Sunday, July 31, 2011

Childhood memories

The trouble with memory is that it’s always in flux. You want to hear a story from my childhood? I’m sure anything I could tell would be an invention. The events of the past are like clay ready for the potter’s wheel: what was a shapeless mass of sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and feelings becomes, in the hands of my imagination, elaborate pottery glazed in clear, vibrant colors. What I distill from the past, bottled as ‘memories,’ are my subjective understanding and narration of a messy stream of information filtered by my imperfect perceptions and my perpetual re-readings of events. There is nothing factual about what I remember.

Describing a memory, then, is remarkably more like fiction. But isn’t that what any kind of writing really is? No scientific report tells the whole story of the complex system it purports to explain. No news article can be entirely ‘objective’ for the same reason: journalists must choose to frame the information they gather in a way their audience will recognize and understand – always choosing to exclude some details and include others. Is fiction maybe more honest than what we call ‘non-fiction’? The first proudly admits its own incompleteness, its own biases, its own fabrications, where the second rather disingenuously claims to be comprehensive and impartial.

In any case, my childhood memories rarely resurface as complete stories but rather as glimpses, flashes of light and color, snatches of conversations, brief scenes completely devoid of any real context. For example, I very distinctly remember – or think I do – sitting at my friend Elise’s kitchen table and waiting rather impatiently for my hot chocolate to cool. It was winter in Salt Lake and we had perhaps gone sledding at the hill by the elementary school or ice skating in the makeshift rink behind her home, or perhaps I had just walked across the street to say hello. As we sat at that table, shape and color of which escape me now, Elise unwrapped Starburst after Starburst – tropical flavors, I think – and dropped them into her mug. I can’t remember what was said, or who else was present, or what happened after, or even what hot chocolate-flavored Starbursts tasted like.

I also remember lying on Elise’s bed – canopy? trundle? four-poster? – and telling her my great-grandfather had just died. That meant making the trip from Salt Lake down to Orem, which at five seems like an eternity. It must have been spring because I remember the hearing the birds chirping outside her window, and late afternoon because her bedroom window faced west and the sun illuminated the gauzy curtains I can only vaguely make out now. She was telling me that three – or was it two? – of her grandparents had died. Looking back it almost sounds like bragging.

Then I remember the funeral, or at least I remember sitting on the front row of the chapel next to my Aunt Emily, who must have only been seventeen at the time. Emily was crying and kept fishing tissues out of her bag, some of which she divided into thirds and let me braid. For me, the funeral was, braiding aside, a rather boring affair. I had barely known my great-grandfather, and visiting him and my Great-grandma Sugar Pie (whose name is another story altogether) was always a little frightening. At five, I was a bit unnerved by their loose, wrinkled skin and their age spots and their rheumy eyes. Death wasn’t quite real for me. I hadn’t watched Great-grandpa Vern die – one day he was there and the next he wasn’t. Nothing was as real for me as the April sunshine or the sound of my black patent leather shoes clack-clacking down the sidewalk in front of the chapel.

The next funeral I attended was my grandfather’s. This time things were different. This man I knew. I had grown up visiting him and my grandmother in Topeka. My grandfather smoked from his boyhood and their home had that stale, acrid, heavy smell of years of cigarettes. When we returned home after a weekend there we carried it in our hair, our clothes, on our skin. Still, I loved him dearly. I was his first grandchild and the daughter of his only child, my father, and he had a special affection for me. He taught me to use his big computer, his adding machine. He let me type up and print what I called newspapers, but which were really pages of letters and symbols and numbers:


and scolded me when I pressed the keys too hard. He flipped coins with me and let me keep the ones I called right – “Heads!” or “Tails!” Every Christmas he bought a tree so tall it had to be hung from their high ceiling, and he looked the other way when I snatched the grape candy canes that decorated the branches within my reach. It was my grandfather who first told me about the new books he had just discovered about a boy wizard who attended a school for magic.

