Category Archives: Reminiscence

Sınaq’e bğieslhayın

Just in the last couple of weeks, I’ve managed finally to start getting myself properly re-engaged with a project that I’d given less than due attention to for a couple of years now. This is an unfortunate but hard-to-avoid consequence of losing, as a result of my depression, most of my capability to multitask. Not multitasking in the moment, to be fair; not the kind of multitasking that allows one to speak on the phone while cooking or to continue a conversation while writing a note. But in my life more broadly, the management of multiple responsibilities – of maintaining research projects alongside searching for employment alongside treatment for my multi-pronged health issues alongside staying in touch with friends alongside family responsibilities – doesn’t come naturally to me any more because of the maintenance of a certain energy level that that requires. And so, all too often in my life I’ve found that a project I had been engaged with has fallen by the wayside, sometimes for weeks, or months, or years on end.

One such project, probably the largest single endeavour I’ve ever committed myself to and one that’s been with me for more than fifteen years, has been my work with the Ubykh language (in which the title of this post is written: sınaq’e bğieslhayın “I am giving it my attention again”). For those who don’t know – which is relatively few people among my friends by now, I should imagine – Ubykh is a recently-extinct language spoken originally on the shores of the Black Sea around Sochi, and latterly in exile in northern Turkey after the Russian invasion and ethnic cleansing of hundreds of thousands of people of the northern Caucasus culminated in 1864. This is neither the time nor the place for me to recapitulate the entirety of the grim, dark history of what the closely-related Abkhaz calls амҳаџырра amħaʤərra “the Exile”, but suffice it to say that the departure of the Ubykhs en masse from their homeland was the catalyst for the abandonment of their language, and Tevfik Esenç, the last fully competent speaker of Ubykh, died on the night of the 7th October, 1992. Linguists have long since realised that Ubykh was on a slow path into extinction, though, and over the course of the 20th century many thousands of pages of texts have been recorded, as well as grammatical analysis at various levels of detail, and exhaustive phonetic analysis of a sort rarely done for endangered languages (mainly because of the recognition of Ubykh’s stupendous inventory of consonant phonemes, once thought to be the world’s largest).

Nonetheless, much still remains to be done. Until I published my grammar in 2011, no comprehensive synthesis of Ubykh grammar had been produced in nearly eighty years. The last published dictionary saw light in 1963; a revised and expanded edition was being worked on, but has never eventuated. And sadly, the work seems to be outlasting most of those who seek to dedicate their time to it. Georges Dumézil, the celebrated French scholar and immortel de l’Académie française, died in 1986 after more than a half-century of work on the language. Tevfik Esenç, with whom Dumézil had worked for some thirty years, followed a few years later. Dumézil’s disciple Georges Charachidzé, who’d tantalised the Caucasological community with promise of an updated lexicon in a 1997 paper, also passed away in 2010, before that could be completed (and worse, the draft is in the hands of his daughter, who I have no idea how to contact in order to ask if I might be able to take on the task of its completion myself – without meaning at all to sound arrogant, there are few people on Earth more suitably qualified). But still, as the Ubykhs themselves say, benen cenbadegiı zeçüın mıxhın: one ox can’t graze on all the grass that grows, and even my work stands small upon the shoulders of giants.

So this gap, a gap that’s remained long unfilled, is one that I’ve sought for the last fifteen years to address; for this reason I’ve been working with Ubykh since my undergraduate years to learn the language, become familiar with it, work out its structure, determine how it works, and finally produce comprehensive and accurate materials with which the language might someday be revived. The centrepiece of all this is, of course, the dictionary. The difficulty of learning a language to fluency without having a dictionary should be obvious even to the most linguistically challenged, and so that’s been the magnissimum opus towards which the bulk of my Ubykh studies have gone, primarily so that I can then actually sit down with the dictionary and start acquiring the language properly with the aim of starting to be able to teach it effectively to others. But with the onset of my depression some five years ago, and the loss of multitasking ability that came with it, came the necessity for me to focus my time on other projects. Primary among these was, of course, my doctorate, which I eventually successfully acquired in 2013. But by then I’d fallen off the Ubykh wagon in a sense, and the loss of drive that also accompanies depression was making it difficult indeed to climb back on. There was also a deep feeling of guilt associated with that, since this is work that doesn’t only have ramifications for me, but potentially might be a rallying point around which a whole rich culture, rendered little more than dust in the wind by one of the most effective and complete ethnic cleansings in human history, could rediscover its identity – or couldn’t, as the case may be.

But a couple of months ago, I finally sat down and consciously made the decision to try to do a little more work towards completing my dictionary, and have been spending some hours each week focusing on transcribing, correcting, and reformatting the entries from an older, poorly-formatted, and unrevised (but relatively complete in terms of content) draft I’d completed back in 2010. And in the last week or so, all of a sudden – almost literally – I started to feel a level of interest again. Satisfaction. Passion, even. I was working within the letter n (unfortunately, because of the devastating complexity of the Ubykh consonantal system, this is only the 33rd letter, out of 88 in total), which includes some rather semantically dry material. Adverbial-case formant. Absolutive plural marker in the present tense. Third-person singular ergative verbal pronominal prefix in verbs containing an oblique object marker. See what I mean? It’s all pretty pleh in terms of imaginative stimulus. But as I ground my way past the purely grammatical morphemes and started to do the revisions on semantically richer and more conceptually interesting ones, I all of a sudden did find myself back in the swing of things, back to starting to understand what it was that was so exciting – so captivating – to me about this language in the first place. Seeing the presence of words for things like badger. Youthful. Saddle strapMutton sausage. Friendship. Remembering that this language was used by people, that every word represents an entity seen through Ubykh eyes, that together they form a system of seeing the world, and that it’s a system I’m doing something to preserve and perhaps one day even invigorate, are really helping me to feel passionate about this again – hell, about something again.

