Category Archives: memoirs

Shocked into submission…

Between about 1981 and 1995, my mother was a resident at Riverview Hospital, our provincial mental health facility. I was probably about 15 when she was admitted. It was the last and most drastic move in a series of difficult moves for her.

The reasons for her landing in Riverview went something like this:

  • In 1977, she tried to drink herself to death, self-medicating through a serious depression. She almost succeeded, but survived and came out of Burnaby General Hospital with permanent brain damage and a different, more simplified personality.
  • We could not keep her at home, unsupervised – she would need some kind of constant care and supervision – so she was admitted into the first of what would be a few different private care hospitals around Vancouver. (I remember one out in the Old Orchard neighbourhood of Kingsway in Burnaby, and later, Como Lake Private Hospital in Coquitlam.)
  • She was, I was told, difficult to care for, and at Como Lake had to be strapped to a bed on one occasion. Apparently, after she struck a nurse and walked out into the snow, trying to find her way home, Como Lake Hospital said that she had to go.
  • I really don’t think those private hospitals were equipped to handle her manic-depression or emotional outbursts. So, after that, she went to Burnaby Psychiatric Centre, near Willingdon Avenue in Burnaby. I thought she seemed to be doing much better there. It seemed like a more professional and structured environment. Dad told us that it was basically a “holding pen” for Riverview.
  • Dad said the word “Riverview” like it was a threat – a bad consequence that Mum would get if she didn’t behave herself. She’d been there before, back in the early 70s, when I was about 8 or 9, so she knew what it was like. I think Riverview was not anywhere she wanted to be, but by 1980 or so, that’s where she ended up.

I was very afraid of Riverview with its high ceilings, large heavy doors with their loud metal locks, and the wide linoleum floors surrounded by windows covered by metal grills.

The women’s ward that my mother was on in what was called “Centre Lawn Unit” was, to my young eyes, identical in age, layout and spirit to the men’s ward shown in the movie “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”, or to the wards seen in the movie “Awakenings”. Not kind of similar. Almost identical.

It was heart-wrenching to leave Mum behind in there after our first visit. She cried and pleaded to come home. She kept asking us “when can I come home?”. It hurt so much to not know what to say, or worse, to know that there was nothing that could be said, that she might never ever leave, and that she either didn’t realize it, or worse, that she knew deep-down, but couldn’t accept it.

Gradually, over the first year or two, our Sunday drives out to see Mum at Riverview lessened to only every two weeks, and then even less, as I recall. It seemed to have become too much for Dad, and on our visits, he began to claim that a sore back prevented him from climbing up the stairs to go inside, leaving it up to me and my sister Kim to go in while he sat in the car and smoked. I saw through his smokescreen, and in my teenaged binary thinking, I deeply resented him for being a coward and for leaving the burden solely for his kids. Looking back now, Mum’s near-death and physical and mental degradation must have broken his spirit and defeated him utterly. It was the final break-up of their marriage – a consequence of things that I only partially had seen as I grew up, and the full truth of which I will never really know. He still loved her, so he told me later, but he always talked about her in the past tense even while she was still alive. Nobody really talked about my Mum Angela after she went to Riverview. She was out there, but she was also just… gone.

Eventually, after Dad had a heart attack and multiple strokes in 1983, his driving days were finished. In 1984, I went out on my own on the bus to visit Mum a number of times. I wanted to take some responsibility for her in a way, and I wanted to see her and maybe try to know her in some way.  I also didn’t want her to be basically abandoned by her family.

By 1984 or 1985, she seemed to not recognize me any more or to remember my name. It was painful to try and remind her every time, but I perservered, and would also bring her a chocolate bar and enjoy her enthusiastic, child-like chewing. She was toothless by this point and ate with the enthusiasm and impatience of a toddler, sometimes coughing it out onto a bib or towel around her neck. She was reduced to a baby’s kind of existence, and I never knew if it was due to some of the meds she was on, or to some mental degradation from years of minimal stimulation.

