about the passing of a person I never met when we’re living in a world where thousands of innocent people are dying, unnaturally, every single day. I want to believe that it’s important to remember people who had a huge impact on our lives, even if it wasn’t a personal connection, and to mourn them when we lose them. One thing I know for sure is this: I’ve been sitting here for a long time now, simply weeping, and even though this blog post may be nothing more than an example of how it’s a bad idea to write a blog post when you’re upset, I’m going to go with the only thing on my mind right now.

Robin Williams. He can’t be gone. I simply won’t believe it.

Image: chicagoreader.com

Image: chicagoreader.com

I grew up with Robin Williams’ work. Mork and Mindy made me laugh as a tiny child, Mrs Doubtfire made me wail with laughter as a teenager, and the magisterial Dead Poets’ Society broke my heart and healed it again repeatedly as I grew into an adult. For a long time, it was my favourite film, and it still holds a warm place in my ‘all time greats’ pantheon. Watching the tributes to this awesomely talented man pour in on Twitter this morning reminded me just how many brilliant films he made, and how many parts became his own – he was the voice of Aladdin’s Genie. He played a hilarious cameo role in Friends. He was Patch Adams. He was electrifying in The Fisher King, and compelling in Good Will Hunting. He was Garp, one of my literary heroes, in the underrated classic The World According to Garp. It’s only now I think about it that I realise how much his voice and image contributed to my life, and the lives of so many others.

The fact that he has left us suddenly, and tragically, is hard to bear. If it is hard to bear for his legions of fans, I dread to think how devastating it is to his wife and family, and my thoughts are with them.

And yes, I know there is a humanitarian crisis in Iraq, and in Syria, and in Gaza. I know there are wars everywhere we care to look. I know that women, children and men are being brutalised all over the world, and that the death of one more human being hardly matters in the grand river of destruction which we have created.

But this death does matter. They all matter. Every single life – they all matter. If I were to cry about all of them, I’d never be done crying, so I will cry for Robin Williams. I will cry for the beauty he brought to my life, for all the laughs, for the times I was stopped in my tracks by his talent, whether it was his comedy or simply his acting ability. I will cry that there will never be another film from him. I will cry for his family, and for all who loved him. I will cry for myself, because part of what made my childhood so magical is lost now, forever. I will cry because the tiny glimmer of hope he shone on the world has been extinguished.

And then, I’ll dry my tears and try to remember to make someone laugh today. I’ll try to remember the power of laughter, and how it bridges even the most unbridgeable of gaps, bringing together people who seem to have no common ground. I’ll try to remember to ask others whether I can help if I think they’re going through a bad time, and I’ll try to remember to ask for help if I’m going through a bad time, and I’ll try to remember that there is no shame in asking for help.

And it will all be for you, Robin Williams.

Image: thewrap.com

Image: thewrap.com

If you have been affected by the death of Robin Williams, or if you need help dealing with feelings of depression or suicidal impulses, please know that there is so much help out there. Click here for a link to a list of international suicide crisis helplines, or see http://samaritans,org or http://pieta.ie. Please reach out to someone if you’re finding things difficult, and don’t feel you have to deal with your feelings alone – there are so many people who will help you, and there is no shame in asking for help.

I Inhabit a Body

***Warning: possibly triggering for those sensitive to body image, eating disorder or weight issues***

The last few days have been something of an emotional ‘perfect storm’ for me.

It all started with this brilliant, beautiful and perfectly judged blog post by Foz Meadows, followed by this poem and this .gif (both seen on Tumblr), and finally this podcast from the Australian actor Magda Szubanski, which was shared by the wonderful Kate Wally over on Twitter. After I listened to the last link – the podcast – I had a good cry, and it wasn’t simply because of the power and sorrow of Magda’s story, though powerful and sorrowful it undoubtedly is. I wept because her experience as a woman, a woman with the temerity to exist in an imperfect body, with the cheek to appear in public in leisure clothing while enjoying herself at the beach, shattered something deep inside me.

For, like Szubanski, I am a fat person.

I am a fat woman, which is immeasurably worse than simply being a fat ‘person.’

I am a fat woman who has hated herself all her life, and I am sick of it.

