Final Post Before Moving House: On Depression and Sadness

My house from the creek-bed below it.

My house from the creek-bed below it.

With less than a week before my family moves house — leaving the town we’ve lived in for eight years, longer than I’ve lived anywhere, ever in my entire life – I’m feeling kind of depressed. I love this place.  I love my friends here. I love my kids’ friends. I love the atom football team. I love the trees we raised from saplings. It makes sense to be sad about a departure from a happy hometown. As one of the characters in my novel says, “I’d be more worried about my state of mind if something like this failed to upset me.”

So this is not a confession of an artist speaking frankly about her troubled mental health. That artist is real but I am not her. While I’m definitely feeling depressed today, it’s not the same thing as having the disease of depression.

When it comes to mental health, I’ve got nothing to complain about. It’s not because I’m smarter or better than people who do have valid complaints. I think it might be little more than an endowment from my mother –an ability to shout or cry away bad feelings before they settle in for torturous long-term engagements.

Even so, I do get sad. Over my lifespan, I’ve probably lost months-worth of sleep to grief and worry. My personal best record for uninterrupted crying exceeds three hours. One summer, my daily routine included standing alone in my garage painting boards for the epic fence we were building, quietly weeping over them.

None of this was depression. It wasn’t an illness. It was a reaction to well-defined, acute stress and tragedy. It’s like the difference between bruising for a few days after bashing a knee on something and bruising maybe until death because there’s something fundamental missing from the blood that keeps it from clotting.

With the recent death of a famous entertainer, a lot has been said about depression as a dangerous disease. All of that needs to be said. Depression is still far too stigmatizing. I have a close friend who suffered depression after each of her kids was born. She still worries someone will find the medical records of her diagnosis and medication and use the information as prejudice. “All your history of depression really shows,” another friend explained to her, “is that you were smart enough to go get treated for it.” She’s got nothing to be ashamed of and much to be commended for.

While not everyone suffers from depression as a chronic debilitating illness, everyone (except maybe, I don’t know, people with anti-social personality disorders) feels sad sometimes. Sadness is part of the human condition. It’s inevitable and normal. There is nothing strange or sickly about the sadness most of us encounter.

Here, in the middle of my move, I was talking with another friend who suffers from depression. She saw my mood was low and jumped to recommend treatments she uses when she feels herself falling – when her disease flares up. But I don’t have her disease. I don’t need to fight sadness as quickly or as fiercely as she does. I thanked her anyway. And above my pangs of healthy-person-guilt I was surprised to hear myself telling her I don’t mind letting myself experience a bit of my own sadness. It hurts but it doesn’t damage me. There’s value in it. I can trust I’ll survive it. My preferred treatments are patience and time, love and companionship, faith, music, food someone else has cooked, fresh air, and new things I discover every time circumstances demand my character adapt and change.

For people with severe depression, sadness can be, very literally, the end of the world. They need to fight it with heavy medical and social artillery and no one should fault them for it.

For the rest of us, sadness, deep at its core, is a horrible, putrid, unwanted gift. It’s okay to unwrap it and handle it. And no one should fault us for that – trying to convince us we’re deluded or unhealthy or callous when we take our sadness into our own hands to see what we can learn from it.

Sadness is part of our life stories. Its gift to us is our stories.

Because Camping is Actually Writing

Me, arriving at camp with a bit of baggage

Me, arriving at camp with a bit of baggage

Two decades without camping didn’t seem like too many to me. I love being outdoors but I crave a proper roof overhead when it’s time to call it a night.

Then, this winter, I was asked to take over as leader of a youth group for 30 girls ages 12 to 17. It’s a great gig. It tempers the Smurfette vibe I’ve cultivated living alone in a pack of men for the last nineteen years. I’m honoured and happy to be there.

Still, I spent the spring dreading our youth group’s traditional annual camping trip. Fortunately, some of my fellow leaders are skilled, enthusiastic campers. They took over. My camp role was to sign off on expense claims, make a few rousing presentations, offer hugs to the homesick, and not sabotage the whole thing with my incompetence.

It was a simple role but I fretted anyway. What might have been more daunting than whatever challenges awaited at camp were the challenges I’d leave behind at home. Not getting things done can be just as hard as getting things done. My family is in the middle of moving house. It’s not a great time for me to flee into the wilderness. In order to take the girls camping, I left my house unpacked and unsold, left my kids, left a chance to see my commuter husband who was traveling home to stay with them. And, I left my second novel in the process of an intense unfinished edit.