Over the first couple of years that Mum was in Riverview, we noticed her behaviour change. Her emotions seemed dead and gone, as if her remaining spirit and personality had left her. She had become quieter and distant, and would only speak in monosyllables. In the years later, she would rock back and forth, somewhat extremely, or tremor or shake her arms up and down on the sides of her wheelchair. I never knew what her body language was telling me. Was it involuntary, or was she agitated or excited about something?

Once, after one of Mum’s cousins visited her in Riverview, we heard that the cousin had claimed that Mum had undergone electroshock therapy, nowadays called E.C.T. It was, to me, at the time, a barbaric idea, and I didn’t want to accept it. It felt like that was the worst stigma of psychiatric treatment, like a form of modern-day torture, and I didn’t want to think that my mother would be put through something that I thought was so violent.

But, there’s every likelihood that Angela did go through E.C.T. at Riverview. I’ve read recently that it was a fairly commonly-used therapy at Riverview until maybe the early 2000s.

I’ll just leave this here…  http://www.ect.org/news/130shocks.html

Dear Dad…

I was looking at some letters I’d sent you on Fathers Day in the past few years, and it made me wonder why I don’t write you more often. You know, aside from the fact that you’re dead and all.

1989 is a long time ago now, but whether my letters are five minutes late (as I was for our last hospital visit), or thirty years late, the mail must get through somehow, right? I’ll write to your ghost, wherever you are.

Some people believe in an afterlife – heavenly or hellish planes where you are rewarded or punished according to the net positive or negative balance on your books when you die. That always sounded like bullshit to me, even as a kid. I was proud to know that you had the same opinion. I probably learned it from you anyway.

Did you really ever believe in god? You said that you did, but I never saw any evidence of spirituality or mystery in you. You called our family Agnostic, which was never properly explained to me. In fact, it took me many years of reading to decide that it was, for us, just another word for atheist, in a world that would not look favourably on that idea.

I think you shunned the religious orientations of your parent’s generation. I think your family was Protestant, because we have one old Protestant bible that probably came down from some Love family bookshelf. Your mum and her sister were religious and talked about and sang to God, but it really seemed like some kind of power struggle for you. Was it that way for the Love men? Was it pride? Was it a rebellion from old values? Were your brothers that way too?

You always seemed to chafe against the institution of religion, and you personally resented its agents when they came to your door. So, while I was a kid, living with you, I could count on one hand the number of times we went to church. The motivation was usually social convention: we were new to a community, or we did it to fit in with our neighbours or because other family members expected it.

But personally, in your own heart, were your values idealistic and moralistic? I can never know how deeply rooted they were. In our house, some commandments were broken like dinner plates. Usually, some deeply-held trauma, guilt, or resentment would breach your surface out of a sea of alcohol and repression, and nothing good would ever come of it. It was the irony of the toughest man on the block, shamed to near-tears and clenched fists, facing shit that he couldn’t deal with. I’m sure your ego punished you and called you a failure inside. You had nobody to pray to, to ask for redemption, and no friends around you to confide in, at least that I ever saw. Everything in our family, and in your heart, seemed to happen behind closed doors.

Wow, that was a big load of judgement and assumption that I just laid at your feet Dad. I will never know what was in your heart, and it’s hubris for me to assume things about your character. I think that now your vision and compassion are infinite. It’s unlikely that you will give me a response, but I probably have been too hard on you for too long. There’s not much gained by punishing you posthumously. If there is a cosmic scale to be balanced for you, its not my right to load up one side or the other. I believe that the universe will absorb it and balance itself out, the same way your matter and energy have long ago been redistributed, and the atoms you used from 1921 to 1989 have long gone back into the service of other people and things.

In my teens, you did teach me that energy cannoy be created or destroyed, only transformed. You wanted me to understand a little physics and math, and to see the world in a rational way, the way modern scientific and technological men did. I’ve really worked at that over the years.

So now that your form has been gone for almost thirty years, I should leave my angry feelings in the past too. If there is an afterlife, there’s no way I can reach you in it – at least not for another 30 or 40 years if I take good care of myself. If there’s no afterlife, then you’re now infinite and redistributed, and beyond my reach anyway.