Paleolithic (c. 28,000 - 25,000 BCE) figurine of a woman, possibly a fertility idol, known as the Venus of Willendorf or the Woman of Willendorf. Image: gattonero.de

Paleolithic (c. 28,000 – 25,000 BCE) figurine of a woman, possibly a fertility idol, known as the Venus of Willendorf or the Woman of Willendorf.
Image: gattonero.de

I inhabit a body which is large, and misshapen, and unpleasing. I inhabit a body which some would say has no right to exist.  I inhabit a body which I know would be sneered at, judged, condemned and – metaphorically or literally – spat upon by certain others in the society in which I live, and I have been aware of this for a very long time. I have learned to live with it, and I hate that I have had to.

Once, years ago, I lost a significant amount of weight by, essentially, subsisting on about 800 calories a day for the better part of twelve months; my body shrank, but my mind stayed the same. I carried my larger self around like a shell, my new body shrinking within it like a grub, or a soft underbelly. It felt vulnerable. The smaller I got, the more visible I became. As I grew thinner, I thought my life would start to make sense. I thought the world would open up to me. I thought my heart would heal and my mind would clear, and every day would be like a Disney cartoon.

But it wasn’t.

I was still me – just a smaller version.

The self-judgement, the self-hate, the ‘checking’ that had been part of my life as a larger person – all that stayed with me. It got worse, even. The thin me was ‘normal’ looking, and she had a new, unfamiliar set of rules to follow. I had to wear the ‘right’ clothes, do the ‘right’ job, be seen in the ‘right’ places. And I was never good enough.

And, over the years, the weight has come back – and I am still not good enough.

I am an intelligent and well-educated person. I know how bodies work, how nutrition works, how exercise works. I know my Vitamin A from my Vitamin K; I know my saturated from my unsaturated fats. I’ve been wailing on about the dangers of excess sugar consumption for ages, long before it ever became part of the global conversation on obesity. I know the dangers of carrying excess weight, particularly around the middle – where I carry it.

But I am a vegetarian. I eat plenty of wholegrains, pulses, legumes and salads. I get my protein from beans, eggs, and cheese carefully selected to be as low in calories as possible. I eat plain natural yogurt with a teaspoon of honey if I need a treat. Every morning I make porridge with skimmed milk and water. I eat three small meals a day.

And, very occasionally, when I’m out with family or friends, I will have a dessert – and I judge myself with every mouthful.

Image: mongoliankitchen.com

Image: mongoliankitchen.com

The last time I attended the doctor, it was for an issue entirely unrelated to my weight. The medical practitioner spoke to me briefly about the issue concerned, and then hopped straight onto the topic of my size. She insisted on weighing me, even though I told her I didn’t require her to. She gave me a condescending lecture about ‘letting ourselves get too big,’ and when I tried to explain that I eat mindfully and that exercise is not unknown to me, and that I was perfectly healthy, her response was:

I don’t care if you tell me you’re eating two lettuce leaves a day. Eat one lettuce leaf a day for three months, and then come back to me.

I am so tired of this.

I am so tired of trying to explain to doctors that perhaps my weight is a symptom of something else, and not a result of my lifestyle – which, no doubt, they imagine involves buckets of fried chicken, gallons of ice-cream and beer by the vatload. I am tired of not being believed. I am tired of being sent for blood tests to check for the diabetes they will not believe I don’t have, simply because I’m large. My blood sugar levels, for the curious, are on the low side of normal, by the way.

Often, in my hearing, people will comment on the weight of others, because it is simply something that we do, as a society, without even thinking about it. ‘My, hasn’t she put on stones since we saw her last?’ or ‘Look at Joe – obviously marriage suits him. He’s wearing his contentment around his waist!’ I hate this. Where possible, I refuse to take part in conversations like this, and I ask the commenter to stop. Not only is it cruel, and unnecessary, but I always feel that if people are saying these things about others, what are they saying about me? And, in my dark and private moments, it’s these words of judgement that I hear echoing around my own head, directed inwards.

Except, during my darkest times, they’re spoken in my own voice.

Image: quiet-elephant.deviantart.com

Image: quiet-elephant.deviantart.com

I have been hearing, and repeating, these words to myself since I was a child. I have ruined any joy I could have had in my body, my looks, my person, because I have absorbed the judgement of others, which has – over time – become self-judgement. I have a body that works – it runs when I tell it to, it walks for miles, it sings and laughs and shouts with joy; it jumps over puddles and climbs up hills and it danced up the aisle on my wedding day.

And yet I hate it because it is not small enough.

And I hate the voice in my head that reminds me, whenever I see my reflection, how far short I fall of perfection.

And I hate the world we’ve created, where little girls like I was are made to feel like objects – of scorn, of hatred, of scapegoating judgement.