Well, in truth, there’s also something else that’s being very good about bringing a feeling of passion and genuine pleasure back into my life – well, someone, I should say! But that’s another blawg post entirely, and I’ll talk about that some other time. For now, suffice it to say that things are starting to happen, pleasant and wonderful and exciting and mildly scary things, in many aspects of my life, of which the return to my Ubykh work is just one such… but certainly one that’s indescribably important to me, and one that I cherish for having brought me enrichment in ways I could never, ever have predicted. It’s taken me to places I could never have imagined, introduced me to people all around the world, and given me a sense of deep purpose that I find strangely comforting. And having such a mental place of comfort – even if it be strange comfort – is reassuring.

tlhIngan Hol Quj

Those who know me mostly know my academic “dirty little secret”: that in addition to my chosen profession of archæology, I dabble in linguistics as a hobby and have done since high school. As a consequence of my lifelong interest for the richness of languages, triggered by my early beginnings learning conversational French and fanned by an encounter with written Inuktitut during primary school, among the widely-ranging but largely incoherent body of skills I’ve acquired is the ability to speak or read six languages. Four of these are of relatively substantial utility in the modern world – French, Spanish, Turkish, and my native English. The other two, however, are spoken fluently by a combined total of less than thirty people in the world, and their utility has been primarily in the sheer fascination I have for them. One of these is Ubykh, a North-West Caucasian language whose last fully competent native speaker, the good Tevfik Esenç (whose voice I’m so very familiar with from sound recordings, even though I never had the pleasure of meeting him) died in 1992; I’ll tell you more, one of these days, about my decade-and-a-half of work with that language. The sixth language I speak, and probably the one in which I (disturbingly?) have the greatest competence besides English, is Klingon. Yes, Klingon; the language devised by Dr Marc Okrand for a race of bumpy-headed aliens depicted in the Star Trek series of films. I was in high school – perhaps sixteen years old? – when I first encountered the concept that the construction of one’s own language out of whole cloth was not only possible, but had in fact been successfully achieved: not just once, but many times. The history of constructed languages is a long and rich and enthralling one that I won’t rehash here, but well worth reading about – if you’re interested in more I’ll just point you to Dr Arika Okrent’s wonderful book In the Land of Invented Languages (which, for good measure, includes some segments on the Klingon community, researched first-hand and using interviews with some of my Klingon-speaking friends) – but suffice it to say that I became interested very quickly, and Klingon in particular gave me special intrigue, not least because of the science-fiction milieu in which it’s set. But it’s not only that: as I’ve said before on this very blog, as I came to know the Klingon community I also grew to realise that they’re some of the most wonderful and worthwhile people I know. And like a pack of childhood friends playing in the same sandpit, our shared experience with Klingon gives us a complex, extraordinary, and yet neatly-bounded playground in which to revel. We talk, we sing, we recite poetry (remind me to tell you more about my Klingon version of the Rime of the Ancient Mariner sometime), we tell jokes, we spin stories, we order meals, we party; we do all sorts of things in Klingon. (I’ve been told by other Klingonists I’ve roomed with that, at times, I even speak Klingon in my sleep.)

One of the other things we do in Klingon, particularly at the qep’a’ (the KLI’s annual conference), is play games, which helps us to expose ourselves to Klingon in a fun way that helps to reinforce and strengthen our language skills. Charades and Pictionary are particular favourites; an official Klingon-language version of Monopoly also exists, as does a uniquely Klingon game called Klin Zha, a strategy game not unlike chess but played on a triangular board. (Beating my friend Captain Krankor at Klin Zha in Chicago is still one of my fondest memories of that game. I got lucky, to be fair; I’m not very good at Klin Zha.) Word games like Boggle and Scrabble are popular as well, particularly because they’re games that force one to enhance one’s lexicon and to be able to know which words are legal and which aren’t; since Klingon also relies rather heavily on prefixing and suffixing, one has to know which prefixes can go on which verbs, what order the suffixes have to come in to form a grammatical word, und so wie. For example, the Klingon word juquvHa’moHta’ you have set out to dishonour us comprises one root (quv, be dishonoured), a prefix (ju-, you [do something to] us), and three suffixes (-Ha’ dis-, –moH cause, –ta’ perfective of intent) and all of the suffixes must appear in a specific order: *juquvta’Ha’moH is a grammatically illegal word (and in Scrabble therefore an illegal play). An unofficial Klingon version of Scrabble was developed back in the late 1990s, but although people would often play it at qep’a’, as I had the pleasure of doing at my first qep’a’ in Reno in 2011, the general consensus was that the distribution of the letters was somewhat off (particularly of the qaghwI’, the glottal stop), that the balance of consonants and vowels wasn’t quite right. This letter distribution was based only on a single text – the authoritative edition of Hamlet – and while it was certainly the most substantive source material we had at the time, the fact that it was written almost entirely by a single author and in a single style meant that it was potentially going to skew what kinds of words were used, what types of grammatical constructions were deployed, and consequently, what the distribution of the individual characters was going to be.

“You have not experienced Shakespeare until you have read him in the original Klingon.”
– Chancellor Gorkon, Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country

And this brings me to possibly one of the nerdiest things I’ve ever done – beyond having linguistics as a hobby, beyond learning Klingon to the point of conversational fluency (I’m one of only two Australians ever to be certified to Gold-level by the Klingon Language Institute’s certification program), beyond flying around the world to attend qep’a’mey (three times so far). My most significant contribution to Klingondom is the development of the current Scrabble letter distribution. After some discussion amongst the top-flight Klingon Scrabble players, who were largely (though, to be fair, not exclusively) in agreement that the letter distribution we had needed work, I took this task upon myself. I sat down with four major Klingon texts by four separate Gold-certified authors, totalling over half a million raw characters, and from them constructed a statistical algorithm to determine which consonants and which vowels were most common in connected text; I subsequently used the model of the original English Scrabble set, which has 100 tiles scoring a total of 200 points, to distribute the point values for each tile appropriately with further subjective input from Klingon Scrabble aficionados. (For what it’s worth, the highest-scoring possible opening move in this scoring system is tlhorghqang it is willing to be pungent: 134 points.) Once I’d developed the scoring system appropriately so that it balanced out to 200 points exactly, one of the authors who’d contributed a text (the Klingon novelist Qov – Robyn Stewart – whose novel nuq bop bom is the longest extant single text in the language) did some research to locate a business that could use a laser mill to make custom-made timber Klingon Scrabble tiles, and this she had done, ordering several sets so that Klingonists who wished to could own their own set of Klingon tiles for Scrabble. And I have to admit, seeing the completed tiles, with the letters and scores on every tile in both the romanised Klingon transcription and the native pIqaD writing system, gave me a feeling of some pride that I’d been able to contribute in my own small way to this awesome community I have the joy and deep honour to belong to. Here’s a photo of a completed Scrabble game between me and Qov, showing the tiles with my score distribution on them in all their glory.


