Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Heaven and Hell

Last night was not a good night. 

I've always had delayed reactions to things, and most of the time I don't know what I am reacting to until I have a good cry and then, tired and empty, I figure it out. 

So yesterday was just a regular day - a pretty good one, actually, because I wrote, crafted, cleaned, and cooked, checking things off my productivity list. It was a Tuesday, and there isn't much excitement on Tuesdays, just the regular pattern of living. I thought that nothing was bothering me - in fact, I had gotten through the day before, the anniversary of my Grandpere's death, without any upset. 

Ahh, yes. That was the problem. 

Delayed reactions. 

I've written here at some length about my grandfather, and while I could probably go on and on about him today, I think you might have gotten the general picture of a man of intensity - French pastries, good restaurants, a passion for organs of all sorts, an incredibly valiant (or perhaps, it being my Grandpere, incredibly stubborn) battle with pancreatic cancer. A lover of good grammar, a teacher, a jokester, a person very much in control and running everything. 

He was a good man, who, like all of us, had wonderful qualities as well as his fair share of flaws. 


Thinking about him yesterday, I tried to write a blog post and just couldn't do it. How could I attempt, yet again, to do justice to this powerful figure in my life? I'm not a person of few words (shocking, I know) but still, I couldn't use my many words to describe how I was feeling or what he meant to me. 

I kept on thinking, though, about little details which have stuck with me over the years - not only of his life, but of his years of struggle before his death. I really think that he put death off so he could make sure that we were all going to be okay; he taught me how to balance a checkbook, we sorted through boxes of pictures, he told me about raising a child and about his experiences with and opinions on God. 

The God stuff - that was hard. 

I remember our priest coming over to perform the Eucharist. My grandfather and I were upstairs, Grandpere in his bed, and as the priest said the words and served us wafers and wine I couldn't help myself - I turned away, just for a moment, so that they wouldn't see me cry. 

You'd think that I would be upset with God because he let my Grandpere get sick - and I was, a little, but now I've realized that death is a necessary part of living, and without my grandfather's illness and passing, I would not have learned a lot of valuable lessons. Without it, Grandpere might not have told me all the stories he wanted to pass down, and I would be the poorer for it. Some of the stories and lessons were difficult, deeply personal. Some of the stories I needed to hear, and some of them he really needed to tell. 

One story keeps going 'round my head, has been since Monday. 

Grandpere told me about a woman in his life - and I don't remember quite who she was, other than a relative from long ago - who was a good, Christian woman. She went to church regularly and was very devout. In itself, that's not a terribly remarkable story, but what Grandpere told me next has stuck with me. He said that she, despite her apparent commitment to the church (and very much shocking my grandfather as a boy), didn't believe in heaven or hell. 

She said that heaven and hell didn't matter, as long as one lived a good life of compassion, charity, love. 

For myself, I never wanted to believe in that kind of afterlife. Reincarnation made a whole lot more sense to me, because I couldn't imagine any God who would be so unforgiving, so spiteful, as to disavow any of his children. Hell seemed like a fairy tale to me - the bogeyman, keeping you in line, threatening retribution for unkind acts, sins, hatred. And still, I'm not big on the idea of hell, because I don't think that God would reject any one of his creations; it makes much more sense to me that all of us have many opportunities to learn and improve, many lifetimes in which to make better choices.

I didn't believe in heaven, then, either. 

Until my Grandpere died. 

How comforting it is to think that our loved ones can watch down on us, that we can talk to them, late at night in the dark when we can't sleep. How lovely to imagine that there is a place, a real place, of no pain - a place where we all can go to be reunited with the people we miss most. How fantastic to think of a God, a loving God, waiting to embrace us. 

A place of Victorian couches and as many French pastries as we can eat. 

A place with organ music. 

A place where I can see him again.

But there's something niggling at the back of my mind, a squirming thing of discomfort and doubt and betrayal. Maybe I still am angry at God for letting Grandpere get sick - and I know I am angry, very angry, that God would make me live my life with mental illness. 

As I was talking with my husband last night, finally crying and working through what was bothering me, I said, 

"I want to believe that my Grandpere is in Heaven. But how can I believe in Heaven and a loving God when God is such a jerk?" 

