31 May, 2007

Winter Solstice by Rosamunde Pilcher

One of the last books that I read during my most recent hospitalization at Winter Solstice by Rosamunde Pilcher. I read a paperback version of the novel, which was 505 pages. I began reading Friday evening, but only got through about 15 pages or so. On Saturday afternoon , I began reading in earnest as I was drawn into the story, and then I didn't put the book down until I had finished with it on Sunday evening, a sign to me that my depression was improving as the pace with which I read was more reminiscent of my childhood days, when I wouldn't put a book down until I was finished with it, especially if the story held my interest, which, for some reason, Winter Solstice definitely did.

If you're interested in reading the book (which I highly recommend), you can find reviews about it all over the net. There are three pages that I had photocopied, as those passages spoke to me in that certain way that other books have been doing -- therapeutically. Once you get past the first fifteen or twenty pages or so, I dare you to put the book down. There's nothing bizarre, outlandish, or radical about the plot, which is one of the best things about this book; it's just a beautifully written story.
"What does the poor child do all day?"
"Most of the time, she's at school. She's got a nice little room of her own in the flat, and a friend called Emma. . . ."
"I suppose she never sees a man. Or a boy."
"The school is all-girls, and if she does visit her father, the dreaded Marilyn is always much in evidence. Jealous, probably, stupid cow."
"I think she was rather taken by Rory Kennedy. Quite apart from being immensely brave and rescuing Horace, he has dyed hair. And an earring."
"Too exciting."
"We've all been asked up to the Manse tomorrow evening for a drink with the Kennedys. I'd love you to be able to come, because I want you to meet Tabitha Kennedy, but perhaps you aren't feeling up to such wild sociality."
"I'll see."
"And then, apparently, there's some shindig on in the school hall, all the children are going to dance reels. Rory asked Lucy if she'd go with him and his sister, and she's all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed about this, and says she's going to wash her hair tonight."
Carrie drank her tea, which was scalding-hot and smoky tasting because Elfrida had made it with Lapsang Souchong tea-bags. She said rather sadly, "I have an awful feeling that when the time comes to go back to London, we're going to have terrible sadness and tears."
"Don't say it. I can't bear to think about it."
"I've been thinking about this job with the travel company. In London. I've decided I'll take it. Maybe just for a year. Then I can be around for Lucy, try to brighten things up for her a bit. I'll bludgeon Dodie into submission, force her to let me take Lucy to Cornwall to stay with Jeffrey and Serena. You know, she's never seen Jeffrey. She was just a baby when they divorced, and Dodie's resentment and grudges show no signs of abating."
"Poor woman."
"Why do you say that?"
"Because she has nothing else to think about. More tea?" Carrie held out her empty cup and Elfrida refilled it.
"Did Nicola ring today?"
"Nicola? Were you expecting a call?"
"No. But tomorrow she's flying to Florida. I thought she might have called to say goodbye to Lucy. But she obviously hasn't."
"Lucy never spoke about it. To be truthful, I think she's too preoccupied with doggy adventures, Rory Kennedy, and buying Christmas tree decorations with Oscar."
"Good for Lucy."
They fell silent, sipping tea, companionable. The house was very quiet. Elfrida said, as casually as she could, "Is this a good time to talk?"
Carrie raised her head, and her beautiful dark eyes gazed into Elfrida's face.
"Talk?""
"You said you would tell me. Some time. Later. Why you left Austria. Why you came home so precipitantly. Why you are taking this job in London. Perhaps now, with no person to interrupt, is as good as any. I'm not prying. I just want to know. Not so much about Austria, as why you are so worn out and sad-looking."
"Is that how I look?"
"But no less beautiful."
"Oh, Elfrida, what a star you are. I don't feel beautiful. I feel old and finished. I'm nearly thirty now. It's like a watershed. And I don't know what's waiting for me on the other side of the hill. Since I last saw you, the years have gone so fast. Thirty once seemed an age away. Now, before I know it, I shall be forty and then fifty and I have to make something of my life. But the simple prospect of decisions and meeting new people and finding old friends drains me of all energy."
"That's probably why you caught this horrible cold. Why a small virus has laid you so low."
This penultimate paragraph describes very well how I've felt for the past fie years of my life, and a great deal of how I currently feel about life. I know that I've done things with my life -- accomplishments of which I should be very proud. But in the grand scheme of things, they don't seem all that important. I don't feel as though I've accomplished much, even though I know that I have. And this is what depression does to a person. It makes them feel worthless -- it makes me feel worthless. I know that, intellectually, that I can do more with my life, and that I have many years ahead. But I don't feel that way. I'm just now beginning to feel that I can live again, that I might be able to make something more of my life. Options are opening up for me. But again, like Carrie, when I begin to think about it, I just feel drained of all energy, especially when I think of what I'm going to have to do to get anything done.

