My Bipolar Book Buying and Borrowing Binge

The cutest man at a local bookstore

The past two days, I have been to three bookstores and two libraries and have, for a very reasonable price, bought and borrowed a good many books I’ll be reflecting on in “The Study” chapter of my spiritual memoir.  These include –

21 Essential American Short Stories (edited by Leslie M. Pockell).  This has the short story “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlott Perkins Gillman in it.  Gillman’s story depicts a woman’s descent into postpartum psychosis.  This was recommended by several readers.

Don Quixote by Miguel De Cervantes Saavedra (translated by Walter Starkie).  An all-time classic I read in college.  I bought this not so much to view Don Quixote’s visions as “delusions of grandeur” as to re-live the thrill of going to battle against windmill dragons with a faithful Sancho Panza by my side.

Girl, Interrupted by Susanna Kaysen.  Kaysen describes her experience as 18-year old psychiatric patient at the famous McLean Hospital (where Sylvia Plath, Robert Lowell, James Taylor, and Ray Charles also received treatment).

The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary by Simon Winchester.  W.C. Minor submitted more than ten thousand definitions to the Oxford English Dictionary while he was an inmate at an asylum for the criminally insane.

The Real Van Gogh: The Artist and His Letters.  This oversized art book contains many of Van Gogh’s classic paintings as well as excerpts of his letters about them.

Dear Theo: The Autobiography of Vincent Van Gogh edited by Irving Stone. “These letters reveal… a desperate man whose quest for love became a flight into madness for whom every day was a ‘fight for life.'”

Van Gogh: The Life by Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith.  “Naifeh and Smith have re-created Van Gogh’s life with an astounding vividness and psychological acuity that bring a completely new and sympathetic understanding to this unique artistic genius.”

Sylvia Plath: A Biography by Connie Ann Kirk.  In this slender volume, Kirk traces Plath’s productive yet turbulent life and career.

Sylvia Plath: The Wound and the Cure of Words by Steven Gould Axelrod.  I picked this up mainly because I loved the title.  The jacket liner describes it as a “biography of the imagination, an inner narrative of the poet’s life and work.

The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath 1950-1962  edited by Karen V. Kukil.  This covers the period from when she was 18, until shortly before her death.

I’ve also ordered a used (first-edition) copy of Plath’s The Bell Jar, which should be in within a week.

I’ve managed to collect all these resources for around $50 (including the cost of gas.  Not bad.  (Now if I just had the room to store them.)

My plans are, in the next two weeks to read everything I can on Van Gogh and Plath and then compose three essays (one on each of them and one on Kay Redfield Jamison) by May 31.  Beyond that, I will steadily add one paragraph reviews of other resources to the “On the Shelf” section of “The Study”.

Again, thanks to all who have submitted recommendations for books, movies, stories, music, and art work depicting mental illness (especially Bip0lar).  If you think of more, keep them coming.  I plan to be working on this for some time.

(image above “The cutest man at a local bookstore” from Rachel Roy in Rachel’s Spain Travel Diary – Launch of RRR in Spain!)

