Book Review: Something on Our Minds (Tracy A. Todd and Sean J. Maloney*)

Reviewed by Michael Northen

Wordgathering calls itself a journal of disability and literature. As such, we strive to publish the work of serious writers whose work makes a significant contribution to disability literature – poets like America's Jillian Weise, Britain's Mark Burnhope, Australia's Andy Jackson or South Africa's Kobus Moolman. When we review an anthology, we look not only at what the writers in that anthology have to tell others about themselves but at the literary merit of the work itself just as my co-editors Sheila Black, Jennifer Bartlett and I tried to do in our anthology Beauty is a Verb: The New Poetry of Disability. On another level, though, we also look for the work of emerging writers who are seeking their first successes as writers and whose works show promise. When anthologies with the work of these writers come before us as it did for example with Marilyn Brandt Smith's Behind Our Eyes, we review these as well, hoping that readers will spot those individual writers in the collections whose pieces show the kind of promise that want to make readers seek out more of their work. Very occasionally, however, we will review an anthology of poetry and prose whose overriding intention, despite the appearance of the volume, is not literary at all. This is the case with Tracy A.Todd and Sean J. Maloney's Something on Our Minds.

The main purpose of Todd and Maloney's anthology is made clear in the book's full title – Something on Our Minds: An Anthology to Benefit the National Multiple Sclerosis Society. The anthology intends to benefit multiple sclerosis in two ways. The first is by raising funds. The editors are optimistic that there are many people who would buy the anthology as a way of helping out the NMSS. The second is by helping to educate the general public about MS by having ordinary people who have been diagnosed with MS share their experiences and feelings about the experience. This educational function is highlighted by setting out as the very first entry following the introduction, a definition of multiple sclerosis.

In the introduction, the editors let us know that there was no culling process for the submissions of poetry or prose to the anthology. Todd says, "we did not exclude any material that we received…matter their level of writing proficiency all contributors and their generous donation of heartfelt words were accepted." One reason for the uncritical inclusion of material was that much of it derived from a Todd's "We Write for the Fight" workshop. While editing of material did take place in the workshop, it was primarily designed as a therapeutic experience in which many people who had been apprehensive about expressing their opinions before were given the tools and support to write. A critical approach to the acceptance of submissions would have undermined what the workshop had accomplished.

The enjoyment of Something on Our Minds, then, comes from getting to meet some of these writers and gain a better understanding of how MS has affected them in their own words. The fact several contributors chose to use only their first name (Lloyd) or to use a token name (Firestarter) shows just how fresh and intimate many of these pieces are.

I'll have to admit that, initially, I was disappointed to see that the editors had place the poetry section first in the anthology. Of all the literary genres, poetry is the most difficult for new writers to manage well because of its nuanced nature and the facility it requires with language. While as a therapeutic medium for expression of raw emotion, especially for those to whom writing is new, poetry is an amazing tool. For the reader, however, the results are not always as felicitous. What I had wanted when I first opened the book was a more direct access to the writers' thoughts, one that would not have impelled me to mentally measure what I saw on the page against literary techniques learned in college classroom. In other word, I was looking for the straight personal essay. In hindsight, I was wrong.

What I came to realize as I read through the poems was that in a sort of ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny sense, the struggles that the writers went through in accepting their diagnoses with multiple sclerosis mirrored the process that we all go through to become good writers.

The first reaction on receiving the news that one has MS or any other life-changing disease is shock. As Tarrance Bullock says, in the book's first poem, "I cried so much and asked God "Why?" O' so many times...I broke down. family held me close." It is the same experience of raw emotion that compels most potential poets to put their first words on paper; serious poems by teenage writers are almost always angst-filed. Something on Our Minds gives us a number of occasions to show just how poetry fulfills that expressive need:

Suddenly I'm tossed again into the raging sea.
And as I hang on to what's within, who's holding on to me?
(Theresa Marie Fristick, "Cluttered")

Not withstanding Wordsworth's canonic definition of poetry as the spontaneous overflow of emotion or Whitman's "barbaric yawp," if poetry were no more than the outpouring of what is strongly felt, every two year old would be a poet. Once the emotion is there, what do you do with it? And once the diagnosis is there, where do you take your life? In both cases, how do you give it shape. One of the first shapes that lives tend to take, once the initial shock has worn off, is one of resolve – anger becomes the steely will to overcome, to not back down. Slogans and bumper stickers begin to abound – "Down, but not out" or quot;Never Give Up!" In poetry, this often manifests itself as a paring down of language into unadorned, in-your-face assertion, as in Kelly Kiser Zakerski's "Myself":

For I am me, not anyone else
I'm not "different", I am just myself.
Don't try to lead me, or take my hand
On "my" two feet, I will try to stand.

