August 22, 2014

Reading Material

Although I never actually heard my parents say, "You are what you read", I do think they believe that to be true in most cases. My mom read virtually every book we children brought into the house just to be sure of what we were putting into our heads. A book brought home often disappeared during the night and was replaced on the bedside table before we woke up in the morning. Mom would usually tell us what she thought of the book, too, especially if she didn't like it.

When I was in grade seven I made bi-weekly trips to the local library and soon became fascinated with stories about troubled young girls lacking parental support. I distinctly remember one about an overweight girl who ran away from her miserable family, and somehow got trapped on an island where she had to survive by killing and eating raccoons and such. The experience changed her, of course, and she lost a great deal of weight, which seemed to solve all her problems. While against censorship in general, my mom finally appealed to me to stop bringing home such depressing novels. I suppose they were dragging her down.

I spent many hours as a pre-teen brushing my mom's long, dark brown hair while she read to me. We made our way through several Noel Streatfield novels (my favourite), the Little House on the Prairie series and The Von Trappe family stories. When I was bored I merely had to say, "Mom, I need a book to read, and she would lead me to the floor-to-ceiling book shelves which lined the entire length of the front hall : "Here's a good one," or " You'd love the Anne books," or "How about The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe?" Mom took volume after volume off the shelf, and having read each of the books herself gave me a concise librarian's description of it. After dismissing most of the books with "Nah," I finally made my choice. My literary education then continued as I lay on the couch calling out for the meaning of this word or that, as most of the books I read were written before I was born.

Another memory lives in my mind like a short film. One afternoon I was sitting in the living room reading a magazine. My father was in the chair opposite, also reading. I soon became bored and began rifling through the rack beside my chair. Lo and behold I discovered an unfamiliar magazine: an edition of True Confessions. I picked it up and started reading a story about a young woman who goes off with a married man to a cabin in the can guess the rest. I think my fascination stemmed largely from my surprise that such smut could even get through the doors of our house, and here it was found lying cover to cover with National Geographic World and a Sharon, Lois and Bram songbook. As I soaked up the explicit descriptions of events in the story, as only a ten year old can do, I began to feel a distinct, steady sensation like a laser beam crossing the room. I looked up to meet my dad's over-the-glasses gaze which, having been a teacher and parent for many years, was a look he had perfected. He lowered his eyes slowly down to the title of my chosen literature, and then up again at me. "Don't you have anything better to read?" he asked quietly, but oh, so effectively in his deep, sonorous voice. Without a single noise from my lips, I replaced True Confessions in the rack and took up a copy of National Geographic World. "That's better," he said with the trace of a smile. The next time I went to choose a magazine, True Confessions was gone. I never saw it or its kind in the house again.

After I moved out my parents turned my bedroom into a study/library and transferred all the books into it from the front hall. The study has a lovely view of the back garden where the cherry tree of my childhood bloomed until it rotted and had to be taken down. On a recent visit I had forgotten to bring a book, and asked to borrow one. My mom brought me a thick novel - a one volume edition of Robertson Davies' Salterton Trilogy. I settled down into the pullout couch for the night and began my transport into the wickedly funny world of Kingston, Ontario's intellectual society of the 1950's... Mom let me take the book home to finish.

The photo above, while not an actual photo of one of my childhood bookshelves, greatly resembles it. 

August 15, 2014

Mourning Robin

The growth of children is truly the marker of time passing. Last week I travelled with my four children and their dad to Vancouver Island. The occasion was the 25th wedding anniversary of my husband's employers at the lodge where we lived from December, 1997 to April, 2003. When we moved to the lodge our three older children were four and a half, three years, and thirteen months. Our youngest had not even been thought of yet, although, knowing her, she had probably been planning her entrance for years before it happened.

The last time we went to the lodge was in 2009 when the owner family celebrated the lodge's 50th anniversary of operation. Our children, the older three teenagers and youngest one eight years.

The above is how I started what was to be this week's blog post. After a wonderful family holiday and reunion with friends-of-old, I was high on a cloud of happiness, floating above the earth and its cares. I sat down to write, got a few lines in before I was interrupted. When I returned to the computer I found out that Robin Williams, a comedian, actor, and benefactor admired and loved by me and by millions, if not billions, of people had killed himself. I read the news and sat staring at the screen, shocked and tremendously saddened. As details about his death trickled in over the next few hours I learned of his absolute determination to end his life - he had left nothing to chance. That was on Monday. All week I have grappled with the news and tried hard to understand it.

