World Mental Health Day, Something to Write Home About

October 10 is World Mental Health Day. This is a day to acknowledge and raise awareness of mental health issues both in the community and around the world.
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When I was in my late twenties, I was at a family dinner with my kids. I was helping my cousin to wash up after dinner, and we were talking about depression. She told me about her experience of seasonal affective disorder (SAD), something of which I hadn’t heard. I was intrigued but also a little disturbed. The feelings she described were feelings I’d had for years—except during the summer months and not the winter.
That was a revelatory moment for me. I was able to understand my experience of feeling apathetic, sorrowful, and generally flat during the summers. I had been experiencing depression for years and hadn’t known it. Maybe I did understand but lacked the means of doing anything about it, or even the wish to.
I thought about it hard after that evening. I came to the conclusion that the accident that had taken my sight in 1974 was a kind of psychological vortex on my mental landscape that intensified during the summer. Summers didn’t become immediately easier, but I learned, with each successive year, new ways to manage myself from the beginning of May until the end of August.
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For this year’s World Mental Health Day, I encourage you to acknowledge and even commit to exploring issues of mental health in your life. Most everyone has experience of such issues, and the intention to explore them—with family, friends, or a professional—only results in a healthier mind and body and a more wholesome life.

Here are some links to places where I’ve written about mental health issues on OfOtherWorlds: from fiction and Mental health, to PTSD, to memoir.
Finally, here’s a piece I wrote several years ago as a way to try and describe my state of mind during bouts of depression. The piece is called, “Depression in 4D.” Enjoy!

Depression in 4D

Traversing myself is perilous. I walk the lines of well-worn neuropathways, carved through my psyche like lightning strikes through a forest. I step carefully, aware my foot might not remain secure—one misstep and I’m sliding sideways into another reality.
Slipping—falling. I’m dropping into a hole in a lunar landscape—not visible in this airless, barren world. Now trapped—in a foxhole blasted into this moonscape, where I turn and turn, unable to escape, while words I cannot utter drop singly from my mouth to congeal in the asteroidal dust at my feet. I will drown here, in this sinkhole of words and memories.
Time doesn’t pass. It remains fixed, fixed in the past. It’s a shard, an icicle of experience, reaching down and down, suspended from the air on an invisible hook with me frozen at its heart. I am both past and present—observing and suspended. For a heartbeat I hang—or is it a year and a day.
The world swims into focus with a silent roar, and I am confronted with the painful clarity of a grass blade, a single dagger of green that pierces my sight. It rises like a beanstalk, as I shrink to watch it speared the sky. And I am in an alien world, at the roots of a vegetable monstrosity, the danger for me lying in the carapaced and many-legged creatures I can hear crawling beneath this canopy, stalking with armoured relentlessness through the brome. One move, one step could take me away, but my feet remain fixed. Perhaps I could escape by climbing this beanstalk, but I know what waits for me in the misty heights is a giant who wants to spread my jellied flesh over toast and grind my crackling bones into bread.

So Long to Summer

The summer is coming to an end, and there are always things in my world to tell me fall is coming. The school year is now a week away, and everyone is gearing up. September and the beginning of the year has dictated my life for more than thirty years, and here it comes again.
I try to use these points in the year to reflect and think about where I’ve been and where I’m going next. I use the summer to read books I don’t normally read during the term, although this summer I’ve been rereading more than usual.
I started the summer with the Percy Jackson books—always a fun read—and I spent part of July rereading the Lockwood and Co. series. I returned to Pullman’s His Dark Materials, but did that because I’m teaching The Golden Compass this fall, and I want to move onto Pullman’s next series, The Book of Dust. I read M. K. Humes’s The Merlin Prophecy series, and I returned to a favourite author, Bernard Cornwell, to read The War of the Wolf, the eleventh book in The Last Kingdom series.
Some people never reread books, but I do it all the time. The summer can often be hard for me—I tend to get depressed. It’s as though I have seasonal affective disorder in reverse. This has to do with the accident that took my sight, which happened in the middle of August in 1974. This is part of the reason why I’ve taken to writing memoir. Writing about that event in my life has helped me to, in part, reframe it—to rewrite the story of what happened. Earlier this year, “Running Blind” appeared in The Real Story, and “Fractured” should appear this fall. Both of these pieces attempt to talk about the adjustment I had to make as an eleven-year-old who lost his sight. I have two other pieces in circulation, “My Cowboy Cousin” and “Standing by My Cousin’s Grave, May, 2016.” Both these pieces talk about the death of my cousin Graham in the same accident that took my sight.
My other big challenge this summer was writing two academic articles, one on Anne of Green Gables and the other on C. S. Lewis. Academic writing has always been far more difficult for me than any other kind of writing. It’s just hard. I’ve also had something of a block for nearly three years. Faced with these commitments, I had to find a different way to write academically. I took the advice of my therapist. She always tells me that if things become overwhelming, then break them down into smaller and smaller pieces. If, for example, your anxiety is so crippling that it prevents you from getting through your day, then take one piece at a time—have a shower and get ready to leave the house, then celebrate the accomplishment. By the way, this method has been invaluable to me over the years.
That’s what I did. I took the stuff I had written about Anne, and I broke it down into short sections. Some were only two or three-hundred words. I relied on my hard-won sense of discipline to get me started, and I worked on these various bits until I could start assembling them into a larger whole. It worked. I ended up with an eight-thousand-word chapter, which I submitted in August.
I’ve spent much of my life feeling badly about those things I couldn’t manage and those things I couldn’t complete. My sense of guilt as a result has helped prevent me from doing other things I’ve wanted to try. I’m learning, slowly, that the energy required to feel badly, regretful, or guilty is energy that could be spent in learning something new or to undo old habits. Think of it as rewriting the story. You don’t want the story to end with the hero wandering forever in the wilderness—what sort of ending is that? Better to have her find her way back home, or, better yet, find a new home. Either way, such endings allow you to close off those old stories and begin anew.

