by Jen Whinnen
When I was a kid my dad started his own business. He set up a home office and purchased an electric typewriter. It was a pretty high-tech piece of equipment for the time and a source of fascination for me. It sat on a short, black, metal bookcase, a pedestal that separated it from the rest of the desk riff-raff. It was a totem of progress and possibility, a shiny and sleek white machine with black keys and a red “power” button.
The typewriter evoked a feeling of busy, efficient progress and purpose. When it turned on, it hummed. The keys made delicious, slapping sounds as they smacked against stark white paper and envelopes. When the typewriter was on, the basement was flooded with light and hive-like movement. When the typewriter was on, adult things were happening and we had to “go play somewhere else”.
Sadly, my dad’s business did not make it and the typewriter ceased to have any practical purpose. It was demoted to “toy” for my sisters and me.
I loved this toy. I would spend hours sitting at the typewriter trying to unravel its mysteries. I would pound away at the keys, typing so furiously that they would get all tangled up in the middle. I’d untangle the keys, study how they lined up in their proper places in the bed of the typewriter and then do it all over again.
It had an auto return feature that would automatically roll the paper up, thus permitting one to continue to type uninterrupted. This was a marvel for me. I would set and re-set the margins at various widths and line spacing and then type away, watching the paper fly. Sometimes the lines would be really far apart and others they’d be so close to together the type would be on top itself. Other times I’d try to make a solid black line by setting the line spacing so short that the typewriter would auto return over the same line over and over again. It was an exacting exercise that never bore the results I’d hoped for, but kept me entertained for a really, really long time.
Then there was the “erase” feature. It had two ribbons one black, one white. If you hit the “erase” button, it would go back and stamp white ink over what you just typed, thus effectively “erasing” your mistake. I would type full lines and then hit erase, erase, erase, erase, erase. This feature fascinated me. How many times would the typewriter obey my request to erase? (Answer: indefinitely. You just hit the button and the white tape would pop-up. Every. Single. Time.) Could I re-insert a page and get it to erase something I’d typed previously? (Answer: No. That’s what white out was for.)
The actual act of typing was a mystery that I assumed must be accomplished by sheer act of will. I would randomly strike keys, watch the paper roll through the machine and then scour the page to see if I had actually typed any words. I got in a few “hog”s, “as”, maybe a “lik” and thought for sure I was getting the hang of it.
But, for as much as I loved the typewriter, I also grew to loathe it. After my dad’s business failed, he suffered his first in a series of nervous breakdowns and was diagnosed with bi-polar disorder. His bouts of mania were often ear-marked by late night typing sessions. The happy clickety clack of “daytime typewriter” morphed into the pneumatic drill of “nighttime typewriter”. Nighttime typewriter would slowly, persistently, draw me my out of my dreams and into the late night hours of mania. I’d rouse from sleep, hear the keys and groan. I tried to ignore it, but the harder I tried, the more insistent my mind latched onto it. I’d toss and turn and eventually give up the fight and lie there, eyes wide open, trying to will my father back to bed.
One night I stumbled out of bed and asked him, “Dad what’re you doing?”
He startled then snapped, “What do you want?”
“Nothing, I just heard the typewriter. It woke me up.”
“Well,” he paused, “I’m sorry about that, but can’t you see I am busy?”
Not wanting to upset him further, and knowing that I wasn’t going to be able to go back to sleep, I curled up on the couch and watched him. All his manic energy was focused on trying to make some elusive thought tangible. He was wild-eyed and disheveled. His hair was greasy and matted to his forehead, indicating that he probably hadn’t bathed or slept in several days. He sat hunched over his work so that his glasses slipped down his nose, making him look like a strict, rather wild, school teacher.
His intensity and size made him frightening, yet I felt kinship, a feeling I rarely ever felt for my father. I understood his desire to make that typewriter manifest something. I understood the draw of the keyboard. For the first time, I saw myself in my dad. I closed my eyes and listened. Eventually the sound became soothing, rhythmic. I fell asleep.
Having a mentally ill father taught me early on that empathy can be a powerful tool for finding compassion. When I struggle to break bread with a person who challenges me, throwing in a little self-referential empathy is often the spice that makes the stew a feast.
Yet, while empathy allows me to hold the space for others, it is a spice best used judiciously. Use too much and it overpowers all the other flavors. Boundaries blur and I find that rather than standing by, I am walking through the quagmire of someone’s life for them.
This past weekend I witnessed a family whose member is going through his first in what promises to be a long series of bi-polar related manic episodes. My heart breaks for all of them. I know how difficult the years ahead are going to be. To watch someone you love tear himself apart and refuse help is horrible. But, at some point there is simply nothing you can do but say “I am here for you. When you are ready, when you decide you need help, come to me and I will help you as best I can.”
This sounds callous, but it’s not. Each life must be led individually. We all have to find the recipe that makes the most of all the flavors in it. Each stew, casserole, etc. is different and can only be made by the person whose skin it is in. No matter how badly I want to say “I can see you’re having trouble, why don’t you just scoot over and let me do that for you”, the best I can do is sit close by, hand you the salt and respond to your efforts with love.