Kay Redfield Jamison’s Beautiful, Brilliant Unquiet Mind

          When I first received my Bipolar diagnosis, the picture painted for me of my future was rather bleak.  The staff at the psychiatric hospital explained that I would likely not be able to continue in ministry.  I would probably go on disability, possibly work a part-time minimum wage job.  I would have repeated hospitalizations and the chances of remaining in my marriage were slim to none.
          My psychiatrist, however, wanted to offer a ray of hope.  He recommended I read a new memoir that had just been published by perhaps the most world-renowned expert on Bipolar disorder – Kay Redfield Jamison.  In Unquiet Mind: A Memoir of Moods and Madness, Jamison beautifully describes her own life-long struggle and brilliantly depicts the love-hate relationship many folks with Bipolar have with their illness.  She defines what she prefers to call “Manic-depression” –
Kay Redfield Jamison, Author, Professor, Innovator, Genius
…a disease that both kills and gives life.  Fire, by its nature, both creates and destroys.  “The force that through the green fuse drives the flower,” wrote Dylan Thomas, “Drives my green age, that blasts the root of trees/ Is my destroyer.”  Mania is a strange and driving force, a destroyer, a fire in the blood.
          In other works, Jamison has extensively explores the relationship between Bipolar and creativity, citing examples in the lives of many artists past and present who displayed significant symptoms yet produced amazing expressions of life and the world around them.
           Recently, I re-read An Unquiet Mind (for the fourth time, I think).  One passage I was particularly drawn to, given my current separation from my wife was this –
“No amount of love can cure madness or unblacken one’s dark moods.  Love can help, it can make the pain more bearable, but always one is beholden to medication that may or may not always work and may or may not be bearable.  Madness, on the other hand, most certainly can, and often does kill love through its mistrustfulness, unrelenting pessimism, discontents, erratic behavior, and especially through its savage moods.”
            It’s sad, but often true that people with Bipolar seem incapable of sustaining intimate relationships.  Redfield herself has been married more than once, joining the ranks of the more than 90% of folks with Bipolar who get divorced.
             So is it worth it?  If given the opportunity, should we eradicate Bipolar through gene therapy?  For now (at least), Redfield would say, “No.”  As she poetically reflects on her own experience living with the illness –
‘I honestly believe that as a result of it I have felt more things, more deeply had more experiences. more intensely loved more and been more loved; laughed more often for having cried more often; appreciated more the springs for all the winters; worn death “as close as dungarees,” appreciated it — and life, more; seen the finest and most terrible in people, and slowly learned the values of caring, loyalty, and seeing things through…”
             Not many of us (only one, in fact) can be Kay Redfield Jamison.  I see my Bipolar more as a “thorn in my flesh” than something that has enhanced my life.  Still, I am grateful.  Through this thorn I have discovered that God’s grace is sufficient.  This realization has led me to a more abundant life in Christ and given me a greater appreciation for the struggles of others.
             How about you?  Those of you with Bipolar, how do you view your illness?  If you had the choice, would you seek out a cure?  How have you learned to make the most of it?
(image above “Kay Redfield Jamison, Author, Professor, Innovator, Genius”  from Susan Steadman in I AM WOMAN)

Flannery O’Connor: A Beautiful Mind in a Broken Body

Flannery O'Connor with one of her many beloved peacocks

Flannery O’Connor wrote some of the greatest short stories ever published.  Most of her writing life, she was confined to her family farm house, Andalusia, outside of Milledgeville, Georgia.  Yet, her stories reveal a vibrant moral and literary imagination unparalleled by much more travelled authors.

When I was struggling through the “rock-bottom” phase of my life, I read a number of contemporary novels which consumed my time and attention, but nothing lifted my spirit like The Habit of Being: Letters of Flannery O’Connor.  This charming, witty, spiritual, wise woman who wrote her last letter about a month after I was born spoke directly to me as she reflected on literature, art, God, partridges, and (only infrequently) her illness.

Her illness – the “thorn in her flesh” – was lupus.  It caused her excruciating pain and greatly hindered her productivity.  Yet, it did not rule her mind or her spirit.  She died as she lived – full of faith and hope and the promise of a better life to come.

In this afternoon’s mail, I received a copy of The Habit of Being and I’ve already started thumbing through its pages.  I thought I’d share a few choice quotes to give you a sense of this beautiful mind in a broken body –

I didn’t mean to suggest that science is unreliable, but only that we can’t judge God by the limits of our knowledge of natural things.  This is a fundamental difference in your belief and mine: I see God as all perfect, all complete, all powerful.  God is Love and I would not believe Love efficacious if I believed there were negative stages or imperfections in it.  (To “A” 15 September ’55)

I am learning to walk on crutches and I feel like a large stiff anthropoid ape who has no cause to be thinking of St. Thomas or Aristotle, however, you are making me more of a Thomist than I ever was before and an Aristotelian where I never was before.  I am one, of course, who believes that man is created in the image and likeness of God…  (To “A”, 24 September, ’55)

