A Demon in the Castle: The Making of an Unfortunate Hero.

NB: This post discusses the childhood experience of family violence.

ViolenceOne possible and unfortunate repercussion of growing up in a violent household, whether it was physically or emotionally violent, is that a person often develops a disproportionate sense of his or her own importance. The counter intuitiveness of this observation is easily explained when one recalls that the abuser rarely take responsibility for his or her actions.

“Look what you made me do” is a familiar refrain to an abused child. The child is told over and over again, “you — and not I — are responsible for my violent actions.” It is very easy for the child to come to believe this story and to think he or she possess an incredible power to compel older and more powerful beings to do horrible things.

To further aggravate the situation, in many families, once the immediate moment of violence is over, the abuser or someone else will attempt to compensate — indeed, overcompensate — for the violence, and will shower the child with some kind of recompense. Once more, the child is at the center of another universe.

Eventually, having internalized the notion that it is responsible for the being’s behavior, the child attempts to control it, developing a kind of primitive witchcraft to appease the ever-ready storm. Like any human, the child will seek out evidence that supports its theory — really, its hope — that it can control the terrible being. The child deceives itself into thinking it has some measure of control over the uncontrollable.

In some cases, with age, the child grows smart enough and, perhaps, large enough to exert meaningful control over the actions of the violent other. This, unfortunately, can reinforce the original lie of the abuser. By defeating or containing or escaping the violence, the now older child may take this as proof that, in some sense, he or she was in control all along. If only he or she had been stronger earlier, then, none of this would have happened. It is also possible, of course, that the child never outsmarts or escapes the terrible being, and remains forever trapped in a world where his or her actions lead to tremendous and horrible consequences, which would not otherwise have happened if only he or she knew better.

It is no surprise to me that so many popular stories, books, and movies feature children who, at the start of the narrative, are in the care of horrible people, but, eventually, discover that their true parents are very special and, because of that, they themselves are very special. I’m sure every child, no matter how caring and loving his or her parents may be, at some point, feels that his or her parents are tyrants and, for this reason, wishes he or she had other parents. We all, at one time or another, wanted to be an as of yet undiscovered prince or princess wizard unjustly ruled by our evil step-parents.

Unfortunately, many children do grow up in households in which demons and monsters roam freely, and the child’s survival depends on avoiding, containing, or defeating them. To put it in no simpler terms, imagine the incredible burden of trying, on a daily and minute-by-minute basis, to save a parent from him or herself because you and only you have the incredible power to make him or her do or not do horrible things. It is a terrible drama, and it is one that places the child at the center of the narrative, as the principal protagonist and wizardly chosen one, because the child has been nurtured to believe only he or she has the power to defeat the demon in the castle.

A child who has lived this terrible drama may spend the rest of his or her life always anxiously looking for the next demon to flee, contain, or slay. He or she may seek out relationships which reinforce his or her own false sense of importance, either as the abuser or the abused. He or she may always position him or herself as the fixer of all things however big or small in whatever environment he or she find him or herself. He or she may lead a life in which he or she only ever hears the statement, “look what you made me do,” whether anyone actually says it or not.

In my own case, through hard work and a bit of luck, I have become very good at appreciating and enjoying the moment in the here and now, yet I still have a hard time appreciating my life on a more global level, which, of course, makes the appreciation of an individual moment more difficult. I torment myself with the questions like, am I living the life I should be living, am I doing as much as I can to make a difference, is my life too easy, is there enough at stake, am I leaving some talent or skill inadequately exploited, is there somewhere else I should be, is this really enough, shouldn’t I be slaying dragons and saving princesses?

I suspect, if I had not been thrust center stage into a seemingly larger-than-life drama at an early age, I might be far less haunted by these questions. On the other hand, perhaps, it was a natural inclination to question constantly the status quo of my life that allowed me to slay the demon in my castle. Ultimately, I suppose, in the end, it is only for me to decide one way or the other.

On A Day Like Any Other: A Note to Self.

DetailsIn the summer of 2000, I was in a bit of a panic.

Unbelievably, on August 27th, 2000, I was due to turn twenty-six, which meant I had to start rounding my age up to thirty, which was half way to sixty, which was only five years from retirement, which was practically the same as dying. Turning twenty-six, I concluded, is akin to death, thanks to one unavoidable step on a very slippery slope.

The big day came and the big day went, and, miraculously, my life didn’t disappear into a puff of poor reasoning. Days passed, weeks passed, months passed, and, lo and behold, life chugged along, and I chugged along with it. Nothing of any real significance happened on August 27th, 2000, or the day after, or the day after that. Eventually, I realized that fretting about my 26th birthday had been a bit silly. Accordingly, I have never since fretted about any other birthday.

