jonathan franzen on how novels save us from loneliness

the words of others

Writing is at base a story of solitude. By necessity and inclination, writers are loners. My last blog looked at the American writer David Foster Wallace, and his thoughts on how modern culture is scared of silence.

Wallace was thinking about how it is hard to get people to read today because there’s so little tolerance for being alone and silent. Two important prerequisites for reading.

It seems like the condition of solitude was a real preoccupation of Wallace. His friend and fellow writer Jonathan Franzen said the two of them talked at length about loneliness and about “the unique capacity of the written word, particularly narrative, to connect a solarity writer with a solitary reader.”

Both men felt this was as an important role of writing. “When I pick up a Jane Austen novel,” says Franzen. “She’s angry at the same bad behavior that makes me angry.” And there’s solace in that. You don’t feel so alone.

Here’s a short interview with Franzen discussing these ideas, and the changes in our world, particularly technological, which have made such solitude harder and harder to come by.

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david foster wallace on silence

the words of others

I first read about David Foster Wallace in an article reprinted in The Guardian, just after he died. It was written by his friend (and fellow writer) Jonathan Franzen. I have an in-built recoil from the zeitgeist so while I was moved by Franzen’s eulogy to his friend, to my shame, I forgot to take any notice of Foster Wallace the writer.

Just recently a biography came out about his life and I finally got round to reading some of his journalism. He’s a very funny writer with a wonderful sense of the absurd, who can take you from a sophomoric toilet joke to a profound insight in a single effortless leap. His book “Infinite Jest” is considered one of the greatest novels to come out of America in the last two decades. He is also (as you can discover on Youtube) a thoughtful and charming interview subject.

Here he is talking first about commercial fiction versus literature, and positing some ideas on why so few people read difficult books these days. This leads him on to the contemporary culture’s aversion to silence. This is an idea that I’ve come across a great deal in my own solitude research and which is explored very interestingly in Sara Maitland’s wonderful memoir, A Book of Silence.

Click here for David Foster Wallace. Only four minutes. Worth the effort.

the little prince revisited

* chris harman

This is a second version of my story about Chris Harman, a writer from Minneapolis with severe disabilities that have rendered him legally blind, deaf and confined to a wheelchair. He experiences solitude in a unique and terrible way. This second draft followed a trip to see Chris at his home in Burnsville, a suburb of Minneapolis. Although his illness was difficult to behold, he was such an inspiring individual I was deeply glad to have made the trip to meet him. 

Chris Harman

It was a clear blue North American day and below me a wisp of silky cloud crowned the skyscrapers of Manhattan, their jagged towers scattering light like a bed of crystals.

I had not slept much – still jet-lagged from a trans-Atlantic flight yesterday – and as New York slipped away below us the land beneath was veiled in a dusting of whiteness.

I was headed for Minneapolis to meet with Chris Harman. When I opened my emails the night before I saw a message from Chris. It contained some details about the airport pickup and the interpreter’s cell phone and finished with the following: “God’s speed and clear horizons!”

Looking out the window I could see the mist had lifted from the land and that Chris’ wish for the journey was about coming true. Not quite though. The land seemed hazy somehow, out of focus. It took me a little while to figure out what it was. Something had hit the outer panel of the cabin window, which had caused a splintering that had turned the center of the window into a soupy blur.

Gazing through the smudge to where the Mississippi glimmered in the sunlight below, a silver tear in the fabric of land, I thought this was an approximation of how Chris saw the world.

He had told me before in our Skype conversations about his vision. He described it as “cartoonish.” He saw contrast, he said, but could not make out detail. When he sat in front of a movie (he loved Shirley Temple films) it was easier if it was in black and white because the image became confused if there were too many colors. It was the reason his interpreter always wore a black top when signing to him.

Chris had a rare neurological condition known as Spinocerebellar Degeneration, a disease of the nervous system that causes breakdown between the spinal column and the cerebellum, the region of the brain that helps to coordinate movement.

The brain’s communication gateway, the cerebellum was slowly closing off for Chris. In practical terms this meant a gradual retreat from his body. He was diagnosed as a seven-year-old and, aside from the near-blindness, he was now deaf, mute, had lost the use if his legs, relied on a respirator to breath, a tube inserted into his stomach to eat and enjoyed only very limited control of his hands and arms – he could rub his mouth with a napkin but could not hold a spoon, for example.

It was the loss of communication that was the most profound effect of the illness, however, and he relied on a sign language interpreter to retain a connection with the material world.

People with severe neurological disorders experience solitude in a unique and terrible way. Like prisoners held in solitary confinement the condition has been imposed on them and, like the prisoners, they are frequently institutionalised and at the mercy of staff who can and do sometimes treat them with intolerable cruelty.

But for the solitary confinement inmate there is at least some measure of hope that one day they will be released from their cell. What hope for someone like Chris whose condition was degenerative and who, because of the continual loss of his senses, lived with the reality that his solitude would only become more profound as time went by?

“Solitude,” Chris wrote in his first ever email to me. “It is a place where humans are not meant to dwell. I have gone to great lengths in my efforts to avoid the confinement of that place.”

In our Skype conversations Chris had compared his condition to being trapped inside a glass bauble. In the title of his memoir Jean-Dominique Bauby offered two further metaphors that captured, like Chris’ glass bauble, the claustrophobia of his condition as well as pointing to the possibility of escape. Bauby was the Editor-in-Chief of Elle magazine in Paris until, in the mid-nineties, a massive stroke plunged him into a state of near-total paralysis known as locked-in syndrome. The journalist’s only way to communicate was by blinking his left eye, the method he used to dictate his story, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.

In Bauby’s haunting, at times dreamlike account of his experiences the butterfly is both a representation of the fragility of life and of freedom. In the writer’s case the only freedom left to him was the freedom to let his imagination wander at will. He explains this at one point in connection with his sense memory:

“For pleasure, I have to turn to the vivid memory of tastes and smells, an inexhaustible reservoir of sensations. Once I was master of recycling leftovers. Now I cultivate the art of simmering memories.”