As the nutritionist -- who happens to be a very sympathetic ear and great therapist -- said to me, "How do you eat an elephant, Peter?"

The answer: one bite at a time. I know that I have to do things in steps, and baby steps at that. Yet -- still -- I feel so drained when I think about it all. Anyway, you can see how beautifully this book is written, and how it can describe life in its many stages. On to more ....
"My dad and I used to do that. When I was little and we were all still together. We read The Borrowers. And when he wanted to tease, he called me Arietty. And he put Babedas in his bath and made the whole house smell piny. What else did Francesca like doing?"
"Everything. She had a little phony, and an old bicycle, and a guinea pig in a hutch, and a bedroom full of books. On wet days, she used to go into the kitchen and make biscuits. They were always either burned or raw, and I used to have to eat them and sweat they were delicious. And we listened to music together, and played duets on the piano. . . ."
"Was she good at the piano?"
"Not very."
"Was she good at lessons?"
"Not very."
"What was she really good at?"
"Living."
"That's important, isn't it?"

I don't know that I've ever been good at living. I think that when we were children, and innocent, we were all good at living. We didn't know any better. But as we age and grow supposedly wiser, we lose in ourselves our own ability to live. At least, it seems to be such as the case to me. What secrets -- other than innocence from the cruelty of reality in the world -- do children possess that allow them to live and not merely exist? This is a question in search of an answer in this day of enlightenment and wonderment -- quite pitiful that we can exist so well and live so poorly.

How does one not become overwhelmed with the realities of life such that one is prevented from living it? This, gentle readers, is perhaps the billion dollar question of our century.

The passage continues,
Their eyes met, and they gazed at each other, both silenced by the enormity of what Oscar had just said. It was as though he had spoken without thought, and the word hung between them like a lie. Francesca had been good at living, but now she was dead, her young life ended with the brutal finality of a fatal car crash.
Lucy did not know what to say. To her horror she saw Oscar's eyes fill with tears, his mouth tremble. Then, in an abrupt movement, he covered his eyes with his hand. He tried to speak, but words did not come; instead, a sound was torn from deep in his chest, a sob of utter despair.
She had never before seen a grown-up weep, rendered incapable by an almost overwhelming grief. She stared at him, wondering what she could do to comfort, and saw him shake his head, denying his own weakness, somehow struggling for control of his unbearable emotion. After a bit, to her huge relief, he took his hand from his face and reached into his breast pocket for his handkerchief. Then he blew his nose, made an effort to smile at her, reassuring her. He said, "Sorry."

Who hasn't had a moment such as this in their life, when unbearable emotions overwhelm one's self-control amidst a witness or two? This writing is real -- it is three-dimensional; it is felt. Continuing on,
"It doesn't matter, Oscar. I don't mind. Really I understand."
"Yes, I think you do. Death is part of living. I have to remember that, but from time to time the truth eludes me."
"Living is important, isn't it? And remembering?"
"More important than anything else." He stowed his handkerchief away once more. "That first day, the day you arrived, you and I sat in the church and talked about Christmas and the Winter Solstice. It was then that I remembered Francesca, for the first time, without total desolation. I remembered having exactly the same conversation with her a year or so ago. Trying to explain about the Christmas star and the scientists' theory of time. And she listened but was not convinced. She didn't want to be convinced. She liked the story just as it was."