A short poem, a long ramble

“Occasional clouds
bring a person respite from
gazing at the moon.”
– Matsuo Bashō, 1644-1694 (my translation)

Poetry is a secret vice of mine, though one about which I’m involuntarily selective. Much as I’d like very much to expose myself to more poetry in the hope of discovering new and emotive mental fodder, my experience with doing so in the past has been that the moments of true enjoyment of poetry are few and very far between. When I read prose, very often I can find a wide range of material I like within a certain genre, or a specific author’s style and expression will enrapture my imagination. This latter is particularly true of some authors. When I first read Stephen King – my first exposure was The Shining, I think – his glorious, intrusive-thoughts writing style and my imaginative faculty slotted together like the two halves of a giant clam’s shell, summoning imagery in my mind’s eye that was rich, vivid, entirely memorable; he takes his craft extremely seriously and has produced fine, engaging prose as a result. Similarly, the power and fluidity of expression emanating from George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire novel series captured me more or less immediately as I began to read A Game of Thrones, such that after finishing it I immediately went out to purchase every subsequent available book in the series. (And this was no small feat, as I was struggling with a deep period of depression at that point and had read no new fiction in more than two years: virtually unthinkable, since as an undergrad there were long stretches – and I’m talking months and years on end – where I’d buy and read two or three novels a week, every week, almost without fail. The woman who ran the book stall at the flea market used to know me by name, and moreover, I knew hers too. Gwen. I probably bought upwards of four hundred books from her over the course of a few years.) Others whose books I’d read more or less on the strength of their author’s name are Robert Silverberg, Tim Willocks, and Isaac Asimov, all of whose writing styles and subject matters I find a pleasure to engage with.

But with poetry – and I’m mystified as to just why this is – it’s more that a specific poem has to speak to me somehow on more than one level at a time. It’s not enough to just be by a poet whose style I happen to like; I may love one of a poet’s works, and loathe the next even if it’s similar in subject matter, style, tone. A poem has to move past intellectually objective criteria to touch me emotionally through its form, through its topic, through its power to evoke imagery, through the context in which I first heard it. That doesn’t mean, of course, that only poems of one specific form and subject are eligible for this. I love complex full rhymes just as much as half-rhyme and blank verse, I’ve been touched by epic just as much as by haiku. Indeed, what I think is one of the finest pieces of English-language poetry of the last hundred years isn’t what many would think of as a “poem” at all: it’s Eminem’s Lose Yourself, which is not only a deeply emotional story delivered with richly evocative language, but is also a mindblowing tour de force of rhyme and vocalic assonance so complex that it defies straightforward analysis and makes Alexander Pope’s poetry look like it was written by a primary schooler. But I’m also enamoured of Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (my love of the poem was what drove me to translate it into rhyming Klingon verse, my longest complete composition in the language), which has a much simpler rhyme scheme and a much more rigid metre, but expresses itself with such vibrant and almost psychedelic imagery that it conjures its supernatural and deathly visions effortlessly – due, no doubt, to Coleridge also being a well-known and incorrigible dope fiend. The fact that the Rime‘s so widely quoted and alluded to means it’s got some historical importance, as well: an albatross around one’s neck; water, water, everywhere; and so forth. There are several other poems I enjoy just as much – such as John Donne’s A Fever, William Blake’s The Tyger, A. B. Paterson’s Been There Before. And the haiku I quote above is one of these.

It’s a classical Japanese haiku, and such is how I’ve rendered it in the translation above as well – a rigid sequence of three lines in five, seven, and five morae (though the original has six in the first line). The clean minimalism of the haiku format has always appealed to me, though as I don’t read Japanese except with the aid of a dictionary and kana charts, it’s an arduous task for me to access most classics of the genre. And I know virtually nothing of Bashō beyond the fact that he’s widely acknowledged as one of the greatest poets of premodern Japan, and even less about his poetry specifically. This haiku holds meaning to me for other reasons. To begin with, it’s a philosophically interesting idea to hold onto: the idea that not all of life is brightness and beauty and illumination, and that the coming of occasional periods of darkness is natural, to be expected, and perhaps can help one to better appreciate those times when the beauty and brightness shine forth most radiantly, filling one’s life with light. In Japanese culture the moon is also a symbol of autumn (for some reason best known to someone else), and in this poem I think the moon’s own inherent quality of flux in its constant waxing and waning, combined with its cultural embodiment of the season of turning leaves, probably reflect the Zen Buddhist concept of anityatā “impermanence”. This is the idea that nothing stays the same forever, and here Bashō seems to imply that anityatā isn’t to be avoided, but to be embraced – that even the clouds cloaking the moon’s luminescence aren’t inherently bad and may themselves be fruitfully considered from a positive perspective instead (if you’ll permit me a moment of mixed metaphysics):

“Too much color dazzles the eye.
Too much noise deafens the ear.
Too much flavor deadens the taste.”
– Agnieszka Solska (transl.), Daodejing 12.1-3

But the reason I know of this haiku isn’t because of its usefulness as an illustration of how one might see the silver lining in the clouds (…as it were). Rather, it had been printed on the program of the memorial service for an old friend and mentor, Tom Loy, back in 2005. Tom was a renowned lecturer in archæology at my alma mater (the only scientist mentioned by name in both the book and the film of Jurassic Park, no less); a great polymath, but more importantly a man I was proud to call friend, his theoretical perspectives on the discipline and friendly openness to fellow seekers of knowledge – whether full professors or lowly undergrads – have basically informed the entire direction of my professional development. I was enormously honoured to have been asked to deliver a eulogy at his memorial service, since no other archæologist has influenced me more radically. More importantly, Tom was also a Buddhist, and even in his archæological lectures he taught the utility of anityatā (though never referring to it as such in his lectures) for conceptualising cultural change, emphasising that even in periods of what may appear in the archæological record to be cultural stasis, people constantly die and are replaced, tools constantly broken and are repaired, buildings constantly decay and are rebuilt; what appears to be stasis is only what the Yijing categorises as a distinct type of change, the 不易 bùyì ‘non-change’ that comprises the continuous activities necessary to maintain a diachronically ‘steady state’ or ‘permanence’.