For me – and probably for other writers who finish manuscripts – there’s no such thing as taking time off simply because life is busy. Activity inspires creativity and the paradoxical truth is I sometimes work best when it should be logistically impossible for me to get anything done. This summer, while single-parenting my five sons and trying to sell our house, I’ve written more, and more consistently than I have all year.

The prospect of my second novel is a bit terrifying. My first book has been well-received and part of its legacy is fear of a “sophomore slump.” I wrote the first version of my second novel before I’d found a publisher for my first book – before I knew who I was as a novelist. It was an experiment. The first version of it was plotty and funny and fairly glib. There were hardly any “that’s my soul up there” moments in it. It ate away at me a little – the secret that I didn’t love my second novel the way I love my first one. I liked it. But…

With this second book I have access to something I didn’t have when I wrote my first one. I have someone in the industry willing to read it and skilled enough to tell me what’s wrong with it. I knew the book was lacking but I couldn’t tell how or what to do about it. With good editorial feedback fueling my revision process, I hope I’m starting to understand.

The radical edits demanded I change something fundamental to the book – the title itself. Every time I opened the document I changed the title and every time I changed it, I hated it more and more.

campgroup

Me, when my hair was still clean, welcoming the campers

So I went to camp with my novel gutted, untitled. I went trusting my familiar paradoxes, sure a four day pajama party in the woods would improve everything unsettled in my life right now – maybe even my second novel.

Camp was fantastic. We should have called it “Camp Slacker.” There wasn’t much of a schedule, I kept driving the girls to the beach in the back of my pick-up truck, we stayed up all night every night, we never really stopped eating.

On the final morning of camp, I woke up underneath a brand new spider web, listening to music – not in my ears but in my mind. It was a song I hadn’t heard in a long time – one I first learned when I was a 16-year-old girl. It was Leonard Cohen’s “Suzanne.”

Now Suzanne takes your hand
And she leads you to the river…
And she shows you where to look
Among the garbage and the flowers
There are heroes in the seaweed
There are children in the morning
They are leaning out for love
And they will lean that way forever
While Suzanne holds the mirror…

It’s unlikely LC was thinking of youth camp leaders working to convince young girls of their worth and power and potential – to “show them where to look among the garbage and the flowers” – when he wrote these lyrics. But art is sublime and it doesn’t matter what he was thinking. For a moment, the song was about me and my “children in the morning” – the ones born to other mothers but sent into the woods with me for a few days in hopes we’d all come to understand ourselves a little better.

Suzanne loads you in her pick-up truck, and she leads you to the river

Suzanne loads you in her pick-up truck, and she leads you to the river…

My second novel – the awkward one with no name – it’s always been about sisterhood. And in the early morning sisterhood of my first camping trip in over twenty years, the paradox worked its perfection and I think I learned what I will call the book.

Photos by Naomi Stanford

Fan-girling: Why You Should Go to Book Events

Cover with blurb by Padma Viswanathan

On the front cover of my book — above the title, my name, my magpies – is a blurb. Yes, that’s the technical term for pithy reviews printed on books to help readers judge them by their covers.

Thanks to my resourceful publisher, my book’s blurb is written by internationally published Canadian novelist Padma Viswanathan. Blurbs are usually written by people from an author’s network – teachers, editors, classmates. But Padma read my book and wrote the blurb without knowing me from anywhere. It was extremely generous of her and I am very grateful.

Simple reciprocity isn’t the only reason I’m Padma’s fan. Reading her first novel, I had the impression she understands family much the same way I do. She writes about families that are close, more or less content with each other, and LARGE without making them seem maudlin, boring, or trite. It’s rare in literary fiction.

She writes about people of faith too. She doesn’t do it with the heavy sermonizing of “inspirational” fiction but she also doesn’t soundly denounce faith the way a lot of literary fiction does. She acknowledges the existence and the salience of faith. She writes about it like any powerful, abstract human motivation – like love or hope or fear. This is also rare. This is also me.

After seeing my work called “strange” over and over again (which I love) it’s gratifying to recognize something like my own strangeness in someone else’s stories. It’s validating. It transforms me from lone weirdo to the ultimate form of joiner: the fan-girl. 