Chris’ disability was not as severe as Bauby. He still retained limited use of his arms though his fine motor skills had disappeared so that his movements were jerky and inaccurate. He could mouth words well enough to be lip-read and although he was legally blind he could make out hand signals so long as they were no more than a few inches from his face. I had seen this in our Skype conversations, which took me to his apartment in Burnsville, a suburb of Minneapolis. When the call was answered the set-up was always the same. Mounted slightly above him, the camera revealed Chris in profile directing his conversation to the interpreter, who sat away to the left lip-reading. His face lolled to one side but if he said something funny or noteworthy he would wait for the interpreter to translate it then snap his head round to offer me a smile. Hissing rhythmically in the background his respirator sounded like faraway applause.

His neurologist said Chris was the oldest known case of the illness. When he was diagnosed his parents’ were told he would probably not live past ten. He was now 40 and though the illness had reduced his body to near-skeletal proportions, his mind was still in tact.

Similar to Bauby, his mind – his imagination especially – gave solace for the isolation he suffered. He had written a children’s book. He had composed it in his head at a time when he was even more isolated than normal – Minnesota state had taken away his interpreter service and it took a year of court battles to get it back. In the meantime he lay on his back in a care home in St Paul staring at the white ceiling.

I had asked him a lot about the creation of the children’s book. In part because of the link between isolation and creativity it implied and in part because I wanted to find some points of light in a story that seemed, on the surface, to be so bleak.

In fact, as I was soon to discover, it was Chris himself who was greatest source of hope in his own story, his sense of humor and determination shining a light on a place of shadow and stillness that most of us will only ever visit in our dreams.

—–

I turned away from the window. Two middle-aged air hostesses with bleached hair worked the aisles of the plane, doling out refreshments and bemused smiles. I looked around at my fellow passengers, the combed-back manes of the men and the sensible shoes of the women made them look outdated, like extras in a John Hughes movie.

The twin cities of Minneapolis and St Paul appeared below. As we came in to land the plane’s shadow ran along over the square grids of suburbia and over a highway intersection shaped like a four-leaved clover.

Outside the airport I sat on the sidewalk in the warm November sunshine feeling pleasantly sleepy. I had not been there long when an SUV rolled up and a serious young man with blond hair and a shy smile approached me.

This was David Paulson, one of the nurses that looked after Chris round-the-clock (because of his respirator Chris was classed as on life support and in need of 24-hour nursing care). David showed me to the back seat and we pulled away into the quiet afternoon.

Driving the car was a round-faced woman with emerald green eyes. This was Kara McCoy, the interpreter I had seen with Chris during our Skype conversations. Chris sat beside her staring forward at the highway. Clipped to the back of his seat the respirator pumped air in to his lungs.

“So how was your flight?” As in the video calls Chris’ words were voiced by Kara, an ebullient Midwesterner with the bouncy, gregarious personality type that you encounter so often in America once you have left the cool irony of the big cities behind. “You must be hungry. Shall we have lunch?”

We pulled into a mall and to a restaurant called the “Old Country Buffet.” David collected the wheelchair from the trunk and detaching the respirator, took Chris under the arms and hoisted him from the passenger seat. His rag doll legs trailed along the floor as the respirator let out a continuous beep to warn it was not attached. The transfer took a little over a minute during which time Chris held his breath.

The restaurant was large and open plan. A line of glum-faced Minnesotans helped themselves to the food, which was standard American fare and sat in metal trays under heat lamps. We found a table out of the way enough so that Chris’ chair did not block the aisle.

At the place next to us a mother was making a scene with her son, shouting at him at the same time as holding a conversation on her cell phone. The boy had taken something from her purse and he was crying.

“Maybe not quite up to the Queen’s standard,” said Chris, oblivious to the scene going a few yards away. The nurse tipped small spoonfuls of meatloaf, southern fried chicken, chocolate cake and cheesecake into his mouth. He chomped noisily on the food evidently enjoying it – Queen’s standard or not. Eating this way was a relatively recent pleasure for Chris. For many years he had relied on a high protein formula syringed directly into his stomach through a gastrostomy tube, or g-tube for short. Eventually he was told he could eat again but for years put it off, fearful that food could get trapped in the breathing device connected to his windpipe causing him to choke. The g-tube, which was pressed through a permanent hole where the stomach wall had been sutured to the inside of the skin, was still used to give him liquids and at least one can of the protein formula each morning.

David and Kara got up to serve themselves from the buffet. I was left alone with Chris for the first time since we met, all of a sudden aware of the communication barrier that divided us. A pencil-thin arm lifted a napkin to his mouth, the napkin wedged below fingers that were coiled tight like springs against his palm. A pair of staring eyes came to rest on me. He seemed to be studying me though I knew from this distance he could not see me. I gazed at his face: his short crop of dark hair; the skin drawn tight around his jaw; the bulging eyes, and I felt suddenly uncomfortable to be facing at such close quarters someone who was blind to my scrutiny. This feeling became even more acute when I turned to the table beside us and saw the naughty boy had stopped crying and that his tear-stained face was directed straight at Chris, a half fearful look in his eyes.

————–

“One of the earliest sounds I can recall is the screech of car brakes,” said Chris. “I remember too the whoosh of the light, plastic ball we used for baseball in the street where I grew up. Back then the little boys played with me but when I got sick they kept their distance. I don’t know. I’ve always found girls to be more sympathetic.”

It was the morning after I had arrived. Chris was in front of his computer and I was sitting on the couch that had been in the background in our Skype talks. His flat was on the second level of an apartment block purpose-built for the disabled. A window covering most of one wall looked out on a parking lot. Over the window hung a wooden cross and against the adjacent wall a carriage clock sat under prints depicting sentimental scenes of the countryside. All about the place were images of Red Cardinals – on coasters, in framed photos, in stained glass and sculpted in wood.

“It was in the summer and I was riding my bike to Dairy Queen daydreaming about the ice cream sundae I was going to get,” he went on. “All the other kids from my street were there, the parents too. Days out like this were common among the residents of Snowflake Trail (a suburb of Indianapolis where I grew up).

“In the evenings we played on a baseball diamond that had been scraped into the cement when it was first laid. I was pitcher and the other kids laughed when I misjudged the flight of the ball and it hit me in the face. When I rode my bike near the oncoming traffic it wasn’t so funny though. My parents pulled me to the sidewalk to yell at me. They thought I was careless; they didn’t realize there was something wrong.

“Eventually I was taken to the children’s hospital in Philadelphia. I was brought to a small room, where a solitary bulb hung from the ceiling. They made me put on headphones and told me to sit on a lone chair. They made me raise my hand if I heard a beep and repeat words back to a man sat behind a glass window.