The fiction of Ayn Rand is as low as you can get re fiction.  I hope you picked it up off the floor of the subway and threw it in the nearest garbage pail.  She makes Mickey Spillane look like Dostoevsky.  (To Maryat Lee, 31 May ’60)

I’m sorry the book [The Violent Bear It Away] didn’t come off for you but I think it is no wonder it didn’t since you see everything in terms of sex symbols, and in a way that would not enter my head -… Your criticism sounds to me as if you have read too many critical books and are too smart in an artificial, destructive, and very limited way.  (To William Sessions, 13 September ’60)

I asked the doctor if I could sit up at the electric typewriter and work.  You can work, says he, but you can’t exert yourself.  I haven’t quite figured this out yet; anyway, I am confined to these two rooms and the porch so far and ain’t allowed to wash the dishes. I guess that is exerting yourself where writing is officially not. (To “A”, 15 Sept ’55)

(photo above “Flannery O’Connor with one of her many beloved peacocks” from Kobo in Animal Muses)

Faithfulness to Family and Farming Life: “Fidelity” by Wendell Berry

Wendell Berry

In the rural Kentucky community of Port William, people “do for each other”, in life and in death.  But what about in between – the terrible period when someone you love is dying?  You need to do something, anything, but you can’t be sure what is to be done.

Nathan Coulter and his family face this with their eighty-two year old “Uncle Burley” when he takes sick.  Do they take him to the doctor?  His son Danny thinks so.  Nathan wonders.

“He’s never been to a doctor since I’ve known him.  He said he wouldn’t go.  You going to knock him in the head before you take him?”

Ultimately, they decide to take him to the doctor in Louisville, who declares that Burley is too weak for surgery, that it would be necessary to build up his strength.  They admit him to the hospital, where he becomes disoriented.  His health rapidly declines.

… in the midst of the building of strength and the testing, Burley slipped away toward death.  But the people of the hospital did not call it dying; they called it a coma.  They spoke of curing him.  They spoke of his recovery.

Soon Nathan and the others realize their effort to “do something” for Uncle Burley has proven only to makes things worse.

Loving him, wanting to help him, they had given him over to “the best of modern medical care” — which meant, as they now saw, that they had abandoned him.

Thinking of this, unable to sleep at home in Port William, Danny is compelled to act, to do something.  He drives back to Louisville and rescues Uncle Burley, springing him from the hospital, bringing him back past Port William where Danny cares for him in a familiar barn.

This sets a number of things in motion…

…. a call from the hospital to Danny’s wife Lyda, who admits only that Danny was not there, that he said, “something about Indiana”.

… a call to friend and family lawyer Henry Catlett who advises Lyda to say nothing else, to send the investigating police to him.

… a visit from Detective Kyle Bode, a twice-divorced Ringo Starr look-alike who is weary of dealing with the deception of country folk.

Nathan is drawn into the action and his wife Hannah reflects on the nature of the Port William community –

When she thought of their neighborhood, Hannah wondered whether or not to count the children.  Like the old, the young were leaving.  The old were dying without successors, and Hannah was aware of how anxiously those who remained had begun to look into the eyes of the children.  They were watching not just their own children now but anybody’s children.  For as the burden of keeping the land increased for the always fewer who remained, as the difference continued to increase between the price of what they had to sell and the cost of what they had to buy, they knew that they had less and less to offer the children, and fewer arguments to make.

“Fidelity” explores not only the impending death of an old man, but the pending death of an old way of life – the farming community.

Thanks to the courageous (and illegal) acts of his son Danny,  Burley is able to die with dignity, on familiar ground and to be properly buried and grieved.

But how does a community die with dignity?  And who is left to mourn it?  Who remembers what is lost?

(“Fidelity” is found in Fidelity: Five Stories by Wendell Berry)

(photo of Wendell Berry from Jessica Clare {Civetta} in Creative, Eccentric & Talented)

Dear Dr. Love, You Should Change Your Name: “P.S.” by Jill McCorkle

Cezanne

“P.S.” has all the elements of a disgruntled Freudian romance (minus the sex).