And I hate that this voice – this eyebrow-raised, hand-on-hip, pursed-lip, can’t-you-just-control-yourself? voice, is with me every second of every day. I hate that no matter how much joy I try to take in all the things my body can do, and in all the boundless capability of my mind, this voice will never fade.

Fat people are not all slobs – but even if they were, so what?

Fat people are not all impulsive, uncontrolled, binge-eating, lazy good-for-nothings – but even if they were, so what?

Fat people – people like me – are not here to be anybody’s whipping boy, and we are not here to be made fun of or shamed or used as a spectacle, or as an example of what can happen when you ‘let yourself go,’ or as a thing to be laughed at. Because – and this is important – fat people are people, and they are as deserving of respect and equality and consideration as anyone else.

I inhabit a body. It might not be one that meets with societal approval, but it’s mine, and it’s one that I want people to judge – because judge they must – by the smile on my face, and the strength of my hug, and the width of my heart.

And the dark voice inside me will keep on murmuring, and I will keep on trying to silence it.

A Sharp Lesson

One of the things about myself which I may have kept under wraps – until now – is the fact that I make brilliant potato wedges. Or, if you prefer, oven chips (this makes them sound a little more appealing, perhaps.) Naturally, the process of making these carbohydrate delights involves me, a large knife and a big scrubbed spud – and rather a fine dollop of audacity.

Last evening, quite late, Husband and I were antsin’ for our dinner. I’d decided I was doing my oven chips as a treat, and so I got stuck in.

Now, *this* guy - he's got style and technique... Image: amazon.com

Now, *this* guy – he’s got style and technique…
Image: amazon.com

Normally, when I make these chips, my husband’s not home; they’re made in advance of his return in the evening as a surprise, for instance. So, I’m not sure he’d ever seen my – frankly – rather reckless way with a blade until yesterday. I was in a hurry, I was hungry, and that added a sprinkling of further foolishness to the situation.

I was chopping, at an angle, through the quartered potato, half paying attention to what I was doing and half to the rest of the dinner, when Husband walks into the kitchen.

‘Oh, mind your fingers!’ he said – being the kind, sensible, intelligent fellow that he is.

Instantly – instantly – the blade went awry, and my left ring finger came a cropper.

Now, the injury’s not bad. I’m fine. Dinner proceeded in the usual way, and it went down well. I’m typing here this morning without any discomfort or inconvenience. But it is amazing that out of the hundreds of times I’ve cut a potato in just the same (stupid) way with just the same knife, and just the same level of distraction, I have never once cut myself. As soon as someone else made me realise how dangerous what I’m doing actually is, suddenly the task became something else.

My husband did just the right thing, of course. If I’d seen him acting like a darn fool with a big knife, I’d have said exactly the same to him. But isn’t it rather strange that we, as humans, sometimes tend to ignore the dangers of something if there’s nobody around to tell us how dangerous it is, and to ask us to please take care?

Sometimes, perhaps, we should know better, instinctively.

Aaargh! I mean, *what*? Image: dailymail.co.uk

Aaargh! I mean, *what*?
Image: dailymail.co.uk

Sometimes the dangers aren’t so obvious. And sometimes we think we can take something on because we have a larger idea of our capability than is, perhaps, the case.

I’ve been working very hard for the past few months on ‘Emmeline’, and now that it’s done I feel a little drained. I started the edits on Friday (because reasons), and I intend to continue with that work today, but over the weekend I fell into a dark slump, a pit of despond, a cavern of desolation – whatever you’d like to call it. I tried my best to drag myself up out of it, particularly because there was a wonderfully happy family event to attend on Saturday, but every single second of the past few days has been a struggle. It has blindsided me completely; I finished my working day on Friday in excellent form, and woke up on Saturday feeling like someone had turned out all the lights inside me.

Perhaps I have overdone it. Perhaps I overestimated my own capability. Or, perhaps, the two events – my finishing the book and falling into a pothole – are unconnected. Whatever the reason, I wish I’d been aware enough of how I was feeling to tell myself to take care and to get more rest and to keep myself well – but if I’d done all that, I wouldn’t have made my own deadlines, or fitted in with the schedule I’ve worked out for myself. My life lately has been about relentless forward movement – always something else to be aimed for, always something else to do, always a new project on the horizon.

That’s all fine, of course, if you remember this: you have limitations. You’re playing with something dangerous, whether that be a sharp knife or your own relentless drive. You’re risking something important, whether that be your fingers or your mental health.