“The isolation chamber had stuffed animals in there to make it nicer for kids. They kept me there for hours. Once when the test ran through lunch the man behind the glass lost his temper because no matter what he said, I heard the same word repeated each time. The word was pizza.

“They kept me at the hospital, the tests growing more severe as they tried to work out what was wrong. I had blood draws, spinal taps and skin biopsies. The most painful test was called an Electromyography, used to check muscle function. I was held down by four or five orderlies and given electric shocks with a fork-shaped prod pressed in to my hands.

“When I got out of the hospital I was seven. My father took a job in Eden Prairie, Minnesota, and so the whole family moved from Indiana. My little sister and I attended school there but because of my disabilities the school board decided I must be mentally disabled and I was put in a class with children with severe learning difficulties. Looking at the children around me I knew I was different. They would scream and throw tantrums and I had none of those behavioural problems. But I was too young to advocate for myself so I was trapped in that class. They also figured I was too fragile to play with the other kids so I was kept inside on my own over lunch and recess.

“By this time the illness was compromising my motor neurone skills, I was deaf and I walked like a drunk. Except for a few girls the children kept away from me. I was very lonely and I’d invent stories in my head as consolation for what I was missing. I’d imagine playing outside or going to parties or dating girls. I was always active in these stories, rarely alone and the stories and their purpose evolved as my abilities changed. For example, after my hands became paralysed I’d imagine myself picking up a glass or using silverware.

“My teenage years were hard. The decision of the elementary school to put me in a class for mentally disabled kids had a long-term impact on me. I was told I was retarded, that I could never have a job or a family of my own. Yet I felt myself to be intelligent and capable, I felt myself to be the same as everyone else. I’d say that because of this I suffered a prolonged identity crisis that lasted through my teens. I was so unsure of who I was that it seemed safest to retreat from everyone.”

The morning was drawing to a close and Chris said he needed to catch up on work emails. For the last eight years he had been trying to get a film made and much of his time with the interpreter was spent at the computer dealing with correspondence relating to the movie project.

I went outside to get some fresh air, in part to escape the heat of the flat, which Chris kept unnaturally warm to guard against sickness (he had been hospitalised with pneumonia a number of times). I took the lift to the foyer where a plaque explained that the flats existed for use by those on low income, the disabled and those suffering from brain injury, helping them in “their quest for independence.” A sign next to it warned that guns were banned on the premises.

In front of the parking lot a busy road ran downhill to a set of lights, which marked the gateway to a clustering of retail complexes. Beyond this water towers and more retail swept in a gentle rise to the horizon, which was fringed with trees.

The landscape was flat and featureless and looking at it I sensed how it must have been for Chris all these years, the thousands of hours he had spent, still did spend, alone and staring in to space. He only had the interpreter for ten hours each day and, as he had told me, “those hours are like gold – the only time I can be alive – and when they go home I can’t do anything.”

That morning before the interpreter arrived I had watched him go about his routine. David woke him early and fed him his breakfast through the g-tube. Next he was wheeled to the bathroom for a shower. When he returned towels were draped over his fragile body, his bone-thin legs still visible dangling over the footpads of his wheelchair. He was hoisted on to his bed to be dressed. When this was done the nurse switched on the television, the volume muted, and set Chris before it. All this was accomplished soundlessly, in the manner of a religious rite.

It was still early and the interpreter was not yet due for a couple of hours. I had sat at the kitchen table with David. The bedroom door had been left ajar and I could see the back of Chris’ bony head facing the television set, watching the blur of images on the screen in front of him, trapped in his glass bauble.

David was studying for his nursing exams and he had a course book laid out on the table in front of him. He had looked tired. I had asked him how he communicated with Chris in the absence of the interpreter.

“I can sign a few basic things like asking him if he wants water or needs the bathroom and he can gesture yes or no. Otherwise, I have learned to pick up on his moods. He is very facially expressive and may jerk his body to convey an emotion. I have noticed that when he is nervous or sad about something that can come out through extreme attention to detail. For example he’ll get very fastidious about wanting lights or other electronic equipment switched off. He likes us to check the post for money off vouchers too. I understand it because so much of his life is out of his hands and his budget is something he can take charge of.”

I wondered if it was hard not to get emotionally involved. “I could see it could be,” said David, a conscientious and thoughtful 22-year-old. “But I have always maintained a professional distance because otherwise the relationship can become abusive.”

I had the impression from this that Chris was not such an easy patient and that the inevitable frustration of his condition led him to micro-manage the few things in his life he was able to control.

When I returned to the flat David was still working away on his coursework and Chris and Kara were stationed in front of the computer. Kara was tapping away at a computer keyboard rested on her lap and with the other hand was signing to Chris. Her hand moved fluently, her fingers twisting and clenching, clasping and windmilling over one another in an elaborate dance.

“Ah there you are! I have a surprise for you!” Kara said. “We’re going to the Mall of America this evening.”

“What’s that?”

“Kara speaking now: It’s the largest mall in the country and it’s only a few miles from here. Chris would like to take you there.”

“Is it somewhere he enjoys visiting?”

“Let me ask…Yes, I go there a lot,” she said, her voice assuming the jaunty bounce she affected when speaking on behalf of Chris.

“Well then we should go,” I said.

“In fact, I went the first day it opened. It was 17 years ago and I was living with a foster family at the time. My foster mother took me and I remember we’d stopped in front of a clothes store to look at a map of the mall. There was a mannequin in a red dress in the shop window. The longer I looked at it the more convinced I became it was real. My foster mother kept telling me I was wrong, that it was just mannequin. Eventually I pushed my chair up close and stared at the mannequin till it dropped to its knees – I think she thought I was looking up her dress. I don’t know how it was that I sensed that the body was real. I remember it made my foster mother mad.”

Why was he living with a foster family, I wondered.

“It had gotten too hard for my mom,” said Chris. “She had to raise my sister and I alone. My dad left when I was still a child. It’s the old story of the father disappointed in the son who can’t live up to his expectations. When he found out that I was disabled and would remain so the rest of my life, he saw me as a dream wrecker. He wouldn’t admit to people that I was disabled. It was humiliating for him. He refused to let me use a wheelchair in the house. I stumbled about the place, tripping over and breaking things. I’d knock over whole racks of books. My mother couldn’t handle the way he was treating me so she divorced him.”