"In the bleak mid-winter
Frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron,
Water like a stone.

"That was the way she wanted Christmas to be, and for Francesca it wouldn't have been magic any other way. Because the carols and the darkness and the presents were all part of a time when life took flight, and the whole world soared to the stars."
Lucy said, "That's how this Christmas is going to be."
"Stay with us."
"I do love you, Oscar."
"There's a lot of love around. Don't ever forget that."
"I won't."
"Do you want to come downstairs now, and join the others, and have some supper? If they've left any for us. . . ."
"I have to comb my hair and wash my face."
"In that case." He relinquished her hand with a little pat, got off the bed, and went to the door. She watched him go. As he left the room, he turned back for a final reassuring smile.
"Don't be too long, my duck."
This type of writing evokes imagery in one's mind, does it not? It's just beautiful, beautiful writing filled with wondrous characters and a not-so-far-fetched plot. And remembering is important, as it's what keeps the dead alive. To me, a person is defined by his or her own actions. (I've been told that this is an extremely existentialist viewpoint) Thus, remembrance of those actions -- expending energy by keeping such thoughts in the present -- in essence keeps that person in the present, at least in part. But enough of my spiritual beliefs, and on to more great writing. This last passage is more toward the beginning of the book (I've not presented these passages in the order in which they appear in the book):
... A split second. And Gloria's car was destroyed, unrecognizable, and Gloria and Francesca were both dead.
"The news was broken to me by the police. A nice young sergeant. Poor boy, I cannot describe my reaction, because I felt nothing. Numb. Empty. Devoid of any emotion. And then, gradually, the void filled with a bitter rage and resentment, against whoever, or whatever, had allowed this thing to happen to me. The world, I know, is filled with horror, and one becomes hardened. Horrified, but hardened. Watching television images of destroyed villages, starving children, monumental natural disasters. But this was
me. This was my life, my being. My wife. My child! If a God was there . . . and I had never been totally certain that he was . . . I didn't want to have any part of him.
The past almost five and one-half years of my life have been an existed devoid of any emotion. I'm just now beginning to reach the stage where I'm gradually beginning to feel again -- to live again. I take that back a minute. I've actually been able to feel certain things in the past five years or so -- sad things. Things that make one depressed. Things that rob the sound from one's throats in utter gasps of horror and sadness. But now, I'm able to feel just a tiny bit of joy, which I think originates from a number of sources, about which I'll blog later. But for now, on with the rest of this passage:
"Out cleric in Dibton called to comfort. He told me that God sends people only what they are strong enough to bear. And I rounded on him, and said that I wished I were as weak as water, and still had my child. And then I sent him away. We never got around to the guilt. I knew Gloria's weakness. I should have been with them. I should have been behind the wheel of the car. If only. If only is my nightmare."
"If only is like hindsight. A useless exercise. The accident seemed to me to have been one composed of several tragic circumstances. Who knows? Perhaps you would have died, too, Oscar, and then an even larger hole would have been left in the lives of those who knew and loved you all. . . . As for God, I frankly admit that I find it easier to live with the age-old questions about suffering than with many of the easy or pious explanations offered from time to time. Some of which seem to verge on blasphemy. I hope so much that no one has sought to try and comfort you by saying that God must have needed Francesca more than you. I would find it impossible to worship a God who deliberately stole my child from me. Such a God would be a moral monster."
With my anxiety disorder, if only, what if, what about, I should have, and other such thoughts become an all-consuming part of life. I literally get trapped in these thoughts -- in cycles of these types of thoughts -- and can't function in the outside world. Some scientists posit that there are an infinite number of multiple realities (a/k/a multiple universes), and getting caught up in all of these "if" questions is like being caught up in an infinite programming loop, effectively shutting me down. Interaction with the outside world becomes nearly impossible, as the "what if" questions just keep flying out of my mind. This loss of functionality, of course, affects my chronic depression, sending me further into the bowels of what some might deem hell-like conditions. Everything -- evening going to the bathroom -- becomes a laborious task to be completed and there simply is no energy left to complete any of these tasks, as it is being expended on the infinite loop-causing "what if" questions. But on with our story:
Oscar was astounded. "Is that," he asked at last, "what you really believe?"
Peter nodded. "It is what I truly believe. Thirty years in the ministry has taught me that the one thing we should never say when a young person dies is 'It is the will of God.' We simply don't know enough to say that. I am in fact convinced that when Francesca died in that terrible accident, God's was the first heart to break."
"I want to move on, to go on living, to be able to accept; to be able to give again. I don't like taking all the time. I've never been that sort of person."