I am lucky to have loved ones to remind me to take care, but I need to remember to remind myself to take it easy, too. Perhaps next time it won’t take a bleeding finger – or a dark cloth thrown over my mind – to make me realise how important it is to go steady, be gentle and always pay attention to the potential danger in every innocuous-seeming situation.

And, of course, the real moral of this story is: now I need a new oven-chip technique, too.

Goshdurnit! Image: cowgirlgoods.typepad.com

Goshdurnit!
Image: cowgirlgoods.typepad.com

O, My Country

In the last week, in Ireland, there have been five violent deaths.

Since the beginning of the year, there have been seven violent deaths. That’s seven, in thirteen days.

Image: thejournal.ie

Image: thejournal.ie

Ireland is a small country. It’s a country in which a violent death – increasingly, death as a result of knife crime – still has the power to shock. It’s a country where watching the news and seeing an ordinary family, one just like yours, ripped to pieces by violence, still gives you pause. You wonder what on earth is wrong. Why people are getting into arguments and, instead of using words to sort it out, they’re resorting to knives, or fists, or guns.

The most recent murder in Ireland happened over the weekend in Dublin, in an affluent suburb – the kind of place where you’d love to live, if only you had the money. It’s not the sort of place you’d associate with violent crime, but then distinctions like that are starting to look shaky and irrelevant in our brand new, ultra-modern little country. At the time of writing this, it appears that the victim lost his life over a disputed move in a game of chess.

A disputed move in a game of chess.

And it has cost a man his life.

This morning, really early, our neighbours moved out. They – father, mother, three children under ten – have decided to emigrate to Australia in search of a better life. Neither of the parents were unemployed, but for so many reasons they felt things might be better for them on the other side of the world. ‘Things are going nowhere here,’ the mother remarked to me the other day. ‘It’s a dead end.’ Their decision to leave may have nothing to do with crime, per se, but I do know they were driven out of their old home by criminal and disruptive behaviour all around them, and they came to live beside my husband and me in an attempt to find a more peaceful existence. I hoped they found it, for the years they spent here, and I wish them well in their new life. I will miss them, particularly their beautiful children, very much.

Those left behind after emigration - a difficult burden to carry. Image: news.ie.msn.com

Those left behind after emigration – a difficult burden to carry.
Image: news.ie.msn.com

They’ll be joining a long queue of people leaving this country looking for something abroad that they cannot find here. Most people will return to Ireland in the years to come – because, despite it all, home exerts a huge draw – but that doesn’t help us in the short term. Every family in Ireland has been touched by emigration. We all know what it feels like to have someone we love – in most cases, someone young – living far away from home.

I love my country. In a lot of ways, it’s a wonderful place. Increasingly, though, we are struggling with things like mental health – a mental health helpline recorded a 29% increase in calls to its services last year, for example – and with violent disorder. There has always been a problem with alcohol in Ireland, which goes far beyond the ‘fun-loving party people’ image the rest of the world seems to have of us; we’re a lot more Nordic than that, I think, insofar as our relationship with drink can be dark, cold, inward-looking, and extremely isolated. I’m not a sociologist, and can only speak from my own experience, but it seems to me that Ireland is finding it hard to adjust to new realities – a complicated relationship with religion, increased exposure to immigration, economic difficulties, and a total lack of faith in the government, and indeed in all forms of authority – and, perhaps, many other things as well. The police force is probably the only public body (if, indeed, that’s the right term to describe it) in which the people of Ireland have any faith left. If we lose that, then I fear we might lose ourselves as well.

Irish people tend to be resilient. We just keep on going, getting on with our own lives, keeping the ‘best side out’, as the old saying goes, no matter what happens around us. Suffering is bred into us, some would say. This is all very well, but sometimes I wonder if it allows us the space we need to deal with what’s inside, as well as keeping up a good front. I also wonder, sometimes, how much we can put up with, or when we’ll reach the point where we can’t take any more. All I know is, I think my little country is in trouble – and has been for some time – and figuring out a solution to it is beyond me.

But surely, picking up a knife and destroying not only your victim’s life, but also your own, isn’t the way to deal with whatever might be wrong? There has to be a better way forward than this.

There has to be.

 

The Gently-Turning Mind

Years ago (I mean, years ago), I wrote a book. I’m sure I’ve mentioned it on the blog before – it’s the one that has languished ever since in an envelope, currently gathering dust on top of my bookshelves in the living room – but it still counts as my first attempt at writing a full-length book. I had thought of it as being so bad that it wasn’t worth revisiting, and that there was absolutely nothing of any value in its pages. I actually felt revolted by the very thought of it, like reading it would be humiliating; I couldn’t bear to touch it, let alone face it.