I asked him if he was still in touch with his father.

“He lives about ten minutes away but I only see him once or twice a year. We’re not really connected. I guess I’m just not what he wants me to be.”

The room was silent a moment as the story of the father desertion washed over us. Then Chris made a strange face, the mouth twisted up at one side, the head lent over to the right, and I realised he was smiling.

“My mother is something of a drama queen because she hates my father so much,” he said. “She likes to blame him for everything that has happened to me. When I was eight my friend Kelly asked my mom what would happen if we had children. At the time my mom was convinced he had given me the illness. Actually there’s no evidence that the disease is hereditary.”

What had his mom told Kelly?

“I don’t recall. Whatever it was she gave up on having children with me. We ended up going to different schools and losing touch. Then when I was in my early twenties Kelly showed up on my doorstep out of the blue. Actually she saved my life that day. I had caught pneumonia the previous year and the damage to my lungs meant I was put on the respirator for the first time. It was also when I had the g-tube fitted. After a year of living like this I was totally depressed, I couldn’t face the prospect of spending the rest of my life on this machine so I decided to end it. I’d have the trach taken out and go back to breathing on my own. Since my lungs no longer had the strength to supply me with oxygen for more than a couple of hours I was effectively committing suicide with this decision. I wrote a letter explaining everything to my family and had my friend read it to them. Then Kelly turned up. She convinced me there were things worth living for. After that we started dating. She was blind and I was deaf and had lost my voice by this point. She would take my hand and I’d draw letters on my chest. She would hold my hand and feel each letter as I was drawing it. It was a painfully slow way of communicating. We stayed together a couple of years. She is the only girlfriend I’ve ever had.”

Had there been other times when he had felt suicidal?

“A year or so after Kelly I lost my interpreter service. That was the hardest time in my life and the time I felt most solitary. After a long court case they decided that I did not merit a sign language interpreter.”

The interpreter role is highly skilled and the cost of providing the service full-time ran to $200,000, a figure the State of Minnesota was unwilling to pay. Chris appealed but in the meantime he had nothing to do but wait.

He went into a deep depression. He spent all his time in his whitewashed and sparsely furnished room. He lay in bed watching the play of light on a crystal his mother had hung above his head. When the light from the window hit the crystal it broke apart into the colours of the rainbow. It was the only stimulus he had and when a staff member stole it a second time he was left to count to himself all day, into the hundreds and thousands, falling asleep, then waking up and resuming the count where he had left off.

“I withdrew further into myself. My daydreams were full of anger. I fantasized about hurting family and friends. I imagined I was rich and famous and that someone I knew approached me for an autograph. I had them dragged off to jail by the police, yelling at them that now they’d see how it was for me.

“When my family came to see me I could only watch them and though I hated them for leaving me stranded like this I clung desperately to these visits, like a drowning man grabbing for a life ring.”

In the accounts I had read of locked-in syndrome anger was a common thread.

In The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, for example, Bauby wrote: “I maintain a level of resentment and anger, neither too much or too little, just as a pressure cooker has a safety valve to keep it from exploding.”

Bauby’s ability to regulate the flow of anger was not always shared by fellow sufferers. Julia Tavalaro, a stroke victim from New York, wrote frequently about an impotent rage that she found impossible to suppress. Tavalaro languished in a bed in the Franklin D. Roosevelt Goldwater Memorial Hospital in the borough of Queens for six years before anyone realized she was cognizant. In her memoir, Look Up for Yes, Tavalaro described the moment in 1972 when a speech therapist broke through her isolation.

The therapist, Arlene Kratt, asked her to close her eyes and then to blink. When the young mother did this Kratt was astonished: “Silence fills the space between us,” wrote the New Yorker. “Her face shows shock and grief and happiness at once. In the previous six years no one had thought to ask me these simple questions.”

Working alongside another therapist, Joyce Sabari, Kratt devised a method of communication for her patient involving first, an alphabet board and then a computer that she learned to operate by moving a switch with her cheek. Tavalaro used the switch to move a motorized wheelchair and to write poetry.

In the years before Kratt made her discovery, Tavalaro could only watch in silence as her family abandoned her to hospital staff whose care was often negligent, sometimes abusive. She went years without seeing her daughter and on one of the few occasions she was brought to see her, her estranged husband preferred to practice his golf swing rather than look at his wife. These experiences fed a well of anger in Tavalaro that she was able to exorcise only rarely, for example when an unsuspecting nurse slid a finger in her mouth and she bit down as hard as she could.

In the St. Paul care home Chris also found himself at the mercy of abusive staff. He was beaten and humiliated, had his pants pulled down and shaving cream squirted on his body. He did not report the abuse because, he reasoned, it would only invite reprisals.

The anger and frustration this treatment helped initiate sometimes transformed into bitter laughter. Chris recalled inwardly mocking his father’s awkward attempts to sign “I love you.” Bauby too found that there came a point where “the heaping up of calamities brings an uncontrollable nervous laughter – when, after a final blow from fate, we decide to treat it all as a joke.”

——

“There is a Santa in a red coat…and a small Christmas tree with baubles.”

It was Thursday night in the Mall of America and with Christmas still two months off, the mall was already decked out in festive chintz. We had come in on level two, past a crowd seated in front of a low stage where two players from the local American football team, the Minnesota Vikings, were being introduced.

Since then I had lost my bearings completely as we took the elevator to the next level up and moved down walkways saturated in white light, past The Gap and Target, H&M and Walgreens, arriving eventually at a cavernous hallway where the tracks of a roller coaster reached nearly to the latticed steel beams of the ceiling a few hundred feet above.

We stopped by a rather sorry looking Christmas display where John Filek, Chris’ other interpreter, was signing him the contents of the scene.

“There are chipmunks dressed as Santa’s helpers and the whole thing is covered in snow.

“Chris loves Christmas,” John said, turning to me. “It helps that red is the colour he sees best.”

I nodded, now realising the significance of the Red Cardinals decorating his flat. As well as working as his sign language interpreter John was Chris’ oldest friend. They met when John came to him as a volunteer nearly two decades ago when Chris was in his early twenties. They became close and it was John who Chris asked to read the letter to his family in which he explained his desire to end his life.

By the rides we met Kara. She had brought her daughter, Bailey, a bubbly redhead, and her two nieces. The girls wanted to go on the roller coaster and I volunteered to accompany them.