Note for honesty: I did not say jerk. I will admit that my language got rather blue.

But isn't that the truth? The thing all people of faith struggle with, the thorn in our feet, the torn pages of our prayer book? Why me, God, and, how could you do this? If we imagine the anthropomorphic God, the God of icons and Christ and gendered pronouns, then God really is a huge jerk - and I, for one, would not want to be his friend. It's so difficult to separate the male, gilded, person-like God from what we are supposed to believe: otherworldly power, vision, and love. 

A power which is powerless over the natural order of life. A power which somehow lets us get sick, be sad, and die. 

I've been struggling with my faith for quite some time, for a lot of reasons. God is hard to reach, now, because the treatment for my bipolar disorder takes away a lot of my perceived connection with the divine: no more euphoria, no more passionate relationship with someone I can't see, no more feelings of completion at Mass. It's difficult to describe what it feels like to be mentally ill and a believer - let me just say that faith is very easy when you feel disconnected from reality and tuned in to the glory of creation. 

I've been struggling with my faith because damn it, my Grandpere was too young. The heck with you, you jerk, who took him away. 

This post doesn't have any answers. I haven't figured this out, probably never will. God is not a person who you can touch and blame and kick in the shins. I can't expect a conversation with him - I have many words, and God has none. Sometimes I pray. I usually pray to Grandpere. 

Even knowing Grandpere's flaws - rigidity, control issues, anger, and a singular mistrust of my bipolar disorder diagnosis - I miss the hell out of him. He's the one I talk to at night, and I just have to live with the cognitive dissonance which is praying and being mad at God and wishing He were real and not necessarily believing that He is. 

I don't know how to solve this problem - the God who is careless with the lives of his children. The God who gave me bipolar disorder. The God that everybody talks about as being so nice but who is a big fat jerk. I'm trying to let it all go, but the process of figuring this stuff out is endless. 

Five years and a handful of days ago, we had to say goodbye to Grandpere. Seven years ago I started treatment and had to say goodbye to God. 

Is there a Heaven? I don't know, I really don't. 

I hope there is. 

Friday, October 18, 2013

On Rage and Writing

One of the best parts of having a quartet of parents, as well as a large group of in-laws, family, and friends, is always having moments of support and inspiration. 

Yesterday, I have to admit, I did not write. Not one single word. What I did do, though, was spend most of the day with my mom and sister. Days with family are so precious to me - made even more valuable, I think, because I remember so clearly being a teenager, going through that difficult period of distancing which, while natural, is fairly unpleasant. I think you probably know what I mean: being that age comes with a fair amount of hubris (I know better than you, Mom), denial (Ugh, Mom, you just don't get me!), and a longing for the easy rapport of childhood (Mom, why don't you understand me anymore?). 

That was a rough patch. A very long, rough patch, an adolescence during which I experienced the normal growing up stuff as well as the manifestations of bipolar disorder. So, when I was diagnosed at nineteen and went home to live with my family, I was relieved not only to be thinking more clearly through therapy and medication, but also to find myself redeveloping a close, friendly relationship with my parents. 

All of this is to bring me back to yesterday, when my mom and I waited for my sister to come home and talked for an hour. 

We discussed a lot of things, many of which I am still mulling over and reconsidering, which I believe is the hallmark of good conversation. Something stuck with me, though, as I attempted to pick up the iPad and return to my daily practice this morning and found myself rusty and intimidated (yes, even after one day): 

What is my relationship with writing?

And, beyond that seemingly simple question, there are more:

How does my bipolar disorder interact with a continued practice? 

What habits have I developed - maybe procrastination, insecurity, guilt over things undone?

How can I view my disorder as natural, or even a gift, when it comes to creativity?

That last, I think, is very important. Yesterday, I found myself describing to my mother what I've come to think of as a predictable cycle - muted by meds and therapy, but still characterized by ups and downs. 

I've usually got about two months in each cycle, and it has become routine enough that I know what's going to happen and when. First comes a week or so of recovery, getting back into the swing of things, as it were, with a daily goal or inspiration, whether it be cleaning or writing or crafting. Then comes a week, or if I am lucky, two, of intense activity. 

