‘Timely, lyrical, tough, accurate, and ultimately not (too) depressing. Or as my aunts used to say, Roll up your sleeves.’—Margaret Atwood
In 2007, after a dozen years publishing fiction and poetry, Mike wrote a memoir of mental illness entitled The Lily Pond: A Memoir of Madness, Memory, Myth and Metamorphosis. The book explored the struggle to find practical means of living with serious mental illness, but even more, the need to find a sustaining story, or stories, when “story” itself keeps disintegrating. When it was done, including some follow-up essays and talks, Mike assumed he might be done with nonfiction writing about mental health.
A decade later, however, seven years into caring for his mother as she journeyed deeper into Alzheimer’s, Mike felt the need to enter those waters again. In four long letters to an anonymous caregiver, Be With: Letters to a Carer describes the essence of what he learned about living with dementia and about caring for others while still caring for oneself. Like the earlier book, Be With aims to find an orientation that sustains when life stories shift perilously—to find, as he said in a recent interview, “stars to steer by.”
This is no ordinary practical care guide. Using bite-sized paragraphs perfectly designed for harried carers to dip into, Barnes tells a compelling personal story that unfolds a side of dementia almost entirely missing from public discussion:
‘All people with dementia, and some of them strikingly, show depths of sensitive awareness, resilience rising to heroism, and a capacity for joyful relatedness.’
Calming and contemplative yet fiercely alive, this consoling, humane and surprisingly uplifting book balances candour about the devastations of dementia with inspiring insights into its paradoxical and often uncanny enhancements of life, the ways in which it sometimes calls forth capacities long-buried by the defences of full cognition.
Addressed to carers but relevant and deeply important for us all, Be With encourages us to focus on fellowship and accurate witness: to simply be with who, and what, is actually before us.