Over the past few days, though, I’ve felt my thoughts start to turn, gently, and I’m realising something interesting: this book is not bad enough to evoke such a visceral response in me. Something else was tied up with my memory of writing it, and I’ve been carefully unpicking this for the past while. Here’s what I’ve concluded: the very existence of this book reminded me of a painful time in my life, a time when I thought I’d never be happy again. Even though it’s a children’s story about good overcoming evil and bravery overcoming tyranny, I wrote it during a very dark time. I know that this story took shape in my mind at a time when joy seemed very far away.

I’m beginning to wonder if this is the reason I’ve never revisited the book, and not its lack of literary merit. I’m not saying it’s the new C.S. Lewis, but the story had an arc, and it had characters, and it had an epic conclusion. It worked. There’s a story there, waiting to be properly told.

Hey! I think I found the story... Image: kernelsofwheat.com

Hey! I think I found the story…
Image: kernelsofwheat.com

Writing is such an emotional process. You can’t help but bring a little of yourself to everything you write, and – of course – the circumstances of your own life are going to have an effect on what you write, and how you remember it once years have passed. This book – I had called it ‘Emoriel’ all those years ago, but perhaps I’ll rename it – is so closely tied up in my personal darkness that it has taken me this long to even consider blowing the dust off it and having a look. I haven’t done it yet – as I write, the book is still in its wrappings, high on a shelf, lying quietly, waiting – but something tells me I will be doing it soon.

At the weekend, my husband and I started talking about this old book of mine. He has, of course, never read it, and sometimes mentions it in passing, probably in the hope that I’ll let him take a look at it if he drops a few hints here and there. Out of the blue, I told him: ‘You know – I think I might revisit it. I actually think I will have a look at rewriting it, once draft one of Tider is done.’ As he is wont, my husband smiled supportively at me, told me that would be a brilliant idea, and then we moved on with our evening.

I say this came ‘out of the blue’, but I wonder if it did, really. I’m sure this is something my brain has been working up to for a long time.

If you have enough drops, you'll eventually fill yourself to overflowing. Image: markgeoghegan.org

If you gather enough drops, you’ll eventually fill yourself to overflowing.
Image: markgeoghegan.org

As the book stands at the moment, from what I remember, it needs a lot of work. In fact, it needs so much work that a total rewrite is really my only option. It’s written in a style I loved at the time, one born out of the fact that, back then, I didn’t really read a lot of children’s books; my vocabulary and style was like something out of the 1930s. I based my ‘voice’ on the books I’d read as a kid – we’re talking Enid Blyton here – which, I’m pretty sure, would have most modern children weeping with laughter before they’d even finished the first paragraph. The only problem with that is, of course, that they’d be laughing at, rather than with, the story. There’s no mention of mobile phones, the internet, even video games; I think the most technological the book gets is when I mention ‘the radio’ (luckily, I didn’t call it ‘the wireless’), and our heroine gets to wear ‘galoshes and a sou’wester’. I’m wondering if I wrote this book in order to immerse myself in the joy of my own childhood reading, as a way to escape the reality of my life at the time; perhaps that’s why it has more in common with books of my grandparents’ generation than the current one.

All that can be fixed, though. I can bring what I’ve learned from ‘Eldritch’ and ‘Tider’ to bear on my old story, and I can cover the framework I built more than ten years ago with a bright new canvas, one which will hopefully be up-to-date and sparky, fun and good to read. I have already written this story to completion, so I know it can be done again; I have already created characters that I love, and I can easily breathe life into them again.

And – of course – I’m glad to think that, very soon, I’ll be able to take this book down again and face it once more. Opening the envelope in which it has stayed, quietly ruminating, for over a decade is far more than it seems. In opening that seal, I will be facing my own self, my own past, and laying to rest a lot of pain.

It couldn’t have happened any sooner than this.