In the fourteen years that have passed since that day, I can’t say that I have accomplished anything upon which I would rest my laurels, but I have done a lot. Twenty-six seems both very close and very far. Of course, so does thirty-three and nineteen. Of all the subtle but significant changes, I think my sense of time, experienced through memory, has changed most of all.

If I could tell myself one thing at twenty-six, it would be something along the lines of “Calm the fuck down. Old age, retirement, and death, yes, even though it feels right around the corner, they are decades, decaaaaaaaades away. In a decade and half, you won’t be worrying about retirement or death, so why worry about it now? What’s your rush? Chill. Focus on living, not what comes at the end of it.”

Of course, even if I could bend space-time and communicate this message to my twenty-six year old self, it wouldn’t make much of a difference. I know, because about a year and half after my twenty-sixth birthday, not long before I left for New Zealand, I saw Waking Life, and one of the scenes in the movie makes the very point I want to communicate to my younger self.

I can still remember how my late-twenties brain raged at the notion that this crippling sense of urgency would somehow play itself out simply as a consequence of getting older. Sure enough, a few years later it did. Perhaps, this flick of the urgency switch is one more stage of brain development we don’t yet fully understand. Maybe, it was something else. Either way, it happened.

Ultimately, I can’t entirely disown that sense of urgency. It played a role in getting me from there to here, and here is pretty good. With the benefit of hindsight — that is, if I could remain the person I am and make different choices — there are many things I would do differently, but, I like who I am and the path that got me here, so I really wouldn’t change a thing, if it meant changing who I have become. All things considered, I played a pretty good hand with the cards I was dealt.

More importantly, the I that I have become has so much more life left to live. In another fourteen years, which seem like millennia away right now, I will be fifty-four, which fourteen years ago seemed akin to death, and now looks like it will be a pretty fun and productive time of life. When I think of what I’ve done with the last fourteen years and the very many important if subtle changes that have happened, I really have no idea who I will be, what I will be doing, or what the future version of me will want to say to this younger version of myself.

I have hunch, though. When I reflect on the things that I let myself get worked up about these days, I suspect my future self will want to tell me something along the lines of “Calm the fuck down. Everything is going to be fine. Focus on living, not what comes at the end of it.”

Depression Was His Name-O: Naming My Big Black Dog.

A friend recently posted to Facebook this very effective account of depression. Watching it got me thinking about my own black dog.

At some point in my late teens or  early 20s, a good friend, and, at that time, a wildlife rehabilitator, said to me point blank, “Sterling, I think, you are depressed.” At the time, I vehemently denied it. Fortunately, thanks in part to some of her own rehabilitative efforts, much later in life I was able to tell her, “You know what, you were right.”

In defense of my younger self, he wasn’t lying. At that time, I really and truly believed that I was not depressed. I simply couldn’t recognize the fact of my depression because it was all that I had ever known. I had nothing to compare it to. Plus, by most objective standards I was a pretty successful young person. Depressed people don’t succeed, right?

It was only many years later, thanks to a bit of luck and a bit of work, that I realized there were feelings I could experience that were different than the state of general unhappiness or despondency that were so familiar to me. Happiness wasn’t the absence of total despondency, as I had come to think of it, instead, it was this whole other feeling that was good, filling, and empowering.

Once I got the ball rolling, it really got rolling. Every once and a while, I would take stock of where I was at, and I’d think, “Wow, I am so much better than I was. This must be as good as it gets.” Six months or a year later, I’d have the same thought, and on and on it went, getting better and better. You can’t know how high the mountain is until you start to climb it.

It’s impossible to know with any certainty how I got from point A to point T, when there are so many variables at play. Nevertheless, I think my friend’s point blank assertion that I was depressed was crucial. It planted in my head the idea that I might be depressed, so that when other factors or events pointed in that direction, it was easier for me to see that I was. Importantly, she also didn’t lord it over me. She said it, I denied it, and she left it at that.

And that’s why I am writing this post.

If you are depressed, there’s a good chance you don’t — in fact, can’t — realize it. At some level, you might even want to avoid realizing it because it may seem like an insurmountable challenge. In my own experience, exorcising the depression isn’t that hard, if you are no longer in the environment that helped to create it. The hard part — the hardest part — is recognizing the fact of your depression and mustering the will to get rid of it.

If you haven’t already done so, do me a favour and watch the video. If it feels familiar, if it resonates, there is a good chance you are depressed, in the the clinical-you-need-to-work-on-it sense. Try talking to a professional. Give your local Distress Centre a call. Having once worked the phones as a volunteer at a Distress Centre, I can assure you the person on the other end of the line will want to help and connect you to relevant resources. If you don’t want to talk to someone about it, start talking to yourself about it: journal, reflect, reminisce, and research the issue.

