Every morning, so far, I’m alive: A memoir by Wendy Parkins (Otago University Press, 2019), 216 pp., $35
Straddling the fraught realms of personal and familial history, diagnosis of mental illness and rehabilitation, restorative nature writing, travelogue and philosophy, this memoir doesn’t pick its battles. It tackles what might be the most consuming issue of human life: whether or not to continue at all. And it emerges triumphant. At its core, Wendy Parkins’ latest work is an act of self-help (and I use this term here in no pejorative sense), an epistemological performance, the living-through of philosophy. As readers, we join Parkins as she thinks through the meaning of life, answering the stark ultimatum posed by Albert Camus in The Myth of Sisyphus: ‘There is only one really serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide. Deciding whether or not life is worth living is to answer the fundamental question in philosophy. All other questions follow from that.’ Camus is in fact one of the few famous suicide-philosophers whom Parkins does not cite or posthumously spar with or respond to. Nevertheless, this ur-question of philosophy looms large over this book.
Parkins, a former professor of Victorian literature, is a heavily credentialled bibliophile well versed in the art of close reading, of paying attention to detail. But this non-academic text, as distinct from her earlier scholarly works (Jane Morris: The burden of history; Slow Living), is freed from the contradictory demands of ‘the neoliberal university’: Herculean administrative burdens versus the ‘publish-or-perish’ drive, which plays out within strict thematic and stylistic constraints.
This book charts the ouroboros of Parkins’ mental health issues, which spiralled downwards following her family’s relocation from New Zealand to the United Kingdom, a move undertaken so that Parkins could assume a professorship at the University of Kent. She describes ‘the perfect cycle of neurosis’: her depression and contamination phobia led to OCD, which generated feelings of guilt and loss of control, which then viciously fed back into depression and phobia. Her very gift for fine-tuned attention may have exacerbated her illnesses. Parkins became immobilised by the pulse and charge of the mundane world, her mind clogged with the world’s contaminants and threats. To tell her story (and while surviving it), Parkins draws deeply from various genres and forms of self-help manuals: psychoanalysis (Freud, D.W. Winnicott, Adam Phillips), depression writing and the memoirs, diaries and biographies of literary suicides (Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath, Simon Critchley, Mark Rice-Oxley), nature writing (Richard Mabey, Edward Grey), poetry and lyrics (the Romantic and Victorian Greats, Robert Graves, Ursula Bethell, Radiohead, The Smiths, Blur and so on) – even reality television (‘Obsessive Compulsive Cleaners’) and knitting blogs. The result, far from being a cacophony, is a compelling compendium. This is the story of a heart cracked wide open and (lovingly) dissected, a reparative reading of a life, a meandering auto-psychoanalysis, diagnosis and rehabilitation largely through literature, in which Parkins is helped and hindered by a cast of both colourful and monochrome personae (including some truly bizarre medical professionals).
The title derives from Mary Oliver’s poem ‘Landscape’:
Every morning I walk like this around
the pond, thinking: if the doors of my heart
ever close, I am as good as dead.
Every morning, so far, I’m alive.
Throughout this book, Parkins relentlessly explores and exposes the capaciousness and capacity of her own heart, first relaying the cardiologist’s correction of ‘the explanatory myth of [her] childhood’: ‘We used to think Wendy had a hole in the heart and then we found out she didn’t.’ This discovery (of inefficient valves) was a blow to Parkins’ self-esteem, reducing her from a pedestal of specialness, of ethereal vulnerability, to a normal (but slightly malfunctioning) human being. Beyond this re-diagnosis of cardiac weakness, Parkins examines her lifelong trajectory of heartfulness, her vacillating desire for ‘going-on-being’: Winnicott’s term (rather Germanic, in its polysyllabic specificity) for the desire ‘not just to survive but to thrive in the unpredictable and uncontrollable conditions that we encounter’. According to Winnicott, we develop and grow through experimenting with life, through play, or ‘finding through pleasure what interests us’. The whole book is a meditation on life/suicide and, if one opts for the former, the fundamental question: How alive am I willing to be?
An incorrigible lover of words and stories, Parkins answers the quest for meaning in life thus: in writing, in telling your own story, but without becoming beholden to the calcifying ruts of narrative, whether externally or internally imposed. While valuing the power of narrative, she also acknowledges the dangers and limits of story-telling, including the harm we can do ourselves through repeating hackneyed, stagnant myths: ‘What if, in seeking to impose a coherent pattern on our identity – the story we tell ourselves about ourselves – we are just perpetuating the stories that brought us to grief in the first place?’ We need to accept the self as protean, as mercurial, as radically and fundamentally capable of change. But this book offers no monocausal explanations, no simplistic solutions – writing alone is not the answer. Parkins also derives joy (while winningly explaining her aversion to that noun, which is her middle name) from knitting, from the embodiment and mindfulness of yoga, from companion animals (her faithful hound, goats and chickens have hilarious bit-parts) and from birds. Oh, the birds. Writing beautifully about each individual avian friend (a highlight is the onomatopoeic portrait of the raucous tūī, ‘the R2D2 of honeyeaters with its unique repertoire of sounds’), Parkins acknowledges birds as an integral part of her recovery, as they ‘ground me in a time and place, bring me back to the fullness of the present and banish the distractions of my interior chatter, reducing my thoughts to the elemental’.