It is written as a letter from “Hannah from three suburbs over” to her former marriage therapist – “Dr. Love”.  She bemoans the way she appeared after sessions “like s–t on a stick”.  She blames religion for the break-up of her marriage – “I think that marriage vows should include an escape clause that says the contract is broken if one party ups and makes a big switch in religion…”.  She regrets her investment in therapy – “I wish I could get all that money back from you.” Hannah has decided to move on – beyond therapy, beyond marriage, beyond religion.  She now realizes –

I am someone who does believe in the higher power of necessary medication.  Amen.  At times, a smidgen of this or that is just what you need.  I loved the feel of Demerol when I was in labor, and I don’t know what I would have done without that epidural — scream out lots of terrible things, I suspect, which I did anyway… And I believe in spiritual highs, too.  What I don’t believe in is someone having the power to dictate someone else’s spirituality or aesthetic code.

Hannah’s husband Jerry was not “born-again” when they married.  He was a Mensa nerd who worked at a Toyota dealership and solved Rubik’s cube.

But being normal wasn’t enough for Jerry, he had to always be into this or that.  He always had a new hobby, and he’d go at it full tilt for a few months and then move onto another interest.

From Sudoku to pottery, model trains to beer making to a kind of tag wrestling” Hannah refers to as “homoerotic dance”. Hannah goes on in her letter to speculate about what mental and emotional problems led Dr. Love to pursue the field of psychology.  She advises him not to charge her for the time spent reading her letters – “like that lawyer keeps doing every time I e-mail or call him back to answer a question he asked me.”  She wonders what his life is like at home, with his wife, after a day spent listening to other people’s marriage problems –

“She looks a bit older than you, and so I did wonder (when I saw the photo on your dresser) if she had had a husband before you and how you had adjusted to that or if you all have some different kind of marriage like a mentor/mentee, or mother and child.”

She recalls her “big confession” – having sex with the plumber – and admits it never really happened, that she had made it up as an interesting story because she was bored.

No, my biggest betrayal to Jerry is that I quit trying.  When I finally found my own voice, I realized I had nothing else I wanted to say to him.  I stopped talking, nothing feeding nothing until  nothing was huge and nothing begot nothing.  Feeling nothing is not good, but it’s where a lot of people stop and stay.  The nothingness is so delusional and numbing.

As a contemporary reader, I ache with the realization that Hannah is right – in so many relationships finding your own voice often leads to disruption. As a man who is separated from my wife, I feel convicted by her observation that a lot of people (like me) stop and stay with nothingness. As a person of faith, however, I find hope in these sacred words –

And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.  (Genesis 1:2)

The Spirit of God moves, even in the void.  Out of nothingness, comes new life.

“P.S.” was first published in The Atlantic. It can be found within Going Away Shoes by Jill McCorkle.

image above from elly gay onto Artwork and More Galore: Art, music, politics, writing, books, women, photograhy, etc. GALORE

Poor, Mizzling Souls in William Faulkner’s “Shingles for the Lord”

William Faulkner

Rather than do a review of what I found to be one of the finest short stories I’ve ever read, I think I’ll just give you a morsel to taste.  Hopefully, it will inspire you to read the rest.

Pap is late getting to the church.  He was late borrowing the froe from Killegrew, “a seventy-year-old man, with both feet and one knee, too, already in the grave”.  Killegrew had been squatting all night on a hill listening to a fox race (or trying to, since “he couldn’t even hear unless they had come right up onto the same log he was setting on and bayed into his ear trumpet.”

Reverend Whitfield was in no mood to hear excuses.

“You could have gone yesterday and borrowed the froe,” Whitfield said, “You have known for a month now that you had promised this one day out of a whole summer toward putting a roof on the house of God.”

Pap defends himself –

“We ain’t but two hours late,” pap said. “I reckon the Lord will forgive it.  He ain’t interested in time, nohow.  He’s interested in salvation.”

But the Reverend won’t be out-theologized –

“He ain’t interested in neither! Why should He be, when He owns them both? And why He should turn around for the poor, mizzling souls of men that can’t even borrow tools in time to replace the shingles on His church.  I don’t know either.”