I feel like, at this point, I should briefly define mania. Wikipedia, of course, has a whole article on the subject, but the most relevant tidbits to me are as follows: mania is characterized by abnormally elevated moods and energy levels; it is, sometimes, the opposite of depression; bipolar disorder can only be diagnosed if mania is present; the word, mania, derives from the Greek word which means madness and frenzy, and its verb form, "to be mad, to rage, to be furious."

My post earlier this week held clear examples of that second stage. I wrote 20,066 words in seven days. I mean, come on, if that isn't mania, I don't know what is. Obviously my mania now as opposed to the unchecked highs of my teenage years is a bit different - before, it was usually mixed, with a lot of pain tangled up in my creativity. Now, I charge head first into an activity and keep going, spending whole days completely invested in creating things (hair ornaments, workout plans, recipes, novels, poetry collections, you name it). And those days are very happy days. 

And then it tapers off - it all gets a bit more difficult, and those things I had been enjoying so effortlessly become an obligation. Slogging through something you love but which somehow has become dull, challenging, is a lot different than being able to achieve lofty goals without even trying. 

And then, the slump. I still get stuff done, sure, but I feel stupid and insecure and frivolous. 

And then I get back on the roller coaster and start it all again. 

I have to say I feel a bit nutty in describing this so publicly - I feel like this post needs a big disclaimer - I am not a crazy person, or, I am actually quite stable, thanks. But I think this is all important considering my questions on creativity and my experiences with inspiration and daily practice.  

Bringing all of those factors back to my conversation with my mother - an open, honest exchange of ideas, emotions, and support - I still find myself worrying over this cycle and how it can be turned from an involuntary process into a wonderful catalyst for my creative life. In other words, just because I know a slump is coming doesn't mean that I have to view my elevated moods as an inevitable symptom of mental illness. Rather, I could see myself as lucky that I am able to achieve in a week what might take a month or two had I not bipolar disorder. 

And the support I receive from family and friends during my productive phases - linked though it is to progress on a novel or my business - actually carries over into the days when I am not as energized, not as frenzied. My parents and grandparents, husband and in-laws, close friends and acquaintances, don't stop cheering for me when I find it difficult to cheer for myself. 

Again, I find myself thinking that I am lucky, because even in slumps and feelings of foolishness I know I can achieve things and I know that there are always people ready with kind words and affection. 

So maybe, when trying to answer the question of how my disorder is part and parcel of my creativity, I can view the chemicals of my brain not as a curse but as an incredible gift which allows me to make new things and strengthen my relationships with the people I love most. 

This morning I looked at the ever increasing document holding my romance novel and had a moment of thinking, can I really do this? It was so easy two days ago, so why is it intimidating today? Isn't this all a bit of silliness rather than a worthwhile piece of fiction?  

But then I remembered what I had talked about with my mother, how I had told her that I was trying to use my cycle of ups and downs to my advantage. And, though I didn't type out the four thousand or so words I had been able to just a few days before, I got in four more pages. It wasn't easy. But I did it. 

As always, I'm trying to remind myself that having bipolar disorder - that it's not all that I am. Even in slumps I can still call myself a writer, the founder of a home business, a pianist, a cook, and the handful of other things I enjoy and practice. And I remind myself that my bipolar disorder can be a source of great inspiration and happiness and achievement. 

And I am grateful, so grateful, to the people who help me with their support - on good days, bad days, and days of madness and fury. 

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Fun, Pleasure, and Writing a Novel

Let me tell you - after six days and sixty-three pages, it surprises no one more than myself that I am writing a romance novel. 

The romance genre is pretty well known for unmitigated dreck, I think. We've all seen the paperbacks by the checkout - you know, bosoms and fluffy shirts and handsome princes with long, flowing hair. I've tried reading some traditional romance novels, and most of the time I couldn't get through them without giggling, or couldn't get through them at all. I'm not trying to make light of any writer's work, of course - after four years of training in "literary fiction," and after realizing that in general, that's not what people wanted to read, I've come to the conclusion that every writer, as long as they are having fun writing, deserves the space and respect to practice their craft. 

I admit, I have, in the past, said some pretty negative things about popular fiction. As much as I am grateful for the education I received from Hopkins, I also graduated with a healthy dose of snootiness, which I very much regret. I was unpleasant about a lot of books, and it took me a while to unclench my snobbery to realize the value of, a) reading for fun, and, b) writing for pleasure. 

