Friday, January 31, 2014

How to Disappear Completely

There has been a lot of talk about mental health in the days since this year's Let's Talk campaign sponsored by Bell. It's taken me awhile to get to it, but I've been wanting to add my voice from the perspective of post-partum depression. I wrote the following piece a number of weeks ago after stumbling across a print called "How to Disappear Completely" by Lauren Grey. You can look at Lauren's work on Etsy in her shop The Haunted Hollow Tree.

How To Disappear Completely. Print by Lauren Grey. 

This image is me. I see myself in every line of its beauty and terror. The artist, Lauren Grey, perfectly encapsulates what it is to be a mother and especially what it is to have post-partum depression. There is that gaze between the mother and child. They look at each other steadily. All that exists in that moment is the gaze, that connection of eyes and through the eyes the connection of spirits. They are locked together through that gaze. The mother is still, but she isn't smiling. This isn't a picture about joy, it is an image about a primal bond and also a devastating loss of self.

What is terrifying about this picture is expressed in the title. The artist calls the painting How to Disappear Completely. The baby is almost entirely present except for one foot, but the mother is nearly erased. She is reduced to her face and the gaze that she casts upon her baby. She has her eyes to look upon him and her hands to hold him but the rest of her is simply gone, reduced to hazy outlines, whited out with gesso. She exists only in her relationship to her child and outside of that relationship she is lost. There is no surrounding context, no world outside the mother and child, no background, no locational details, no other people. The archetypal mother engages in the process of dissolution.

I wonder if the artist meant for this to be such a tense image. It's possible that the intent was a lovely one; it's possible that the artist set about to capture the act of disappearing into a single, condensed moment as a new mother forms an intense bond with her child. You can disappear into a baby's eyes. Lose yourself in the look of complete trust, vulnerability, and pure need. But it is a dark thing to be lost, to become ghost-like and transparent. The viewer can observe nothing of this mother except her motherhood. She is incorporeal, disembodied. Her baby is the only physical presence, almost fully rendered, detailed, whole. I am deeply shaken by this image in which only one half of the mother-baby dyad can be complete.

This is exactly what post-partum depression feels like—a slow fading away with nothing left but the intensely physical and all consuming bond between mother and child. When I look at my son I feel as if the entire universe is contained in his tiny body. I feel I could survive anything except the loss of him. But I also find myself shattered, my soul broken up into a million little pieces that can blow away on the breeze like dandelion fluff. I'm running through thigh-high grass trying to recover every single seed that once made up my identity and potential, but they are scattered too far. I dissolve. There is just me and my son while the rest of the world, and my self in relation to that world, disappears.

How do you learn to live within that condensed and intensified reality? How do you define yourself when your entire existence is compressed like matter sucked into the vacuum of a black hole? This painting shows a cosmic event: time and space, self and other compacting into a pinpoint of highly volatile, unbelievably heavy matter. Mater. Mother.

Post-partum depression is this duality: the beauty and immensity of a star being born in opposition to extraordinarily powerful destructive forces released through that birth. Somehow this image captures that feeling with such honesty that I want to cry, but also scream “YES. Yes. This is exactly what it looks like.”

Friday, January 24, 2014

Book Review: The Patience Stone Audiobook

2014 is going to be a year of books. Along with a few book obsessed friends I'm embarking on my very first Reading Around the World project in an attempt to think more concretely about literary voices--who gets heard, who gets translated, whose books make it to Canadian shelves, and what countries are underrepresented in my literary diet?

The plan is to eventually read at least one book by an author from every country in the world. This might be overambitious, but I'll take it a day at a time. I hope to read one or two Around the World project books each month this year and then I'll re-evaluate.

My first book was The Patience Stone by Atiq Rahimi from Afghanistan. I decided to listen to the audiobook which is read by Carolyn Seymour and was available through Hoopla.

The Patience Stone has received much praise for giving voice to the innermost thoughts of a young Afghan wife and mother. Her husband is in a coma after being shot during his time serving as a soldier. The narrator begins to pour out her most guarded secrets to her unresponsive husband, using him as a "Patience Stone," a mythical stone that is said to absorb all your confessions until it finally shatters, setting you free from your suffering.

Our narrator tells us about all the horrors she has suffered at the hands of her husband, all the pain she has endured simply because she was born a woman. I deeply respect Rahimi's project, but I have to say that the audio version was so difficult to listen to that I almost gave up on this book entirely. I ploughed through to the end only because I thought that the reasons for my distaste were worth thinking about.

