Archive for August, 2014

I’ve been sitting on this post for a couple of days now. I always know I need to write when something niggles at me, nudges me to speak out. Goodness knows that there has been more than enough written about the death of actor and comedian Robin Williams this week. Some of it seems written in tribute to his body of work, which is fair and just. Much of it speaks to how we deal with depression and mental illness as a society. What has struck me most, though, is the multitude of voices that seem to speak of mental illness, depression, and suicide as a “choice” that is “selfish” and even more about a person’s “need to escape.” I find all of this reprehensible.

I’m not a therapist or psychiatrist. I don’t pretend to know the clinical terms. I do, though, deal with depression on a day-to-day basis. It’s a black dog that I know all too well. It’s forced me, at times, to take medical leaves from my work as a teacher. It’s broken me, baptized me in new ways, and made me, somehow, more thankful for the small moments of grace in my world and life. It is, though, nothing to make light of in conversation or writing. It is a torture. It is a trial. Often, it is about clinging on to small moments of grace so that you don’t feel you’re going over a virtual edge.

All of this social media buzz, about how some people say that Robin Williams made a “choice,” makes me feel angry and ill inside. If people knew the depth of depression, of that void of emotion, they would not make these generalized, whitewashed assumptions. When you’re in such a dark space, as I have been in my life, you know that it becomes so dark, so devoid of light, that you cannot imagine there being a place in space where you will feel even content or peaceful again. There is no emotion there, not even the supposed sadness that people speak of so casually. The mental anguish is intense. It offers no respite, when you are at your worst with a disease that does not give you a moment’s rest. Sleep is disturbed, which often means that you aren’t thinking clearly. Most likely, you already aren’t thinking clearly, which is why you can’t sleep. Thoughts are repetitive, your own self-talk intensifies and becomes very negative. You pull into a hermit-shell, avoiding friends, losing friends, unable to stand being around large groups of people. You isolate yourself because you cannot handle anything else. In fact, anything else, outside your small space of home, takes too much energy. Those who battle with severe depression or other forms of mental illness often use every little bit of energy pretending to be okay. Being with others drains you. Pushing energy outwards, to look as if you’re okay in public, ultimately means that you end up making yourself worse at home, where you are truly alone. It’s a vicious cycle.

And here’s the kicker. It doesn’t go away. Whether on medication or not, in therapy or not, it haunts you, in true black dog fashion. I’ve had three major episodes in my life thus far, that I’m aware of, but I know the warning signs of when I’m at risk of encountering a new wave. It’s then that I have to do the most work, being more and more mindful of my every thought and action, questioning my motives and mind, wondering if my brain will do a two-step on me and crush me with heavy boots. Even when you’re out of the dark shadow of depression, it still lingers, so that you are constantly monitoring your own mental health. It is, to be frank, absolutely exhausting.

There is, always, the link between creativity and mental illness. It’s unavoidable. At a recent writing retreat, I had a brief conversation with a couple of other writers regarding the connection. We all found some truth in that premise. When you are creative or artistic, you see the world in a different way. For a poet or writer, the world seems ripe for the taking, images and characters painted in your mind transport themselves to page in ways that even you can’t explain, as a writer. In fact, one of the other conversations I had at Sage Hill revolved around the notion that if writers were to think too much about the creative process, too often, it would drive them a bit around the bend. We recognize, I think, that the act of writing is a gift, but also a craft and art. You may not know how you get these ideas in your head, but you know that it takes a lot of time shaping them into something worthy of sharing with others. Besides all of that, though, writing, as a creative act, requires you to spend a great deal of time on your own. Friends of writers must know that we are not always the most consistent of friends. It is not because we don’t love our friends and family, but because our heads are almost too busy inside themselves. Maybe this is why creative types are more apt to deal with mental illness. Again, the academic literature is out there, and I know there is great debate among creative types, but this is sort of how I view it all. I personally don’t create well when I’m dealing with an episode of depression. It usually shuts my creative side down, so I don’t subscribe to the “I’ll be a better writer and creator if have to struggle and suffer” school of thought. It’s too simplistic. It’s also too damning. Found this little interview online, and it speaks to the complexity of the relationship. Interesting to consider, if nothing else.

My dance with depression is sometimes elegant and balanced, but at others, when things get too intense, it looks like a mad tango with the devil. No one in their right mind wants that.