But even though you’re gone, I can still write to you, and not just on father’s day.

I’ll try to listen for your reply.

I love you.

John.

Making the most of a ghost…

How do you commune with the dead?

I know this sounds morbid as hell, but the question comes back on me every so often, like a bad aftertaste.

Why bother, and why care? I don’t believe in any afterlife or reincarnation, so why is the need for mental continuity so compelling?

I think for me, especially where my mother Angela is concerned, it’s because she represents the most significant unfinished conversation in my life.

As a kid, I can’t remember more than a dozen words Angela ever really spoke to me. In any memories I have, she didn’t make my lunch, she didn’t play with me, she rarely spoke with me one-to-one, and I cannot remember one clear “I love you” . I believe that she must have loved me, for I can see it in her face in a few photos from my babyhood, but she wasn’t “there” in my life very much. She just wasn’t a presence, parental or otherwise in any meaningful way.

I think this present-yet-absent theme explains the attachment issues I have with women, and why I tend to treasure the women who mother me in their own ways. I’ve had a few woman friends who’ve baked cakes or sweetbreads for my birthday, and it has always touched me very deeply. There’s something about the time and effort taken by a caring person to create a treat that triggers my sweet tooth (not to mention dopamine), and that I may enjoy over multiple sittings. It’s taken me a long time to see these little acts of kindness and friendship in a balanced way, and not let them get blown out of proportion.

All the same, the sweet taste of a treat made just for me helps to eclipse the bitterness left inside my gut. It came from a little boy who didn’t understand that some women are not wired to be nurturing mothers or to be demonstrative or affectionate in general. Such may be the nature of introversion or depression, or a product of how my mother was raised.

So as I’ve gotten older and less subjective, I’ve tried to see my mother Angela in a whole-person kind of view and accept and understand her nature, and not internalize it as any form of personal rejection. It’s a simmering-down of the neediness that peaked in those one or two occasions where I can remember that we had some one-to-one time. Inside me, that little eight-year-old boy needed attention from his mother and needed to know that she saw him and loved him.

Over the years, it hasn’t been easy to depersonalize and detach from someone who sat in such a symbolically significant position, but that’s what happened gradually, as our family broke up and we lived apart and disconnected from each other. It has happened to all of us to some degree, but it was especially so with my Mother. Gradually, from my age of nine to twenty nine, Mum went from being my familiar mother, to being a curiosity and a worry inside our home, to being a lost person whom you no longer knew (and whom you feared no longer knew who you were), and ultimately a stranger you never saw anymore.

If that arc doesn’t describe the downfall of a relationship for all of us (me, my sister, and especially for my Dad), then I don’t know what could.

Although I accept how and who she was, I’ll never know if she ever truly wanted to be a mother, or if it was family pressure that ultimately cast her in that role. I don’t really think she ever became her own person. I think her mind became a kind of depressive hell which she ultimately gave in to. It’s possible that, if her life or choices had been different, she might have found fulfilment in a different relationship or via a deeper connection with her creative artistic and musical impulses.

So I sit here and wonder what I would say to her if we could speak for a moment. I suppose the simplest and most direct thing is “I love you” . The voice is mine, and unfortunately so is her answer.

My True Life web shrine is almost 20 years old!

True Life is almost 20 years old!

I cannot believe that, actually. It has only just hit me that I’ve been adding little bits and pieces to this True Life project since about 1998. Back in 2015, I congratulated myself for importing my 51 original stories into this newly redesigned WordPress blog. (It was a huge improvement over my original hand-rolled php site.) Here’s another page that gives the history and breaks down the major beats of this project, from day one…

I hope to keep adding to this space, adding my stories, images, audio clips, and personal reflections on growing up in different places, with a family that had a lot of internal and external challenges to face.

Today, I think there are closer to 60 stories, and almost 40 blog posts, but there’s still a lot more to say…

Sound: The next frontier…

I’ve spent many months helping my brother-in-law to complete his (mostly audio) online memoir. I reflected on the experience, I was reminded of the directness of speech and the power of sound; the way spoken words trigger imagery that sticks with you, and how the nuances of pace, tone, and inflection seem to add so much subtle yet evocative meaning. Content and context seem so much richer when you listen.