But I digress. (My apologies. Tom never published these perspectives before his unexpected death, so I rarely get the opportunity to discuss them or how they’ve impacted upon my own conceptualisation of how to do archæology.) In any case, Tom’s memorial service was a Buddhist one, and the program bore another translation of this haiku on the back, just above the standard funerary verse from the Mahā-Sudassana Sutra; it’s only just recently that I came across my copy of the program again, unearthing it from a drawer while searching for something else entirely. The first time I saw this haiku back in 2005, it was singularly appropriate to Tom’s death already as a reminder of the evanescence of things, but having seen it anew it’s stirred up a diachronic maelstrom of emotions. I relate to it in an entirely new way now, after my struggles with anxiety and depression ramped up in earnest, but at the same time the poem still serves as a conceptual memento of my friendship with Tom and of the emotions surrounding his death. And the novel set of feelings that’s been awakened clicks snugly, almost seamlessly, into the older emotions; just as it did back then, the poem still reminds me that the idea of the impermanence of experiences and of things isn’t only to be looked at through pessimistic eyes. It’s for just that reason that I was moved to compose a new translation of the original Japanese haiku – the English translation that’s at the beginning of this post – to share with a dear friend earlier in the week, a friend who’s also suffering through some psychologically rough times. For us sufferers of anxiety and depression, much of the time it’s hard to maintain optimism and hold onto the idea that though it might seem like good times and pleasant feelings are gone for good, bad times and unpleasant feelings are just as impermanent, are just as much anityā. So I wanted to share this haiku with her, and now with anyone else who might read it here on my blog; not just because it’s one of my favourite pieces of poetry, appealing to me in its form, its subject matter, and in the hidden depth of its meaning, but because it’s been helpful to me as a mental tool. I’ll be well pleased if it can serve as such for anyone else.

Travel, expectations and reality

Today’s been a dreary day, and I eventually summoned myself out of my bed at about a quarter past two in the afternoon after some eleven hours of sleep and a period of just lying in bed, phases of sheer motionlessness. I did manage to rouse myself, though, and brought myself to send out some emails and messages and so forth, but on the whole this weekend has been a quiet one indeed. For this I’m mildly grateful in one way, as today marks the end of a complicated fortnight: seven doctor’s appointments, two rounds of blood tests, a hospitalisation, an alternatingly ecstatic then painful rollercoaster of romantic emotions, helping two friends through breakdowns, another two through breakups, and the disintegration of plans to do a test-run of moving out of home… not a torturous fourteen days, to be sure, but certainly one that’s taken a physical and emotional toll. This weekend has become a time of rest, then, and yesterday I was moved to spend some of that time in writing. What excited me to this feeling has been a reflection my dear friend recently wrote about her perspectives on visiting and travelling in England, a reflection that transported me back to some of my own travels – never as far west in Europe as England (more’s the pity, though I hope to reach western Europe one day soon), but the feelings she describes as having been stirred in her reminded me of my own emotional responses to some of the cities I’ve visited. What surprised me, I suppose, is that my friend found herself sensing genuine distaste for London, a distaste she described in no uncertain terms and in a manner that’s utterly foreign to my experience of international travel. Of the eighty-odd cities I’ve visited in eight countries, never has my feeling been one of dislike or discomfort; although there are places I’ve liked moreso than others, of course, none has been an experience that I could ever use the words regret or hate to describe. Even when there have been particular events that haven’t been so pleasant (losing my camera on the last day of my visit to Tbilisi, for instance – I had to purchase a new one in Athens – or being screwed out of thirty lira by a street shoe-shine hustler in İstanbul), I’ve come away from every place that I’ve visited with a sense of enjoyment, and satisfaction that I did.

New York is such a place (and I mention this primarily because I can’t speak to the experience of London, but I have visited New York, twice). Like my friend’s dissatisfaction with her London experience, my two brothers have been to New York and both found it overwhelming, noisy, crowded, oppressive; as one of them puts it, it was too much of the big smoke and too little of the open sky. I can counter none of these assessments, primarily subjective as they are, but when they told me about their trip and noted that they wouldn’t go back if given the option, I was – there’s no other word that’s as apt – gobsmacked. For me, New York was a unique and brilliant experience. It was a world apart, every bit as different and exotic and alien as if I’d been whisked off the surface of the Earth and teleported Star Trek-fashion into the centre of some Asimovian metropolis on the other side of the galaxy. The explorer in me was enthralled by the microcosm that the city represented, the stupendous diversity of humanity crammed into this one urban concentration. Some linguists believe that native speakers of as many as 800 languages may reside in the city, perhaps the most concentrated hotbed of linguistic diversity anywhere on the planet, and each gives their own unique spin to what it means to be American; that diversity is bleeding out of the Five Boroughs’ every pore. Every day I went walking I felt like I was entering a new town of sorts, a new locale, able to experience something starkly different from whatever it was I’d done the previous day. Strangely, I never felt crowded by people; even in Times Square it was easy to navigate around clots of tourists, and the area of Upper Manhattan I stayed in the first time it was positively peaceful much of the time. Meandering along the streets I’d read signs advertising all sorts of goods and services – Jewish delicatessens, Russian bakeries, Korean laundries. I heard more different languages spoken in one day in New York than on any other day before or since. Look here; see vaulting skyscrapers sparkling with thousands of mirror facets, white-gloved security staff calmly alert under canvas awnings that arch over brass-fitted foyers. Now look over there; see low two-storey red brick buildings, a graffiti-covered roll-a-door protecting a family-run convenience store with “Se Habla Español” on a handwritten sign in the window. On one day, I might see the frescoes of a reconstructed Pompeiian villa, the world’s largest collection of shrunken heads, and Neil DeGrasse Tyson’s planetarium, and come out of one of the city’s best pizzerias to see a two-time Academy Award nominee leaving the theatre opposite. (Jude Law, for the record.) On the next day, I might eat a pretzel and tandoori chicken with rice and salad from street vendors, then spend three hours discovering bronze statues, bench dedications, and wildlife in the surprisingly peaceful vastness of Central Park. Even the hostel I stayed at the first time – in the bottom levels of a brownstone in the middle of Harlem, a dodgy little place with rips in the vinyl of the couches, vegetation overgrown in what passed for its backyard, and a spanner kept in the shower so that you could actually turn the water on (the faucet head had long since been stolen) – was an experience that, while I maybe mightn’t stay there again, I enjoyed greatly nevertheless. My stay there gave me both richly memorable experiences and deeply treasured friends; two aspiring career musicians I met there, Grace and Kenny, I still keep in touch with. They brought me to a fun Mexican eatery not far from the Museum of Modern Art that I made it a point to go back to on my second visit; another night, we bought fountain sodas in a fast food place and spiked them with vodka while we wandered the streets of Harlem. The mixture of brazen wide-eyed camera-wielding tourism during the day and relaxed enjoyment with knowledgeable locals during the evening was the perfect way to experience the city, and I suppose that these reasons are what influence me to find it striking that one might visit New York and come out of it disappointed.