So, when people write that Robin Williams “chose” to do something “selfish,” to “escape” and “unburden his family” of his pain, I shake my head and get very, very angry. Of course that is how some must view it, but restating such nonsense only serves to reinforce the stigma that mental illness arrives with in our lives and in our society. I don’t think I’ve ever written more honestly about my struggle before, on my blog. I may have alluded to it in small ways in previous posts, but I feel it’s crucial that we speak up and out, to banish that stigma that — at times — seems even more dangerous than the very black dog that torments us. I had thought that Clara Hughes and her cross-country tour of Canada this year would have helped to decrease stigma, but from what I read online, I’m not so sure anymore.

I am saddened that mental illness and severe depression has taken another victim. He walked in darkness, tried to fight the black dog, but left us with a legacy of light and joy. If anything this week, I wish all of my fellow friends, seekers, and creators, those who are walking within the shadow of the ancient black dog….I wish you peace and contentment, at the very least.


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My friend, Brian Vendramin, started an amazing blog in July. He spent the month speaking about his 30 Days of Vulnerability. Then, to usher in August and the fall, he envisioned a blog where guest bloggers could each post reflections on what positivity means to them. So, at his invitation, I wrote a piece to submit to his blog. I’m re-posting it here, with a request that you consider visiting his amazing blog, 100 Days of Positivity, which you can read at http://brianvendramin.wordpress.com/

It’s refreshing to find someone who shares his views on his blog, his journey, and then opens the blog to other guest bloggers. It’s also refreshing and inspiring to read of others’ struggles, trials and tribulations. If we only connected to one another more often, perhaps the world would be a better place. (I know…idealistic poet-girl speaking…)

Here’s my guest post:

Positivity, for me, is about connecting to the place where hope lives. I’m an English teacher by day, but my soul’s work is to write creatively, so I’m continually feeling torn by the routines of a daily work life and that rich internal space where I can create with words. I’m Sagittarian, so this tension between this world and another, isn’t altogether surprising to me.

I’ve been through many dark spaces in my life. I’ve taken care of my ailing parents, and then watched them die within a health care system that frustrates me to no end. I’ve dealt with major depression, and then have supposedly slain those dragons only to find they’ve repeatedly resurrected themselves without warning. From that struggle, from all of that pain, I’ve learned that there is great beauty in what seems to be the ‘ordinary’ rhythms of the world. I now know that, to see and appreciate light, you need to be okay with being in the dark for a while. It’s not pleasant, but it’s a soul teacher. (I’m fond of Leonard Cohen’s piece, “Anthem,” which says, profoundly: “There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.” Yup. That’s why he’s a poetic genius and truth teller!)

What has lifted me up, above all else, is my love of poetry. I read it, write it, speak it, and breathe it in each and every day. For me, poetry is a form of prayer. The words come from beyond my physical form, but I help to shape them. That act of creation, of crafting art, is both empowering and uplifting. So, when my days and nights are darkest, I find comfort in the way words nest on a page. My purpose, I believe, is to write, to share those ideas and images, to lift other spirits who may have their own dragons to slay.

Spending time at the Sage Hill Writing Experience this past July, in Lumsden, Saskatchewan, had me in the company of forty other writers and poets. It was, in every possible way, a place in space where I felt such great gratitude. Somehow, the universe knew I was yearning for creative community and friendship. Whether I was talking about poetic forms, viewing a Mary Pratt exhibit at the art gallery, or drinking too much wine with other writers in a room overlooking the beauty of the Qu’Appelle Valley during a fierce rain storm, I felt at home within myself.

My advice, in terms of finding positivity and gratitude, is to open your eyes wide and see the world in new ways. Too often, we rush ahead–paying bills, checking email, and attending meetings–when all we really need to do, in the very simplest of ways, is to sit quietly and be thankful for the small moments that populate our days and nights. Then, I think, positivity will bloom.

Positivity = poetry = prayer = peace.


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This title is meant to be quirky, not morbid, just so you know….

I’m down here in St. Jacob’s/Waterloo, on the way to see two Shakespeare plays in Stratford tomorrow. Just a weekend whirl and then back to writing poetry and maybe a short story or two during the two weeks before I return to work in the last week of August. It truly has been a summer of writing, ideas, meeting stimulating new people of creative ilk, and a widening imagination, so for that I’m most grateful. (I’m also extremely grateful for two of the best house/dog sitters in Sudbury—Karen and Annette. Without them, I’d be a bit limited in terms of travel. Luckily for me, my two shih tzus are well-behaved and quite cuddly!)

So…a few things have crossed my mind this week….on we go!