Before getting to work, Pap argues with Homer and Salon about how many man-hours have been lost and how many units of work they had promised Whitfield.  Pap snaps back –

What modern ideas?… I didn’t know there was but one idea about work — until it is done, it ain’t done, and when it is done, it is.

They keep going at it about work and how Pap should have hired somebody to work “them extra overtime units”.  Pap says he “ain’t had no WPA experience in dickering over labor.”  Salon proposes that instead of paying cash, he could work a trade, “You might use that dog.” Pap stops in his tracks and looks over at Solon.  Pap didn’t own the hound outright, but had raised it for half-interest.

“So that’s it,” pap said.  “Them things wasn’t work units atall.  They was dog units.

Solon insists it is just a friendly offer – “You sell me your half of that trick overgrown fyce and I’ll finish these shingles.” Pap comes back with talk of six extra units of one dollars.  Solon says no, “I’ll pay you the same two dollars for your half of that dog that me and Tull agreed on for his half of it.”  Pap could bring back the dog tomorrow and forget all about the church roof.

Pap sets there with the maul up over his head, looking at Solon.  Then he begins to laugh.  And without warning, he brings the maul down, “the froe done already druv through the bolt and into the ground while the shingle was still whirling off the slap Solon across the shin.”

They go back at until it’s time to break for lunch.

Over lunch, they continue to negotiate work hours, dollars, and the hound dog, as well as the cost of the shingles.  Finally, Solon takes out his purse and pays pap the two dollars and they get to work, arguing about whether it would be possible for finish the job in a day.  Salon lays down his froe and maul and says –

Well, men, I don’t know what you fellars think, but I consider this a day.

Pap doesn’t skip a beat –

All right…  You are the one to decide when to quit, since whatever elbow units you consider are going to be shy tomorrow will be yourn.

Solon agrees –

That’s a fact, … and since I am giving a day and a half to the church instead of jest a day, like I started out doing, I reckon I better get on home and tend to a little of my own work.

to read more…. check out “Shingles for Lord” in Works by William Faulkner

photo of William Faulkner from Rob Lowell in Repetitive History~ good beauty, bad ugly, ebon ivory.

Do You Have the Time?: A Review of E.L.Doctorow’s “All the Time in the World”

E.L. Doctorow- Contemporay New York City author of novels, short stories, essays and plays-often concerned with historical settings within the United States.

“All the Time in the World” from E.L. Doctorow’s collection All the Time in the World: New and Selected Stories reads more like a guided meditation that a linear narrative.  It works like a really good music video works, complete with colorful imagery, lyrical refrains, and compelling twists.

The landscape of the story is a nameless city with buildings that go up fast filled with naked, dancing ladies.  The narrator is a runner who tries to avoid the confusion of the masses –

To avoid the bent old ladies and their carts of groceries and their walkers and canes and black women helpers taking up three-quarters of the sidewalk, I run in the street.  I mean cars are less of a problem.  In typical traffic they are standing still as I run past the horns blowing their dissonant mass protest, and so I wear earmuffs and I am fine.

Yet, the narrator runs, he reveals, because he doesn’t know what else to do.  He sees no point in going to the movies, “with their filmed stories that I am supposed to worry over.”  He feels out of place, even though there are other runners like him.

The story then shifts to certain meta-fictional, metaphysical questions, such as –

 You may ask how I pass the time when I am not running.  Alone, is my answer — as alone as when I am running.  My only company is the grammarian who lives with me in my brain.

The narrator paints a picture of physical, emotional, and spiritual aloneness – a purposeless existence that is random and unguided.  When not talking to the grammarian in his brain, he uses the speed-dial on his cell phone:

You may ask to whom I think I am talking.  I say I am talking to you.  And who may that be, you say.  And then I recognize who it is.  It is my mother.

You have all the time in the world, she says.

Until what?

Until something happens, Mother says.

What can happen?

If we knew, she says, and breaks the connection.

