At My Darkest Moment, I Reached Out for Help and Chose To Live

Image by Roy Scott/Getty Images/Ikon Images

Image by Roy Scott/Getty Images/Ikon Images

Is Mental Illness Having A #MeToo Moment?

Fifteen years ago, I broke up with my very nice boyfriend and plunged headlong into a dark depression. I loved Marc but had known from the beginning that he wasn't the man for me.

I still believe that breaking up was the right move, but I chose a bad time to do it. I was between jobs and felt adrift. I was applying for a more permanent immigration visa (I'm from Canada – and, yes, Canadians need visas too) and it was a stressful and expensive process that made me question my legitimacy. I was on shaky ground emotionally and financially. Marc tried to persuade me to get married to stabilize my citizenship, but I didn't want to. That's how clear I was that the relationship needed to end.

I just didn't realize that by breaking up with him at this unsure moment in my life I was essentially cutting the guy wires of my mental health.

It was a terrifying time, and even today I'm very glad that I came through it alive. I'm often amazed that I feel a basic sense of contentment about my life now. It could easily have been otherwise.

All of this came rushing back to me last Saturday. In the wake of Anthony Bourdain's death the day before, my Facebook feed was flooded with stories from friends and acquaintances expressing their struggles with depression and very close calls with suicide. I had no idea there were so many people like me all around. It felt like the beginnings of a #metoo moment for those of us who have spent time in this frightening landscape. After reading so many stories of people struggling to feel acceptable and worthy, what had seemed like an outlier experience started to seem more ordinary than remarkable. So many of us have #beenthere.

I noticed that the stories in my Facebook feed were from people who had otherwise done well in their lives. They had completed college; they had careers and families; they had traveled. Some of these people I knew outside of Facebook. I would have never guessed how much despair they had lived through.

One acquaintance, Marni Sclaroff, a yoga teacher and mother in Reston, Va., posted a photo of the scars on her wrists where she cut herself for years, starting at age 15. She was also hospitalized. "My depression was existential," she wrote, adding that she came from a supportive family. "I remember, in first grade, struggling to understand what the point was."

Another friend, Ralph De La Rosa, a social worker in Brooklyn, NY, shared that he spent twenty years, from age 8 to 28, thinking of killing himself as a result of early experiences of neglect and bullying.

“No one wants to kill themselves. Ever. They just want the pain to stop.”

-Ralph De La Rosa, social worker

Both Marni and Ralph also shared how they got through these times. Marni wrote that hospitalization and family support helped her, and ultimately she found strength and a sense of purpose in a daily practice of yoga. "It taught me how to inhabit my body, and to love it deeply," she wrote. "It taught me reverence for life, and that we are all connected."

And she wrote, "From my perspective, as someone who has lived through the fire of suicidal depression, I think the way we are going to help people is by normalizing the conversation about it... We need more people who have been through it to speak."

Ralph's turnaround came after he developed a heroin addiction, and a girlfriend kept insisting that he get treatment. At 29 he finally went into rehab where a committed counselor helped him find his way. He got off heroin and stopped wanting to die.

He wrote: "No one wants to kill themselves. Ever. They just want the pain to stop. Feeling heard and receiving compassionate attention can do just that."

When suicide is in the news, instead of expressing sympathy for celebrities we don't know, Ralph suggested that we reach out to the weirdos or seeming outsiders in our immediate circles. Even if their actions at times confuse us, we can try go beyond our comfort zones. Let them know, "I'm here and ready to listen for once, whenever you're ready.'"

I've identified as one of these weirdos for much of my life. I'd always had different aspirations than my working class family. I came to the U.S. by myself without financial help and when I didn't move back to Canada, my family seemed to step back even further.

Even though my friends didn't quite know how to help me through my depression, if it hadn't been for one of them who took me in at a crucial moment, I might not have made it through the breakup alive.

I had already been in therapy for several years at the time. I was smart enough to get treatment for what I thought of as a tendency towards melancholy, but I had stopped taking medication. I hated the label "depressed." I hated the stigma of both my condition and its cure. I had learned, as I became a poet and a writer, that my sensitivity could also be an asset. I didn't want to label it as something to be gotten rid of. But I had no idea how dangerously I was weakening my already delicate support network by refusing medication as I was breaking up with Marc.

I tried to lean on friends. Those who wanted to help — and there were only a few — had no idea how to. "Could you just call me once a day?" I asked, knowing I was asking a lot. For me, contact once in twenty-four hours was still starvation rations, but it was better than the alternative — no contact at all in the many minutes and hours that comprised each long dark day and long dark night.

“Depression talks to you — but it lies to you... What that little voice is telling you to do is not true.”

-Nicole Lewis-Keeber, psychotherapist

One friend called me for two days in a row, then skipped a day, called on the fourth day and then the eighth day. Then the calls stopped. It was clearly too much. It was just too strange, too uncomfortable. And I wasn't getting better.

At my therapist's urging, I went back on antidepressants. But the initial onset of the drugs, which can take three or four weeks to take full effect, made me so anxious I wanted to crawl out of my own skin. One hot Saturday night as I managed to teach my regularly scheduled yoga class, I found myself scratching my arms to keep from having a full-blown panic attack. The idea formed in my addled brain that I should jump off the nearby bridge.

"A lot of mental health conditions speak to you," says Nicole Lewis-Keeber, a psychotherapist and business coach who I interviewed. "OCD talks to you, anxiety talks to you, depression talks to you — but it lies to you. When you're struggling like this, you feel less understood and less able to get help because no one is talking about it. But what that little voice is telling you to do is not true."

After class, I paged my therapist. Under normal circumstances the friendly parting words of my yoga students might have helped me to feel connected and purposeful. This night they did not touch me. I needed serious help. My therapist called fifteen minutes later. He told me if I couldn't wait until our next appointment my only option was to check myself into the nearest hospital.

When I thought of getting on the busy Saturday night subway and checking myself into Bellevue, the public hospital where he worked, I hesitated. I knew what happened in locked wards. Or I thought I did. I'd read many stories of writers who had been admitted to mental health institutions both voluntarily and involuntarily. Sometimes those visits had been necessary but they were never good.

Instead, I called my friend Madeline. Luckily for me, she was home. She had some friends over and they were watching a movie. I should come, she said. I called a car before I could change my mind and follow the call of the bridge. I headed to Queens.

I knew some of the people at Madeline's but by then I also knew that the state I was in would make them uncomfortable. I wanted to hide it. But — luckily again— the movie had started and all I had to do was sit down and watch.