Remember, you lose nothing by starting the conversation, if you aren’t clinically depressed. If you are depressed, you have the chance to gain everything — and I mean everything — by starting the conversation. Whether you know me or not, you can trust me on this one.

An Eulogy for Apartment 601: The Incubating Paralysis of Freedom.

Tree601Thursday evening, I dropped the keys to my former apartment through the mail slot of the building’s administrative office. The “former” was now official.

I moved into Apartment 601, 345 Clarence Street, almost seven and a half years ago. I have never lived in any one place any longer. Previously, the longest I had lived in one place was four, maybe, four and a half years — a childhood home. As a matter of contrast, in New Zealand, during the five years I lived there, I count seven different homes.

The punchline: Apartment 601 is my least favorite apartment I have ever lived in. The story of my stay in that apartment provides one summary of the story of my time in Ottawa.

In February 2007, when I arrived in Ottawa, with a couple of bags, a guitar, and some new suits, I had a one week hotel stay in which to find an apartment, while, at the same time, starting my new job on the Hill. The building’s Clarence street location looked good and, because I was still in student-mode, when the rental agent showed me two apartments, I took the smaller, older, and much shabbier apartment because the rent was fifty dollars less.

One year later, I was pretty sure my time on the Hill would would soon be over. I would, of course, leave Ottawa as soon as that happened, so I decided that I might as well carry on with the shabby apartment — renting month-to-month. A year after that, I was working in the arts and wanted the freedom of having no lease. The low rent and location were important perks. A year after that, I had too much debt and too little income to move. The year after that, I was working a short-term contract. And, again, I was sure to leave Ottawa once the contract wasn’t renewed. After a string of contracts and, at last, a permanent position, upheaval at work made me wonder again if I would be in Ottawa for much longer. Besides, the location was great and the rent, thanks to rent control, was now very good.

Fortunately, I was saved by a good friend, who managed to dislodge me from the story in which I had ensnared myself. He was in need of a tenant and was happy to let me rent month-to-month. The rent was good and the location great. The apartment even came furnished, so I could once again tell myself that I was well-positioned to bolt when the conditions were right. I finally managed to fax the official notice to terminate my tenancy at Apartment 601 in May 2014.

The Ontario Government, it should be said, is partly to blame for my paralysis. To legally give notice in Ontario, one must give the landlord a full two months warning, which, in practice, means one really needs to know where one wants to be a full three months in advance. On more than one occasion, I was ready to pull the trigger on moving, until I counted off the months, and thought, “I have no idea if I will have any reason to be in Ottawa three months from now.” As a matter of contrast, in New Zealand, I only had to give three weeks notice.

Nevertheless, the catalyzing cause of my paralysis, undoubtedly, is this assumption that I will leave Ottawa any one of these days now. This assumption primarily exists, I think, because I was born and raised in Ottawa and swore not to stay or return. More than one old friend and acquaintance has said to me, “I never thought you’d come back.” Now, they say, “you’re never leaving.” I also want to say the assumption exists because I have never really seen myself in the mirror of the city, but, as soon as I say it, I realize it is the assumption itself that may be distorting my view.

Whatever the reason, and whether I stay or go, I am glad I returned and that I have stayed as long as I have. A few months ago, when I was certain that this was it, I’m really leaving this time, I started to draft in my head the eulogy for my time in Ottawa. I realized that my farewell speech would be one of gratitude, not regret. I’ve met some great people, reconnected with old friends, and, most importantly, terraformed the geography of memory that defines every space. Because of my return, and my Jedi-mind trick extended stay, Ottawa is no longer the city of my childhood and youth. I have remediated that brownfield of memory.

And now I find myself living in the very neighborhood in which I was physically born and in which the I-that-is-me was also born. Connaught Public School and Rosemount Public Library are where I first discovered the power of words to create, to remake, and to remediate. Words can transform. Words can also externalize and expel, like an ear ridding itself of wax, cleaning as it goes. If my life were a work of fiction, surely this would be the moment for a dramatic twist in the plot and even a climactic third birth.

Life, of course, isn’t a work fiction. It is bound by no dramatic conventions and is unimpressed by the narrative potential of a native son’s homecoming to a land that is strange only because of his literary exorcisms. Life isn’t art, however artfully we try to live it.

So, thanks, Apartment 601, 345 Clarence Street, despite all your shortcomings and very many false fire alarms, despite the fact that I lived in you for far too long because of an adolescent desire to tell myself a story of freedom, I will remember you well. I didn’t know it when we first met, but you were an incubator for a me that was coming to be.