My first observation is about voices and their associated authenticity. Having a narrative from the perspective of an oppressed Afghan woman is unarguably a valuable thing, but the narrator's voice comes to us through a series of filters that, possibly, strip it of its power. The first filter is the author himself. Here we have a woman's narration coming through the imagination of a male writer. I don't fundamentally have a problem with this. Fiction is such that authors should be free to speak through whatever characters call to them and Rahimi, a refugee from the Afghan war himself, very likely has enough knowledge to imagine what it is like to be an Afghan woman. Much of the power of this story comes from hearing the thoughts of a person who is not allowed to speak her mind due to sociocultural constraints. Rahimi gives his nameless narrator a voice, but I kept tripping over the fact that it was only through a man that this fictional woman gets to speak. It was an issue I could have set aside, especially since Rahimi handles the story with great sensitivity and courage, but the audiobook's reader truly ruined this novel.

Carolyn Seymour provides the second filter through which our narrator's voice must pass and the voice emerges completely ravaged and beyond repair. Seymour is a white British actress (Russian father and Irish mother) and in her hands our narrator becomes whiny, overly dramatic, and takes on the characteristics of someone out of a soap opera. Seymour constantly has the Afghan woman weeping and wailing, sobbing and whimpering, flying off the handle into screaming rages and generally achieving a constant high pitched whine that made me cringe every time I had to listen to another chapter. Why they couldn't get someone with a representative accent is beyond me. Or perhaps its because that would have meant actually involving an Afghan woman in this story, something that is apparently beyond possibility and says more about the condition of such women than this book does.  So the voice of this Afghan woman comes to me through the imagination of a man, dramatized by a white woman with a British accent and it seems to me that the result is unforgivable.

After finishing the book I watched the trailer for the movie and am happy to report that it corresponds much  more closely to what I would have liked to get out of the audiobook. The actress playing the narrator is Iranian but her demeanor is far more stoic, strong, and unyielding than the obnoxious interpretation prepared by Seymour. The actress (at least in the 2 minute clip I was able to view) gives us a deeply intelligent woman who has been forced to suffer through life in silence and take unbelievably difficult actions in order to survive in her war torn and oppressed world. The actress speaks with soft strength and portrays a character who guards a secret inner power. I would like to see the entire movie or perhaps read the book again myself as I suspect that without Seymour this would be a powerful and moving work of literature.

I also recommend this book quite highly since I think it provides fertile ground for talking about literary lenses and filters, but I wouldn't touch the audiobook with a 10 foot pole.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Toddler Travel Adventures

Okay, everyone wait just a second while I give myself a pat on the back. I made it from Vancouver to Windsor Ontario, including a transfer in Toronto, with a 2 year old. We did it. We got here and while we were both in tears at some points of the journey, we survived.

I left Vancouver yesterday with a yawning pit of anxiety consuming my insides. Our flight was pushed back a day due to the bad weather and mess of backed up flights at Pearson airport, so I was already feeling frustrated when we actually got to leave on Friday. I was also completely terrified to get into a contained, airborne space with my toddler. I'm cramming in a trip before his second birthday because he still flies for free, but that meant he would have to sit on my lap for the combined 5.5 hours of our flights, and that isn't even mentioning time spent in the airport. It was like I was about to be on Fear Factor or something. Getting on that plane was akin to eating a plate full of worms.

Our initial flight from Vancouver to Toronto was delayed by 30 minutes so I got to start worrying right away. My connection in Toronto left only one hour of leeway, so I was now down to a half hour to catch my flight to Windsor. The flight attendants assured me that further delays were unlikely and I would make my connection. So I tried to breathe and relax. Hayden and I explored the Vancouver airport and found it to be a fairly entertaining place. Hayden was especially taken with the moving walkways which we rode on for nearly an hour straight. I passed the same people having lunch about 40 times and I could tell that they were laughing at me. But no matter, my son was happy and I was feeling pretty good about things.

We boarded the plane a half hour late as projected and I headed to my seat, which ended up being in the middle of a set of three. Not good. I began to imagine the next 4 hours, crammed between two other passengers with no real access to the aisle and a wired toddler jumping on my lap. I asked the woman in the aisle if she would trade, for both our sakes. She reluctantly agreed and I could breathe again. Eventually she was offered another aisle seat and I got an empty seat next to me for Hayden. I felt like things were really going my way. "This might actually be okay" I dared to say to myself.

