Sunday, November 17, 2013


I don't know about you, but inside the contradictory complexity that is me, I have one simple mechanism.  Perhaps it's too simple.  It's a switch that has two positions, like "on" and "off," except my switch is marked with the words "I can do this!" and (written in a kind of groan or sigh) "I can't do this."  Thursday, I woke up with the switch clearly in the "I can't do this" position.  First, I couldn't wake up.  I had put in a very long day on Wednesday, marking and reading a complicated essay on "The New Formalism" until well after my bedtime.  So neither my body nor my mind was interested in waking up.  The seductive smell of coffee was no help.  Then when my car slid out back lane right into the street, my inner voice groaned some more.  The season of falls has begun.  I can drive in this weather; I can't seem to learn to walk in it.  I felt instantly vulnerable:  in previous winters, I've broken an ankle and a hand.  After I fractured my hand (quite neatly, apparently; by the time I was convinced I had done something horrible and got x-rays, they couldn't tell whether they were seeing an old fracture or a new one), I became much more careful, but took two tumbles last spring when I stepped into puddles that had ice in the bottom.  

The mood continued throughout the day, getting noisier just before each of my classes.  Intriguingly, once each class got under way, something curious happened.  First, I was no longer aware of that vulnerable, bone-tired feeling.  Second, I had wonderful classes.  I don't know whether my students collectively realized that I wasn't quite myself, and so decided to pitch in to make my day easier, or whether a less intense persona gave them permission to participate.  In my "Reading Fiction" class, we had reached the chapter of Carol Shields' novel The Stone Diaries called "Work," which consists of other people's letters to Daisy Flett.  A couple of weeks ago, the morale of this class seemed to be struggling; they had reported that their professors are "cranky," so I'd given them some creative assignments for their essay, one of which was to write Daisy's half of the correspondence for some of the letters.  So perhaps their creative engagement in the text did make them more attentive to the novel, and this was reflected in the spirited, insightful discussion.  "What a thing to learn in your last year of teaching!" moaned my vulnerable I-can't-do-this voice. 

When we turned to the next chapter, "Sorrow," I found myself explaining how people who are depressed often do not completely understand their frame of mind, so perhaps for Daisy Flett to imagine how other people saw her experience gave her more insight than she would have had simply ruminating over the same un-answers she rehearsed every morning when she woke up.  This was coming a bit close to home.  For twenty-four years, I had long conversations with depressions, particularly in November and December, though they stopped abruptly when I moved to Regina.  Still, I can be moody as the days grow shorter, though I've learned to do what needs to be done to enjoy the cosiness of the dark (right now I'm composing in front of a fire, for example).   Today's snowy weather has given me permission to stay home most of the day, reading Woolf, working on making Christmas presents.  Still, there may be some stormy days between now and the solstice.

Yet in the midst of worrying about  visits from my depressions, I also found myself eerily observant and grateful for the world around me.  As I walked toward the doors to Campion with my coffee and my briefcase, a young woman in a bright pink hoodie and orange sneakers waited quite a while to hold the door open for me, saying that she'd seen I didn't have any spare hands.  I was struck by the juxtaposition between the ice-covered branches outside the Language Institute, which were shot through with light, and  the intensity of sirens that seemed to come closer and closer.  (It seems someone had fainted in the registrar's office, and since they didn't know why, they called 911.)  I stared at the calligraphy of staples on my bookshelves, where workers fastened plastic over my books so they could safely remove the asbestos from the ceiling.  Walking through the library, I was strangely aware of the corridors made by bookshelves and how they seemed to close in; aware at the same time of the warmth and colours of book covers that invited and beckoned with unknown distances.  I was endlessly grateful.  Grateful for the department secretary, Danielle, who takes such good care of me; grateful for Melanie Schnell, who talked so movingly about dealing with rejection in a way that doesn't shut down one's writing life; grateful for my sweet daughter, whom I'd not had lunch with on Wednesday because I'd been marking, marking, marking, and whom I'd missed; grateful as always for Bill, who is endlessly supportive and unfailingly loving.  

Intriguingly, yesterday's weather, unpleasant as it was--could it be either windy or snowy, but not both?--brought a kind of clarity.  I remembered my father's shirt size and talked to Twig the way my mother used to talk to her dogs: saying whimsical things in the matter-of-fact tone of voice that you would use to talk to a fellow-worker.  I cleaned the snow off the bird feeder, filled it, and leaned on the kitchen counter to drink my coffee and watch the juncos and nuthatches, who swoop in and out as quick as thought.  Later, I put boeuf bourguignon in the crock pot and watched the three squirrels who live under my eaves chase one another through the trees between turns hanging by their toes as they take sunflower seeds out of the bird feeder. Puzzlingly I remembered  reading The Lost Honour of Katerina Blum, prompted perhaps by reading a review of a Swiss author in The Globe and Mail.  I'm back, in short, to being my complicated self, rescued from the startling simplicity of that problematic inner switch.

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