Une nouvelle langue: une nouvelle identité ?

UpÀ quel âge as-tu commencé à devenir la personne que tu es aujourd’hui ?

Pour moi, j’avais douze ans. Probablement, c’était parce que la puberté était arrivée dans sa pleine mesure. Je grandissais rapidement et je perdais rapidement beaucoup de livres. Au début de ma douzième année, j’étais un petit et gros enfant. À la fin de celle-ci, j’étais un grand et maigre adolescent.

Mais, je pense qu’il y avait une autre raison pour laquelle cette année était l’année où j’ai commencé à devenir la personne qui je suis aujourd’hui. Lorsque j’avais douze ans, je commencais à écrire, pour la première fois, mes propres nouvelles, des nouvelles qui sont entièrement de ma propre création. Plus encore, j’ai mis ma vie en mots pour la première fois et j’ai appris que je peux refaire, peut-être même créer, ma vie et mon identité avec les mots.

J’étais chanceux. J’avais une jeune et, pour un garçon en pleine chaleur de puberté, très jolie maîtresse qui nous permettait d’écrire ce qu’on voulait pour des devoirs de créations littéraires. Il y avait une exception. Nous avons été obligés d’écrire une autobiographie. La mienne s’appellait « Me ».

Malheursement, je n’ai pas ma première autobiographie. Peut-être, c’est mieux ainsi. Peut-être, elle n’est pas comme je me la rappelle. Mais, si je me souviens bien, celle-ci, j’essaye, à la façon d’un garçon qui a douze ans, de rassembler et examiner de manière cohérente mes souvenirs et me demande pourquoi et comment ces souvenirs rappellent mon histoire. Peut-être, dans ces mots, dans cette autobiographie, je me trouvais moi-même pour la prémiere fois.

Je pense maintenant à ma première autobiographie parce que, si c’est vrai que nous sommes les mots qu’on utilise, et si je maitrise une nouvelle langue, peut-être, avec ces nouveaux mots, je pourrais faire un nouveau « moi » .

corrigé par MA

A Return to Paradise: Sun, Fun, and Reflection.

ParadiseIf the travel gods are merciful, by the time you are reading this, I will be on the little piece of paradise where this selfie was taken… wow, was it really five years ago.

A lot has happened since then. Come to think of it. This blog pretty much documents all of it.

Am I any different? I’ve learned a lot in that time, but I don’t feel like there is any dramatic rupture between who I was then and who I am now.

Perhaps, I draw this conclusion because of the blog. The frequent writing might make a rope of all the different threads of these last five years, creating a coherent sense of continuity.

Perhaps, I draw this conclusion because I’m writing this post before I return to paradise. The return to a beauty from which I have long been absent might be the catalyst for insight — not the anticipation of return.

This vacation comes at a good time. It is a much needed break from the routines and rhythms of life here in Ottawa. I will be amongst good people and beautiful surroundings. If nothing else, it will be an incontestable reminder of how lucky I am.

And that’s always a good thing.

Pride: In Its Sudden Return, Its Long Absence Felt.

PrideIt caught me by surprise. Unexpectedly, I found myself taking pride in my work. When I noticed the feeling, I realized how good it felt. I also realized that it had been a long time since I had last felt the feeling.

On the face of it, it was not much to be proud of: a handful of grammatically correct sentences in French that are structurally a little more sophisticated than the others. A sentence or two that I had expected to be corrected, but I decided to write anyways because, hey, that’s how you learn. A sentence or two over which I had struggled and, when I learned that I had composed them correctly, I experienced a good feeling.

I had challenged myself, I had reached beyond my own expectations, I had risked failing, and I succeeded. Cue the serotonin flow of accomplishment.

The shadow of this shiny moment, however, was the realization that I had not felt the feeling in some time. The return of the feeling only highlighted its long absence.

We live, I think, in an incredibly privileged time in human history, especially for those of us who like to create. We can, if we chose, work at relatively non-taxing jobs that provide us with plenty of time and money to pursue our creative pursuits in comfortable circumstances. We can share our work easily and efficiently. Our art has been freed from the stifling confines of the cash nexus.

Ideally, our workaday lives and our creative lives will be fuel for the other’s fodder. Sometimes, one part of the day will energize us at a time when the other does not. There is also, of course, the risk that complacency or frustration in one part of the day may wash over and stifle the other part of the day.

From whichever side of the dyke the complacency or frustration flows, the answer is the same: do something to improve or, at least, change the situation. The good life is not a stagnate life.

I know what I’m going to do to change my situation. What you are going to do to change yours?