Much poetry of social activism has emerge from this accessible, self-assertive stance including two of disability rights anthem's Laura Hershey's "You Get Proud of Practicing" and Cheryl Marie Wade's "I Am Not One of the…"

Eventually, however, most individuals whether people with MS or poets recognize that such posturing, even if sustainable, is only a half-truth. Life is much more nuanced and ambiguous. For a person with multiple sclerosis, this means a coming to terms. In order to reinvent oneself, one has to come to terms with what ha been lost. In "A remission from depression" Terry Crawford Parley expresses this beautifully:

To suspend my disbelief
and lift my mood a little higher,
I may have to toss some photos
on the ever-warming fire.

The particular poignancy that comes from these lines arises not only from the need to toss out those past images we held, but from knowing that as we build a new self we are also being consumed. Of course, this is not only a part of accepting MS, but of the human condition.

In several of her poems, Kamron Lookhart explores this new sense of self. It is a tentative acceptance, but one that also allows her a sense of identity and the possibility of community. Perhaps she expresses it best in the first few stanzas of "cripple":

some people cringe at the word cripple
i smile at the recognition of myself
some people think of us cripples as the others
i think of us as my family

to be a cripple is to be loved
for your understanding ways
to be a cripple is to be hated for your
mortality and vulnerability

to be a cripple is to forever strive for acceptance
yet always fear rejection

i saw a cripple today
across the street
she was beautiful and young
full of life and laughter
she walked as if no one was looking
she talked as if no one was listening
that cripple across the street
I longed to be like her
to be her friend
to talk as only cripples can
to walk as only cripples can

There is no overflowing of emotion here, no outrage, no game face, and Lookhart wisely eschews rhyme, using only the rhythms of repetition to help the actual meaning of the words do their work. The poem provides for the contradiction and complexity of human experience and because of that it has the ability to resonate.

The second of the sections in Someting About Ourselves is called "Reflections." While the majority of the personal essays included there can be considered reflective in the broadest sense what does not come across in the title is the extent to which these pieces are experience-informed, and it is that experiential component that makes them so valuable. Their value lies not only in educating the uninitiated about multiple sclerosis, but even more importantly as a sort of field guide to those who have just been given that diagnosis themselves. Two comments in particular jumped out at me from this section. The first comes from a writer who calls herself "MS Caregiver Donna Steigler." Describing the comments she received about her husband's MS she writes:

"My friend's sister has MS but they're fine."
In this situation, they really have very limited information about MS because as we know, no one who has MS is "fine."

As Steigler notes, MS can affect people in many different ways – something attested to by the wide variety of personal stories in this anthology – but no one is "fine." I doubt any writer in the book would argue with her.

Equally valid, though is a second comment – this one by Laura Kolaczkowski. It's one that may make many readers and even some of the anthology's other contributors a bit uncomfortable. I think it is worth quoting at some length.

Do you grow weary of hearing the inspirational tales of people who have MS but still conquer the world? Do you have trouble identifying with the athlete who just ran, swam or biked across the world in the face of MS or the person who climbs into the ring with a raging bull and emerges with the championship belt? The list of motivational speakers includes a wide variety of talents and skills and they mean well, but it can be difficult, if not impossible to relate to their message.

It's a mystery why this disease affects all of us differently and I don't begrudge those people who appear to have benign Multiple Sclerosis – that mild disease that may not even need to be treated. Kudos to them being able to continue living life to its fullest, setting lofty goals and working hard to achieve them and I certainly don't want to take away from their successes, but I have trouble relating to these super-patients. Their normal of living with Multiple Sclerosis doesn't compare to the normal of the numerous people I know who have this same disease.

I won't launch into a polemic about the ways in which imagery of super heroes is counter-productive to efforts to bring about any real change for people who have disabilities, but what I will say is that the essays in Something on Our Minds may be part of the antidote. Donna Fryling was diagnosed as a teenager. Bonnie Lavender's first symptom was blindness. Yvonne de Sousa had to look up the word "conundrum" five different times in the course of writing one paragraph. Reading through these unarguably personal yet overlapping experiences has the cumulative effect of creating a sort of map of the terrain of MS – a map that could prove both useful and comforting to someone entering such unknown territory.

There will be as many different reactions to these pieces as there are readers, so it is hard to single out favorites. For sheer first sentence opening impact, the prize may have to go to Lloyd [no last name] – "I am a 58-year old man who has severe numbness on my left side and my wife of 39 years wants nothing, nothing to do with me" – but from a literary point of view two writers who should not be overlooked are Laura Kolaczkowski and Terry Crawford Parlody.