This is not to say that I had never read anything other than literary fiction. Far from it. 

My teenage years were filled with fantasy novels, primarily, and (I'll come totally clean here) quite a lot of Harry Potter fanfiction. 

Like, a lot. A lot. 

I read and adored Jacqueline Carey's Kushiel novels, which were filled with adventure and romance, the alternate-history heroine trekking the globe and saving the world. I pored over them multiple times - still do, in fact, because I read all nine books set in that universe at least once a year - and I wanted to be a part of that world of language and rescues and pretty solid chunks of naughty stuff. 

What can I say? I was fifteen. 

I regularly read what one might call, "transformative works," a fancy name for fanfiction, until four in the morning. Hermione Granger in Rome, Cairo, Paris; Severus Snape and his pet snake, Esmé; Draco Malfoy, polyjuiced into a rat with a penchant for dancing to the Beatles.


And not for one minute, when I was that age, did I stop myself and turn up my nose and think, ugh, what dreck. 

That reaction I learned later. 

As I said, I've been trying to break that habit. Slowly but surely I've turned back to genre fiction and honestly, I've been enjoying the heck out of it. Some series I return to again and again, some I drop (oh, Anita Blake, what happened to you?), some I start up because my husband gets into them. 

I'm lucky to have a stepmom who loves genre fiction and has always wanted to share it with me. She bought me my first copy of The Golden Compass (long gone, now, which is what happens when you read in the bath) and let me borrow The Mists of Avalon (which I also should not have read in the bath). 

I'm lucky to have a husband who has always read different kinds of books - some science fiction, some thriller, some espionage, some mystery - and who possesses not one bit of pretension. Without him, I never would have read the Camel Club series, or the Dresden novels. 

But I never thought I could write genre. Part of that was the attitudes of the JHU writing program, and part of it was my own insecurity - I think that because I loved genre novels, really loved them, I was convinced that I would never be able to live up to Carey, Hamilton, Pullman, Bradley, Baldacci, Butcher. 

So, you know, I fooled around with James Joyce's language. I tried to call upon Chekhov's understated pain and humor. And it just - 

It wasn't fun. 

I think I probably wrote sixty pages and more at Hopkins - but all different pieces, all shorts. I'd try to start a novel occasionally and ended up staring at my computer screen, stumped. I loved writing, but it wasn't something I could power through or a level of energy I could maintain; I think I wrote well, but I didn't write for myself. I couldn't get out of my own head - almost everything I wrote was semi-biographical, and if I thought I was being subtle I was, I'm sure, very naive and completely transparent. 

That brings me to today. Because for the first time, I'm not writing about myself, and I'm not writing because I have to. 

I'm writing for fun. 

Writing is awesome. 

So what I'm writing now - it could definitely be called "dreck." But I'm enjoying the hell out of it, and I'm starting to form a new relationship with my writing which is revealing what I want to write, want to share. 

The books and fic I loved as a kid - they're about relationships. Yes, there's action and plot and drama in all of them, but even the Camel Club series is about friendship and the inter-connected emotional lives of fully fleshed out characters. A lot of the relationships I enjoyed reading about were - what's the word - unconventional? Whether through magic or sexuality, the people in my favorite books had complicated lives and complicated loves. 

If you think 50 Shades is weird, you should look at some of the stuff on my bookshelf. 

And, even, if all goes well, read my novel. 

So yeah, I'm writing some pretty out there stuff, and if I were back at school and tried to turn it in, it would not go over well, to say the least. Part of me is a bit embarrassed about it - this is so not how I thought I would reach 16,000 words and counting - but another part is pretty happy because spending four hours a day or more on romance is a lot better than staring at a blank computer screen, trying to sound like Dostoyevsky. (Though my stuff has always leaned towards the Henry Miller side of things.)

Tomorrow, I will have been writing every day for an entire week. I'm hoping to hit 20,000 words before I head out for a night on the town with my best friend, raise a toast to myself for sticking with it. 

And I'm hoping to just keep having fun. 

And maybe, this time next year, I can turn this weird, out there, magical, genre, romance novel into a book by the checkout. 