In a mood and trajectory reminiscent of Deborah Levy’s ongoing ‘living memoir’ (albeit with more parenthetical asides, nods and winks to the reader), Parkins finds her voice in Every day, so far, I’m alive. She transitions from the ‘searing shame’ of adolescent betrayal through the written word (that most mortifying of teenage scenarios: parental snooping through one’s diary) to creative empowerment and revivifying herself through writing. Similar again to Levy, Parkins not only recovers her voice but amplifies it through grief, the recollection of complex mother–daughter dynamics, philosophy, and comic relief. A dark and delicious vein of humour runs throughout the book, although at times with too heavy a dosage of self-revulsion.
Parkins also distinguishes herself from Levy, Rachel Cusk and other memoirists through her vital focus on place and displacement, the literature of place, and her acknowledgement of the complexities of her ‘belonging’ in the colonised territory that has come to mean home: Aotearoa New Zealand. Echoing Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Parkins recalls how intensely anglicised her childhood exposure to literature had been, and thus how ill-matched the literary seasons, flora and fauna were to her Australian surroundings:
Most of the books I read immersed me in a relentlessly British landscape, a place of oak trees and hawthorn and foxgloves and snow, things that were all as unknown to me as the idiom in which the children spoke to each other (Don’t be so beastly, Edmund!).
She touches only lightly on the Antipodean history of colonisation, empire and residual guilt. One of the psychological benefits of moving to England, she writes, was that she ‘did not feel implicated’:
I had nothing at stake in its history, at least nothing for which I felt culpable. As a white Australian living in Australia, it had never been possible to shake a sense of shame at one’s own complicity with colonial dispossession … We had all benefited – and continued to benefit – from invasion and genocide.
Perhaps more on the injustices and insidious legacies of colonisation and imperialism shouldn’t be expected of a depression memoir – in fairness, this is not her subject. Without accusing Parkins of virtue-signalling, however, her musings on intergenerational culpability fade away when describing the beautiful home and covenanted bush her family later purchases near Matakana. No qualms are expressed regarding her adopted home, despite the colonial dispossession of Māori.
Given Parkins’ focus on displacement – and particularly the setting of an Anglian university as new home/employer of a literary immigrant – I had also expected something of a homage (even a nod) to W.G. Sebald and his characteristic ambulations through history, geography, memory, forgetting and mental disturbance. The Emigrants, Austerlitz and The Rings of Saturn would make excellent companion reading for this memoir.
Irreproachably, Parkins falls prey to the same ‘gap’, which she identifies as typical of all depression memoirs: that unexplained – possibly inexplicable – empty space between the devastating descriptions of madness, suicidal ideation and the depths of despair and, on the other side of the abyss, recovery and the resumption of contentment in the world. Suddenly, unaccountably, Parkins realises ‘I’m not depressed any more … the unaliveness had finally passed.’ What lies between the sanguinary and the sanguine? We are left, with Parkins, in the dark. But this very ‘gap’ is part of the project, part of coming to terms with the limits of narrative and the desirable bounds of certainty. There are limits to explanatory power, which are particularly hard for cerebral types (‘Yes, I know I over-intellectualise, but I can’t leave my brain at the door when I seek treatment’) to accept. In chapter two, Parkins recalls feeling ‘stupid and humiliated by my disorder … How could I not just “think” myself out of it?’ But, as the book comes to accept, this rational fallacy is unhelpful. We hardly need neuroscientists to tell us that human beings are not mood rings; you can’t just rub them into a different temper. Brain chemistry is far more complex than that.
Ultimately, this book is a paean to acceptance, to hope, uncertainty, and heterodox narratives:
I don’t ever want to be free of narratives, but I don’t want to be trapped in the same old stories … The past will always be with me – it is part of what makes the present real – but it does not have to define me … I need more open-ended stories in my life.
Embracing queer theorist Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s plea for reparative reading, Parkins rejects the restrictive ‘self-knowledge of depression and OCD’, instead embracing uncertainty and a new way of going-on-being: ‘I want to accept the traumatic experience of hope and write as if I am alive.’ Through this genre-defying creative mosaic, Parkins has struck out on a new, extra-academic pathway. Watch this space; listen out for this arrhythmic, fascinating heartbeat.
EMMA GATTEY is a writer and critic from Ōtautahi, Aotearoa New Zealand. She is studying global and imperial history at Oxford University.