Kolaczkowski's piece is series of autobiographical journal entries, "Stretching Myself," one of which is excerpted in the Essays section of this issue of Wordgathering. Maintaining an undercurrent of humor Kolaczkowski toggles between the medical establishment that treats her disease and the Tai Chi classes that allow her a forum for dealing with the changes in her body.

In Parlody's "Moonlight and Softer Shadows…" one feels the impulse to an Annie Dillard-style writer. A slow building of style, a discussion of the night sky in a rural setting and the final metaphor in which she accepts her situation, recognizing that in many ways, the moon is as beautiful as the sun.

Among genres in disability literature, fiction, especially short fiction, is very hard to come by. It is the literary medium that most readers attempt only after they have they have already tried their hand at life writing and poetry. Therefore, as an editor, it was quite exciting to turn to the final section of Something on Our Minds in the table of contents to find, not two or three, but fourteen short stories listed. I went right to the first selection, "A Perfect Storm" by Judy Crowe Olson and began reading. To my surprise, what I found was a very well written…essay. An autobiographical narrative, but non-fiction, nonetheless. The next two pieces, also by Olson and the following one by Yvonne deSousa proved similar.

My first reaction was to feel sucker punched, but then I went back to reread the opening paragraph to Olson's story:

As the East Coast prepares for "Frankenstorm", I find myself fascinated by one description of the storm that has really caught on. "The total effect will be greater than the sum of all its parts". I have heard this phrase before, often to describe good things. Great things. Times of bringing together many people to create positive social change. Times when the power of something seems to multiply on an exponential scale as more energy joins a cause.

I wondered if perhaps I was wrong again, as I had been with the placement of the poetry. This could very well be the opening to a piece of fiction. I knew that at least one of the editors, Sean Maloney, had written some experimental fiction, so, as unlikely as it seemed in an anthology of this nature, perhaps this was some kind of post-modern effort to blur the lines between literary genres or muddle fiction and reality. I decided to play the game.

In the end, there were only to pieces that I could say unequivocally, were fiction, and both had something noteworthy about them. "Deal or No Deal" by Laura Kolaczkowski is written in the second person. Second person is rare even among fiction writers and quite tough to pull off. No personal narrative, though, has "you" as the narrator.

The other piece of fiction, Perry Joyner, Jr.'s "A Story" has the triple irony of looking like a poem, being the longest selection in the book, and employing the word "story" in a completely different way than the section heading. It's an interesting effort that seems like a cross between Pilgrim's Progress and a Stephen Crane poem:

I look up to see a towering figure before me…
…a mountain…
…and my path leads directly to the base of it.

I approach the mountain…
…I look to the left and to the right…
…its base seems endless…
…I raise my eyes to the sky…
…the mountain's summit reaches far into the sky…
…surrounded by dark swirling clouds…
…I look before me and there is a pick ax at the base of the mountain…

A thunderous voice sounds through the silence…
…it is the mountain.

Despite the dues ex machina ending that concludes Joyner's pilgrimage, the story makes for an enjoyable read.

While only these stories are assuredly fiction, perhaps only Neumann's "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly" is demonstrably not. Since many of the "stories" are well written and merit a look, I'll leave it to readers to decide for themselves about the others.

Todd and Maloney make it clear from the start that Something On Our Minds is not to be viewed as a professional endeavor but as a means of benefiting the multiple sclerosis society. Even a publication of this nature, though, does owe something to the reader, and the one place where the anthology falls short is in the table of contents. The table of contents gives no page numbers and does not give the first names of those contributors who have them. This confusion is increased because in some cases a middle name is included but not a first. In addition, several pieces are out of order. These are small inconveniences, to be sure, but if the editors really want the work in the anthology to be read – and it should be – then it needs to be made a bit more accessible.

Something on Our Minds is certainly a worthwhile endeavor. Editors Tracy A. Todd and Todd J. Maloney deserve credit for envisioning and implementing it. Readers with multiple sclerosis will feel that much in the anthology – especially those pieces that make up the "Reflections" section – will speak directly to them, but caregivers and family members will benefit from them as well. While no one could claim that every piece of poetry or prose selection is a Pushcart Prize nominee, readers will be surprised at the talent that some of these pieces hold. In publishing the work of those individuals whose writing shows promise and deserves further reading, the editors have done another service. The anthology deserves support.


*An interview with editors Tracy A. Todd and Sean J. Maloney can be found in the Intervews section of this issue of Wordgathering.


Michael Northen is a Wordgathering editor and a co-editor with Sheila Black and Jennifer Bartlett of Beauty is a Verb: The New Poety of Disability.