And fan-girl I was when I finally met Padma. This summer, the tour for her new book The Ever After of Ashwin Rao brought her back to Audreys Books in Edmonton. I was so there.

If you’ve never been to an event where an author is reading from her own book, go. I won’t say the difference between reading a book and hearing the author read it is the same as listening to the radio and hearing a song performed live. But it is significantly different enough to be worth brushing your teeth and driving downtown.

Padma Viswanathan and me at Audreys Books

Padma Viswanathan and me at Audreys Books, Edmonton

I’m happy to say that, by now, when I go to local book events I can usually be recognized without having to make a spectacle of myself. In the crowded room, I met Padma and got to thank her in person for the boost she gave my career. I met her dad too. He was greeting people at the foot of the stairs.

Padma’s new novel revolves around the Air India bombing of 1985. The scene she read aloud describes people coping with sudden, violent loss. It’s beautiful and, once again, familiar.

Within the passage she read, Padma included the Gayatri Mantra, a chant her characters use to comfort themselves. If I’d been reading the book alone, in my head, my mental shorthand would have read it as “okay, some Sanskrit” and rushed on to the English translation. But in the bookstore, Padma pronounced all of it. She sang it. And I cried.

I cried because I was surprised and touched by her commitment to the reading – the risk of it, the gift of it. I cried because the sound of scripture being sung by one female voice in that place was strange and out of place enough to feel a little like a miracle. I cried because I already knew, in my own words and feelings, the things she would read next:

The sound did not hide the void, but it filled it with a kind of light: nothing that would stop you from falling, but maybe stop you from being so afraid.

Lo, the First Foreigner on “The Good Word” Podcast

After writing, my favourite medium is radio — no make-up, all talk. Podcasting is a lot like radio — radio without all the “ums” edited out, long-form radio where guests can really cut loose and do some damage. This is a podcast I recorded last month with Nick Galieti, a book industry guy in Utah.

We talk about my accent, my family, Mormonism, literary elitism, the Republican Party (a first for me in an interview, for sure), my marriage and the lighter side of death schtick, and the mysterious geography of the second largest country on the globe.

Nick: So how is Canada today?

JQ: Canada is — is enormous.

Nick was a fine interviewer and it turns out he used to live with my cousin-in-law when they were missionaries.

Check out the podcast if you’d like to hear some unfortunate, spontaneous voice acting, a little bit of Mormon jargon, and my six-year-old coughing through a door. Must have been a good time; my final word was “Woo hoo!”

Jennifer Quist Interview with Nick Galieti

 

6 Ways Men Can Talk About Feminism Without Sounding Like IDIOTS

I want to help.

There’s a lot of ignorant talk about feminism in my social media feeds lately. And I want us – no, I want you, men — to be able to talk about women and feminism with all the good will you intend and without the whole thing backfiring, blowing up in your face, biting you in the butt — whatever ironic disaster metaphor best describes that awful, idiotic feeling of trying to speak respectfully only to find you’ve botched it.

“You crazy! I’s just tryin’ a help!” My favourite line from Glen in “Raising Arizona”

I’m not talking to depraved, deliberate “Hey Baby” misogynists.  And I’m not addressing domestic sexism where men talk about “babysitting” their own kids or “helping” with housework in the places where they live and eat. I’m talking to grown, educated men who attempt egalitarianism and make a mess of it. All of the following faux pas come from my own experiences. I’ve heard them said, often directly to me, by men who should know better. Sometimes they’re said combatively, sometimes just clumsily, but always ignorantly. So let me help.

Men, do not say:

1)      “I’m the only man here so I’d better be careful.” This statement, spoken by men when they’re outnumbered in a group of women, says you are behaving differently than you would if you were surrounded by men. It implies you fake deference for women in our presence but will speak more freely and truthfully when we’re absent or properly subdued by the unspoken threat latent in an abundance of male bodies. Don’t be careful. Be kind. Don’t be fake. Be honest. And if your honesty is going to offend us, fix it in a genuine way, not simply by censoring yourself. Definitely don’t expect us to be charmed or grateful you’ve put on your bogus lady-manners for us.

This “outnumbered” statement is doubly offensive because it implies women are volatile and violent and it’s only our typical lack of ability to physically dominate men that keeps us sweet. It suggests we’ve been waiting to indulge in violence against men. The further implication is that the standard male-dominated power structure is needed to preserve the peace.  The same “logic” has been used to justify racist regimes. It doesn’t apply to women either.