I rather like to think that my brothers’ dissatisfaction was at least in part caused by a combination of the time of year (they visited during the unseasonably cold snap of early 2014, and so the city was largely snowbound – by contrast, my visits were made during the late summer and early autumn, a time that’s warm but not intolerably so, when Central Park’s rich verdure is in full flush and the city’s denizens are more outgoing) and the fact that neither of them are particular fans of museums. Much of my New York state of mind came from the rich range of world-class museums they have: the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where Johannes Vermeer first captivated me with Det Melkmeisje that was on loan from the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam; the American Museum of Natural History, because I’m a nerdy freak for all things natural history and particularly palæontology, and the AMNH has a wondrous collection of mounted dinosaur fossils; the Museum of Modern Art, where Vincent van Gogh’s The Starry Night was on display, far more spectacular in person than in a print of any fidelity; and even the Ripley’s Odditorium on Times Square, basically a fuck-off enormous Victorian curio cupboard with probably about as much authenticity about it but still some fascinating exhibits. One of my brothers tells me, too, that he rather fancies a little of the type of culture shock the Japanese call パリ症候群 Pari shōkōgun (in English, Paris syndrome) might also be to blame. This manifests when visitors to Paris (for some reason particularly Japanese tourists) suffer a psychological shock from realising that the reality of the city differs sharply from the received and preconceived ideal version of Paris: the Eiffel-Tower-in-spring, croissantsaveccafé, skinny-Chanel-model-in-marinière-and-beret Paris they’ve been delivered in Western movies and glossy magazine liftouts (and honestly, sometimes the stereotypes  write themselves). Certainly New York is a city that’s similarly widely represented in mass media, and so people’s perceptions of it would, one presumes, be subject to this same kind of unpleasant dissonance – a Stadtschmerz, if you like. This makes a lot of sense to me, particularly as my mental illness brings me to feel a good deal of Schmerz about the Welt in general, and I can objectively wrap my head around the idea that a specific place might trigger such a feeling too. I’d also never even flown in a commercial plane until I was 23, and never overseas until 26, so I suspect that for me the novelty of overseas travel of any sort is still in play. Even now there’s little that makes me feel more like a young kid opening her presents on Christmas morning than the intensifying roar of jet engines outside the heavily-insulated window that seems to dampen the sound not at all, and the heady feeling of being shoved backwards into my chair by g-forces as the pilot puts the hammer down to take off.

And of course, none of this is to say that anyone is at all wrong in assessing their visit to any city as being disappointing, unpleasant or distasteful. Travel isn’t about the objective beauty or charm of a place, and nor should it be; it’s about the way in which a person and a place interact, a tourist’s experiencing of a place within the context of their own past experiences and education and perceptions, both of that place and of all the others they’ve visited previously. From my friend’s description of her stay in London (and Hackney, she goes on to note), I can absolutely understand how the places she stayed would have struck her as being a letdown, an unsettlingly and maybe stereotypically twee self-caricature of a sort she wasn’t expecting. I guess I just fervently hope to continue avoiding such disappointments on my own travels, and I’ve been immensely fortunate that I haven’t been disappointed yet.

22 Days of Musing: 20

20. Counselling my future self.

Last night I got into a little of a rambling reminiscence about the first painting I did as self-treatment for a fairly black phase of depression, and I shared the painting itself, which I’m now realising that I probably should have done tonight so that while I talk about it, it’d be here in front of you. But never mind – I may as well share it again here, and since it’s my blawg, what I say goes. This isn’t any kind of a democracy, after all.

Ú-chebin galad anim. Acrylic on canvas, January 2013.

The depiction is of the elven queen Galadriel from The Lord of the Rings (portrayed in the films by Cate Blanchett) farewelling the Fellowship of the Nine as they leave the forests of Lothlórien. While the theme is admittedly maudlin, it’s also deliberately rich in symbolism. It draws upon Galadriel’s own fate, and that of all her kind: destined to fade into the West as the world passes from the Elves’ dominion, she passes the responsibility for the destiny of Middle-earth into the hands of those she farewells, and to Frodo she gives a gift of light even as she herself recognises that she will soon diminish and go into the West. That’s what the Quenya inscription says (and devising a Quenya translation and tengwar transcription of the phrase, which is spoken in the film only in English and never shown in writing of any stripe, was intended also to give me something to occupy and interest my brain).

Lyen antanyë i silme Eärendilwa, ammelda elenelma.
Nai cálë lyen nauva mornë nómessen,
írë ilyë exë calmar isintanier.
[I give you the light of Eärendil, our most beloved star.
May it be a light for you in dark places,
when all other lights go out.]

Because of this desire to develop a symbolic structure for this work, not only the topic of the painting, but many of its details, were also specifically selected to bear meaning of their own. The deep blue tone of the background symbolises the sensation of depression that was crushing me at the time under its enormity; the expression on Galadriel’s face, a calm and yet slightly sad acceptance of the inevitability of her fate, was intended to suggest my feelings of becoming resigned to – though still not at all pleased with – enduring the long dark. The broad, empty space between her and the light she gives freely to the one she farewells represents the distance I sensed between myself and normality, the pure but faint and solitary luminosity of the star Eärendil likewise representing the ethereal and perhaps almost illusory possibility of a brightness coming to render the dark powerless. All were intentional symbolic choices on my part. Even the golden hue of the inscription recalls the beginning of one of Galadriel’s verses of lamenting the autumn of her era:

Ai! laurie lantar lassi súrinen,
yéni únótimë ve rámar aldaron!