I huddled on the floor, away from the others, hugging my knees to my chest and stared at the screen. I watched with such intensity that I could have burned a hole through the TV. I will never again be able to watch Spirited Away without re-experiencing the physical sensation of fighting for my life. I focused with every cell of my being. I was not going to Bellevue. I was not going to the Williamsburg bridge. I was going to focus with all my might so that the unreasonable and unrelenting thoughts in my head and the jumpy, restless sensations in my body would have to move into the background, even one moment at a time.

“Everyone goes through difficult times. The question is, are they connected enough to get through it?”

-W.S., a suicide hotline worker

It's not just the mentally weak who are at risk for severe depression, as people often think. A perfect storm of experiences can make anyone vulnerable, says W.S., who works at Samaritans, New York City's oldest and largest suicide prevention hotline (NPR agreed to withhold his name for safety concerns). He told me, "Everyone goes through difficult times and multiple problems at the same time, even multiple traumas. The question is, are they connected enough to get the things they need to get through it? Do they have a good support network? People get through difficult times when they are connected."

Life is rarely as straightforward as we would like it to be. While I was depressed, my boyfriend was calling me several times a day, both to check in on me and to convince me not to end our relationship. I tried to stay away from him — I didn't want to break up twice — but I had to admit that his care was helping me. I was desperate for anyone to care, even this person I felt I should let go of. This continued for several months. In that time, the medication kicked in, my mental state stabilized, I landed a great new job — which felt like nothing short of a miracle — and was granted the immigration visa I had applied for.

After another several months, I found the courage to end the relationship without ending my own life. A very new, very different chapter of my life began.

It had required Herculean strength to choose, moment by moment, to live during that dark period. Even after I made it to safety, the experience remained very frightening and also difficult to explain. But it had been burned into me. If you've never been clinically depressed the condition makes no sense. It defies logic. But if you have been, you never forget.

In time, I decided to go off medication, fully aware of the risks and to the dismay of my therapist. I recognize that's not the best choice for many people. But it turned out okay for me. Eventually, I started a meditation practice that has become a profound source of connection and inner stability.

But I also know now that if I'm feeling shaky — as I did writing this essay and recalling that scary time a decade and a half ago — to ask friends, many friends, multiple friends to connect with me, even for a few minutes. I know not to give up until I get the connection I need, and not to be ashamed for asking. Connection can come from anywhere and it makes all the difference. There is nothing worse than suffering in silence and isolation. Not when your very life is at stake. #BeenThere

You Are Not Alone

If you or someone you know may be considering suicide, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 (En Español: 1-888-628-9454; Deaf and Hard of Hearing: 1-800-799-4889) or the Crisis Text Line by texting 741741.

Leaving Rio: Why I Had to Go


Now that my time in Rio is coming to an end people are asking me whether I really want to go. “Don’t you want to stay longer? Overstay your visa! You could teach English!”

It’s been 2 ½ months—June, July, and half of August. I’ve lived in two apartments in the colonial neighborhood of Santa Teresa perched on a steep, cobblestoned hill in Rio de Janeiro. I also traveled in the Amazon for three weeks. Many people would not want the adventure to end. But I do.

I came to Brazil to change my perspective. I knew I couldn’t do it if I stayed in New York. I needed to know that life was more than just work. After fifteen years of surviving in the Big Apple, many of my ideas about well-being revolved around working. But my life, organized to the minute — so that I could include personal projects and a social life, as well as my job as an editor — has been feeling wrong for some time. It felt like I’d gotten off at the wrong station. It was time to get on a different train.

View from Santa Teresa over downtown to Guanabara Bay

View from Santa Teresa over downtown to Guanabara Bay

I knew Brazil—especially Rio—could help me with this. The most important thing in Rio is one’s connections to other people; it’s about having fun (with people) and enjoying life (with other people). It’s definitely not about work. Sunday nights are bigger party nights than Saturdays: people celebrate hard on their last free night before Monday. And, while people seemed to be constantly hustling up work, no one I met in Rio had a steady job.

Brazil is famous for being the land of alegria. Nothing is a problem. Don’t have a friend? No problem: go to the corner bar and within the hour you’ll have a few. They’ll make your evening fun, they’ll invite you to eat at their house, and when you meet on the street afterwards they’ll greet you with impossibly warm and open smiles. You’ll feel like family.

Don’t know your way around the city? No problem. Cariocas will instruct you on the best places to go and anyone overhearing the conversation will give their opinions. Can’t speak Portuguese? No problem. People will band together to communicate with you. No stress! Don’t worry!

This “no stress” attitude means that plans are unnecessary. Three hours late for a dinner party? No problem. Forget to call your friends? No problem. Stuck in traffic? No problem. Land of happiness, land of alegria. I even saw a woman walking down my street with a T-shirt that said “NO stress” (in English) yesterday.

I just met this guy

I just met this guy

And once you connect with people the warmth is genuine. Brazilians will stick around to help you solve whatever problem you’re having (bus didn’t stop for you, can’t find a street, don’t understand something etc). They will lend you money no questions asked, give you a ride far out of their way, make you food at any time of the day or night, let you cut in line.

In fact, friends of friends will be assigned to pick you up at the airport or entertain you for an afternoon if your one friend in Brazil is not available. They don’t mind extending this exceptional hospitality. Most Americans (and Canadians) would find it absurd and imposing; they would resent it.. But Brazilians like it. They become instant family. And they remember you like a dear friend. Next time they see you, they will give you a warm kiss on each cheek and stop whatever they are doing to speak few tender words. There’s never a rush. They’re never too busy to talk.

This (along with the music, the dance, and the hilarious commentary on day-to-day life) is what Brazil does exceptionally well. And it’s this I wanted more of. Brazil has helped open me up to a whole different way of living, with more ginga (swing in your game), more sensuality (I like the extra bum exposure on the beach, and the men’s bikini, the sunga) and a less Puritan morality. More alegria, less worry. As a chronic worrier, all this has helped me a lot over time.

Leaving Rio-Why I had to go Author Joelle Hann 3.jpg

But there’s another side to this wonderful carinho (tender warmth). And it’s this other side that really bothered me this time in Brazil. The other side of alegria is tristeza—sadness—and there is plenty of crying going on in Brazil, especially in Rio. For good reason, because things aren’t safe, there’s very little accountability (from organizations or individuals), and when things go wrong there’s no recourse.

You have to apply a jeito—a work-around—to deal with the multiple maddening problems that come up in a day, for issues as small as buying a certain kind of hook to hang your hammock to rather larger ones like what to do when your house is on fire.