I can’t remember when he first got sick, but I do remember visiting him in the hospital after a surgery. I remember him moving aside his blue- and white-checked gown to show me the staples in his bloated belly. I remember my father taking his illustrated medical textbooks out to explain what a pancreas was, and that grandpa’s had tumors. I remember him growing weaker and weaker. I remember the last time I saw him, his eyes sunken, his skin yellow, his belly frighteningly “distended,” as my father said. I remember being scared to talk to him, feeling shy around this man I only half-recognized. Where was the man who chuckled at all my silly jokes, his toothpick bouncing up and down between his lips? Where was the man who taught me to play Solitaire? Why did he stare so intently at me? It was the first time I saw death, but at ten I still couldn’t look it in the eyes, hiding my face in the crook of my father’s arm instead.

I remember very little of his funeral, except that my cousin Nelson played my song, Amazing Grace, on the bagpipes, and that my father wept.

I suppose I don’t know if anything I’ve written here is true in the sense of historical accuracy. Perhaps someone else – Elise, Emily, my father – remembers these scenes differently. But these are my memories, fragmented and disconnected though they may seem, and they live on with me.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

I'm writing an OpEd, and here's the beginning.

For my advanced writing class (the last one before graduation, hooray!) I've chosen to do a research project on mental illness and its treatment in developing countries. Here's the first bit. I'll probably post the whole thing, with revisions, of course, as I go along. I'd be interested in any feedback, research leads (props to my friend William for a great one earlier today), general commentary... Here goes nothing.

"The first time I met Djarri, I knew there was something different about her. Unlike the other girls of Sanaar Peul, a village on the outskirts of Saint-Louis, Senegal, whose hair wasneatly plaited in tight rows, Djarri’s was a tangled mess full of Sahel sand and bits of straw and, as we learned later, lice. She clambered for attention and threw herself on my – yes, American – friends and I, as we seemed to be the only people in Sanaar Peul who smiled at or tried to engage with her as she prattled on in her native Pulaar, the only language she spoke, never having attended elementary school, taught in French. She often lashed out at the other children of the village, who warned us, “Elle est folle!” They pointed their index fingers, thumbs extended, to their temples and twisted them away with a flick of the wrist: what we quickly came to know as the Senegalese sign for ‘crazy.’ Goading Djarri on to violent outbursts appeared to be a favorite pastime of the children’s, and they often paid for it with a sharp blow to the head or shoulder of surprising force for such a young girl, always accompanied by a fit of laughter.

I never learned exactly what was ‘wrong’ with Djarri, but I suspect her village didn’t either, and probably didn’t have the resources to diagnose, let alone treat, whatever psychological disorder she suffered from. Memories of Djarri and other victims of diseases like schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, however, have stayed with me since my return to the so-called ‘developed’ world. What could be done, I wondered, for these individuals whose suffering had so deeply marked me? The interplay between culture and medicine becomes especially tricky when it comes to mental health – that much became clear in the five short weeks I spent in Senegal. Further, even if we can find culturally appropriate ways to deal with mental illnesses in developing countries, the initiatives we push for have to be sustainable, a word that has become so fashionable in development circles for very good reasons. In civil society as well as in academic circles, aid for individuals with disabilities – physical and psychological – is so commonly seen as a luxury poorer countries simply can’t afford. And finally, how can ‘development stakeholders’ – academic development jargon for ‘any group or individual even remotely involved with the problems of development, be that governments, NGOs, members of civil society, research institutions, etc.’ – generate interest and awareness for the need for mental health care? Does anyone care enough to do anything for the very vulnerable, but from a utilitarian standpoint not very societally useful, mentally handicapped in the developing world?

I'm not out to answer any of these questions directly or fully, but rather raise awareness and push and prod the problem in a context accessible to us plebes (don't mind the alliteration). Most of the dialogue on the issue happens at a pretty stratified level, in academic research groups or lengthy and detailed reports by the World Health Organization, in scholarly journals, etc. Here I'd like to distill some of the central conflicts to help folks like us understand some of the complexities of - and more importantly the value and feasibility of - mental illness treatment in low- and middle-income countries."