[Ah, like gold fall the leaves in the wind;
long years numberless as the wings of trees!]
– J. R. R. Tolkien, Namarië (Farewell)

The title I gave to the painting, Ú-chebin galad anim, similarly constructs an allusion to another Tolkienian reference. The phrase is in Tolkien’s other major Elvish language, Sindarin, and means “I have kept no light for myself”; it parallels a similarly-phrased line from the linnod or verse aphorism spoken by Aragorn’s mother Gilraen as she gave her son over to the Elves for protection:

Ónen i-Estel Edain; ú-chebin estel anim.
[I gave hope to the Dúnedain; I have kept no hope for myself.]
– J. R. R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings: Appendix A

What I sought to do with this painting, I suppose, was to imbue it with all of the feelings of chagrin and emptiness and pain and hopelessness and fatalism that I was experiencing at the time, to memorialise and immortalise those feelings in pigment on canvas. The conceptual framework of The Lord of the Rings and its story and mythology was merely a convenient, though rich and familiar, symbolic language in which I could cast those thoughts visually. But my aim in doing that was actually not to wallow in the blackness: far from it, in fact. Instead, my thought was that by exploring all of these sensations as I painted, I would seek almost to entrap or imprison the dark, agonising feelings within that moment of time, and thereby allow me to project and communicate hope, and cheer, and well wishes for my future self – the one that would later see and experience the completed depiction and all its rich symbolism – even as I couldn’t see hope for myself in that moment. And in some ways it seems, strangely, to have succeeded; whenever I raise my eyes to the painting as I walk down the hall towards my room, I see Galadriel looking straight back at me, raising her hand in empathy and peace and love, and symbolically passing to me a little of the light, and the hope, that when I first put brush to canvas I’d been unable to find – or keep – for myself.

22 Days of Musing: 19

19. Paint yourself out of a corner.

Actually, because I mentioned it in last night’s reflection as well as the nominee I chose – a friend who happens to be a spectacular artist herself – I find myself thinking more about painting, a pastime that I mentioned I’d engaged in on occasion. This might seem to be well and truly off point, but I promise that I have a reason for talking about this. I’ve never considered myself particularly artistic; although music’s always had a role in my life (or at least, it did up until depression set in in earnest) and I enjoyed playing and listening to music of a wide range of types, I’ve always thought of myself as having little to no skill at all in the visual arts. Many years ago (and we’re talking many years, as in, back when I was in high school) I did ponder taking up the art of cartooning and took a workshop to that end, and in all fairness it’s true that I do appreciate the beauty of a unique piece of visual artwork. There was great wonder and excitement in visiting the art and archaeology museums I’ve experienced around the world – the National Gallery in Melbourne, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the National Archaeological Museum in Athens, the Getty in Los Angeles – that contain spectacular examples of art both ancient and modern. At the Met, I fell in love with the work of Johannes Vermeer; at Olympia, the Hermes and the Infant Dionysos of Praxiteles. But largely, my experience of these artworks has been with the understanding that I could neither imagine nor execute works of such beauty and vividness, and with this knowledge I was, and remain, largely content. But in late 2012, about eighteen months after starting on my first antidepressant medication, I experienced another period of darkness mainly focused upon the time around Christmas (a holiday that in recent years has come to give me less and less joy, to the point where I no longer look forward to it at all; but that’s a story for another time, I think). Each time I’ve fallen deeply into the pit of depression, I’ve noticed something that has deserted me; in this instance, it was my ability to maintain focus for any length of time. Even when I wished to write an email to a friend, I’d write perhaps one sentence, then have my focus begin inexorably drifting in a manner that I found I was unable to control – such that it would take me weeks to write and send an email to someone I wanted to stay in touch with. And so it was in early January of 2013 that I found myself scrabbling for ways to claw back some of the focus that had by that point entirely deserted me. What I decided at that time was that I needed to find something that I had a solid theoretical knowledge about, but that I was entirely unskilled at: something that wasn’t time-sensitive but demanded periods of specific focus, something that, because I wasn’t naturally skilled at it, would occupy many parts of my mind all at once in order to execute successfully. And what I decided upon was painting. At the time I’d only recently rewatched Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy, a story and fictional universe I’ve always taken much enjoyment from, and so it was from here that I drew inspiration. And I was successful, in the main; after three weeks of this self-administered focus treatment, this was the result, which now hangs above my door in a place where it looks over me every time I go into my room. (Forgive the curvature at the top and bottom; to get a sufficiently detailed shot, I had to take the photo from close enough to cause this distortion as well.)

Ú-chebin galad anim. Acrylic on canvas, January 2013.

Unlike some of my subsequent paintings, which have been done largely just to keep my hands and my mind busy, with virtually every aspect of this painting I spent much time developing the theme and filling the piece with rich symbolism; it quickly moved past being simply a picture to paint, and has come to take on a more deeply therapeutic role. The role of this specific piece of work in my self-treatment for depression has been significant, and I think I’ll explain exactly how in tomorrow’s reflection, as it’s a little convoluted.

22 Days of Musing: 15

15. Grokking my fullness.

I’d like to talk tonight about how desperately important it is, when you suffer from any kind of mental illness whatsoever – depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, PTSD, bipolar disorder, anorexia nervosa, obsessive-compulsive disorder – to maintain a network of supportive and trusted people around you who can assist you to maintain at least a certain handle on the illness, and can act as a soft place to fall if the disorder should get difficult enough to require that. For a plethora of reasons individually too small to consider problematic but joining together to form a larger and more formidable challenge of my psychological strength, it tends to be my friends in whom I place the most trust when it comes to being open and frank about my battle with mental illness. I don’t know what it is that makes me trust them moreso than anyone else. Perhaps it’s the discomfort I feel with the fact that there’s a societal obligation upon family to care – that blood is thicker than water, to the point where in many cultures the word for “family” or “clan” even comes from terms for body parts, as in Māori iwi “clan” (literally, “bone”) and the Ubykh equivalent lhepq (literally “blood [and] bone”) – an obligation that anxiety makes me sometimes question, even as I tell myself not to be so bloody bone-headed. I ask myself, are they being supportive because they truly want to be? Or rather because blest be the tie that binds and the omnipresent ᴛʜᴇʏ would look poorly upon kinship coming not before all? Having anxiety sometimes makes me ask such terrible questions even as I loathe myself for doing so. And so the hands of my friends, bound by no such ties of kin that might conceivably oblige them to catch me as I fall, tend to be those I trust with my psychological well-being (or lack thereof), because I’m more comfortable, on the whole, with the idea that they’re supportive because it pleases them to be so.

