Guest Post, Kate Fetherston: Finding the Gorge

Picture of Kate Fetherston

A passage in Dylan Thomas’ A Child’s Christmas in Wales has been rattling around in my brain this past month.  The house next door  (“at the bottom of the garden”) catches fire, and the bored children joyously race into the smoke armed with snowballs until the fire brigade shows up to put the fire out.

“And when the firemen turned off the hose and were standing in the wet, smoky room, Jim’s aunt, Miss Prothero, came downstairs and peered in at them. Jim and I waited, very quietly, to hear what she would say to them.  She said the right thing, always. She looked at the three tall fireman in their shining helmets, standing among the smoke and cinders and dissolving snowballs, and she said, ‘Would you like anything to read?’”

Miss Prothero, blinking through the noise and mess, offered to make order of the crazy world.  And it’s funny because human beings are absurd.  But aren’t readers and writers order-makers of this ridiculous, unfathomable world?

November 9th dawned bitter cold here in Central Vermont’s stick season: a world of bare black-limbed trees, smoke gray skies, stubble fields. I walked downtown to have breakfast with a friend through streets the quiet of deep mourning. The restaurant was closed; my friend told me later the owner couldn’t open because her kitchen staff is all from other countries, and they were too panicked to work. She’d spent the day with them, listening, promising advocacy, reassuring.

I spent the rest of the day wrapping my trees and bushes for winter. Pounding garden staples into already hardened ground, a leaden sky reminded me that bad things happen all of the time.  People get shot, people have been hung, people are herded into camps or prison under bright skies, under gray, on sweet spring days, and in blinding winter storms.  Bad things happen and then the sun rips a hole in the clouds, as it did that afternoon.  A fat blue hole rimmed with brilliant cloud. My fingers were frozen by that time, I’d used up all the staples and burlap, and had nothing left I could do to protect my tender garden.  So, I leaned on a dirty shovel and watched the sky for awhile. I didn’t forget the election results, but for a moment, I forget my anger and my dread. Bad things happen and then something good happens and gives the courage to go on.

In college, I took logic, hoping, wrongly as it turned out, that it would meet the math requirement. Professor MacEwan made it abundantly clear we were lucky to be in his class and, if we got something out of it, that was on us.  A dried up Scot who favored tweed sports jackets and starched shirts through all weather, he spent several weeks forcibly dragging us through syllogisms:  “If P, then Q. . . and therefore . . .”  He wrote each equation on the blackboard in squeaky chalk while we mostly lolled in our seats, drinking coffee or sleeping, this being well before the age of devices.

But, one day, he lit up like a prizefighter, and all but shouted at us, “I want someone to prove to me there is water in the gorge.”  What gorge?  What was he talking about?  But suddenly, several of the lumpy guys who’d been slouching in their seats like corpses all semester, removed a couple of layers of sweatshirts and actually spoke, “There’s no water in the gorge!” cried one of the lumps, lifting a fist heavenward.  Another lump shouted back, “I say there is!”  And, with that, the fight was on.  As the only woman in the class, I picked my battles in that male dominated world.  This, I decided, was not my fight. I sat back, sipped my bad coffee, and watched the melee unfold.

The guys took sides and took them seriously.  T-shirts cropped up all over campus emblazoned with either “There is no water in the gorge,” or “There is water in the gorge.” In class, Professor MacEwan, smiling his thin smile, whipped the arguments on each side into lathers of frenzied belief that teetered on rickety architectures of proof. Winter ebbed into spring and still there was no conclusion.  When May came, we got our grades, and the arguments dissipated into the Sacramento heat, unresolved, irresolvable.

This fall, during and after the election, I thought back to that class, wondering about the problem of debating something largely imaginary. Of course, most of what we believe is based more on emotional logic than anything else.  And that, perhaps, was Professor MacEwan’s point.  At our core, the philosopher Iris Murdock wrote, “human beings are anxious, squirrelly creatures.”  We’re a bundle of need with an ability to make swords out of what we pay attention to. The confluence of attention and desire creates the aperture for belief. And then we go about hurting each other with those swords made of words.

So what about the job of writers? Advocacy, a call I do embrace, is more than merely taking sides. Our charge, I think, is to speak about the world and our experience of it, at a deeper level of truth-telling. As our country, so torn right now by warring beliefs, struggles to make sense of, or find hope in, the results of this most contentious political year, where is our common humanity?

As a young person, I dreamed of that common language Adrienne Rich spoke of as something that might heal the world.  I dreamed it could heal me.  I dreamed, just as Professor MacEwan posited that gorge, because I needed to.  I needed to imagine that, through evil, through grief, there is a ground of meaning. That the cracks, as Leonard Cohen wrote, let in the light.

Whatever the common language is, art is its voice. And it’s not about being saved or cheered up or things working out.  If there is a gorge, sometimes there is water, and sometimes not. If we are all human beings, we need each other and we need art.  Barry Lopez wrote, “sometimes we need a story, more than food and drink, to stay alive.”  (from Crow and Weasel.)  The story I want to tell invites the imperfect, the vulnerable, the tender, and the absurd.