Thursday, October 10, 2013


I love being a big sister. 

Yesterday I was able to chaperone a group of kids, including my sister and one of her best friends, on a trip to the Pennsylvania Renaissance Festival. Now, if you know anything about me, you probably knew or could have guessed that I am a huge renfaire geek - so naturally sis and I were dressed up in garb and ready to roll. 

This baffled a lot of children - I can't tell you how many people asked me for directions at the faire, or whether I worked there. The idea that a grownup could dress up for fun was utterly mystifying to a lot of these kids. Most of them had never been to a renaissance festival before, and I think they couldn't imagine a world in which adults wanted to pretend for a day. It made me think about expectations - my experience growing up led me to believe that dressing up was not only enjoyable but sometimes mandatory (see my Anglican priests in their gold-tinged vestments). These kids didn't have the same experiences, so their expectation of what adults do was entirely different from mine. 

But these kids had expectations of their own. 

When I was little, going to the faire, I heard a lot of things, from recorders to hammered dulcimers to cannon blast and gunshots. I knew the music and I knew what blank ammunition sounded like. It scared me at first, sure, to see a man pull out a pistol and shoot somebody (who of course, didn't bleed) but soon enough I figured out that it was pretend, just like their costumes and renfaire personas. 

The kids I watched over yesterday initially found that music boring, but when they heard the gunshots, the cannons, they immediately stopped talking. Some of them ducked. Some of them hit the ground as if their lives depended on it. 

I am not exaggerating. These reactions were those kids' expectations - this was what you were supposed to do. 

As for me, I felt a shiver of foreboding when I saw that these children - elementary and middle schoolers - already knew how to react to the sound of a gunshot. Not just foreboding - maybe even shame. Because a world in which children have any understanding of this kind of violence means that we have failed them, that we have created a space of constant danger and fear. A space they live in every day. 

How many times do we have to explain to our children what's happening on the news? How many duck and cover drills, how many shelter in place routines do they have to endure before it becomes normal or even expected? I remember my first shelter in place experience - and it wasn't when I was little, but when I was teaching. A classroom full of first graders huddled away from the doors and windows, utterly silent, and none of them were moved by it but I most certainly was. They grew up with it, were growing up in a world of school shootings, domestic violence, domestic terrorism. 

Was I naive, as a little girl, to not think that this stuff could happen to me - or was I just incredibly lucky?

Some people might look at the kids I was chaperoning and assume - because of their economic backgrounds, their race, whatever - that they were naturally exposed to more violence. Statistics of urban gun crimes are thrown out there by common citizens and politicians as an explanation of why gun control doesn't work, as if there's a class of people (read: usually poor, usually minority) who just have to accept, just have to take the blame for pathetic gun laws and routine apathy. As if being Black, or being poor, or being generally disenfranchised and disrespected meant that gun violence was normal. 

As if it were expected. 

But I'll tell you now, those kids were more influenced by school shootings than by "urban gun violence." It wasn't just some subset of kids who got quiet and scared - it was all of them. All of them were living in a world of violent expectations. 

And that's what scares me. 

Those people who allow and even, by their inaction, endorse gun violence in the lives of little children can't see what happens to those kids. Can't see that they are good kids - that my sister's best friend loved the storyline at the faire and couldn't wait to go home so that she could play pretend and shout, "God save the Queen!" with her dolls the way she had been coached by actresses in pretty dresses. They can't see a group of kids from every background run up onstage to dance to the recorder and guitar - even though they had never heard that kind of music before, even though people were watching. They won't allow themselves to notice that these little people who spend their dollars on fake, furry mustaches and run around still wanting to play dress up are the same little people who live in a world of Columbine and Sandy Hook and who know how to duck when they hear gunshots. 

Expectations. How did I end up with garb, and they ended up with violence? 

I love being a big sister - wouldn't trade it for the world. I just wish that I could turn back the clock for this generation of children and bring them into a world without school shootings, mall shootings, movie theatre shootings. And I wish, so much, that our lawmakers could help to make that happen. 

We had a great day at the faire, and I can't help but think that maybe things would be better if I could have kept all those kids there, where bullets were blanks and cannons shot fireworks.