The story then moves to the weather, from running in the rainwater, to the warmth and humidity of the sun.  Some trash is blowing in the street and the runner picks up “a handwritten letter on blue vellum, feeling it was meant for me.”

The ink of my letter runs like tears as I read, while rising to my floor, the grief of an abandoned lover.  She can’t understand why he has left her, she needs to see him, come back, she says, come to me, for she still loves him, she always will, and it is all so sad, so sad, so sad, and I don’t know who threw the letter away, he after reading it, or she after writing it…

The story circles back and forth…

… to the naked dancing girl

…. to speed-dialing (his father, his therapist)

… to sadness

The call to the therapist is particularly revealing of the narrator’s frustration –

Yes?  To whom do you think you are talking?

Dr. Sternlicht?

You got him.

I’m having that feeling again.

That is to be expected.

It’s like I’m living in exile.  I’m lonely.  I have no one.

That is to be expected.

Why? Why is it to be expected?  That’s all you ever say.

No.  I say other things.  I say you are in a rut.  I say change your lifestyle, expand your horizons…

You might say “All the Time in the World” goes no where, but the it uses the time it takes to get there well – in describing the futility of modern attempts to make sense of the world – being stuck in traffic while Buddhist monks in saffron robes dance in circles, running until his heartbeat becomes irregular, then calling his internist who says, “You are just frightened.”

Desperate for meaning, the narrator winds up in a confessional.  Even there, he finds no consolation, but jargon instead – “the corporeal illustion”, “the gender identity.”

Doctorow weaves a hint of hope in the last two paragraphs of the story, as he looks at the deep blue sky and welcomes the springtime.  He seems to suggest there is some hope in nature that can not be found in civilization, even  if only a “reverberant hum, as of some distant engine.”

The story doesn’t take us to any Promised Land, it only suggests that there may be a better place out there, but all the avenues we currently follow only leave us in exile.

Not to worry, though, we have “All the Time in the World”.

(image of E.L. Doctorow from Christopher Korbel in All Kinds Of Writers)

A Dream Life in “Short Easter” by John Updike

John Updike

 

 

John Updike has been one of the most celebrated American authors for over 50 years.  He has published more words than some people ever speak.

The National Endowment of Humanities website sums up his life and work (so far) in this way —

His pen rarely at rest, John Updike has been publishing fiction, essays, and poetry since the mid-fifties, when he was a staff writer at the New Yorker, contributing material for the “Talk of the Town” sections. “Of all modern American writers,” writes Adam Gopnik in Humanities magazine, “Updike comes closest to meeting Virginia Woolf’s demand that a writer’s only job is to get himself, or herself, expressed without impediments.”

When asked to describe his own work, Updike has said –

“My only duty was to describe reality as it had come to me—to give the mundane its beautiful due.”

I first encountered Updike’s writings when I read Rabbit, Run where he masterfully narrates the story through Harry Angstrom, a former high school basketball star, now 26, looking to escape his conventional middle class existence.  I don’t remember much of the story, but remember Harry to be completely self-absorbed and obsessed with sex (basically an all-American male).

Today I decided to explore one of Updike’s short stories – “Short Easter” (found in The Afterlife: and other stories).

 

Fogel, the 62-year old main character, is not looking forward to Easter (this year shortened by Daylight Savings Time).  In fact, it’s hard to say just what Fogel is looking forward to, as he basically rails against modern life and all things in it.  Updike describes Fogel’s road rage –

If Fogel’s stately Mercedes had been equipped with a button that would annihilate other vehicles, he would have used it three or four times a mile.  Almost every other automobile on the road – those that passed him, those so slow he had to pass them, those going just his speed and hanging in his side mirrors like pursuing furies – seemed a deliberate affront, restricting his freedom and being somehow pretentious about it.

Fogel is angered about getting old.  He is angered by a wife who is not his mother.  He is angered by lost opportunities.  Reflecting back on a failed love affair, he reflects –

One small side-effect still rankled: their affair ended in the springtime, and his former mistress declined to invite him and his family to an Easter egg hunt she and her family annually gave.  His children’s feelings were hurt, and for consolation they were taken out, after church, to eat at the International House of Pancakes.  Heaps of pancakes, Fogel remembered – buckwheat, buttermilk, blueberry – that seemed, soaked in syrup, almost unswallowably sweet.