“You must be ready to catch us if we fall out,” I said to Chris.

“I look forward to it,” he said, his words voiced by John. Walking away I thought how Chris’ interpreters unwittingly masked who he really was. Had he been voiced by Kara, Chris’ response just now would have sounded lighter, more frivolous. Voiced by a man, however, his tone was darker.

The ride rose up towards the roof and plunged earthbound, the mall below us a blur of primary colours and streaking light. Back on the ground the girls regarded each other giddily as Chris tried to explain his own roller coaster ride.

“When I first come in the mall it’s always a little strange. The scale of the place and the sensory overload give me a feeling like vertigo,” he said.

We pushed Chris to a food court where John fed him a burger and the youngest of the cousins, a girl no more than six, stole occasional glances. Tomato sauce and mustard dripped down Chris’ face as he chomped on the burger. The little girl tried not to look but time and again her curiosity got the better of her and her eyes returned to the invalid, a deep frown furrowing her brow.

When it was time for them to leave the three girls dutifully lined up in front of Chris to say goodbye. Bailey, a round-faced cherub with frizzy hair stepped up first, slipping an arm round Chris’ neck and planting a firm kiss on his cheek. When the youngest cousin’s turn came she stepped nervously forward, still frowning. She leaned gingerly in and Chris, his gaze fixed in to the distance, flopped a skeletal arm over the girl’s shoulder. The girl was confused for second and then, as if a light had been switched on replacing darkness with a safe and familiar scene, the girl’s apprehension vanished and she smiled shyly, hugging Chris back.

Outside in the car lot a strip of night sky was visible. Chris made a jerk of his body and without needing to lip read John said he was pointing out a lone star that shone brightly in a patch of blackness.

“He sees stars,” John said. “Good contrast.”

—–

“I turn to nature for the few scraps of freedom that remain to me,” said Chris. It was my last morning in Burnsville and we had taken a stroll round a lake near to his apartment.

“It’s possible that some day I will be completely blind or completely paralysed. I want to capture life while I can. Nature is another form of solitude but it’s solitude with freedom included. Nature’s power goes beyond what the human eye can perceive. That sense of awe you experience before a mountain. I’m not a believer in the paranormal but there’s a lot more to the universe than we realise. There’s a sense of being in synch with something, some element. It’s hard to put into words. I just know the feeling.”

The weather was fine and by the water’s tranquil edge we caught the sun’s warm glow. Above us light filtered through the leaves on a maple tree, illuminating the detail of their veins and the sheen of their translucent skin.

“Children are another gateway out of the glass bauble,” Chris went on. “They look through eyes that are not tainted by social norms. They’re free to express themselves, to run where they are supposed to walk. Did you notice Melanie, the little girl who gave me a hug last night? It took me by surprise; I wasn’t expecting it.

“I have learned to embrace life through every subliminal I can find.”

Even during his time in the St Paul care home when he was isolated and profoundly depressed, Chris’ had experienced moments of transcendence, especially while composing his children’s story. The book was called “The Treasures of the Shadows.” It was about a frail orphan girl who discovers a ruined house in snowy woodland and falling in love with the place begins a fight to save it from demolition. It takes place during the Great Depression. The main character, Jessie, has a zealous optimism in spite of the traumas thrown her way. She is a stand-in for Chris. She endures a court battle to save the manor house, which doubles as the venue for her imagination where historical figures she has read about at school come to life. In the book he writes.

“Below the brightly lit chandeliers, crystal sparkling and flaring like tiny bursts of flame, was a long banquet table capable of seating dozens of guests…Jessie recognized all the merrymakers as immortal names from various chapters in history. Among them was Emperor Julius Caesar, in a white toga and crown of laurel leaves next to a dark-skinned woman in a headdress, Queen Cleopatra. Further up the table, Queen Marie Antoinette was loudly arguing in French with Maximilian Robespierre.”

More than most, Chris had firm reason to believe in the imagination as a sacred house that needed preserving. In many ways it had been his salvation.

“I was those characters,” he said. “I had the superhuman power to jump from one body to the other. I could see and feel everything: the cold of the snow or wind, the warmth of the fire. I could smell the bread that was cooking. I could feel the pinecones in my hands. I could actually live in that world.”

David the nurse stood behind Chris’ wheelchair as Kara leant in close to see better the snap and twist of his jaw.

“Sometimes,” she said, her voice more sombre than usual in the soft light of the fall day. “Hope is the only gold we can hold in our hands.”

dance of the tarantula and other spider myths

Uncategorized

Right now the American Museum of Natural History is running an exhibition about arachnids called “Spiders Alive!

brown recluse

image via the american museum of natural history

The exclamation is with good reason since the spiders really are alive. Safely ensconced behind glass but alive all the same. I’m not one of those people who gets freaked out by spiders but, even so, there’s something inherently creepy about them. Maybe it’s those wonderfully sinister names, which look like they could be splashed across the title sequence of a fifties B-movie: The Black Widow! The Brown Recluse! Tarantula!

Actually, the tarantula is a good example of how the popular imagination has demonized spiders. The vision of a hairy-legged tarantula coming in through an open window at night is a cinematic shorthand for everything that makes our skin crawl about them.

But even their name is a testament to the mythology of fear we’ve built around them. In ancient times the inhabitants of Taranto, a town in southern Italy, were terrified of a species of wolf spider which lived locally. When they were bitten by the spider the townsfolk would perform a frenetic dance in the belief that this would shake out the poison (though it turns out the spider’s venom was not fatal to humans).

When early European colonizers of the New World were faced with the big hairy spiders of the tropics they recalled the dance of Taranto when finding a name for these creatures. The irony is that tarantulas pose virtually no threat to humans because – counter-intuitive as it might sound – bigger spiders tend to have less powerful venom.

In fact, while most spiders produce venom fewer than one percent are dangerous to humans. That’s just 200 species out of a total of over 42,000. Of course our fear of arachnids is not totally groundless. Some can give you a nasty bite, others can jolt you with a wicked dose of poison and a few of them occasionally kill.

Gooty sapphire ornamental spider

image via the american museum of natural history

Many species of spider are dimorphic, which means the female is larger than the male. This means you’re much worse off getting bitten by a female black widow since she carries more poison. Most humans will survive a bite from a black widow (though you should seek medical help immediately, especially in the case of the elderly or young children). The same cannot always be said of the amorous male black widow who is frequently killed and eaten immediately after mating.