Here’s a minor but good example: when my Carioca friend discovered a match-stick in his feijão (stewed black beans) he didn’t complain to the waiter. What was the point? he said, it wouldn’t change anything. He had lived in New York for ten years and knew what I was thinking. But he did make a little chorinho—a little sob story—for extra beans. And the waiter brought them, kindly, as if he was doing Daniel a personal favor. In Brazil, you have to know how to play the game.

Daniel, philosophical after finding a match in his feijao

Daniel, philosophical after finding a match in his feijao

I didn’t realize when I went to Brazil how profoundly this particular tristezais a part of the culture. I didn’t realize how deep it ran. This tristeza is erratic by nature and so it put me up against my own need for order. The casual attitude towards important things put me up against my tendency to worry, and the general lack of accountability made me scared for my day-to-day safety. I found it hard to roll with things— to be enrolando, “in the rolling,” as Cariocas are—even after a couple of months in Brazil.

I felt this keenly on my last day in Rio when I finally went up the PãoD’Acúcar, the Sugarloaf, a 1,300 foot rock accessed by a cable car that can take 65 people at a time up to a spectacular viewing area.

The thing I really noticed other than the breathtaking view was that I felt safe. I wasn’t afraid that the cables would snap, that someone would fall out of the bondinho (cable car) or off the top of the rocks. It felt like a first world experience. And this was a tremendous relief. I worried about safety constantly as I walked through the city streets of Rio.

View of Rio from Sugarloaf

View of Rio from Sugarloaf

Most of the time in Brazil, I was not so much afraid of being robbed as I was afraid to do simple things such as walk on the sidewalk. In Santa Teresa, the sidewalk was so narrow that every few feet I had to step off into traffic. There were also unavoidable obstacles like poles in the middle of the sidewalk that had to be sidestepped, and parked cars, or mounds of uncollected garbage. (Not to mention the ever-present clumps of dog poop.)

Wires hang down at head-height

Wires hang down at head-height

Wires hung down dangerously from telephone and power lines over the sidewalk. They dangled at head-height and were hard to see in the bright sun and the dark rain.

The traffic coming around every corner was fast, erratic, and fearless. Motorbikes avoiding the tram tracks would come within inches of the sidewalk (that you might just be about to step off to avoid a pole, for example). Buses routinely came so close that they ripped off the rear-view mirrors of parked cars. Cars played chicken with pedestrians—not out of malice, out of habit.

City buses shook so violently I was afraid I’d bite my own tongue, my teeth chattering around in my head uncontrollably. The buses clogged the streets and competed with each other for degrees of recklessness. One driver told a friend who got on with her 5-year old daughter to hold on—and before he had even closed the door, the bus was careening down the cobblestones at top speed like the apocalypse was coming.

And it’s not like the roads, tracks, or cars are well-maintained. A tragic example is what happened to Santa Teresa’s beloved bonde (streetcar) last year. A charming last vestige of old-time Rio, the signature yellow, single-car train connected the various areas of the hilly, colonial neighborhood and crossed the old aqueduct down in the city proper, ending up in the beautiful Jardim Bôtanico, the city’s famous botanical gardens. On August 27, 2011, the bonde lost control on its way down to Lapa, smashing into a pole, killing the conductor and 5 passengers and injuring 51 other people.

Beloved Santa Teresa, facing Cine Santa, the adorable cinema; also see the bonde tracks, narrow sidewalks, and racing van

Beloved Santa Teresa, facing Cine Santa, the adorable cinema; also see the bonde tracks, narrow sidewalks, and racing van

The extra tragic part is that it was avoidable. Everyone knew the bonde and its tracks needed maintenance. Everyone knew it was only a matter of time before something bad happened. There was a lot of talk about it. But as political discussions continued, people continued to ride, overloading the tram as usual. Nothing was done. Then— the worst thing possible happened. Now people are dead and there’s no more bonde.

So I adjust the motto of Brazil as land of alegria. I’ve come to call it land of “alegria now, chorinho later.” This lack of accountability and action, this disposition of “oh well” proves itself to be charming and relaxed in the moment, but dangerous and reckless in the long-term. Engage any Brazilian (at the corner bar, of course, that’s where things get worked out) in this subject and they will agree, nodding and saying, e uma locura, it’s a madness. (But you’ll see those same people doing the alegria thing themselves soon enough.)

Another maddening aspect of Brazilian culture is a lack of respect for other people, especially when it comes to public space. This is pretty puzzling for a culture that puts so much emphasis on relationships, family, and social ease.

But I’ve spent hours and hours walking around downtown, Centro, looking for Rio’s impressive colonial churches and in all this time ambulating, it’s been normal for Brazilians to walk out in front of me and stand exactly in my way. They don’t have to do this. Then, they refuse to move as I am trying to figure out how to get around them. This happens not with malevolence, but with absolute indifference to my presence. I see other Brazilians on the sidewalk throw out their hands and say, “Poha!” Shit! with a gesture that’s says, ‘what the hell are you doing? Can’t you see I’m here?’ Even though they probably do the same thing themselves.

Igreja de Nossa Senora da Gloria do Outeiro 1714-1729

Igreja de Nossa Senora da Gloria do Outeiro 1714-1729

If you go to a shop and want to buy something, you will have to make your presence known. Even if you are standing at the counter. Even if you are the only customer there. Even if there are 10 people behind the counter, you will need to say, loudly, firmly, “bom dia,” good day, and then bark your order. It doesn’t feel right. But their main objective is not to serve you. You have to remind people that in order to buy the Band-Aids, you need to give them money. And they are the only ones who can take it from you.

They are also famous for playing boom-boxes, speakers, car stereos, or telenovelas (soap operas, a national passion) so loud that you can’t think straight, and they’ll do it right into their neighbor’s houses without a second thought to how it’s affecting anyone else. It’s enough to make otherwise patient adults—not to mention parents of young children—lose their minds.

But here’s the other thing: no one complains. Brazilians are so reluctant to give offense that they won’t say, “Yo, asshole, turn the motherfucking stereo off, it’s 3 a.m..” Or even, “would you mind turning down the music?”

Without protest or complaint, or even an ‘excuse me,’ Brazilians will shove and squeeze you out of the way as you are getting off airplanes, boats, buses and other forms of mass transportation. And then if anyone gets hurt in the process—if the delivery guy barrelling down the sidewalk with his huge cart overloaded with crates of beer or boxes of diapers gashes your thigh, for example, as he presses forward at a dangerous speed, or knocks over your 2-year old or your frail mother—he is terribly, terribly sorry, genuinely hurt and concerned on your behalf. It’s as if he had nothing to do with the situation.

