Just be curious. That has long been my mantra as a writer. Its corollary is don’t come to snap conclusions or quick judgments about people or characters, lives or plots. Along similar lines, Mary Ruefle reports that Galway Kinnell has said “the secret title of every good poem might be ‘Tenderness.’ I bring up Mary Ruefle because she provided no bibliographic trail back to Kinnell, so I couldn’t go to the source for some context to this rather sweeping statement. If Kinnell is referring to the subject-matter of a poem, it constrains poetry mightily. It seems to preclude literature of anger or protest or trauma, which we are of necessity writing and reading in an era of Trump, populism, #Me Too, and Idle No More, and in a time when Reconciliation is moving very slowly—except to some extent in literature where important voices are being heard and respected and important stories are being told. But if you think of tenderness as a kind of patient attention that keeps oneself out of the equation, you begin to see the point of Kinnell’s suggestion. When literature intersects with mental and physical health, writers need all the curiosity and tenderness we can muster, because we are dealing with humanity at its most vulnerable.
I inherited my mother’s diaries and slips of paper and cardboard that were drifting around her house when she broke her hip, which was—as it is for many older people—the beginning of a long descent. She began half a dozen notebooks with two recurring plaints: how does she live with a husband who struggles increasingly with dementia, but who still believes he should control their lives, and how does she cope with her own periods of depression—some of them caused by her relationship with my father, others for which we will never know the cause—ill-informed as we really are about the brain. Then there was the puzzling effluvia, like a scrap of paper with "Bill Schneider looks like my dad" or a piece of card board from a package of panty hose with the ill-spelled words, all of them with extra Gs: “My leggs hurt so. Meggan is here.” This was written after she broke her hip but before my sister rescued her. She must have believed that if no one would rescue her they would come for the dog.
Prompted by a visit to her immediately following the broken hip, I wrote a poem I called “Traces” that uses as many of her own words as I could. I took this to my wonderful poetry group, and I blame Dr. Grande for asking with Troni-like enthusiasm “Do you have more things like this?” I had been collecting my mother’s favourite phrases, like “Are you ready, Hezzie?” or “with studied carelessness,” since her death, because I could somehow find another side to her in her own words. I had also saved the letters she sent to me and to Veronica, my daughter, letters which are cheerful and even zany. And I had, of course, those diaries and fragments. On my drive home that night, the words “an Abecedarius” bubbled up through my unconscious where consciousness immediately took charge because it could see how attempting to find memories, diary entries, favourite expressions for every letter of the alphabet forced me to move beyond my recent vision of her as someone who struggled with depression and dementia, to see and even restore the more complex person.
So, two long very confessional paragraphs later, I can come to one conclusion about literature and health. Form matters—for both writers and readers. Form always conveys an author’s world view—consciously or unconsciously. Thinking about form in tandem with thinking about people struggling with their health gives the author a kind of additional meta layer that can speak of something more complex, more philosophical, than the immediate vagaries of body and mind. And while those emotional narratives of ill-health and struggle preoccupy readers at an almost visceral level, this other layer might provide a vision of meaning or meaninglessness, courage or cowardice, complexity and patience and fear and serenity in the face of the fragile mind’s and body’s insistent struggles and demands.
For the letter V, I have used "vacuum" as a word or trope that threads together three elements of my mother’s life: housework, depression, and the skill and thrift and delight with which she managed family vacations. Here is the second stanza, the one related to her mental health.
Also the space behind
her diaphragm where instead
of breath there is sometimes
a ragged baffling vacuum
larger than anger
longer than the decade
of her Valium hallucination
of a single chair in a blank room.
Or the hollow
behind the white
harlequin mask she wears,
the same shape
as her black cat’s eye glasses
Some days the mask
Now, I’ve lied here, but you wouldn’t know that. My mother never took Valium, though she did get some half-assed advice from our family doctor about getting out more often—advice that didn’t take into account my mother’s extreme social anxiety. But one of the things we do when we write about mental and physical health is to bear witness to body and mind in extremis. Millions of women did take Valium, “mother’s little helper” as the Rolling Stones called it, as they struggled to make meaningful and autonomous lives for themselves after the Second World War. During the war, many of them had worked; now they were told to go home and be good consumers to stimulate the economy. Is it any wonder that both Britain and North America had a mental health crisis on their hands? So bearing witness to a larger experience seemed more important than telling the truth.
Yet tenderness was also necessary for that second stanza. Bearing witness to my mother’s depression, which she frequently talked with me about, meant making that state of mind as visceral as any other illness. Patient attention demanded my handling of both historical and social context and the body and mind under duress--as well as her personal struggle. Here I find the Valium and the cat’s eye glasses. Here I give voice, through metaphor, to the “ragged baffling vacuum larger than anger and longer than [a] decade” that is one of the physical manifestations of depression. It was not a comfortable tenderness; I did not enjoy spending time inside my mother’s (and, truth be told, my own) depression to struggle to bring it to the page. But that is part of bearing witness.
While we are bearing witness to breakdowns of mental and physical health, it behooves writers to acknowledge what we do not know, places our bodies and minds have not gone. After all, admitting you don’t know something—or doubt—is an agent of Enlightenment, a necessary antidote to careless assumptions, dogmatism, or extremism, all of which are the opposite of either curiosity or tenderness. Once again, my mother talked to me about losing words and things, but it was mostly through talking to her—or in one case not talking to her because she had put the phone’s earpiece to her mouth, and so couldn’t hear me—that I inferred we had moved beyond those weeks when not remembering—again—where her false teeth were was a joke. The gaps in her memory had become much more terrifying, isolating, threatening, forcing me to acknowledge that she had gone somewhere I could not navigate. Hence the final stanzas of “Dementia” read
No one ever returns
breaks the wax seal on the report
complete with maps and timetables
as if this were an escape route
a diversion from ache and loneliness
or the minotaur’s labyrinth.
There is no string long enough
There is an ethics to this. There are whole universes that the writer can imagine. Writers can use shards of their experience to conjure up whole inner human worlds. But there are some places we cannot and should not go. We have seen this debated in Canada around the issue of settler writers appropriating the voices of indigenous people. A similar injunction might be considered around the issue of appropriating the experience of those whose mental illness is beyond our ken or whose physical suffering we cannot imagine. Pretending to the reader that we know what we cannot know inevitably minimizes the particular experience of those who struggle with mental or physical illness.