Arachnophobia, or the fear of spiders, is one of the most common phobias. According to some statistics, around 10 percent of men and 50 percent of women have an irrational fear of arachnids, which also include scorpions. If this is really true then you can’t help feeling sorry for the poor spider, who seems fated to suffer from a permanent image crisis. Fortunately for our arachnid cousins, this exhibition goes some way to redressing the balance by explaining just how amazing these creatures are.

Did you know, for example, that spiders have been on earth for 300 million years? Or that they taste with the hairs on their legs? Here’s another interesting tidbit: In the World War II the U.S. Army used black widow silk to make crosshairs for sighting devices on their weaponry. Meanwhile, in 2010 scientists identified a spider silk, from the caerostris darwini species on Madagascar, which is ten times tougher than Kevlar.

the black widow

image via the american museum of natural history

Near the end of this brilliant exhibition there’s a talk by an arachnid expert who takes out a live tarantula to show the crowd. When I was there most of the audience were kids.

“How did you get to work with spiders?” One little boy asked in the Q&A, evidently eyeing the expert’s job for himself.

“It’s simple,” she answered. “You just have to really love them.”

Easier said than done for a lot of us I would imagine.

a night alone in an english ruin

journalism

A version of this story first appeared in the Toronto Star on March 30, 2011

The stone cottage stood alone on the hillside, dark and sinister in the gloom of twilight. Pushing open the heavy old door I shone my torch in to the empty silence of the room. A jet black wood burner stood in the hearth, and beside it a fresh woodpile. On a shelf, stacks of papers withered in the dampness alongside the baroque remains of a melted candle in a bottleneck.

The bothy at Warnscale Head in the English Lakes

I laid down my rucksack and collected some kindling. As the cold night drew in I piled the fire high, eating sausage and beans washed down with tea and, a little later, a few nips of whiskey from a hip flask.

I was miles from the nearest habitation, in the wilds of Northumberland, near England’s border with Scotland. In the musty interior of the old farm cottage it felt like I was further away, like I had slipped between the pages of a 19th century novel.

I wondered about the ghosts of the past: whose home this had been and when and why they had left. Outside in the deep of Keilder forest an owl hooted.

In the jam-packed Britain of today finding a place to enjoy the country’s heritage in true isolation is no mean feat. The land is scattered with ancient monuments – castles and churches, runes and ruins – but it’s also littered with fences, admission fees, “keep out” signs and lots of other visitors.

As a solution to this problem I heard about bothies. Dotted across northern Britain, they are ruined cottages abandoned to the elements. Often the former homes of shepherds and crofters, in Scotland many of
them are relics of the Highland Clearances, the forced displacement of the rural population carried out by the British government during the 18th and 19th centuries. One Highland bothy dating from the 18th century is the birthplace of the man whose life story formed the basis of Robert Louis Stevenson’s novel “Kidnapped”.

Another ruined farmstead at Kearvaig Bay on the northern tip of Britain contains a scrawled message on the plaster recording three generations of the same family dating back nearly 200 years.

They cost nothing to stay in, are left open all year round, and provide only the most basic shelter: a wooden platform to lay a sleeping bag on and a fireplace.

As well as the sense of history evoked by these buildings, there are good practical reasons for staying in them.

The countryside of northern England offers some of the best walking in Britain. The bucolic charms of the Lake District attract visitors from around the world, while to the east the windswept austerity of the Yorkshire moors and the wild, empty beaches of Northumberland are less known. However this being Britain, the great landscapes are not always
matched by great weather. Campouts under the stars transform to washouts in record time.

Since many of them are located close to walking trials, bothies are a good solution for trekkers who wanted to stay out on the hills without becoming a victim of our famously fickle climate.

With my appetite whetted by the online research I slung some supplies into a backpack and went ‘bothying’.

The first trip I made was to the cottage in Keilder. It was a bleak day, threatening rain overhead and below a carpet of snow still coated the wide forestry path that led through the woods.

Situated a few miles to the north of Hadrian’s Wall, the bothy makes an ideal stop-off for anyone attempting to walk the route of the 1,900 year-old ruins of the defence barrier the Roman leader constructed to define the northern limits of his empire.

Like many of the bothies, the cottage is maintained by volunteers from the Mountain Bothy Association (MBA). On its website the MBA asks that visitors help contribute to the upkeep of its buildings by observing a few basic rules – the “Bothy Code”.

At the Keilder forest site I found a guest book. One visitor, who signed himself “Smeagol” after the Lord of the Rings character, ranted about finding the place in a mess. Poor “Smeagol” complained he had walked eight miles in July heat only to find the place in a state of calamity. In a note peppered with expletives, he blamed a troupe of ne’er-do-wells he called the “air rifle muppet brigade” for flouting the code, and signed off promising never to return.

Most of the comments were more affirming: “’Spent the night by the fire with a cracking Chinese stir fry, good wine and beer. Tidied up and left some logs. Till next time.’ Signed Kev and Peter, March 21.”

After a fitful night’s sleep and fried breakfast, I collected some wood and left. On my way out I noticed a withered picture of a windswept Lakeland mountaintop hanging near the fireplace. Just such a place was to provide the backdrop for my next bothy experience.

The walk up to Warnscale Head starts in Buttermere in the southwest of the English Lake District. It skirts the edge of the pretty little lake, along the route of the Coast-to-Coast walk, until at the eastern shore it splits off and heads up the valley on to a scree-covered peak.

One of the best things about walking in England is the rich tapestry of language it reveals to you. Dialects that have long since dissolved into memory live on in the words for the land. In the Lakes for example, a hilltop can be variously a fell, pike or crag; a lake; a tarn or a mere. Reeling off the place names on a Lakeland map is an act of pure poetry. On my way up to the Bothy I passed (in order): Pike Rigg, Buttermere, Muddock Crags, Lambing Knott, Peggy’s Bridge and Warnscale Bottom.

The bothy is two-thirds up the mountain with incredible views back down the valley to Buttermere. The sun was shining the day I went and a waterfall, heavy with snowmelt, roared away to my left. In front of me the bothy — a ruined shelter for the workers who quarried shale here — was almost indistinguishable from the hillside. The same shale that it was made from scattered the ground around it.