I have to stop here, because here exists a striking similarity between the character of Henry and who I believe I used to be. I believe that prior to my accident, I was a very giving person, and almost never took from others -- in any sense of the word. One of the things that's been most difficult for me to face, I believe, since my accident, is that I now must rely on others for a great many number of things, especially given the events that have occurred since my accident took place. I'm not used to taking; I'm not used to being on the receiving end of the gift, and it's been extremely difficult for me to even accept what is being offered.

But slowly, I'm coming around to doing just that -- to beginning to accept help from others. To realizing that I need to rely on others, and must take from others. Hopefully, in the not-too-distant future, I'll be able to give again. But right now, I must receive. It's been a difficult realization, and I still have difficulty with the notion and action of receiving (even before the accident, I would always blush and not know what to do when someone thanked me for something). I believe that giving is a part of who I am, who I need to be in order for me to feel whole again.

And slowly -- ever so slowly -- I think I'm starting down the path of beginning to feel like a whole person again.
"Oh, Oscar. It will be all right. Because of your profession, the Church has been so much part of your life for so many years that you will be as familiar as I am with the great biblical promises about life and death. The problem is that traumatic grief can often render them unreal. For a while, what you are probably going to need most is not people who will quote the Bible to you, but close friends who will continue to hold your hand, and lend you a listening ear when you want to speak about Francesca."
Oscar thought about Elfrida, and Peter paused for a moment, as though to give him time to argue this new conception. But Oscar did not say anything.
"Life is sweet," Peter went on. "Beyond the pain, life continues to be sweet. The basics are still there, Beauty, food, and friendship, reservoirs of love and understanding. Later, possibly not yet, you are going to need others who will encourage you to make new beginnings. Welcome them. They will help you move on, to cherish happy memories and confront the painful ones with more than bitterness and anger."
Oscar remembered the dark night, and the image of Francesca, and how, for the first time, it had not reduced him to the painful tears of loss, but had filled his being with a peaceful comfort. Perhaps that had been the start of his recovery. Perhaps this conversation, this interview, whatever one called it, was the continuance.
He did not know. He only knew that he felt better, stronger, not so useless. Perhaps, after all, he hadn't done so badly.
He said, "Thank you."
"Oh, my friend, I wish I could give you so much more."
"No. Don't wish that. You have given me enough."

What more need be said?

27 May, 2007

A fun game

Leave it to the folks at Google to come up with a way that gets people to help develope one of their core technologies free of charge, all the while letting people have fun at the same time. And they make you feel good about wasting away the hours into the middle of the night, by calling it something benign and innocuous, like, "Google Image Labeler."

The premise for this game is quite simple:
You'll be randomly paired with a partner who's online and using the feature. Over a two-minute period, you and your partner will be shown the same set of images and asked to provide as many labels as possible to describe each image you see. When your label matches your partner's label, you'll earn points depending on how specific your label is. You'll be shown more images until time runs out. After time expires, you can explore the images you've seen and the websites where those images were found. And we'll show you the points you've earned throughout the session.
So what does the average Internet surfer get out of it? A fun, amusing way to waste some time in moments of boredom. And what does Google get out of it? Well, according to their thank-you message (which is displayed at the end of each two-minute round):
It will help us improve the relevance of image search results so that you and other Google users can quickly and easily find the results you're looking for.
So give it a whirl. You just might find it entertaining. And try to beat my currect best: 1,740 points. :-)