After my first reaction of sadness and shock I became angry. I thought of all the Iraqi people starving on that mountaintop after being persecuted and driven there by ISIS. I thought of all the people in the world who struggle daily to access the very basic necessities of life. I thought, how does someone with all the gifts and all the priveleges, all the means to do good in the world just throw it all away? I did not blame the man himself, rather, I blamed our society for collectively losing perspective of how lucky we are and how much responsibility we have inherited to try to make the world a better place. That so many people are driven to suicide seemed, in my angry phase of grief, like a giant failure. What terrible lies of the world did people believe if killing themselves seemed the only option?

When I was finished feeling angry, I tried hard to understand the pain and the depths of despair Robin must have had to endure. I remembered a time several years ago when I experienced true depression for the first, and hopefully only, time. I was lucky in that my bout was a short one, only a couple of weeks, but the experience was something I will never forget. During the time in question, I had been trying to force myself to take a job that my instincts were telling me was wrong for me. I am a fairly sensitive person and my body has always had a way of telling me I am on the wrong track. One morning I woke up and despite a cup of coffee, which usually warms, energizes and starts my day off right, I could not seem to cheer up. I could feel myself sinking down into a state I did not recognize. I began to have severely negative thoughts about myself. I began to think if only I had been a better person the world would not be such a mess. I began to assume things about some of the people in my life - I thought they secretly despised me. I felt like a failure and could not shake off my despair for days. My husband and children were baffled by my sad demeanor and gave me what comfort they could. I wrote to my parents who advised and counselled me well, as they had always done, and eventually I began to rise out of my depression. I have never felt such relief as when I could sense that I was back to my normal, relatively cheerful state. When I described my bout with depression to a friend I said perhaps it would serve to give me a better sense of what other people deal with in their own lives, and now, years later, I think it has.

When I think of Robin Williams and the various people and friends I have known who have taken their own lives, I try hard to think of them with great love and compassion. I hope they will find peace at last, although I do believe a journey of some sort awaits their soul on the other side with comfort and joy as the ultimate destination. But, more than that, I try harder to be kinder and more understanding while I am living on this side. I make time to have a cup of tea with my daughter to talk about whatever is on her mind. I write a thank-you note to an aunt who has sent me a card or a thoughtful gift. I visit my friend who suffers from chronic depression, and I give him an extra big hug when it is time for me to leave. I try to judge less, listen more, give people the benefit of the doubt, smile at strangers, say hello to elderly people I meet when I walk downtown to do an errand, thank the checkout person for bagging my groceries. I know these small things cannot conquer someone's depression if they are already suffering from it, but perhaps sometimes I, and others, can just add enough to the positive side of the scale to keep it from tipping over completely to the negative. I have to believe this or the situation seems a bit hopeless for all of us.

The other day I was in Value Village with my family. My younger daughter came up to me, beaming and holding three movies in her hands - a copy of Shrek 2, Disney's Robin Hood, and Disney's Alladin. "Look Mom!" she said.

"Cool!" I said. Then it dawned on me. Alladin starred Robin Williams as the Genie. "Alladin," I said, "especially considering Robin Will..."

She cut me off. "I know!" she said. "Did you know he adlibbed almost all his lines? I've been wanting to see this for ages." The only copy at our local video store had been stolen, and I had given away our copy years ago.

The checkout girl exclaimed loudly when she saw the video of Alladin. Apparently, she had been looking for a copy for ages, too. While I was paying for our stuff, my daughter and son searched and found two more copies of Alladin on the shelf and moved them to where the checkout girl could see them. The checkout girl gave my daughter a high-five.

Perhaps I should follow my daughter's lead and celebrate the genius that was Robin Williams through his many roles in film and television. I remember watching Mork and Mindy when I was a child and hearing my Dad laugh. I did not always get the jokes but I loved to hear my dad laugh. Robin's role in The Fisher King revealed a sympathy for mental illness which we can understand better now. And, he was my favourite Peter Pan. He brought joy to so many people, and boosted our morale, and what he has left behind will continue to do so, but perhaps now we will look with more understanding and appreciation for what it cost him and costs others like him to keep us entertained.

Here is a small glimpse at his genius. God-speed, Mr. Williams.