2)      “I wouldn’t dare have an opinion on that…” This statement is often meant to be a jocular, humble approach to women’s issues. It’s a man admitting he’s not an expert. While that’s nice, it also effectively ends conversations where women have more relevant or detailed knowledge and experience than men. Just because men may not be experts in an area, just because in the end they may have to defer to women on a subject, they are not excused from participating in discussions of these issues. All women’s issues are human issues important to all genders. Refusing to risk talking about them is not respect. It’s marginalization.

3)      “Can you explain to me how this is sexist?” Even when this is an earnest question, it’s problematic. To some of us, this question sounds like you’ve pointed to the sky on a nice day and petulantly demanded, “Explain to me how that’s blue.” Sexism so vast and pervasive, so much a part of our worldview, it can be hard to address. We do want to talk to you about sexism. We want to help you understand the sky. But it should take some effort on your part. Do some research. Prepare yourself to talk with us about feminism. It will take time. I can’t explain decades of social theory and a lifetime of discrimination in one pithy quip you can carry in your wallet and pull out to test if things are sexist. The key to understanding sexism is empathy – looking at things the way someone else, someone of a different gender, would see them. Though empathy can never be perfect, it is a skill that can be cultivated. But no one else can do it for you.

4)      “I have a mother (wife, daughter, sisters, etc.) so it’s not like I don’t know anything about women.” Hey, everyone is related to females. That’s how our species works. You are no more of an expert on women for having a mother than anyone else born on the planet. So don’t expect us to be impressed or to add any weight to your claims just because you’ve got close genetic or legal ties to women. We can already tell you’re related to women by the way you, you know, have skin and guts and breath.

5)      “My lady-friend says feminism means XYZ and you don’t XYZ therefore you are not feminist.” There is no Feminist Rulebook, no Feminist Gestapo that storms our houses, inspects our feminism, and revokes our title if we don’t adhere to strict, narrow guidelines. Feminism is like any complex, big-tent idea system – like communism or capitalism or Islam or Christianity or other ideologies loosely shared by huge, varied groups of individuals.  One of the things holding feminism back is in-fighting between women. If you foster those schisms, you are an opponent of feminism, not an ally. Don’t think we don’t know what you’re doing. Let us agree to disagree without fomenting more discord. Especially since we don’t recognize a central arbitrator of what’s good feminism, you’d better not dare to cast yourself in that role. A woman is a feminist because she says she is. She does not have to negotiate her feminism with you.

6) Don’t talk about our gender as if it’s a magic power. Good women are good people — nurturers, caregivers, etc. — because of choices they make, not because there’s any magic determinism in our sex organs forcing us to be good. Give us some credit. Don’t understate and diminish our free will or our humanity. Just like you, we can always choose to be bad. Some of us do. An angel acting angelically isn’t all that special. A real person choosing to act angelically is and it deserves respect, not a bunch of sentimental, simplistic mumbo-jumbo.

Bonus (So I don’t have to rename the post): Enough with “beauty.” Unless you’re judging a beauty contest, it’s not appropriate to comment on strangers’ appearances. Especially when spoken to a group, it comes across as insincere, patronizing, and placatory (see item 1). It can even seem creepy. A good rule is if you wouldn’t tell men they’re beautiful in the same setting, don’t tell women they’re beautiful. Too much is said about how we look anyways. Set it aside and appreciate other things we bring to social life.

There now, back to the social media fray.

 

For Fathers’ Day: Prose Poetry Set to Photographs by LM

Photo by LM, 2014 This is me – at this time, at this age, in this flesh – when my father looks at me, in bad weather and foreign countries and late at night.

Photo by LM, 2014

Photo by LM, 2014

I ruin pictures, telegraphing through clenched teeth.  Jenny wrecks pictures.  Everyone knows it.  Photograph me when I don’t know it, distracted, in the dark, if you can, like my father does.

He sees me “through a glass, darkly” – rough pixels of close cropping, yellow and blue indoor shadows, sharp angles of sharp angles.   The glass is dim but faintly lit with a long, blood-love – billions of eons on either side of every moment.  Enough light to reveal something of how to “know even as also I am known.”

Don’t look into each other’s eyes, but out of them.