In my bro-in-law’s voice, I can hear his passion for his memories, his regret over his losses, his enjoyment of the good times, and his questions about what his future might hold. These can be difficult to write about even for a seasoned writer, but it can be simpler and more direct to just say the words out loud.

A raw, straightforward storytelling can be powerful on its own, but I feel convinced that for my own uses, I need to make something a little more acoustically elaborate. I want something that uses background sounds to set the time and place. The best podcasts and radio broadcasting that I’ve ever heard have used place-sounds and ambient noise to create a soundscape – an acoustic landscape that sets the stage – an equivalent for being there. As examples, the podcast “Serial” did this quite well, as did another podcast about Richard Simmons. Each of them added just enough background tone and noise that you might visualise the immediate surroundings of the speaker: how sunny it was in a crowded mall parking lot, or how much traffic was on Rodeo Drive that day. it offers context that helps to build engagement and empathy.

I think a couple of tracks added like that would give my own stories so much more immersion for the listener – extra dimension and impact.

So, I’m searching for free (or creative commons) sounds and, ironically, visualising how editing and mixing might proceed using a tool like Audacity.

Update: I did make a little audio piece for my earliest story, “Peanut and Brittle”.  I will be doing more of this for other stories too…

Damaged, but reliable…

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It’s just a piece of hardwood. An old stick…

It’s held steady a couple hundred pounds of wrinkled, bruised, and broken old man. Like my old man, over thirty years ago.

This cane was James Evan Love’s kingly reward for completing weeks of physiotherapy and for surviving five strokes and a fractured hip. It was the stalwart sceptre he’d earned by graduating from wheelchair to walker to quad-cane to wooden cane. It made him look even older than he was, but it kept him on his feet, where he wanted to be.

It was a symbol of his triumph and recovery, but it was also a symbol of his hard-earned weakness and degradation. He would never walk without it again. He had become diminished and slow. He was finally, at sixty-four, an old man. The tiger was toothless…

Dad died a difficult death in 1989, pretty much coughing himself to death through pneumonia. I was hollowed-out and exhausted by losing him, and relieved for both of us that he was no longer in pain.

I was desperate to keep some of his belongings – the things he used most often or the things of his which I thought said the most about him. I kept Dad’s wheelchair for a while, later loaning it out to a different relative, and then to the grandmother of one of my wife’s best friends. Eventually, the chair came back to me and I wheeled it over to the care home next door. Dad’s beat up wooden cane stayed propped up in the corner of my room for more than thirty years as a silent echo of how we lose people and power.

A few months ago, I suffered a painful back injury, and as it got worse, I found myself unable to get out of bed or even roll over without blinding pain. After admitting myself to ER and getting some painkillers, I returned home and began to slowly get up and shuffle around. It would take me a few minutes of agonizing wriggling on my stomach to get to the foot of my bed, and then another 30 seconds to screw up the courage to push my hands over to my dresser where I’d lean, standing, and catch my breath before trying to walk to the bathroom. I measured the spaces between reachable surfaces and objects that could support my weight. Everything seemed so far away. Walking had become a highwire act with no net.

Walking hurt like hell and was a scary and tender prospect. My lower back could spasm at the slightest strain, and when it did it hurt like a cattle prod. I pondered the idea of buying a cane for myself. I didn’t want to be infirmed and incapable like an old man. I saw myself shuffling around our apartment in my sagging cardigan, talking to my cats, and sweating and swearing at the slightest effort. I stopped shaving, and white whiskers peeked out of my cheeks, reminding me of him, looking bristly-chinned on a Sunday morning.

I started to notice Dad’s cane again, and I accepted it once I began accepting my situation. I went practical and determined in my thinking: I was going to have to be able to walk if I was going to heal properly. Just use the bloody cane, I told myself.

So Dad’s cane became my cane, my centre of stability, and my most reliable tool. I did heal fully with the help of a Physio and some hard work. In fact, I’m probably in better condition now than before my back injury.

