Professor Wendy Parkins was professor of literature at Kent University in the UK before returning recently to New Zealand. Her newly published memoir, Every morning, so far, I’m alive, offers an intimate and honest exploration of living with depression, phobias and OCD, and how these conditions have affected her in personal, professional, family, and social life. The title comes from American poet Mary Oliver’s 1986 poem, “Landscape”, and is a resonant epigraph for Wendy’s story. Her book is a gift to those who might find support in recognising shared or similar struggles, and at the same time to those who’ll appreciate its broader concerns with how to live in the world, and to live well. It’s also about how to place ourselves in the world, and how place shapes our ‘selves.’
Parkins’ interest in everyday life — in how people live — had informed her earlier academic cultural studies book, Slow Living (2006), co-written with Geoffrey Craig, about the Slow Food movement. They refer to slow living as an “attempt to live in the present in a meaningful, sustainable, thoughtful and pleasurable way”; and to “slow arts of the self” as processes whereby “we can ‘desanctify’ parts of our self-understanding”. In Every morning, so far, I’m alive, the process of ‘desanctifying’ self-knowledge isn’t an intellectual enterprise, or a conscious life-style choice, but an intimate challenge.
This is where the personal memoir opens up much more than an academic work could do. Parkins comments on the strong links in academic life between who we are and what we study. But, she writes:
modernist writers were hailed as revolutionary for creating a sense of estrangement from the banalities of modern life in their novels and poems. Phobics are not revolutionaries, they are just scared and exhausted by the constant assault of overly charged objects and experiences … I didn’t want the dreadful things to be new or exciting, I wanted them to be comfortingly familiar. I didn’t want to be swept away by the sublime when I was just trying to make it through the day.”
Yet our shadow selves, inescapably attached to our everyday professional performance, are also those other selves and capacities that thrive free from the constraints of academic protocols and expectations, where writing can explore more honestly and fully, beyond the confines of an academic discipline.
Parkins’ story, structured associatively, unfolds through key events and periods, culminating in an affecting account of family loss that registers the intermingled pain, numbness, and ambivalence of such an event. Punctuating the description of daily struggles with disabling conditions, she relates some extraordinary encounters in her searches for professional therapeutic help. A proponent of the value of close reading, Parkins’ talent for observing setting and character, and her ear for tone in dialogue, produce compelling accounts whose dark humour testifies to the power of writing in surviving ordeals. Throughout Every morning, so far, I’m alive, she deftly combines self-scrutiny, popular cultural references, literary allusion, and reflections on the words of others who have written about depression, OCD, phobias — or indeed well-being.
Throughout the memoir, nineteenth- and twentieth-century writers and their works are especial touchstones, exemplars, and inspirations, perhaps none more than Virginia Woolf. New Zealand poet Ursula Bethell is also important to Parkins for her poems registering the pleasures and irritations of everyday life, her appreciation of the domestic realm of both household and garden — inside and outside. Bethell’s movement between England and New Zealand offers another point of recognition for Parkins’ struggle to find her own sense of place.
Every morning, so far, I’m alive manifests Wendy Parkins’ sensitivity to, and ability to write sensuously about place. A childhood ring lost at the beach in Sydney sparks her early intuition that New Zealand might be “a place of refuge, a destination where lost things might be found”. She examines her sense of New Zealand as the place she can feel homesick for. Her own descriptions of bush and ocean, animal and bird life, are interwoven with those of similarly attuned poets. Recognising the beauty of the native — the colours and calls of the kererū, the tūī, and the riroriro — she appreciates a landscape that comprises a propitious mix of native and introduced life. Still, Parkins scrutinises the historical and ethical grounds of her at-homeness in New Zealand.
Living with others, with otherness, and with one’s own otherness, are themes that weave through her exploration of place, human relationships, and the lessons about acceptance and self-acceptance imparted by animals. Every morning, so far, I’m alive draws no platitudinous conclusions, but offers myriad impressions, revelations, and provocations. Parkins recasts, in potentially more enabling and more ethical terms, the conventional idea of our lives as journeys toward the resolution of self-knowledge. Her book traces an intimate process of exploring what it would take, and what it would mean, to live/be well. For Wendy Parkins, these explorations are deeply connected to the act of writing.
Chris Prentice teaches New Zealand and Postcolonial Literatures in the English at Linguistics Programme at Otago University. Her research interests further include memory and ecocriticism, and she is currently Chair of the Association of Commonwealth Literature and Language Studies.
Every morning, so far, I’m alive by Wendy Parkins is published by Otago University Press, 2019.
Slow Living by Wendy Parkins and Geoffrey Craig was published by UNSW Press, 2006.