20 May, 2007

Another Hospitalization

Well, as some of my friends inferred from my absence, I was in hospital again for my chronic major depression. This time, against my better judgment, I went to St. Vincent's Hospital Westchester. The last time I was an inpatient there, I had a therapist basically tell me to go ahead and kill myself, when I told her that I was suicidal. Additionally, their partial hospital program (outpatient services) violated my privacy rights by divulging information about my treatment to family members, without my permission (and the disclosure did not fall within a permissible exception to HIPAA's privacy rights guarantees).

This hospitalization, however, was actually one of my better hospitalizations, and was productive. I think I have a better handle on my depression now, and for whatever reasons the universe has come up with, I've managed to make some progress in dealing with some of the issues that have been weighing me down over the past few years. And, I'm not thinking about suicide anymore as an option.

As you'll recall, I was involved in a horrendous automobile accident in January 2002. I'm re-posting the picture here, because it's something that I've been looking at from time to time:


The worst injury to my body happened to my lower right leg (I sustained a broken sternum, lacerations, sprains, some other broken bones, and the usual bumps and bruises associated with a head-on collision). My ankle, in essence, was destroyed and had to be re-constructed, using bone from both of my knees:


One of the things about this accident is that I basically stopped living. I kind of became suspended in time, and lived on January 31, 2002. During this most recent hospitalization, I had some periods of enlightenment, moments of clarity that came to me. There's been a disconnect between how I've felt about things, and what I've known about things. That disconnect is closing, and allowing me to move on from the fateful day of my accident. I'm now picking life back up again, and living it.

I know that there are forces in the universe that, at our current level of technology, we cannot begin even to understand or know about. I believe that some of these forces may have helped me to move on by directing me in certain directions over the past few years -- years that have been immensely difficult for me on many different levels: personal, professional, social, psychological, financial, and political. As I've been blogging about on many occasions, one of the things that has been therapeutic for me is reading. Over the past two years or so, when I began reading for pleasure again, I've found a number of books that have spoken to me, and that have helped me put into words certain feelings and thoughts that I've had floating around in the back of my mind, in most cases in more clarity than I could have provided had I not come across these works.

Before I went into the hospital, I picked up a book in the small library of a friend's reading room. It was The Summer I Dared, by Barbara Delinsky. In short form, the book is about how the survivor of an accident pieces her life back together. This book was extremely therapeutic for me, and I drew a number of parallels from it to my own life:
Sandi could never understand that. She could never understand that concept of communicative silence. She could never understand that when you were with the right people, you didn't need words in order to know what they felt.
This is something that I feel quite often. I know that, with the average person, words are necessary, but there are certain people for whom words do no justice, and certain feelings that cannot be described by words; they can only be felt.
As she moved slowly forward over the grass bordering the granite headstones, she thought about the quiet words that had been words that had been said about Hutch. A loyal man, one friend said. An independent man, another said. An able man, said a third.

She found herself wondering what would have been said about her, had she been the one who died. Loyal wife, surely. Loving mother. Able homemaker. Obedient woman.

Obedient woman. She didn't know whether being called "obedient" was a compliment, but it was true. Obedient she was. She had been an obedient daughter to her parents and an obedient sister to her brothers. She had been an obedient student -- always obedient in school -- and an obedient bride. Oh yes, she was that. Ten years her senior, Monte wanted babies, and Julia accommodated him. Miscarriages followed their initial success, though, and by the time it became clear that there would be no other children, he was successful enough in the world of high finance that he needed Julia as his hostess. Which she was. Obediently.

It could be said, she realized as she neared the front of the line, that taking this two-week trip to Big Sawyer without Monte was the most independent thing she had done in her life. Not that he appeared to mind. As promised, he had sent a package containing everything she would need to prolong her stay -- money, credit cards, a set of car keys, and a new cell phone.

Loyal. Loving. Able. Obedient. Running through the list, she stopped short at the end.