I boiled a pan of water for tea and gazed from the bare interior to the extravagant view from the window. The valley sides looked lime green and burnt orange in the sunlight and the rocky heads of peaks like the chiselled faces of leviathans.

As I was leaving the house to drive over here my dad handed me a book to take. It was by Alfred Wainwright. If you’ve never heard of him, you should know that he is probably the best-known rambler of the English Lakes since William Wordsworth “wandered lonely as a cloud” here two centuries ago. A fugitive from a grim northern mill town,
Wainwright spent most his adult life here, producing a series of popular walking guides to the area. The guides are beautifully illustrated with the author’s own pen and ink drawings. It was Wainwright who came up with the Coast-to-Coast walk.

By chance the route to the bothy led on to Wainwright’s favourite peak: Haystacks. After a while I tore myself away from my shelter and continued the rest of the way up. The view from the top is breathtaking. Wainwright compared Haystacks to “a shaggy terrier in the company of foxhounds,” and sitting at the summit you feel the raw power of the black-faced, snow-flecked peaks that overlook you on all sides. Straight ahead the land falls away and sweeps, in one motion, to the lakeside. I sat for a while, buffeted by the wind, thinking how lucky I was that aside from the odd stray sheep grazing the uplands, I had the mountain to myself.

Two months after his death in 1991, Wainwright’s widow, Betty, following his wishes, carried the writer’s ashes up here and scattered them by Innominate Tarn, the lonely mountain lake that sits near the summit. It was an unusually cold winter in England this year and the tarn was still frozen over. But the thaw was setting in and when I stood by the water’s edge I heard the fizz and crack of melting ice.

“For a man trying to get a persistent worry out of his mind,” Wainwright wrote. “The top of Haystacks is a wonderful cure.” I watched a black bird dart over the tarn then disappear into clouds that were smoky through sunlight, seeing just what he meant.

a halloween in krakow

journalism

The following was written after a visit to Krakow and to the site of the nearby Nazi death camp of Auschwitz

I was in Krakow as the city was celebrating its independence. It was a fresh autumn morning and its sumptuous main square was bathed in sunlight. An ageing soldier with a walrus moustache and a great coat decorated in brass marched at the head of a brigade of veterans. Crossing a small portion of the vast Rynek Glowny (it is the largest medieval square in Europe), the veterans narrowly avoided a florid stain on the flagstones that threatened to put an end to the dignity of the moment.

Krakow

When the Poles kicked out their communist overlords, it was never going to be long before the rest of the world beat a path to Krakow. With its medieval ramparts that date back 700 years, it’s a fairytale city of grandiose castles, baroque churches and moderately-priced beer.

This last factor is less of a draw than in Prague, in the next-door Czech Republic. Nonetheless, a fair volume of Western men tip out of the budget airlines each weekend to drink themselves hoarse. Krakow’s status as a party city owes as much to its student population as anything else though. Its historic Jagiellonian University is the most prestigious in Poland counting among its alumni the astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus and the late pope John Paul II.

In the evening its present intake mill about in the streets that feed off Rynek Glowny and down vodka shots in the proliferation of bars there or in the cafes of Kazimierz, the old Jewish quarter.

I suppose if you were being precious you might consider it a slur on the impeccable beauty of the place, all this hedonism. But that would be to forget the world the decadence replaced. When Krakow emerged from the tatters of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in October 1918 (the event I saw memorialized in the town square) it became part of an independent Poland for the first time in over a century. This independence lasted just two decades until the Nazis arrived. After a reign of terror that included the wholesale murder of the city’s Jews, they gave way to the Russians, whose rule was just as unyielding though markedly less deranged. These days a degree of nostalgia for the more kitsch elements of the communist-era is reflected in hostel names like “Goodbye Lenin” and tours of the suburbs and old steel works in a restored Trabant.

No such playfulness can be brought to bear on the German occupation, however. An hour’s drive west of Krakow is the town of Oswiecim. Better known by the Germanic version of its name, it was scene of the biggest act of mass murder ever known. Walking around the death camp of Auschwitz, the most striking thing is the ordinariness of the place. The redbrick prison blocks look like warehouses, the chimneystack above the gas chamber is neat and unassuming.

A second, much larger camp was built a few miles away. Known as Auschwitz-Birkenau it accommodated 200,000 inmates in wooden blocks that resembled stables. More than a million Jews, Gypsies and Poles were tortured and killed at Birkenau. New arrivals were herded from the wagons and made to form a queue before an SS doctor who looked them over before ushering them to the left or straight on. Left took them into the camp but majority – around three quarters, our guide said – were directed ahead to the four purpose-built gas chambers.

Krakow

Standing by these same rail lines facing the ruins of the gas chambers I asked our guide Beata if she found it hard to retrace such disturbing material each day. “Most of the people who work here have some connection with the place,” she said. The first director of the museum was an inmate. So was Beata’s uncle, who was imprisoned here after he was caught by Gestapo officers on the streets of Krakow beyond a 10pm curfew.

A meek-voiced woman with dark patches below her eyes, Beata pointed out the block where he slept on straw mattresses two to a bed, and where he contracted Typhoid and nearly died. “Afterwards, he was one of those who preferred not to talk about his experience,” she said.

At the outbreak of war there were 65,000 Jews in Krakow. Today there are less than 200. This horrendous statistic is tempered a little by the stories of those who tried to help. A third of those recognised as “the Righteous Among Nations” by the Jewish faith were Poles. They include Tadeusz Pankiewicz, who ran a pharmacy in the Krakow ghetto from where he doled out medicine (often for free) to the severely malnourished residents.

krakow

Pankiewicz, who published a harrowing memoir of his experiences, is an easier character to admire than Oskar Schindler, whose status as a saviour is complicated by his collaboration with the Third Reich. A war profiteer who came to Poland to spy for the Nazis, Schindler took over an enamelware factory on the edge of the ghetto in the working class neighbourhood of Podgorze where he employed Jews because it was free labour. His workers lived in a camp connected to the factory in conditions of squalor, but it was paradise relative to what was going on outside.

The site of the factory has been turned into a museum that opened this summer. It tells the broader story of Krakow during the Nazi occupation as well as the history of Schindler’s Jews. I went there a Friday afternoon. When I came out it was dark and I walked through Kazimierz, passing a smattering of Jewish restaurants playing klezmer. The anniversary of Krakow’s independence happened to coincide with Halloween and outside some of the bars rosy-cheeked Polish girls wore plastic witches hats and handed out vouchers for cheap vodka.