A Walk at Beaverhill Lake

Every summer, my friend Tom and I find a place to walk and enjoy the natural world. Last year, it was Newfoundland, but we don’t usually stray so far afield. This year we decided on the bird sanctuary near Tofield, just east of Edmonton.
It’s a short drive, as far as Alberta drives go, and we find the entrance to the sanctuary around noon. We pass through two gates and park in a farmer’s field to begin our walk. The rain has been absolutely incessant this summer, and this is one of the few sunny days in more than a week.
Good shoes, rain gear, and water are necessary on such a walk, but bugspray is essential in these woods. We follow what appears to be an old car track. The sun is out, and the trees are thick to either side of the path. We tramp along, me with my white cane and Tom with his walking stick. We talk, at first about the woods, the sound of the wind in the trees, and that we expected to hear more birds. We soon begin talking about books—books we’ve read, books we are reading
We walk for maybe two kilometres until we come to the bird observatory. Tents are set up to one side of the building, which turns out to be a group of teens enjoying a week of birding at the sanctuary.
Inside, we meet a lovely young woman who works at the observatory. She explains the work they do, showing us into what looks like a living room, where a whole crew is gathering for lunch. Apparently, the observatory has already started its fall migration banding program.
It’s a relief to be inside and away from the mosquitoes, but we don’t stay. We get some directions: they tell us the summer rains have flooded the paths nearer Beaverhill Lake, but we can take another path out to Lister Lake where we will find a rise that overlooks the marsh. And off we go.
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We pass another set of birders on our way—this small group led by another young woman who stops to say hello. We ask about the practice of netting and banding small birds, and she explains how it’s done and how records are kept. No gloves and sharp beaks means sore hands and fingers for these birders.
As we get closer to Lister Lake, the path shows more evidence of flooding—the mud and water here is deep enough to lose a boot if we’re not careful. We have to move off the path, which is now under water, and make our way through the bush that crowds either side.
Eventually, we come to a low hill that overlooks the lake. Its more a marsh than a lake—crowded with cattails and bulrushes, with bits of open water among the reeds. We stop and listen. A deep silence underpins the sounds of the marsh—bird calls, the splashing of ducks, and the rattle of reeds in the breeze. The silence of this land has a quality, a shape left by retreating glaciers and countless days of sun and rain and snow. And this is, in part, what we came here to find, and what we will take with us when we leave.

From the Blog Archive, Visiting New Zealand

Our Edmonton summer is reminding me of a New Zealand winter, save for the longer evenings. Here are some highlights from my trip to New Zealand’s North Island with my daughter last year.

• We both love waterfalls, so we stopped to visit Hunua Falls, not far outside of Auckland.

• My daughter had the idea to visit some caves. I’ve never gone caving before, and going more than a hundred metres underground in the Ruakuri Caves near Waitomo was an amazing, if slightly unnerving experience.
These caves are limestone, and when they collapse, after a hundred thousand years or so, they create deep gorges, where it’s also fun to walk and crawl.

• And, of course, we had to visit Hobbiton—one more time, ending up at the Green Dragon Inn, which is a great way to end the tour of Peter Jackson’s Shire.

Riding the High Level Streetcar

Summer in Edmonton is a time of festivals, even with the downtown core under construction. You can always find something to do in town during July and August.
I’ve been to most of the festivals that happen during an Edmonton summer, but July and August is also a time to be a tourist at home. You will be surprised at all the things to explore.
Enjoy one of my favourites—riding the High Level Streetcar. This short video will give you a look into Edmonton’s river valley. So your perspective is clear, the streetcar is traveling north across the river, and you are looking west and a little north, more than 200 feet above the North Saskatchewan River.

Challenged Books of the 1990s

Recently, I came across the American Library Association’s (ALA) list of the 100 Most Frequently Challenged Books of the 1990s. The list is worth perusing, even if you’re only scanning for the kids’ books.
Here’s a few challenged books I find noteworthy, all of which I’ve read and many of which I’ve taught:
• Katherine Paterson—one of my favourite young adult authors—has two spots: Bridge to Terabithia at #8, and The Great Gilly Hopkins at #20.
• Lois Lowry’s the Giver—not a great surprise—sits at #11.
Julie of the Wolves by Jean Craighead George appears at #32—this one I find particularly mystifying.
Harry Potter—no real surprise—sits at #48.
Judy Blume has four spots on the list and Mark Twain has two, Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer.
And in case you don’t look through the entire list, these children’s and young adult books share a spot on the same list with books such as Women on Top: How Real Life Has Changed Women’s Fantasies, by Nancy Friday, and The Dead Zone, by Stephen King. This isn’t a comment on either Friday or King—just some additional perspective.
The point, people challenge books for many reasons, many of which are petty, unthinking, homophobic, or racist. If anything, a list of challenge books will provide you with some interesting summer reading.