Lost in his anger at perceived slights, stuck with people who don’t meet his needs, getting sore in body and mind, Fogel goes through the motions of doing some yard work (after being shamed into it by his wife).  Even digging in the leaves, though, he can’t escape his dissatisfaction –

One of his fantasies was a kind of ray gun that, directed at a plant or tree, would not only kill it, but vaporize it to a fine, fertilizing ash.  Agricultural labor, this endless plucking of weeds and replowing of fields, had always seemed to him the essence of futility.

After some yard work, it’s off to a neighborhood brunch which “was also pointless”.  (So why bother to review it.)

He comes home and wanders into the room of his son, who left for college ten years ago.

His mother liked to keep the room as he had left it, as some fanatical religious sects keep a room ready in case Jesus returns and asks to be a guest.

Fogel is weary from the labor, from the gin, tomato juice and champagne, and likely with his miserable post-middle age existence.  He lays down across the bed and falls asleep.   As he sleeps, he comes to life –

He dreamed in the deep colors of true weariness. Electricity wandered through his brain, activating one set of memory cells and now another.  A wash of buried emotion rounded these phantoms into light and shadow, and cried out tears and outcries of indignation from Fogel’s phantom self; he presided above the busy lit stage of his subconscious as prompter and playwright, audience and deus ex machine as well as hero.

Suddenly, Fogel wakes up full of fear, curls up in a fetal position and looks around him.

Everything was in its place, yet something was immensely missing.

On this Easter day, there is hope that Fogel will rise from his self-induced tomb of anger and regret and light up the stage with new life.

Or was it only a dream?

 

 

(image of John Updike from Kim Zoph in A Portrait of the Artist)

 

 

 

 

 

 

Aimless Longing in “The Other Place” by Margaret Atwood

Margaret Atwood - Moral Disorder and Other Stories

“The Other Place” (found in Moral Disorder and other stories) by Margaret Atwood is more of a character sketch than a sustained story.  It’s not great, but very good, and there is some wonderful writing in it.  Rather than a standard review, I would like to walk through the narrative and display some of the beautiful linguistic scenery along the way.

Told from the perspective of a young woman making her way alone in the world, Atwood describes her longing and sense of powerlessness –

For a long time I wandered aimlessly.  It felt like a long time.  It didn’t feel aimless, however, or not in any carefree way: I was being driven by necessity, by fate, like the characters in the more melodramatic novels I’d read in high school who would rush out into thunderstorms and lurk around on moors.  Like them I had to keep moving.  I couldn’t help it.

She was pressed to pursue… pursue what?  It’s not like she is on a mission.  At the same time, she is distanced from the life laid out for her, handed down through the generations, portrayed by her parents rushing about doing gardening and dishes at home.

They were immersed in mundane affairs, they were not contemplating any higher truths.  I’d feel superior to them.  Then I’d feel homesick.

“Meanwhile, I had to make a living,” she writes.  Fortunately, there were jobs to be found for women with her intellect.

I thought of myself as an itinerant brain– the equivalent of the strolling player of Elizabethan times, or else a troubadour, clutching my university degree like a cheap lute.

At the university gatherings, the male faculty saw her as free game for “trial gropings” while their wives looked on her “as if she had head lice.”  She stood alone, like the cheese in “Hi-ho, the derry-o“.  She fails to find liberation in the sexual revolution, too old for the “love beads and pothead crowd.”  Instead, she lives on the edge – in rooming houses, shared apartments and sublets – filling her space with “makeshift items from thrift stores”.

The objects I chose were designed to hold something, but I didn’t fill them.  They remained empty.  They were little symbolic shrines to thirst.

She manages to land a job teaching grammar to freshmen at a university in Vancouver.  She moves into an upstairs apartment.  She walks through the rooms naked and wears herself out reading late at night.  Sometimes she goes for walks.