Nkiéjuale mğiéjuale waléwmıt.
(Old friends and old roads will not deceive you.)
– Ubykh proverb

This very evening, in fact, I spent a solid two hours (we can’t seem to help talking longer, always, than what either of us plan!) on the phone nattering with my best friend, ranging over a whole slew of topics and running along glorious tangents at every other turn. The peculiar thing is that it need not be a conversation about anything in particular that helps me to feel better or more positive; I don’t necessarily need to drop my bundle or vent my spleen to get a sensation of improvement. It can simply be the mere fact of having contact with another human being who cares about me for just exactly what and who I am, warts and all, that gives salve for the wounds that respond to no physical cure. When you’re mentally ill, the value of having somebody understand you is incalculable. And I’m not talking here simply about passive understanding, the sage nod of the “oh, I see” from someone who intellectually comprehends the words you’ve said, the scenario you’ve described, and might perhaps even feel sympathy, expressed (or not) in a platitude of some sort. Merely being understood is sometimes not what you need, or at least, is often not what I need. Rather, what I mean is having someone actively understanding you, or (with apologies to the late Robert Heinlein) grokking your fullness: not the mere statement of someone’s understanding, but an activity that communicates that understanding. Actions speaking louder, et cetera. The kind of understanding I most value is that shown not by attempting to “understand” as such at all, but by simply interacting, talking, laughing, commiserating, joking, raging together, in a way that demonstrates – that perhaps even performs – one’s understanding of me. Not of my illness, or of my circumstances, but simply of me. This is exceedingly difficult to describe, and the English language really lacks the lexical and grammatical tools to express the idea as cleanly as I perceive it, but equally impossible to describe is the value I place on spending time with people who’re willing to perform this kind of understanding. And sometimes all that’s necessary is to simply exist in the right place at the right time. On two occasions in 2011 after the “girl from the conference” débâcle, I lost my composure and fell apart in public towards the end of two nights out with a group of friends. In both instances, I realised what was happening and separated myself before I dropped my bundle completely. But one friend noticed my unexplained absence and came out to simply sit with me as I sobbed in the gutter and rest his hand on my shoulder. Both times it was the same friend, and he said nothing as I wept. But he knew, somehow instinctively, that I didn’t need someone to comfort me with words; I just needed someone to be with me and perform an understanding of the fact I just needed to feel like I was not alone. To turn a phrase, he understood the shit out of me on those nights, just as my best friend did earlier this evening. Loneliness is one of the curses of depression, and knowing who your truly understanding allies are can help to fend off that loneliness when it becomes too much to bear; I imagine this could be true for any mental illness, that the establishing of a small group of intimately trusted people who can grok your fullness can save you in those circumstances when your mind is seeking rather to betray you.

22 Days of Musing: 14

14. Zero drive.

Tonight I’m not feeling any particular drive to write a reflection. I suppose that, in itself, bears talking about. Much as the antidepressants do help me avoid the deep troughs of psychological anguish that used to haunt me, they’re not a panacea by any stretch of the imagination; their function seems to be more to stabilise my mood at a tolerable level, rather than to restore a “normal” pattern of mood – whatever the fuck that might be, as every person has their own unique patterns of mood and all are stimulated by a unique set of experiences – and although the stabilisation certainly does ferry me across the rough seas when they occur, it’s difficult still to find ways in which to bring myself genuinely positive states of mind. To an extent, the recognition during my bleak fortnight in 2011 that the things I used to do when I had the blues no longer worked was one of the factors that pushed me to seek help in the first place – the realisation that my spells of coming forth into daylight had lost their power, and that I needed to find new and more powerful ones. Music was for many years a means through which I could express my emotions in a raw, untrammelled manner; I played saxophone, guitar, clarinet, and harmonica at various stages in my childhood through to early adulthood, and even when I wasn’t actively playing music, I might’ve been singing along to a richly emotional ballad, or even just losing myself in the depths of a song whose harmonic lines seemed sometimes to bypass my ears completely and speak straight to my soul.

Regrets collect like old friends
Here to relive your darkest moments
I can see no way, I can see no way
And all of the ghouls come out to play
And every demon wants his pound of flesh
But I like to keep some things to myself
– Florence + The Machine, Shake It Out

Reading was long a means of escape I cherished, too. My tastes have always run in the direction of fantasy and science fiction themes – both the kind of pulpy smeg that, as fantasy author Jessica Amanda Salmonson puts it, is to literature as potato chips are to gourmet cooking (she herself offers the unarguable caveat that “potato chips are spiffy too”), as well as more grandiose or peculiar explorations of the human condition – but sometimes I fell for much different fare, as with Tim Willocks’s grimmer modern-day fiction, simultaneously more philosophical and yet more violent than much of what I read out of the SFF realm. But depression has largely robbed me of this as well, although there are exceptions: when I first read George R. R. Martin, I hadn’t read a new fiction book in over two years. I own over two thousand books, you see, and there was a time when I would visit the university market day and buy two or three second-hand books every week, read them, and then come back for more the next week. So to go for so long without feeling any interest in fiction (and I did try, numerous times) was itself a dark sign. Reading A Game of Thrones was a kind of revelation to me for that reason; I bought the first book new (normally an unthinkable luxury on my paltry student’s wage at the time), and I was so enthralled by his writing style, as well as by the fact that I had all of a sudden discovered fiction that moved me again, that I went out thereafter and purchased – also new – every single one of the subsequent books in the series. It was as though I’d learned to read all over again, and although it wasn’t able to bring me back to the reading obsession I used to foster, it did offer me back a little of the pure joy that I had long forgotten I could obtain from a book. Depression still largely keeps me from feeling excitement about doing things, and even when I do feel a thrill of excitement, a frisson of actually feeling something (a good example would be last week, a week during which I got notifications that one of my academic articles had been published and another two had been accepted for publication), it tends not to last; in the days where I’m not as positive as others – for even on the antidepressant medication, the stability of my mood is not complete – I tend to fall into a torpor of sorts, an inertia from which it becomes difficult to extract myself. The things that can draw me out of this inertia are rather less predictable now than they used to be, but they do still occur, every once in a while.