Alegria now, chorinho later.” Everything is in the moment, at the moment. Worry about consequences later.

my friend Arjan — just a friend

my friend Arjan — just a friend

I noticed this fleeting urgency in my interactions with men. If a guy thought I was attractive, within an hour he would be trying to get me into a dark corner to make out. If I refused but gave him my info, he would inundate me with come-ons and invitations for the first few days, but if I happened to be busy right that moment (taking a Portuguese class or meeting up with another friend, for example) he would just give up. As far as I could tell, there was no such thing as a period of seduction or, even a period of dating. It was now or never; all or nothing. I found all these rituals startling, bordering on predatory, but for Cariocas they seemed normal: like if the guy didn’t try to kiss you at the end of a couple of rounds of forró (a country dance) then something was wrong.

Although the dating rituals were perplexing (I couldn’t see how anything more than a quick hook-up was possible in Rio), they were harmless. Things got scary when this lack of patience—fortitude, perseverance, or even focus— extended into services on which public safety depended.

One night, I came home from Bar do Gomes, my local and charming boteco (bar) around 1:30am and to my surprise,  I saw that the house next door was on fire. Helena, the woman I was renting from, was urgently calling the fire department. Her son, Rafael, and his friends were running out into the street, trying to get into the burning house. It was under renovation and no one lived there.

The boys managed to break in and douse the fire with bottled water. Then they found a n unconscious man, a worker on the house (one who had routinely played horrible radio stations at top volume, disturbing all of us). Helena drove off to get the house’s owner.

Neighbors had spilled out into the street and started a rumor that the man had snuck into the house to kill himself. At great personal risk, the boys dragged the half-unconscious guy into the street.  They shook him by his arms and legs, trying to rouse him from a smoke-induced coma.

A long time had passed without any sign of the police or fire department. It was about 40 minutes later when the police arrived—slowly, and clearly annoyed to have been roused from sleep. They sauntered over to the comatose man and yanked him up from the cobblestones where they boys had laid him. The boys rushed in to protest. The policeman, aggravated, pulled his gun.

Helena, having arrived back with the owner’s lover, appeared in the street, shouting, “Amigos de Rafael, sai da rua! Sai! Vai na casa!” Friends of Rafael get out of the street! Get back into the house!

She could see the situation spinning out of control. She’d rather that the police kill this already half-dead man than pull the trigger on one of her sons’s friends—who had gotten too involved by challenging the police. I thought I was going to witness the kind of stupid murder we all saw in the movie, “City of God,” about the out-of-control drug trade and police corruption in Rio.

the fire dept finally arrives

the fire dept finally arrives

Meanwhile a sluggish and reluctant fire truck appeared at the end of the street. It has been almost an hour since Helena had called. The station was only 10 minutes away. The truck turned in where cars were clustered on the sidewalk. The L-shaped street had another entrance—as the firefighters must have known—very close by and it was free of parked vehicles. But instead the firefighters waited for the neighbors to move their cars, slowly, one by one.

Meanwhile the fire in the house had re-ignited and thicker, greedier flames were shooting out of the second story windows. Those of us on the street stood with our mouths agape. “E uma locura!” Said a girl next to me. “What are they doing!!??” I asked. “Nao sei,” someone said, “I don’t know.” No one knew. It was a warm night but I was shivering with anxiety. It wasn’t even my property but I felt extremely unprotected.

“And this guy, if he wanted to kill himself, why didn’t he do it some normal way, with a knife or a rope? “ said a woman standing next to me.

“He wanted to make a show,” said Helena. “Burning down someone else’s house. Incrível.” Incredible.

When the bombeiros finally got up in front of the burning house, they were in no rush to put out the fire. They didn’t try to prevent the boys from continuing to run in with their water bottles. There was not even a gesture towards crowd control. The firemen were very casual about arranging their gear. They were dressed in clothes from another era that looked like they should be in a museum.

The men slowly hooked up the hose on the truck and slowly turned on the water. But when they unspooled the hose and walked towards the burning house — the hose was too short.

Meanwhile, the ambulance that had arrived did not administer aid to the comatose man (who was now more conscious and looked drugged up). Instead, the man was handcuffed and left in the back of the police cruiser while the cops —about 10 of them—stood around and shot the shit.

I stood in the street, watching helplessly. I was shaking all over. I couldn’t sleep after the fire was out and the firefighters and the police with their suspect had departed.

However, even more suprising, the next night when I related the story to locals at Bar do Gomes, no one thought it was shocking. They looked at me blankly. It was as if I had a problem. Silly, gringa, I didn’t understand that this was normal.

“There is no help. If anything happens here,  I am responsible for the situation, for this house, for everyone,” Helena said the next day. “If I don’t put the fire out next door, then my house gets damaged and no one will solve that for me. If there is trouble in the street, I have to deal with it. There is no security, no safety, no guarantees. This is Brazil. It’s all a big mess.”

I imagined what it must be like owning a house in Rio. It made me very tense.

(Ten days later, one of Brazil’s biggest art collectors lost his entire personal collection in an apartment fire. It took the fire department an hour to get the ladder up.)

All of these things happened in Rio de Janeiro, a big world-class city with a lot of educated people and established infrastructure, a city that is preparing to host the World Cup in 2014 and the Olympics in 2016.

So just imagine how wild, raw, and lawless other parts of Brazil can be.  In remote areas—from the Amazon to the northeast, for example—long-distance passenger buses are routinely held up and robbed, Wild West style. If someone is killed in the Amazon—in a misunderstanding, a drunken brawl, a land dispute, for example—the dead just disappear.

Kimberly and Cece

Kimberly and Cece

My ex-pat friends in Rio are used to living on Brazil’s shaky foundation. It seems that their passion for Brazil outweighs their frustration with the infrastructure or any fear for themselves. I applaud that. Maybe if I had moved to Brazil at the peak of my own passion I wouldn’t mind the difficulties so much, either.

Now that I’m back in North America, feeling safe, clean, protected, and more-or-less understood, I do miss that Brazilian ginga. I miss that extra spice that makes people want to stay forever in “the marvelous city.” I miss the warmth and the permissiveness and the humor of Brazilians, how there’s always a way, always a work-around, and no favor is too big or small to ask for. Rules, schedules, and protocols get to feeling very restrictive and unfriendly here in the north; they are more concerned with maintaining a cold bureaucracy than with fostering human joy. Life on a schedule, I now realize, is half a life.