First up….A few people close to me, when I told them I was coming to Stratford, were a bit surprised when I said I was going to be on my own. They seemed slightly shocked. The thing is, though, when you’re single, I think it’s important that you live your life to its fullest. I don’t see being single as an impediment to taking part in the world. Instead, it’s kind of more and more empowering each day, as I get older. I often think of Tanya Davis and her “How to be Alone,” which I show to my English students at school each and every year. You can listen to it here.

The girls balk at me, saying that I go to movies on my own, or have supper out by myself occasionally. They don’t get it. They think I’m something like a social anomaly, and it makes me laugh. I used to think, too, that people needed to do things in groups, but then I went a bit bonkers with my own life….If I didn’t go out to things on my own, whether poetry readings, or plays, or choral concerts, or art galleries, or crazy day road trips with me singing to extremely loud music, well, I think it’d be a sad life, indeed. (My mother, though, would have fits, thinking that I’ve been driving around, or flying around, like a bit of a renegade poet. I personally think it’s about time this poet got a bit more renegade! 🙂

. . .”and a two,” as Lawrence Welk would say….Driving down this way, coming through Cookstown, Alliston, Shelburne, and down into Mennonite country–more specifically through Arthur, Alma, and Elmira–has brought up fond memories of my dad today. Last time I was down here was in 2009, before he fell and was paralyzed, and he and I were on our way to London, to settle my great-aunt’s estate after her death. We came ‘the back way,’ as Dad said. It never fails to amaze me how beautiful the back roads of Ontario are, especially when the corn is up.

I am both blessed and cursed with a sort of photographic memory, so driving down here today was bittersweet. I can remember snatches of conversations I had with Dad from that trip back in early summer of 2009, based on driving through certain towns or areas. He always had the greatest respect for those who farm the land. His grandparents were farmers, so he spent time on farms around both Park Hill and Exeter, where the Fahner clan settled when they first moved over from Germany such a long time ago. He loved the Mennonites, regaling me of stories of how well they kept their farms, and how hard they worked, all the while having a deep faith in God. Dad was hardly a holy roller, but after my mum died, and nearer to the end of his life, he became a Little Buddha sort of figure to me and we had grand conversations about life, love, and death. He also taught me so much about the value of good, hard work, and about the ability to make the world a better place through volunteerism.

Driving through St. Jacob’s this afternoon made me sad. I remember the two of us trying to find a parking space, wandering into the various artists’ shops, and him having schnitzel at the local German restaurant. He was such a vast spirit, although I’m sure not everyone knew he had that rich, interior life. I miss him a lot. Tomorrow, on the way to Stratford, I’ll drive through Crosshill, Shakespeare, and alongside the bendy Nith River, where he and I often drove, and his memory will guide me. Today, seeing the Mennonite girls in their long skirts, dotting the fields and picking flowers (oversized gladiola blooms) to sell at the end of their lanes, or baskets of green beans at roadside stands, reminded me of driving with Dad, who always wanted to buy fresh vegetables to bring north.

…thirdly….well, I’ve been blessed to have reconnected with some old friends from my days on the Sudbury LEAF Person’s Day Breakfast committee. We worked together for about five years in the late 1990s. Being back together with Tannys, Joanne, and Christine for our monthly dinner and gab sessions has made me remember and rekindle those close friendships. I’m so grateful that we’re coming together again, and that time’s passage really hasn’t altered the friendships at all. It amazes me, this kindred spirit stuff…how it goes on through time and doesn’t really ever disappear…

…and, finally, I guess…for now!…I’m thinking longingly of the poets and writers I met at Sage Hill three weeks ago…and how they have wound themselves into my heart-space in surprising ways. I guess, when you meet kindred spirits, there will always be a place for them in your mind and heart. They helped me realize, too, that I am a poet and writer, even when I don’t so much feel like one, or when I doubt my own ability. It was nice to be with people who accepted me for who I am, and not for who I’ve become, or for what I’ve lost. That was a relief. As well, being with them made me energized, fired up to write more and more, to give myself more time and space to honour that creative part of myself. I also learned that I do love the prairies in ways that I couldn’t imagine until I stood on a road in the middle of a field and heard the voice of the wind.

The universe, as always, continues to surprise me. . .in the most miraculous of ways…

(and, as I proofread this entry, well, it seems to be the entry of the ellipsis, and for that I apologize, but I’ve had a glass of wine and an excellent spinach and quinoa salad for supper, so I forgive myself. 🙂


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