22 Days of Musing: 12

12. The candies of fun.

The treatment options available for mental illness are rich and varied, and include not only counselling – the first place I looked to for assistance, primarily because I was not in stable employment and the counselling service they offered through the university support services was free – but also psychological and psychiatric intervention that may or may not include medication. After some time spent working with the university counsellor, I experienced a general reduction in the severity of my symptoms, but not a complete dispersal by any means, and I had a relapse after a couple of months. But as I mentioned in yesterday’s reflection, in this little while I’d come to realise that there were additional options I could seek out through the public health system, and once I did my general practitioner was my next port of call; through him I was referred to a psychologist, and subsequently started on a combination of cognitive behavioural therapy and medication, with which we were able to get my depression more or less adequately managed.

When we anticipate, we’re the happiest. Unless you’re on antidepressants. The reason you take antidepressants is because you can’t anticipate. You think everything’s going to be horrible, so it usually is.
– Lewis Black

Previously I’d never thought about the idea that in my depression and anxiety a chronic illness might be affecting me, but after sitting down with the doctor and psychologist and developing a list of the episodes I’d experienced – not only since January, but since the first phase of depression I’d recognised in myself back in 2008 – it gradually dawned upon me that I was staring down the barrel of exactly that: chronic mixed depression and a social anxiety disorder (this is the precise nature of my illness as it was eventually diagnosed). Over the five years and a bit since my first diagnosis, I’ve been moved onto and off a range of medications: sertraline, desvenlafaxine, escitalopram, diazepam in a couple of instances where my anxiety has come to the fore unusually strongly, and most recently, paroxetine. Psychotropic medications of this sort can be of great assistance once the right one is found, but here also there are many challenges to confront. Starting on an antidepressant medication can disorient you, or even appear to worsen your symptoms for a short while. Missing a day of medication can unsettle you, either psychologically or physically (or both). Being on a medication too long can cause it to lose effectiveness – one of the reasons I’ve been on several different antidepressants; I was on sertraline for about three years before it lost its potency, desvenlafaxine for another year or so after that, escitalopram for just a few months (long enough to realise that it didn’t really work well for me), and paroxetine for the last few months. And changing from one medication to another, which necessitates spending a few days withdrawing slowly from the previous one to the upcoming one, can be even more disorienting than starting on antidepressants for the first time. That only happened to me once, fortunately, while coming down off desvenlafaxine; I’ve heard from other depression sufferers that this is one of the tougher therapeutic drugs to withdraw from, and the otherwise basically indescribable phenomenon some refer to as “brain zaps” were entirely alien to my experience. But they didn’t last long, thank goodness, and upon moving to the escitalopram they subsided within less than a day. I know people who are fundamentally opposed to much of psychiatric practice because of the use of psychoactive medications, but in my experience they’re a tool just like any other, to be respected but not feared; though times do occur when I feel as though the medications veil the positive and pleasant and desirable emotions nearly as much as it does the negative and painful and torturous ones, certainly I don’t think I would have made it through the last five years without their assistance.

22 Days of Musing: 11

11. Reaching out of the pit.

So last night I was finally able to outline in brief (much as it may not have seemed so to you cats, and I apologise for how maudlin yesterday’s reflection was) the circumstances surrounding my descent into the depths and my conscious recognition that I was at absolute rock bottom. It was the realisation that not only was I entirely drained psychologically, but that this loss of energy had been a fundamental impact upon my ability to muster any physical energy as well, that made me realise some two weeks into that period that I’d been thrown into a depth from which I wouldn’t be able to climb out myself. At this point I was in the middle of my Ph.D. research, but the events triggered by the fiasco with the woman I refer to now simply as “the girl from the conference” took place in mid-January, in the middle of a month of holidays I’d been taking from uni. Moreover, these events had happened in and around the devastation of the 2010-11 floods in the region (floods of such severity that they were reported around the world; I received messages from as far afield as the US and Jordan asking whether I was alright), and these floods made travel – even within the inner city – difficult and subdued the mood of the whole state for some time. Once the floods had passed and I’d realised the necessity for me to reach out for help, I started opening up to a couple of close and trusted friends, one of whom suggested that as a UQ student, I might be able to avail myself of the resources at the university, including (and especially) the counsellors provided free as part of the student pastoral support services. On one level, in retrospect I’m very disappointed that it took a friend to suggest this; certainly everyone knows that when you’re feeling unwell you should go to visit a doctor, but cultural perspectives on mental health even just five years ago were not as open as they’re becoming now; having never been spoken to about the seeking of mental healthcare services, I never put together the series of equations that would tell me depression meant mental illness, mental illness meant illness, and illness meant I should go to see a doctor. But on the other hand, I was infinitely grateful – as well as relieved – to have someone who cared suggest to me that there was something I might be able to do to seek assistance for myself. This was my first contact with mental health professionals of any stripe, and naturally there was the anxiety that went along not only with making yourself vulnerable to someone by admitting that you’re psychically disintegrating and really can’t manage even your day-to-day life on your own any more, but also the added worry of whether or not I could even be helped in this manner. But the counsellor I ended up working with, Kerryn, was absolutely wonderful; it was she who began training me to work with my depression and anxiety, and to develop psychological techniques that’d allow me to unburden myself of the worst of the acute symptoms. I worked with her weekly for about six weeks with great success. After that, internal logistics of the counselling service meant I had to switch to another counsellor, and she was nowhere near as good; in fact, I took a substantial backward step as a result of the single session I had with her. (For instance, one would think that whatever introductory psychology classes she took would have taught her that “So what is it you want me to do?” is probably not the ideal way to phrase a question to someone who’s presented in acute despair and uncertainty for your professional assistance.) It was a cold but effective lesson in mental health treatment: it’s crucial not just to obtain assistance from people who are properly trained in mental healthcare, but because of the sometimes delicate nature of the issues involved, it’s important also to have professionals on your team who can be understanding and adaptable to your particular circumstances – someone with whom you can establish a rapport, and to whom you feel comfortable revealing the wounds and scars of your psyche that you might’ve previously worked diligently to keep cloaked. So it was after having recoiled from this second counsellor that I had to find other possibilities, but at that point I’d found out enough about psychological health care options that I knew I could see a doctor to investigate the issue further, and this I did in May of 2011; it was then that a more in-depth treatment involving counselling in concert with medication was first recommended to me. I think that’s something to talk about another day.