But one thing I have left Brazil with is the knowledge that in New York I live with a lot of security, a lot of safety. I didn’t know this before. I live with the knowledge that if I need an ambulance, an ambulance will come. Fast. And first-responders will treat me no matter what my race or income. And that is a very, very nice thing.

Luke, teaching English to a bar owner who prefers to feed him triple-decker sandwiches!

Luke, teaching English to a bar owner who prefers to feed him triple-decker sandwiches!

So I need to wait before I got back to Brazil again. I have to wait until I again reach the point where I’ve taken my day-to-day safety for granted or begin to feel frustrated with America’s Puritan mindset, or slip back into my tendency to overwork.

I have to wait until I forget how nice it is to have very safe and clean streets, clean water,  fellow citizens who make an effort to look out for my well-being, to accommodate for me in public space, friends who make (and keep) plans, and a first-world fire-station right around the corner.

Last lunch in Rio: tchau, ridiculous and marvelous city!

Last lunch in Rio: tchau, ridiculous and marvelous city!


Sweaty and Silent in the Amazon


It’s been painful, but I’ve finally broken in. I didn’t know what was breaking—or what needed to be broken—but it happened in the Amazon. I guessed that something was up, but the roar was so deafening I could barely make out what was happening. The change was confirmed the moment I set foot back in Rio de Janeiro. Here, where life is clearly cultured and (more or less) civilized, I could finally see, feel, and hear that I had been through something big. Something had to give—and something gave.

I traveled in the Amazon solo for almost 3 weeks. Since then, I’ve been spending long stretches of time in Rio—alone, too. Like, days at a time. This is not normal for me. I like to have people around, know that I can call someone, meet up for a beer, coffee, yoga class, chit chat whathaveyou.

In New York, I’m a text pro. I love getting and sending little messages, little reminders that people are out there, that *I’m* out there. Of course I have email and Facebook here, but most of my friends have been leaving me alone—not quite able to get over the *idea* that I am so far away. Communication with my normal life has been limited.

Traveling only in Portuguese—very intermediate level Portuguese, I have to tell you—meant there was a lot I couldn’t say. There was a lot I couldn’t understand, either. Eventually, painfully, I got used to expecting that I wouldn’t understand most of what was said to me. Or that I could say anything close to what I meant to express. No nuance, subtlety, or humor. I would go for a very long time, it seemed, saying things like, “How much does this cost?” “Where does the bus to X stop?” “Can I see the menu?” It’s not enough to make a person feel like a full member of society.

It was hard to get used to feeling like an imbecile, an outsider. Several places I traveled had no tourists at all, certainly no one who spoke English. I felt almost mute, my capacity for complex thought and speech dulled to the point of absurdity.

I was spending more and more time in silence. My cheekbones began to ache from spending too long in the same position.

Brazilians were patient with me. They were even fascinated that I would try to learn their language. Without exception, they think that their language is very difficult to learn. Conjugating the verbs is mind-scrambling. Learning the gender of nouns (and their adjectives and articles) is akin to learning to type on the QWERTY keyboard—at some point you just have to dive in blind and make lots and lots of mistakes. It’s impossible to memorize.

Brazilians also have a lot of different words for everything, a lot of slang and informal expressions. So whatever you learned in language school really might not be relevant on the street.

I’ve had the Portuguese-is-very-hard-to-learn conversation with almost every single person I’ve met in Brazil from friends to strangers to some passing dude at the bar, in Rio to Santarem to Mossoro and beyond. But I wouldn’t say it was harder then French, and certainly not harder than Russian or Japanese.

It’s just that living in another language is hard. Not just saying hello and thank you, but having a complete life in another language.

Negotiating every day life and the intricacies of travel in a very strong and wild place was even harder, I think. It was tough, like grating an old dry root with a rusty knife. It was work. And it seemed to yield so little. Sometimes I could tell that people had decided before I opened my mouth that they couldn’t understand me. And that didn’t help.

sweaty and silent in the Amazon

sweaty and silent in the Amazon

Sometimes people were incredulous that I spoke at all, like the middle-aged Carioca (someone from Rio) I met on a guided hike in the Amazon who exclaimed, “Ela fala!!” (she speaks!) when I greeted her and her husband with a general “bom dia.” (Although so few Americans speak any other language but English that it’s easy to understand her surprise.)

Everyone without exception—from fellow traveler to waiter to hotel proprietor to tour guide to ferry captain to river-dweller said my Portuguese was really good. But judging from how isolated I felt inside my language-skills, I did not agree.

Every day there came a moment when I needed to stop trying. I needed to let all the fun/exasperation of learning and the effort of communicating slip past me in a gentle burble of crescendoing and decrescendoing cadences. It can be a very sing-songy language.

I would crawl into my hammock and turn on my iPhone to read e-books by John McPhee. (My “Nook” and its entire library of travel reading was stolen in Ilha de Marajo, probably by someone who thought it was a much sexier iPad.) I’d block out everything else. Portuguese became background noise, like the wind in the trees, peppered with occasional guffaws of laughter and the clinking of ice cubes in caipirinhas.

Reading in my native tongue gave my overworked brain a moment to normalize. It was deeply gratifying. I felt human there. It turns out that I’m very attached to being able to communicate. To other people.

Of course, I’ve always talked to myself as most people do (though I try to be aware of this and not move my lips). And as someone who writes, I’m always making mental notes. But this was a much, much deeper level of conversation-with-self that I was comfortable with.

This was myself divided into the person who spoke, listened, acted, and responded, and the person who commented on how weird this all was. The person who commented was getting a much bigger role these days. I mean, isn’t it absurd to say that you “drink a bath” when what you mean is you “take a shower”?

Or how about when something doesn’t work, you say, “nao combina” or “nao da”—it doesn’t combine, it doesn’t give. Or that “vipee” means an exclusive section (of a boat or a club or a bus)–a Portuguese-ification  of “V.I.P.” But V.I.P.—very important person— does not, can not, exist in Portuguese. You just have to know this.

So it wasn’t just that I didn’t know the words, didn’t have the vocabulary, or couldn’t conjugate. It was that I had no idea where people were coming from. I was oriented in the wrong direction, without a clue. I was mystified, baffled, blind-folded.

And then there were the experiences—the hotel manager in Santarem who went out of his way to get a taxi for me, and then grabbed my ass as I got into it; the drunk university students from Sao Paulo who had noisy sex on the small boat we our NGO group was traveling on; the native boy who broke his shin bone playing soccer in the dusk in a remote community on the Rio Ararpiuns—on a Sunday when all the radio operators were off having dinner with their families.