A friend introduces her to Owen – a man more desperately alone than she is.  He drops by at night – not really courting her, not really befriending her, just sort of hanging out.

One night Owen tells her his brothers once tried to kill him by locking him in an abandoned refrigerator.  She wonders if this explains his desperate sadness.  Is he suicidal?

I felt I should respond in some empathetic way, declare a firm position, reach out a helping hand.  My eventual murmur of “That’s terrible.” didn’t seem nearly enough.  Worse: I had a shameful desire to laugh, because the thing was so grotesque, as near-tragedies often are.  Surely, I lacked empathy, or even simple kindness.

Owen must have felt so too, because after that evening he never came back.  Or possibly, he’d done what he’d wanted to do: dropped off his anguish, left it with me like a package in the mistaken belief that I would know what to do with it.

If you have a story you’d recommend I read and review, leave a comment or e-mail me: johnprine1982@gmail.com

image above  Sara Benitez in Books Worth Reading

To Thine Own Self Be True: “Dimensions” by Alice Munro

Too Much Happiness - Alice Munro

As I go about writing “Life”, I’ve decided to engage in a reading discipline as well.  Taking a page from Julie Israel’s blog, The Read Room, I will be reading some of the best short stories I can get my hands on and reflecting on them here.  Julie was able to complete 31 in 31 straight days.  My goal is 25.

Today’s story:

“Dimensions” by Alice Munro from Too Much Happiness

Synopsis:

The story opens with Doree (who now goes by Fleur), a spiked-haired chambermaid from Blue Spruce Inn taking 3 buses to an unnamed ‘facility”.  She is jittery and tries to settle her nerves by picking words out of signs (from “coffee” – “fee”, “foe”, “off”, “of”).

The narration hops back 7 years, to when Doree was 16 and she met Lloyd while visiting her mother in the hospital.  Both Lloyd and Doree’s mother were “old hippies” and they reminisced about “the outrageous people they had known, drug trips that had knocked them out, that sort of thing.” Doree’s mother dies of a embolism and she moves in with Lloyd.  Before her 17th birthday, she gets pregnant.  They move to the country and Sasha is born.

Back to the present, we meet Mrs. Sands who is anything but an old hippie.  Monro masterfully describes Mrs. Sands’ attire –

“Her large, kind, impersonal sobriety drained all assaulting cheerfulness, all insult out of those clothes.” 

Mrs. Sands and Doree have a conversation about Doree’s visits with Lloyd – his appearance, his manner.

Munro moves back to the family narrative.  When Sasha is 1 1/2, Barbara Ann is born.  When Barbara Ann is two, Dimitri comes along.  Dimitri is colicky and the La Leche lady encourages her to continue breastfeeding, not to supplement.  Doree has already started supplementing, but she doesn’t tell Lloyd.  She tells him her milk is dried up.  Lloyd

“…squeezed one breast after another with frantic determination and succeeded in getting a couple of drops of miserable-looking milk out.” 

He calls her a liar, and a whore like her mother.

As the story enfolds, the tension between Lloyd and Doree escalates.  He calls her friend Maggie,  “Lezzie” and demands to know what they talk about.  He tries to convince Doree that Maggie is trying to separate them.

“She’ll get you over there bawling and whining about what a bastard I am.  One of these days.”

Lloyd’s words, as paranoid as they are prove prophetic as Doree does leave for Maggie’s late one night when she is unable to “scare him out of his craziness”.  This sets the stage for the climax of the story which is both quite believable and haunting in its stark detail.

One Great Line:

“She was even allowed to laugh with him, as long as she wasn’t the one who started the laughing.”

A Spiritual Reflection:  (from Lloyd’s letter)

“What I know in myself is my own Evil.  That is the secret of my comfort.  I mean I know my Worst.  It may be worse than other people’s worst but in fact, I do not have to think or worry about that.  No excuses.  I am at peace.”

[Note:  If you have a short story to recommend that I read and review over the next month, I would appreciate you leaving word in the comments.]

image above JY Besle in Worlds Within Words { meanders and intricacies of my essential Sadness }