In an attempt to be one of those good and well prepared mothers I had packed a goody bag of dollar store toys for Hayden. I figured we could open one each hour to keep him entertained. I  had piles of stickers, a colouring book, crayons, a puzzle, cars, a dump truck, and a magnetic fishing game. It all turned out to be useless. He stuck one sticker into his album and declared stickers passe. He had no interest in the totally cool dinosaur colouring book. He spent almost the entire flight to Toronto plugging the headphones into the jack on his seat and pulling it out again. He occasionally glanced at some cartoons, but generally seemed content to practice his fine motor skills. He ran up and down the aisle a bit, knocked over the cups of other passengers, washed his hands in the tiny plane bathroom about five times, and absolutely refused to sleep even when he was hours beyond his usual naptime.

I have to say this for him though--my kid was unbelievably well behaved and good-natured for the entire trip. It was like some sort of miracle. Like my son was a Changling, but in a good way instead of an evil way. I am pretty sure that benevolent spirits or aliens or ghosts inhabited the body of my child on that flight and turned him into a complete angel. He charmed all the other passengers, and even though he must have been exhausted by the end of the journey he was still smiling and laughing most of the time, though becoming vaguely hyperactive. I was so proud of him and his amazing travelling abilities almost made up for the  near heart attack I suffered in Toronto.

Our plane arrived at Pearson airport, as projected, half an hour late. That should have been enough time for me to make my connection, except that some sort of power issue caused our plane to be unable to turn off one of the engines, and we all had to wait on the runway until the issue was resolved. I became increasingly agitated. When 6:20 arrived, and with it the scheduled departure of my connection, I began to panic. A well meaning fellow passenger offered to see if my connection had been delayed on his phone. The results were that it wasn't delayed. And that's when I started to cry. I was standing there, stuck just minutes away from the terminal, and wasn't going to make my flight. If I was lucky I could wait 4 hours and get the midnight flight (not a pretty picture with my child refusing to nap on the go). If I was unlucky I'd be stuck in Toronto overnight. I was collapsing under the weight of my disappointment and frustration. I stood sniffling and quietly crying as we were finally let off the plane.

In desperation I asked the attendant at the desk if I might still make my connection. She then gave me a ray of hope: my flight had been delayed. I had already been removed from the passenger roster, but now with the delay I had been put back on. I was given new boarding passes and I then made the most maniacal dash through the airport that you can imagine. I had Hayden on a leash attached to his backpack so I wouldn't lose him, I was dragging a rolling suitcase, and carrying a backpack full of camera gear. I was NOT going to miss this flight.

"We're going to have to run" I said to Hayden and took off. The poor kid. He tried his best to keep up, but he couldn't. He kept falling flat on his face and I heard the gasps of other people in the airport. But I didn't stop. I used the handle of  his backpack to pull him back onto his feet and kept running. When he had fallen about four times I tried to carry him, but he was too heavy and my rolling suitcase kept tipping over. I was crying and swearing, and wary travellers came by to look at me with pity and pick up my suitcase for me. I charged my way down an escalator to my gate and practically dragging Hayden behind me we got to the departure desk.

"Sarnia?" asked the weary attendant.
"No.GASP GASP...Windsor" I said.
"We haven't boarded yet" he said
"What??" I said as I tried desperately to catch my breath and ward off an impending panic attack.

As it turned out my flight had been delayed an entire hour due to some sort of malfunction. Turned out I didn't need to run like a crazy person through the airport. I was a bit annoyed that I  hadn't been told that from the outset, but I was also relieved that I would get to Windsor after all.

Hayden and I settled in to wait. The good news: we were going to get on a plane to Windsor. The bad news: the plane had recently been broken in some fashion. Hayden spent our one hour wait running in circles around my luggage. I think he was starting to lose his mind a bit. Sleep deprivation can do that to a person.

We got on the plane eventually and we got to Windsor. Hayden had a few small meltdowns when he was forced to sit on my lap, but mostly spent the flight doing up his seat belt and then undoing it again. Again with the fine motor skill obsession. We looked out the window and sang some songs. And we got to Windsor in one piece.

As I was getting off the plane one of the other passengers actually stood up and applauded.

"You are an AMAZING mother" he said. "I watched you this whole trip and you never lost your temper and your kid was a trooper and he is just so lucky to have you. You did a great job."

I could feel the tears welling up in my eyes at this unexpected praise from a total stranger. And the whole trip suddenly felt meaningful. We proved something Hayden and I. We faced adversity together and both managed to be our best selves (perhaps minus the dragging my child through an airport). Hayden got through the day without a nap and I got through without complete mental collapse and as hard and exhausting as the trip seemed to me, from the outside it looked like we were just breezing along, handling everything with grace and infinite patience. From the outside I was a good mother, and for once it felt that way from the inside as well.

So we're here and Hayden is making sugar cookies with his Baba and I'm listening to their laughter downstairs and feeling like it was worth it to come, even if I do have to do it all over again on the way home.