For that reason, of Thomas’ unforgettably quirky characters, I think I would choose to be Aunt Hannah who shows up at the end of A Child’s Christmas, and who “got on to the parsnip wine and sang a song about Bleeding Hearts and Death, and then another in which she said her heart was like a Bird’s Nest; and then everybody laughed again.”  And then the author goes to bed.

We do the best we can to speak from our hearts and hope we’re received without acrimony, with some measure of forbearance, or kindness, or even love.  So, let’s you and I read and read, and write and write.  You let me know when you’re ready to speak. I’m listening.

Guest Post, Beth Gilstrap: On Depression, Vulnerability, Risk, and Writing

I know my depression may kill me one day, but today is not that day.

I write this with the full weight of it causing my shoulders to spasm. I don’t write this as a threat or a way to evoke fear or pity. I write it as a statistical fact based on my diagnoses: major depression, anxiety & panic disorder, and obsessive-compulsive disorder (including body dysmorphia). I have been in treatment for twenty-two years, but my troubles started long before I ever stepped foot in a therapist’s office. I used to ask myself in the vein of Nick Hornby’s protagonist from High Fidelity, “What came first—the writing or the misery?”

The truth is I’m not sure. Even before I could write, I made up stories to escape the trauma of my surroundings. Many of my earliest memories are violent and lonely. The rest are soft, sweet, and full of the joy of storytelling in the varied timbres of my brother, Mama, Grandma, and Grandpa seeping past and through our always-rocky financial situation and the great, gnarled yarn of mental illness among us. No one had to tell me we told ourselves stories in order to live. We all made something. Grandpa with his carvings. Grandma with her sewing, etc.

I know one of the reasons I’m alive today is because I write. As an adult trying to eke out a career in a creative field, I’ve devoted a lot of time to reading about the link between creativity (writers in particular) and depression. When I learned of Ned Vizzini’s suicide last year, (author of: Teen Angst? Naaah…, Be More Chill, It’s Kind of a Funny Story, The Other Normals, and House of Secrets) I found myself crying for him and crying for myself. I did the same thing for Robin Williams. As I did for all three of my friends who killed themselves over the years. As I’ve done for the ones who overdosed. As I will do over and over.

Sometimes, my outcome seems inevitable, but I write to combat that feeling.

Inevitable can get bent.

Like Dylan Thomas implores, I will rage against it. I urge other creatives out there (and everyone else fighting this terrible disease) to rage with me. Rage against it by making things. Do what you do and do it to survive. Rage against stigma. Rage against shame. Share.

The Atlantic devoted a large chunk of their July/August Ideas Issue to the neuroscience of creativity. Dr. Nancy C. Andreason researches the link between creatives (including writers, visual & performing artists, and scientists) and mental illness. I think most of us are aware of the famous (and too often romanticized) suicides, but I’m also interested in those who have or did manage to cope, succeed in their fields, and somehow, survive their mental illness. Andreason reports:

“One after another, my writer subjects came to my office and spent three or four hours pouring out their stories of their struggles with mood disorder –mostly depression, but occasionally, bipolar disorder. A full 80 percent of them had some kind of mood disturbance at some time in their lives, compared with just 30 percent of the control group…” (68).

Andreason’s work shows there’s not necessarily a correlation between high IQ and creative genius, but more of a similarity in personalities. Creatives tend to persevere. Creatives are better at forming associations. They tend to be “adventuresome and exploratory.” Creativity tends to run in families alongside mental illness. The part I want to keep in my pocket for later use is her claim about creatives being risk takers:

“They have to confront doubt and rejection. And yet they have to persist in spite of that, because they believe strongly in the value of what they do. This can lead to psychic pain, which may manifest itself as depression or anxiety, or lead people to attempt to reduce their discomfort by turning to pain relievers such as alcohol.”

I am not the only creative in my family and brother, you have no idea how deep the mental illness and addiction goes in our clan. I come from a proper, southern, religious, sweep-that-mess-back-under-the-rug-where-it-belongs (try not to snicker at the contrast) family. Don’t dare talk about your problems. Poor Mama. She wound up with a writer and a musician for children.

You may wonder what all this has to do with you and your writing or art (whatever form that takes), whether you struggle with depression or not.

It has nothing and everything to do with your creative work. For some of us, it is survival. It’s about anchoring ourselves to the few things we can rely on when, for great swathes of our lives, we cannot rely on ourselves. My anchors are the act of writing, my husband, and my animals.