All these things largely stayed inside since I had a hard time discussing them in my fumbling Portuguese.

Sweaty and Silent in the Amazon Author Joelle Hann 2.jpg

I’m good at coping—excellent at it (my therapist would agree!)—and so I got by. It wasn’t the end of the world. I was meeting people anyway, I was having experiences. I was (more or less) safe. I wouldn’t be traveling in the Amazon for that long, after all. It was likely I would spend most of the rest of my life in English, my language.

But the silence inside me grew.

So did my knowledge of John McPhee’s oeuvre.

So did my risk-taking.

I said more, right or wrong, and hoped for the best. I started to care much less about being thoughtful, about having meaningful conversations. To communicate a few basic opinions about the medicinal trees on our hike became exciting. A couple of comments on Brazilian food or politics made me feel positively human.

(Though sometimes after being silent for a very long while, words in any language came out wrong, like I’d forgotten how to speak.)

What took so long to change was being comfortable living in this internal world of my own commentary—without anyone to share it with immediately and get relief from the absurdity and frustrations of so many situations.

Living alone with myself, deeply alone, with only my own company, hour after hour, day after day, week after week, relating my trials and triumphs to myself. This was work that was scouring my insides.

The enormity of what I was experiencing in the Amazon far outstripped the capacity of email or Facebook as modes of expression. Plus,  the Internet didn’t work during the rain storms, and there were rainstorms every day. The winds kicked out phone lines, cash machines—anything that relied on a signal, for hours and days at a time. The one day I wrote a long blog post I felt fantastic for the entire day. Ecstatic. Tremendously relieved. Otherwise, I was alone in my travels, alone in my language, alone in myself. Together in myself, alone.

Until I wasn’t. And that’s what changed today, when I noticed that I’d spent the entire day alone, and most of yesterday and the day before that. And for the first time, I felt quite content. I didn’t feel on the fringes, I didn’t feel cast out. My Portuguese has improved a lot, that’s true. People who I’d only spoken English to before I left for the Amazon now speak to me in Portuguese—with all my mistakes, but so be it.

Today, too, I went to a traveler’s clinic in Rio to get my cranky gut checked out. I did the entire visit in Portuguese, even though there were many many words I didn’t know. Somehow I just open my eyes really wide and let all the sounds rush into my face. I know that sounds weird, but that’s what it feels like: I make my face porous and I try really hard not to think. Then, I understand.

But it hasn’t improved *that* much. I’m still very far from fluent. And some days I just feel very lazy about all this effort. I don’t even try to speak Portuguese without a gringo accent. I don’t even get worked up about the darned verbs.

But most of all—more than this—is that I now understand what had to change.

Sweaty and Silent in the Amazon Author Joelle Hann 3.jpg

For years now, my life has been increasingly focused on the external—on other people, the demands of my job (in which I take care of other people’s books and projects), relationships (focused on other people), socializing (other people), the worry about being included or not being included (others).

Drawn so far outside of myself, I could not hear the internal conversation very well. I had kept a journal since I was 14, but in the last year or two that had begun to be less and less of a priority. I’d lost the itch for this private conversation. It used to be critical to my sense of well-being. Living, traveling and roughing it in the Amazon in Portuguese threw me back in touch with this long-neglected creature, this space of reflection and companionship.

I have to say, it feels really great! I suffered so much while traveling but the contentedness now is so sweet that all the turmoil seems worth it.

And while I *could* go to the adorable and much-beloved local botequim next door, Bar do Gomes, tonight and have adventurous (and very imperfect) conversations, I’m staying in writing this. And feeling fine. Even knowing that tomorrow all the things I need to do require more solitude as well.

My reluctance to go deep inside appears to be over. Maybe I had thought, like my poetry, it wasn’t there anymore. That there was no there there. The there was the there of my youth. I hadn’t realized it had gone missing. Or that if missing, it could come back. It feels like I’m back to where I started from: in that place of deep listening that the poets know.

Here’s what Katy Poole, a Jyotish practitioner (Vedic science of the stars) wrote today on Facebook—so beautiful because it applies perfectly:

“Today the Moon is transiting Shravana, the Listening Stars. The tree full of ears. The inner voice. The prophetic vision. The revelation. Open your ears. And listen.”

My ruling planet is Shravana. I’ve been away a long time.

Sweaty and Silent in the Amazon Author Joelle Hann 4.jpg


Reading Brenda Hillman


One hot and dusty August, I drove to California. It was 1994, I drove alone, not quite happy but willing to pretend otherwise. Why was I doing this? Where was I really going? What did it all mean? Acres of trellised vines lined the highway; the sun’s strength made the vineyards of Marin County quiver. My destination: Napa Valley Writer’s Festival. Ahead of me a long line of cars snaked through the fields, their drivers came to taste the local wines. I sang along to Iris Dement with the window rolled down.

I attended two dozen or more readings in less than a week. Each night I drove to another vineyard, gathered with other young poets, marveled at the estates (my favorite was the Franciscan Monastery), and drank the free wine. Still, the readings, given by distinguished American poets, bored me. I couldn’t shake my need to act 16, drive fast and blast music, shifting into 5th gear on the highway above San Francisco, as the hot wind blew though my hair. I spent much of my time at readings doodling on a tablet of yellow legal paper. I ached to find a something other than what I was hearing–but what? California seemed dry. In in a county spilling with wine, I didn’t feel intoxicated.

At last, a surprise guest to the festival read a poem which made me look up from my doodling. It went something like this one:

The Servant
–So you whispered to the soul Rise up!
but the soul was not ready.
–Get up! It’s our turn! But that part of the soul
stayed still. So you checked the list
of those who existed
but the soul was not on the list, the soul
responded to none of those things.
Very well, you said. He sank back in his furs.
And you started across the plain to one he loved

The self-consciousness of this poem sent shivers through me. Whoever was playing with the idea of not “existing” was doing a good job. I was hearing something I could relate to–not a perfected self and world, or even the longing for perfection, but a confirmation of confusion. And what was more remarkable, this confusion was not morbid. This poet was a master of patience and invention. I jumped into my car and sped to San Francisco, looking for Brenda Hillman’s books. Somewhere, I found Death Tractates, a second-hand copy, dedicated to someone else, (who would sell such a gift?). My friends left me alone with her; another one of my obsessions, like poetry itself.*Brenda Hillman’s books have been published by Wesleyan and her last book, Loose Sugar, was nominated for the 1998 National Book Circle Award. She graduated from the Iowa Writer’s Workshop in 1976, and has held Guggenheim and NEA fellowships. In spite of these distinctions, her books are not easy to find. I had to mail-order Fortress and Bright Existence from the Grolier Bookstore in Boston.