When I look at our cane now, I don’t just see a broken old man. I see the hard work that you must do and the help that you must be willing to accept in order to get back on your feet again.

Writing with sound

For months, I’ve helped my brother-in-law compose his life story into a blog. For him, due to accessbility and mobility issues, audio recording is the best way to capture his stories. It’s easier for him, but also it’s more personal. His words, his voice, are ringing in my ears – nobody else’s. It’s one-to-one.

As I’ve helped him edit his stories, I’ve thought a lot about the effectiveness of speech and sound. I used to enjoy listening to rebroadcasts of old-time radio dramas late at night, and I’ve gotten drawn into podcasts like “Serial”. It’s the atmosphere that’s created by the slightlest of ambient background noises or sound effects. It doesn’t take much to draw me into a moment.

So, I’ve been thinking of building little audio narrative pieces into the stories in my True Life project. It could use a soundtrack, some spaciousness, some emotion and personality. I’ll add what I can…

Turning that inner voice into an outer one…

Since about June of 2017, I’ve been helping my brother-in-law to record his memoirs into a web site. Working with him has inspired me to look at my own memoir project with fresh eyes.

Although he doesn’t focus on it to any significant degree, a big underlying aspect to his life story is the fact that since he was born, he’s had Cerebral Palsy and very limited mobility. However, in spite of negative prognoses from doctors when he was born, and various societal barriers in front of him as he grew up in public school and took his post-secondary education, he has managed to beat the odds.

With the support of his family and friends, today, at the age of sixty, he continues to beat the odds and make his own life. He gets himself to wherever he needs to go to run his life relatively independently, and remains able to communicate, socialize, and express himself.

His memoirs project…

In the last few years, he’d been slowly developing his memoir as a book with a local publisher. This process gave him an outlet for his many stories, as well as the satisfaction of knowing that one day, others could read his story and appreciate his life journey.

But his print publishing process was limited by his lack of funds, and had to be postponed when he became deathly ill in December of 2015. Throughout 2016, he healed, got stronger, and explored his options. He prepared for transition out of his father’s house and Pearson Hospital, and into an assisted living situation. Rather than dampen his spirits, facing his own mortality and adapting to a new lifestyle only seemed to harden his resolve to tell his story.

For him, typing seemed arduous and editing a long document by himself using a mouse and keyboard in something like Microsoft Word struck me like a distant goal at the end of a lengthy and frustrating learning curve.

So throughout 2016, we discussed his project and the ways he could benefit personally from surfing the web. I found a low-cost internet service so he could enjoy wireless at home, and bought him an inexpensive tablet. As I indoctrinated him to the web, and sites like Facebook and YouTube in particular, he took to it like a duck to water, motivated by instant access and immediate gratification. Information, entertainment, news, sports, and even people now became available to him.

I encouraged him to go digital and online, instead of relying on (for him) costly paper-based publishing. I created a free blog for him, and as we worked together to write his story, it became apparent that text was really holding us back – the written word was not a good solution for someone with his unique challenges. Even Google voice typing was not really effective: we struggled to get his narrative translated into text, and finally had to give that up.

Nonetheless, he was an effective oral storyteller, and a passionate speaker where his life stories were concerned. So it occurred to me that we should abandon text altogether and just post his stories as audio recordings, accompanied by pictures and some brief summary text.

This was the right choice for him: he loves to talk, and loves to listen to his stories. With production now aimed more at his strengths rather than weaknesses, he’s able to drive his project forward on his own terms: he hand-writes ideas for stories and records the audio himself whenever the mood strikes him. Then, we review it together, and he suggests which images might accompany it. I edit and post the completed audio files to his blog.

What this means to me…

What I take away from this are a few lessons:

  • Adaptability is crucial. Usability (and philosophies like UDL) promote technology that adapts to the needs of the user. Terms like accessibility, affordance, interface, and ergonomics relate to this, in my mind. Touch-screen mobile devices have levelled the usability playing field in a massive way.
    Lesson: Adapting a process and medium to fit someone’s strengths has changed the game entirely.
  • Digital is liberating. Paper and printing are not dead by a long shot, but the major drivers of online traffic (in our case, Google) have created enough free online services to allow people on a fixed or low income to create their own content.
    Lesson: Digital self-publishing is empowering.