Our Fairy Godmother is the Queen of England

The Lieutenant Governor of Alberta Emerging Artist Award

The Lieutenant Governor of Alberta Emerging Artist Award

It wouldn’t be true to say I chose an arty career just to impress my kids. But I was definitely gratified this week when, right before my kids’ eyes, the unglamorous sitting and typing I usually do was fairy-godmothered into a morning of sandstone balustrades, live harp music, and canapés garnished with purple pansies.

Me at Government House , Edmonton, Alberta

Me squinting in the daylight at Government House , Edmonton, Alberta

The fairy godmother who conjured this fantastic morning for my kids and me was actually the Lieutenant Governor of Alberta. I’m one of the recipients of the 2014 Lieutenant Governor of Alberta’s Emerging Artist Award. It’s a fabulous, generous programme and I’m thrilled and honoured to be included in it. Canada is a constitutional monarchy and some of our traditional royalist sensibilities, like art patronage, provide vital support and recognition for artists – a term it’s probably high time I stopped apologizing for applying to myself.

The award was presented to me and seven other recipients – accomplished singers, filmmakers, poets, visual artists – in a private ceremony. I was able to invite five guests so I brought my parents, my husband, and my 17-year-old and 15-year-old sons – the kids of mine least likely to turn the whole thing into a brawl.

I arrived at the Government House mansion before my family and waited in the green room until we were ushered upstairs where our guests were already seated. We all rose when the “viceregal salute” was played on the harp and Queen Elizabeth II’s local representative, the Honourable Donald Ethell (who is more like an impressive great-uncle than like the queen of anything), entered to officiate from a throne made of dark wood and green velvet.

How cool is that?

Each of the eight of us was formally presented to the gathering as our bios were read. It was the first time I’d heard the adjudicators’ remarks about my work. They said, “Her writing is extraordinarily strong, powerfully handled, and evidence of a rarely encountered original voice.”

Thanks!

We then came forward to greet His Honour and receive a medal – and a discrete folder containing our prize money. (Apparently, Government House lacks a giant novelty-sized cheque printer.)

Me and the Honourable Donald Ethell, Lieutenant Governor of Alberta

Me and the Honourable Donald Ethell, Lieutenant Governor of Alberta

Just like the day years before when I was in this same room watching my extraordinary husband receive an award from the Department of Justice for his service as a prosecutor, the line from the bio that drew an audible murmur from the crowd was the one reporting our roster of sons. Lawyers, artists, everyone has something to say about a large young family.

Even His Honour mentioned it as he slipped my medal over my head. “With all the writing you do how did you find time to have so many children?”

“They were thrust upon me,” I said.

My mum loved that.

He recognized the pair of my boys sitting the audience. “Where are the other ones? In school?”

I shrugged. “I sure hope so.”

At the luncheon afterward, my boys didn’t fail to appreciate the never-ending platters of dainty sandwiches and sweets. No matter how nice they are, I have a hard time stomaching refreshments at events and it was good to see someone from the family eating my portion.

My sons met His Honour, Her Honour (his wife), their red-uniformed aide-de-camp, the Minister of Culture, the Mayor of the city of Red Deer, and a real live professor from the University of Alberta — the school my oldest boy will be attending in the Fall. The professor, Douglas Barbour, was there as a guest of one of the other artists but he also happened to be the instructor of the only senior-level English course I ever took.

My Family and the Lieutenant Governor

A Bit of My Family Meets the Lieutenant Governor

Several times during the boys’ fancy morning out, I overheard strangers asking them if they were proud of their mom. It can be an eye-roller question — even for me, someone who prefers the term “pleased” to “proud” since it travels without the negative baggage and misunderstandings that can come with “pride.”

People in their late teens aren’t renowned for being gracious. They don’t efface themselves like I do but they scoff and sigh and shrug. And the truth is, my accomplishments have meant the boys’ childhoods have been lean on motherly touches like homemade baking and chauffeur service to school.

I kept smiling but I braced myself as I listened to my boys make their answers at the Lieutenant Governor of Alberta Emerging Artist Awards luncheon. In replying to kind strangers who wished us nothing but the best, the boys set aside any cynicism, bitterness, or semantic fussiness to answer with pleasant enthusiasm – enthusiasm for me and the tumultuous, demanding arts career that may have affected their lives as much as mine.