At a restaurant back in the old town I ate a goulash that sat within a bowl of bread. I chugged back a few vodkas and moved on to a bar where the house band was stomping on some American rock standards. On the dance floor vampish blonds vogued beside bleary-eyed blokes wobbling unsteadily like bowling skittles. I joined in for a few tracks but I couldn’t get into it. Back on the streets the ghosts of the past crowded in on me as I passed a party of students, their faces painted zombie green.

Krakow is not a memorial ground and focusing too much on its tragic past can seem a disservice to its vibrant present. But the past intrudes on you here in that way that it must in places where true horror has existed. As I walked along I thought about Beata’s uncle, back in Krakow after the war. How often had he repassed the spot where they arrested him in the years that followed?

Crossing the square under the town hall tower I passed the site of the morning parade. A drunk young Brit, his hair jelled flat like a set of railings, approached me. “’Ere mate. You know any strip clubs?”

There was a restaurant called “Roasters”, I said, where they showed boxing on plasma TVs and the girls wore hot pants. This information didn’t seem to satisfy him and he squinted at me suspiciously. “Nice place Krakow innit?” He said eventually.

“Lovely,” I said.

“Been to Auschwitz?”

“Yes.”

He squinted some more and shaking his head he said angrily: “Nazi bastards!” With that the young man staggered off up the square, narrowly missing the atomic stain that still decorated the otherwise pristine flagstones.

a voyage to the moon

journalism

This story was first published in the UK’s Catholic Herald newspaper on September 11, 2010.

a voyage to the moon

When I opened my eyes it was still pitch black. Feeling in the darkness I knocked the alarm clock off the table. From somewhere overhead there came a low refrain, the words barely audible:

“Holy Mary Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death. Amen.” The green digits of the clock read 5:36 A.M.

I dressed and went up to the chapel where the monks were finishing the Liturgy of the Hours. Out of the window in the grey light of dawn the silver skyscrapers of the downtown were growing out of the horizon.

Directly below, a telegraph poll had a mustard yellow sign on it that read ‘Slow.’

The Little Brothers of Saint Francis are a community of contemplatives based in Boston. They were set up by James Curran, an opera singer who turned his back on the musical world after experiencing a moment of epiphany during a reception at the White House.

Taking the life of Saint Francis of Assisi as his inspiration, Brother James founded a contemplative order in the late sixties in the working class suburb of Roxbury. I stayed a weekend with them recently.

They live in two plain wood-board houses painted dark brown. On each house a simple cross and a small sign above the doorway are the only indications of the occupants. Even so, their years of service and the distinct blue denim cassocks they wear mean they are well known locally.

According to its charism, the order “bears witness” to the plight of the city’s homeless. They offer no charity beyond their presence but as Brother James explained later at breakfast, that alone was a source of consolation for individuals isolated on the streets.

Round the table he told the story of Bob, a rough sleeper he met in the early seventies. He used to buy him breakfast at a nearby diner, and listen as Bob talked about baseball. Ignorant of the game, the monk bought the daily papers to keep up with the conversation but the scores Bob was quoting did not seem to tally with what he read. He discovered eventually that Bob was quoting scores from two decades before.

“It was then that I began to realise it was more important to listen than to speak,” he said. Later on, he would see him wearing a sandwich board prophesying the end of the world. Bob died alone and — like many of the men they come into contact with — it was left to the brothers to organize both his funeral and a small wake.

After mass we continued our conversation in the Little Brothers’ common room. On the wall behind him were maps of Assisi, including a medieval drawing showing the friary created by St Francis. On another wall hung Brother James’ portrait. (“Probably when I am gone they will throw darts at it.”)

Brother James spoke in a voice as light and grainy as his Celtic skin, gripping one hand in the other to stop them shaking – a result of the Parkinson’s disease he was diagnosed with ten years ago. His fine white beard wrapped his face like a chinstrap.

A good listener, he was also a good storyteller and was fond of name-dropping. He talked about the time Mother Theresa came to stay (she insisted on sending coffee and donuts out to the police car assigned to look after her) and his encounters with Pope John Paul II and John F. Kennedy.

He was raised alone by his mother after his father died in the war. Growing up he revealed a talent for singing and after a short career he became a publicist for an opera company.

It was at Lyndon Johnson’s White House in the late sixties that his life changed. He had gone there to stage a performance of Jacques Offenbach’s “Voyage to the Moon” for the astronauts taking part in the space program. As glasses clinked and the hum of conversation drifted to the Apollo 11 lunar mission just two years away, Brother James heard what his spiritual director later termed “an interior voice” ask him: “What are you doing here?”

“I began to realise that perhaps God was calling me towards a downward mobility rather than an upward one. That’s hard to explain, because most people think you are wasting your life.”

Choosing to heed the call, he turned his back on the rarefied world of opera and became a monk.

In the last four decades he estimates around 300 men have passed through the doors of the Little Brother house, and only a handful have stuck around.

When one of these longer-term residents decided to go, he said, it was like “going through a divorce.”

Of the five other little brothers that share the house now, one is an ex-teacher and another a former construction worker. Brother James acknowledged a monotony to the life, comparing his vocation to the responsibilities of the married man who must get up for work each morning though he might rather lie in bed.

“Living the Gospel means living with the people God has thrown you in with,” he said. “That’s a real challenge. It means nothing to say ‘I’m going to go out and love the forgotten and rejected people’ if you can’t love the brother that’s sitting across your cornflakes.”

That evening, after Brother James had gone to bed, I talked with Brother Anthony, who takes care of the day-to-day running of things since illness has forced the founder to take a back seat. A former barber, he joined the order over 20 years ago.

He said many people came to them with a deluded idea of the lifestyle. “A few years ago we had to turn away this young man,” Brother Anthony said. “He had this vision of himself ambling through the fields in his habit doling out alms to the poor from a wicker basket. I remember thinking, ‘does he not realize we’re in the city.’”

After just one day I had no such illusions that the monastic life might be for me. I have a mortal fear of early mornings, and those dawn liturgies were more than I could take. With that in mind I turned in early, preparing myself for a last bruising encounter with the guest room’s alarm clock.