* * * *

Two years after attending the Napa Valley Writer’s Festival, I moved to New York, where Brenda Hillman’s work appeared again. In the meantime, I had read Death Tractates, liked it, and not understood it. Following what Jeanette Winterson has called “art as the paradox of active surrender”, I had even so tried to imitate one of Hillman’s poems. With mixed results, I have to tell you. Maybe because, unlike Hillman, I didn’t have the stamina to revise a piece 50 times or more. Or because, the closer I got to it, the more I realized how unimitatable it was. I was not a Gnostic, I did not live in Hillman’s landscape. I couldn’t easily find the equivalents in my world.

What I shared with her was the feeling that it is hard to live. Hillman seemed to be devising a way to write into life’s hardness so that its dialectics did not separate even more into painfully fragmented consciousnesses. Instead, she stood inside them, looking and wondering. That seemed bold. Hillman acknowledged this fragmenting, and wrote from these junctions of refusals. At her craft talk at Napa Valley, she had said (swinging her legs from the table she sat on) that she had few principles for writing, maybe four, and one was “revise towards strangeness.” She does sound strange. Like here, at the end of “Little Furnace”:

What is the meaning of this suffering I asked
and the voice– not Christ but between us– said
you are the meaning.
No no, I replied, That
is the shape, what is the meaning.
You are the meaning, it said

This unusual—–and yet so intimate–—voice, set in equally unusual punctuation, talks of relationships (even our relationship with ‘ourselves’) beginning and ending in unexpected places. Things in our lives develop both with and also against what we know. In this way, Hillman’s phrasings and stanzas act as maps to the odd –and always startling– fact that things are often profoundly off-kilter, slipping down to the side when they are supposed to go straight ahead. They also bear (as in ‘carry’) Hillman’s interior life uncompromised by her act of having ‘made art’ of it. From this interiority (the thing poets usually code, or hide), Hillman writes fiercely, with accuracy and tenderness.

* * * *

Brenda Hillman is a small woman; small as in petite. The times I’ve seen her read, maybe half a dozen times, she’s worn floral print dresses. She did at the Geraldine Dodge Poetry Festival in 1996, one warm, blustery fall day when she stood on a large stage in the main tent, and conversationally read, “Male Nipples”. I could see the dress vaguely, even though she was no more than a tiny speck in the distance. I might be wrong, as only the tones of her amplified voice, not her physical image, truly reached us; it was as though the poems were coming out of the sound system not from a person. But I like this idea of her, especially when I read her own comment on poetry’s “vast inwardness [that] pushes out its shadowy flower–language foregrounded as purely as possible, however abstract and symbolic—.” The voice of this ‘shadowy flower’ her voice, is as surprising as her voice on the page. She’s called it, a ‘slightly whiney middle-American female voice.’ Not someone you’d imagine at first who could be so tough.

But truly, while reading, Hillman radiated an unassuming intelligence. Emotion and idea lived powerfully there, which is what I hope to find in all poetry. Hillman’s work also creates a distinctive position in American poetry generally: halfway between the seamless narrative poets and the language poets. She marks a third point. As a triangulating force, her work challenges readers to expect even more from language and from ways of expressing our movements through existence in time, gender, spirit, idea and domesticity. This third point, this “out there,” is something else I love about her work.

* * * *

“Soul”, a frightening word, spills all over Bright Existence. Who can use that word without being run out of town? Hillman admits that at times her work seems inflected with a spiritual ‘pose’ borne of California’s New Age culture. What does “soul” mean? A friend had asked me that one day at the beach when I had put “soul” in a poem. If she was in English class, she said, she’d want to ask that question. I didn’t know, except that “soul” seemed to be what I felt inside me, moving unhappily. Hillman presses on it, gently, firmly, in Bright Existence and Death Tractates.

But in spite of this esotericism, she is a poet of the material world. What at some points is ‘soul’ for her, is equally at other points ‘rat’ ‘burger’ ‘glass’ ‘comb’ ‘tanker’ ‘rage’ ‘sex’ ‘owl’. She is a poet of the domesticated world in which enormous immaterial problems still exist (I think of, “We were clerks in a shop at the edge of America;”). At important moments, she is also a poet of the female world, like here: “but before she turns her rage onto the world, the violent / lords must give her the body of a woman which is not easy (“First Thought”). She renames the Western antagonism between body and mind so that it can be renegotiated as ‘bright existence’ / ‘dark existence’, thus displacing a linear conception of being with a more spatial one. The gap between them (the ” / “) she calls the split. The painful place gets filled with ‘matter’, ‘traveler’, ‘recycling’, ‘shoes’, ‘divorce’, ‘California’ (of course) and so on. She has commented that the dashes (“–”) which become more present as she publishes more books, hold sense of process rather than completion. Most of all, most compelling to me, is that she returns her gaze over and over to the desire to feel complete as it jousts with the impossibility of this ever happening (“wanting/the form for which it was created”).

* * * *

In New York, it was my instructor who suggested Hillman’s work to me. When I looked at Death Tractates again, these two years later, I understood much more of it, proving that Doris Lessing was right: sometimes we’re not ready for the things that will speak to us most strongly and must come back to them later.In fact, it became my favorite companion for a while. Hillman’s poems and I went to the coffee shop every morning for the better part of a year. I had decided that the best part of reading poetry, is not so much as Robert Adams has said about photography, trying to make the suffering make sense. I didn’t like the imperialistic ring to that, as though our struggles can be made to accept economic or moral value. No, the best part about reading poetry is in hearing all the sounds, especially the excruciating ones, and the silent ones, so that what has been hidden, twisted, blanked over can have a presence. Presence, mind, not worth. That is much harder to get at. Hillman seems more expert at sidestepping the imperialistic declaration than me. In “Old Ice”, with a rare aphoristic flare, she writes,

Once it seemed the function of poetry
was to redeem our lives.
But it was not. It was to become
indistinguishable from them.

Writing talks to the effort of becoming, which is a continual act.