For me, it feels like I should begin adding audio recordings to my own stories, here in my True Life project. It will open the stories up in a new way, allowing me to use music, sound effects and the emotion in my vocal performance to add a new dimensional depth to my stories.

Confessions of a Pack Rat

My memories are captured in thousands of files, folders, emails, and websites – and somehow, my pack rat nature has allowed me to preserve most of the digital evidence of my life since about 1998.

The Digital Studio Space

My desktop is a collection of hardly-used capturing tools: a flatbed scanner (that also does slides), a graphics tablet I used for one illustration job seven years ago, a digital camera that has been supplanted by my smartphone, and various bargain audio and video analog-to-digital conversion devices. I still have VHS tapes and audio cassettes that testify to past projects.

It must be something in the blood: my grandfather (and namesake), Ernest Clarke, was a prolific photographer, and I have his prints, negatives, slides, and 8mm film to prove it. His mission seemed to be to immortalize his wife and especially, his daughter Angela. He was somewhat compulsive about it, from the scores of evidence he left us, ranging from photos of native elders probably taken in the 20s, to colour home movies he shot in the 1970s. He’d have gone crazy with digital.

Recently, I upgraded my windows PC to windows 10, and bought myself a 3 terabyte external drive for backups. My desktop PC and all its peripherals and programs constituted my modern digital studio space – my personal workplace for explorations, communications, study, and networking. my grandfather Ernest had a little painting easel tucked in a corner of his basement for working in oil. The tools are different, but I suppose the drive is similar.

With the advent of mobile touchscreen devices, something happened that I didn’t expect: my tablet and laptop took me away from my desk, and kept me either on the couch or in a Cafe (and often digging through Facebook).

Soon enough, I found I was using my smartphone and tablet for almost everything, and rarely ever using my PC for anything (except for banking). That shift in behaviour seemed to change me from a creator into more of a consumer. For quite a few years now, I’ve spent more time surfing and consuming other people’s bytes than I have creating and promoting my own. I think. So, with the spiffed-up desktop environment, I’m probably now in a better position to focus on building my own content again.

So, that covers tools, but what about content? Who and what am I writing and imaging about?

Preserving People, Real and Imagined

I have worked, side-by-side or remotely, with hundreds and hundreds of colleagues since 1992, when my full-time career really kicked into gear. Each person I have met has taught me something about them, and about myself. Some of them were characters, and some of them are bound to become them one day.

Sometimes it’s true that “Hell is other people” . In some social groups, there are always manipulators and cajolers, liars and criers, who use your niceness against you, or use sympathy to gain your confidence and trust. If you don’t let these folks, damage you too badly, they can provide valuable learning regarding human nature. I’ve found that once I recognize the evils and virtues in somebody else’s character, I begin to see them in myself.

Thus, the memories of people you’ve known can be great inspiration for personal memoirs, or raw material for fictional characters.

Space, the Final Frontier

In my profession, I have treasured my semi-private offices or cubicle spaces. Having a little bit of solitude and at least some form of blinders provides an emotional and mental buffer zone, and helps one to concentrate.

However, too much isolation tends to raise stress levels in me, most likely my mind needs a break and a little interaction with someone every few hours. I often forget to do that. it’s important to listen to your heart and mind, to recognize when you need to be alone, or when you need to socialize.

The Real Undiscovered Country is Inside

(Well, I’m on some kind of Star Trek riff, now.)

The value of forming bonds with friends and family is obvious: we need to belong with and to someone, and want to feel part of something bigger and more secure (perhaps) than ourselves.

The hard lessons for me were learning to listen to the voice of my internal judge, to know how much sharing, emotional intimacy is enough with each person, to say enough, but try not to say too much.

Generally, I have a hard time discarding people and objects once I have assigned some sentimental attachment to them. So, I tend to collect people and things.

Interpersonally, I can’t always judge my emotional boundaries and moments quite right, but I tend to keep my doors wide open for anyone to walk in.