Choosing to Live

This morning’s offering is a response to a wonderful blog post, here, written by Susan Lanigan. In it, she discusses her reasons for choosing to live – not just continuing to live, but actually making the choice to live – despite the difficulties which this choice can bring. I’m very pleased that she asked me to share my thoughts on the topic, and I hope I can do her marvellous post justice.

sunrise

I’ll begin with a truism: life can be very hard. This nugget has been trotted out by generations of mothers and fathers in an attempt to comfort their tear-stained children when they reach the age at which they realise the world is not designed to fulfil their every wish; it is not comforting, but it is important to know. Life (or, rather, the choice to live) can, and probably will, be very hard for the majority of people, and life has been hard as long as human beings have existed. Every age has had its own particular struggles, which vary with the centuries, but they all have similar roots. I think, despite the differences in technology, lifestyle, beliefs, language and law that separate us from our ancestors, that people are people – we don’t change much, down through the years. The things which occupy our minds and the fears that bedevil us – mortality, sexuality, money, power – are things which they were all too familiar with, too. I’m not sure it’s true that earlier ages didn’t have time for introspection, or that they were too busy working themselves to an early death to worry about things like self-actualisation and individual significance; I think every age has sought meaning in its own existence, and has produced art which has reflected upon the world which created it. We are no exception – we just have wider access to the tools of creativity, and our record of our own existence is a bit more durable than that of earlier generations. In times gone by, only the chosen few had the opportunity to record their thoughts about the world around them. Sometimes I mourn for all the words and stories we’ve lost, and for all the wisdom that has returned to the earth along with the person who laboured hard to gain it.

I live in a complex world, in a struggling country. I have a body and a brain which sometimes conspire against me, and I know how it feels to fight with your own thoughts, to battle out from underneath your own darkness of mind. I have been in the pit of what my medieval friends used to call ‘wanhope’ – in other words, despair. Allowing yourself to wallow in wanhope was seen as a sin in the Middle Ages, because it did not allow for the grace of God; falling into it was one thing, but allowing yourself to remain there was tantamount to giving up hope in the all-powerful love of God. It was like committing treason against your greatest and most powerful liege-lord. You were cutting off the possibility of being rescued, of being helped, and you were refusing to allow yourself to be loved by God – and, I suppose, by anyone else. The medieval mind saw it as imposing a limit on the power of God’s love and compassion (which, of course, would be sinful human hubris), but a modern mind might recognise the feeling, too. Divorced from its religious framework, it sounds a lot like the struggle most of us have to face at some point in our life – the feeling that we are alone, that we’re unconnected to anything else, that nobody loves us and our existence, or lack of it, makes no difference to the grand scheme of things. It sounds so terrible that it’s hard to imagine why anyone would allow themselves to fall into it, but it’s actually not that difficult. The road to the pit of wanhope has been walked by so many feet that the stones which pave it have been worn smooth, and it’s a road from which so many people find it impossible to come back. Sadly, I wonder if the road to Wanhope is busier now than it has ever been.

So, why do I choose to live? The word ‘choose’ is so important – nobody can make you live. You were brought into existence, sure – but nobody can force you to live. The choice is yours. It might seem obvious – it might not seem like a choice at all, perhaps – but it’s there, and it’s one which we need to make on a regular basis. Why do I choose, every day, to avoid the road to despair and choose the harder, rockier, narrower path that is life? I choose to live because I want to make a difference in the world. I want to be part of that durable human record – I want my choice to mean something, and I don’t want my hard-earned wisdom to die with me. I choose to live because I was brought into the world through love, and I have been lucky enough to know love every day of my life. I choose to live because I want to amplify the love I have been given, and return it tenfold to those who love me, and to others who might need love and compassion more than they need anything else. I choose to live because it’s a challenge, and I’m the sort of pig-headed person who hates to give up on a fight. I choose to live because I believe I’m here to do something – perhaps, many somethings. I choose to live because I don’t know what I’m here to do, and I don’t know when I’ll be called upon to do it. How can I choose the other path, the one that leads towards the dark, when, for all I know, tomorrow is the day when my great purpose will be revealed? How do I know that my very existence – something I might say, or do, or write – is already fulfilling that greater purpose? I choose to live because my choice might help someone else. I choose to live because I am important, as you are important; my choice might help someone else to keep walking that hard road, and I choose to live because everyone who makes that choice means more hands to help those who might stumble, and more encouraging smiles to light the paths of those who are struggling.

I’ve walked a while on both roads, the smooth lower road that feels so familiar underfoot, and the rocky higher path that goes on into the unknown. The smooth road has no turnings. Its destination is clear. But the rocky path has many switchbacks and changes of direction – every day on it is a surprise, and every corner turned brings something new. I choose to live because I want to know what’s around the next bend, no matter what it is. I choose to live because I’ve struggled out of the pit, and back up that smooth and well-worn path, and I’ll be damned if I’m throwing away all that effort.

I choose to live out of stubbornness, and I hope my rocky path is a long and twisting one.