In my own work, I didn’t want declarations of value. I wanted some frightening evidence of my existence. I needed a lexicon to describe something other than what I was supposed to be– to describe my interiority, perhaps. Obviously, I was not an imperative self, but some other kind—–but what? Even writing this article, it is hard not to adore Hillman, who has given me the key to my own poems, and to talk only of how I relate them to my own process. The kind of presence Hillman’s poems calls up is frightening because it is so loyal to her idiosyncratic self, and so, we’re unprepared for its insight, its language, its terms. And the poems aren’t obscure, in spite of their difficulty. One feels she has a delicately woven logic, tough as sinew, running through the poems, even if the absolute ‘meaning’ of this logic is elusive. Over those morning coffees, as the crumbs of my scone dropped carelessly into the creases of Bright Existence, I could also say that I felt myself existing, in a coffee-shop, in New York while I read them. Even just for ten minutes a day. And that made some difference.

* * * *

Finally, I can tell you in another way what it’s like to read Hillman. Once, I lived alone at the top of an old house in Mount Pleasant, a neighborhood we dubbed Most Unpleasant after its prostitutes and junkies. My neighbors downstairs, were a newly married couple, he a writer, she a gardener. They had painted the house bright yellow, and planted lilacs, lilies, mint — a lush perennial garden– around the front porch. Upstairs in our run-down opulence, I would sit on a stool listening to Bach. In the long, buttery light of sunset that flooded my kitchen, grief and existence sprang strangely from the pages, thirsting to know more, to be more, if that is possible. To be more as though consciousness and a kind of existential (female?) grief could live personified, like love and desire have been personified, in poems. Like my jade plant which turned itself round to get into that strong evening light, Hillman turned around inside the poems to get a good look at where she was standing. And I turned something inside me around so that I could pace the room with Hillman, to try to be with the words as they worked. We made a triple shadow privately revolving to try to see the private view. From December Shadow

Then how to address the place where the soul was not.
Should you have said, standing next to the trench,
this should have been you?

Hillman’s language builds a world that exists entirely simultaneous with what we normally take as real: the world of physical objects, of ideas, errands, struggle, love. Only, Hillman’s world demands not that I read in, but that I read out of it. No coded other side waits for decoding; the coded other side already faces inside out, like a wet dishwashing glove hanging up to dry once duty is done. Its powdery whiteness seems bright and strange after the yellow rubbery stuff, but is just as interesting– interesting, too, to see this regular thing, this poem-washing-up-glove turned right side round and inactive, like a sculpture, like a performance. A new way to see things.

How traitorous I felt, when at last I realized that the other poets’ search for identity bored me. At least, that kind of search bored me. The poets’ technical mastery was unquestionable, impressive. The search for Truth that haunted their poems just didn’t move me as much as I had hoped; it stacked up like dirty dishes that could be cleaned, but refused to sparkle. Or else they couldn’t adequately talk of the gnawing hunger of their users.

Moreover, and more troubling, was that this kind of lyric seemed to wait for me, too, like a nasty troll, every time I felt anxious about my own writing. In fact, I had come to the writer’s festival to find a way around this little monster. The troll commanded me to reveal the Truth, in straight, ‘simple’ narrative poems and quit fooling around with my language trickery. An aphoristic last couple of lines wouldn’t hurt, it said. When I wrote that kind of poem, I could pass as a poet.But I kept failing this test. That the truths and identities we search for do not necessarily reside in one stable reality, seems apparent today. At 25, however, when I’d sit in my kitchen at a loss to describe my feeling of not quite being on the earth, I had forgotten that.

On a blistering, blustery afternoon, in the fall of 1996, from the stage where later Philip Levine would read the funny poems of working class life, Hillman chose to read “Male Nipples,” a poem in a series of connected fragments. Each hangs on the page between two dots, one above, one below, that mark it off from other fragments in the poem. There’s a lot of white space; not much to prompt the fragment into familiarity: here’s one of them:

convinced him to take only
his shirt off. They were, well, one
was brown and one was like the inside of a story–

In, what she’s called, a ‘slightly whiney middle-American female voice,’ she began her reading by admitting the poem’s difficulty and she did not retract its difficulty, even in her tone. She then read it conversationally. The poem –logic, image, and emotion– worked– transparently, like a fairy tale. That, too, seemed bold and mysterious.


Tokyo Cowboy


Canada Post hired me in January, and at first I worked at a station in my own neighbourhood, meaning I left my house at 6:48 a.m. to arrive at 6:52 a.m. Life seemed fair; I could have been posted in the suburbs. It lasted only two weeks, but back in those days, feeling optimistic, I went to see Tokyo Cowboy, Kathy Garneau's first feature film, in which one of the characters is a postie in full regalia—blue jacket, grey pants and navy blue satchel, embodying all that I had yet to become: fully uniformed, excellent at sorting his mail and familiar with all the houses and occupants on his walk. I realized that posties symbolize Canada to me almost as much as those relentless Mounties do. Maybe it's the corporate logo you see everywhere, or maybe their reputation for friendliness, or their omnipresence (ever counted how many post office trucks you see in a day?), or perhaps the distances they travel and the weather (not to mention the dogs) they negotiate to deliver the mail. Even if it raises stamp prices too often and delays important mail, Canada Post (it suddenly seemed to me) was one of the mother-structures of the Canadian Identity, invisible and essential. "Hey, that's me," I whispered as the postie on screen walked into a bar, in uniform, and ordered a beer. In the film, a Japanese boy obsessed with cowboys flies to rural B.C. to meet his childhood cowgirl/penpal. She's grown up and got a fine arts degree from Vancouver, moved back to her home town, and moved in with her girlfriend, but has yet to come out to her community. Her mother tries to get the low-down, or at least get her daughter together with the nice Japanese boy. Meanwhile, the Japanese boy appoints the postie as his cowboy sensei. The climactic scene, at the Hallowe'en dance, underlines the racial, sexual and relational tensions in the community. The postie, dressed as a First Nations chief, meets a First Nations youth who demands that he de-mask and defeather, while the Japanese boy masquerades as a geisha girl and winds up outside behind a pickup truck, kissing the cowgirl's girlfriend, and the cowgirl, enraged and armed, manages to shoot the Japanese boy in the arm. Not shouting about being Canadian, but not concealing it either, not making an overly pointed display of discriminations, but portraying them as they normally occur, this film got my heart and my interest. Caroline Adderson, a friend of Garneau's and winner of the 1994 Governor General's award for fiction, wrote the screenplay and, believe it or not, the next day at work—refreshed by this good flick—as I sorted mail into the lock-boxes of an east Vancouver housing complex, I noticed that the Book of the Month envelope was going to none other than Caroline Adderson. "Hey, do you know who this is?" I asked my postie-trainer. "Nah," he said, not caring much more after I enlightened him. I folded and wrestled the envelope into its box and scraped the skin off my knuckles in the process.