If you are like the 80 percent Andreason talks about, you get it. I hope you’ll join and rage with me. If you are one of the fortunate few writers (& artists) who do not struggle with depression, it is no matter. Ponder these ideas when it comes to what you create and how you interact with the rest of us sad sacks. It’s not something we can shake off nor should it be for your characters. I recommend Charles Baxter’s craft essay, “Regarding Happiness,” (from Burning Down the House) in which he argues against “happiness” as sustainable in any narrative form. Baxter claims:

“I’d argue that in 80 percent of all narratives, the young couple and their happiness are not the story; the story resides in the unhappy onlooker –Satan, watching Adam and Eve; Claggert, staring at Billy Budd; Iago, looking at Othello and Desdemona…” (208-9).

What I find most interesting is how much Baxter’s essay reminds me of a discussion with my therapist about the meaning of the word “happiness” –its mythic, unattainable stature, and how what we should really strive for are moments of joy and self-care. I have major depression. It’s the one thing I write about that causes so much discomfort and unease. I lose more followers when I’m open about my depression than anything else I post about (even the constant stream of cat and dog photos). I struggled with whether or not to write about depression. I wanted to write something safer, but I chose the topic that made me most vulnerable. Most times if you are working hard to avoid writing something, that’s the very thing that begs to be written. Walk right into the dark, bubbling middle of that thing. Stare it in the eye. Writing without vulnerability is worthless.

I know my depression may kill me one day, but today is not that day.

Today I write.

Today I rage.

Today I anchor myself to you.

For further reading about the neuroscience of creativity: http://www.theatlantic.com/features/archive/2014/06/secrets-of-the-creative-brain/372299/

Guest Post, Meg Tuite: Christmas Twinkies

Meg TuiteChristmas was filled with a different light that didn’t filter through the rest of the year, sent electric shivers through the complacent houses up and down the block. Anything was possible. We made the pilgrimage to pick out the exquisite tree as soon as December hit. My siblings and I argued over which tree was the tree until Dad said ‘This is it.’ Then the guy who worked there, cut off the bottom while Mom collected boughs to place on the mantel and around a candle on the dining room table. The tree was strapped to the top of the station wagon and everyone was smiling, even Dad. We spent that night decorating, with Mom leading the way. The pulsating large, multi-colored lights blasted around the picture window and the tree until nothing was stagnant in our house. Our faces flickered on and off in flaming reds, blues, greens and yellows. Mom was somebody else during the holidays, a treasure chest filled with some kind of happiness and brilliance that blazed out of her being. She would put on the Dylan Thomas scratchy album “A Child’s Christmas in Wales,” and we’d all hover close by with the throbbing neon bulbs illuminating our faces as we listened to that lilting waver of a voice that sounded like crashing waves against rocks from a distant planet.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QjCJd9Bc-qA

Our neighbors and my older brother and sister went to the midnight mass, smoked cigarettes and drank whatever they could steal from their parent’s stash that night, while the rest of us sat in the living room, stared into a space that believed everything could change like the glistening snow and the charged air and rainbows that rearranged the tragic misery of that room. Mom chugged her glass of wine and laughed, sat back in her recliner as the deceptive varnish of fresh snow and glittering lights through the night air wedded all of us to a holiday season packed with expectation.

The brutal realm of day-to-day existence had multitudes dissociated, walking back and forth through malls with bags full of ridiculous crap they would never think of buying at any other time of year, unless they were under the gun, which ‘twas the season. Thank god for wrapping paper. Even a package of Hanes underwear looked much better in a box under a bow.

It was a state of siege that had me engulfed in that anticipatory surge of life that came with sledding, snowball fights, transient lights and music. Tearing open presents always rocked more than what was beneath the ribbon and paper. It was this belief that inside one of those presents was the promise of another life. The reality was that a week later, snow was gray and yellow, gifts were forgotten, and parents, school, neighborhood and myself were still there.

And so what about the special delectables? I’d always assumed Christmas snacks would come through with what they promised and why wouldn’t I? They had never let me down. Yes, I sat in the lunchroom when I was eight, psyched that instead of a few Fig Newtons glued to each other, my mom had packed an exquisite Twinkie for the holiday. Now that was golden!  The outside was peachy and euphoric in the phallic shape of dessert ecstasy, but when I took that first bite of a third of the submarine, I realized something was wrong. It was grainy like when you get smacked by a wave in the lake and come up with sand in your mouth. The thing about a Twinkie was that when you bit into it your eyes close automatically. It was only for one sense to absorb. The sad part was that when I opened my eyes to look at the two-thirds left of my spongy delicacy, I was face to face with the color green puffing out of the center. Not a pastel green or an olive green, but the Christmas evergreen that had no pretense of hiding its ornamental beauty from anyone. I was positive I turned a green that gave away the Irish half-breed of me as I imagined what the rest of the tasty treat was doing now to my stomach and my brain. I was sweating and nauseated when Maggie Felsteder asked if she could finish the remnants of the Twinkie I was stuffing into my brown paper bag. I never liked Felsteder. I started to feel a little bit better at that point. Yeah, sure, I said, as I launched the torpedo at her from the unbitten end.  Merry Christmas.