Loyal. Loving. Able. Obedient. And . . . what else? She felt there ought to be something. But she couldn't come up with a word.
This passage led me to ask myself, "Who am I now?" and "What would be said about me at my funeral?" In response, I wrote down that I don't know who I am now. Some of the basics from my prior life (which is what I've begun calling the period of my life prior to my auto accident) remain with me: intelligent, educated, technologically-inclined. Beyond that, I don't know what else. I wouldn't know how people would describe me. As to the second question, I wrote down that I didn't care, that I would be free again. While this is true, I think my answer to this question has changed; I do care, to a certain extent, as to what some people would say about me after I leave this corporeal existence.
"I'm saying that the accident was about as traumatic an experience as I've ever had in my life. I don't know why you and Mom are having so much trouble understanding that. I could easily have been one of the ones who died."

Molly cried, "Don't
say that!"

"Don't say that," her grandfather said with the greater gravity of his age. "You didn't die. That's all that counts."

"No. You see, it isn't," Julia went on, struggling now to express herself. "I didn't die. But I could have. So why didn't I? There has to be a reason."

"No reason. Just sheer luck."

"There's a reason," she said with conviction. "I just haven't figured out what it is. And anyway, even aside from that, I'm looking at things differently now."
It's interesting to read my notes as I wrote them, and examine how I feel now. Mind you, we're talking about a period of only about five weeks, if that. I was in hospital for just under that amount of time. It took me slightly longer than one week to get through this book; the depression really took a toll on my ability to concentrate this go-around. I wrote "The first part exactly. The second part, it's just about the opposite." in response to the above passage. But now, I would tend to agree with Julia. I am looking at things differently now, and yet I still question why I was spared.

The conversation continues,
"Differently how?"

"Differently . . . like, who I am and what I am doing with my life and what people will say when I die."

"Mom!" Molly squealed.

Julia angled the phone away from her mouth. "Someday, Molly, I'm not planning on doing it any time soon. That's the whole point."

"What's the whole point?" George asked when she returned to the phone.

"I'm forty," she said, holding Molly's gaze. "God willing, I'll have another forty years. I need to make the most of them."

"Are you doubting the first forty?" George said over more background murmuring and aimed an impatient "Shhh" away from the phone.

"No," Julia said, but caught herself. If the point was to be honest -- saying what she felt, rather than saying what the listener wanted to hear -- she had to change that. "Make that yes. Some parts. I wouldn't change a thing about others."

Y'know, this is the kind of thing that people discuss with their therapists. But here I am, reading it in a book while I'm in the friggin nut house, for crying out loud. For some reason -- I can't explain it -- as I was browsing through the books in my friend's reading room, I came across this one and was drawn to it. It took me quite a while to get through it, because there were so many more passages, such as this, that made me stop and think. Really think. About my life, where I've been, what direction I've taken, and what direction it's going in. And yes, things do need to change. Because evidently, it looks like I'm going to be sticking around. So I've go to do something with my life, even thought I don't feel as though I can't. I have to take action now; I can't continue living as I am.

Something has to change.

Well, as you can see from what I've posted so far, the book was very intense for me. But at the same time, I believe it served as a catalyst in allowing me to move beyond living in one day. I think I've finally come to terms with what happened to me on January 31, 2002, and am ready now to move on and get on with life. I have a lot of catching up to do, as I've literally missed out on almost five and one-half years of life. But as one of the workers at the hospital (who, if she's reading this, should know how much I appreciated her time and compassion for me) asked me, "Do you know how to eat an elephant, Peter?"

I responded in the negative.

Her response: "One bite at a time."

This is something that I have to keep in mind. For me, I tend to do want to do everything all at once, all at the same time. I would eat the elephant in one bite, which isn't humanly possible. I need to break things down into smaller pieces, and accomplish the smaller goals and, by doing so, will eventually reach the larger goals in life.

And for the first time in a very long time -- probably since my accident -- I can say (with some trepidation, of course), that I'm looking forward to it.