On Melancholy

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I can barely conceive of a type of beauty in which there is no melancholy.
-Baudelaire
I stumbled on an article yesterday, entitled “The Benefits of a Blue Period.”  In short, the article posited that periods of melancholy in our lives allow us to more greatly appreciate periods of happiness.  I read the article with great curiosity and enthusiasm, as I wholeheartedly agreed with the hypothesis.  One of my favorite professors at Wake Forest, Eric Wilson, wrote a book to this end entitled Against Happiness: In Praise of Melancholy.  It is a brilliant little book, and I have read my copy multiple times.
Professor Wilson taught me to love Blake, and Wordsworth, and Shelley, and especially Keats, who wrote a beautiful poem entitled Ode on Melancholy, where he observed that pleasure and melancholy are two sides of the same coin (Keats’ metaphors are, of course, far more elegant); one cannot fully appreciate the prior without having first experienced the latter.  A rose is beautiful because it must die, because it is, at its core, ephemeral, as life itself is.
I took this photograph of my son, Kemper, earlier this year at Big Talbot Island State Park, just north of Jacksonville, Florida.  It is not the most elegant composition, but it evoked the memory of sitting in Professor Wilson’s class, engrossed as he discussed the wild Blake, and the addled Shelley, and the elder statesman, Wordsworth.  In 2007, I visited Dove Cottage, Wordsworth’s home, and I personally bore witness to the Lake District’s daffodils he was so fond of as I wandered lonely as a cloud.  I would soon thereafter realize, however, that I had not yet experienced true loneliness and solitude.
I have found myself in the depths of melancholy, with a singleness of isolation and anguish.  I was no better (or worse) than Coleridge, whose consumption of laudanum sustained his melancholic madness (that brought us Kubla Khan) until his death at 61.  I often thought I would end up like Coleridge, though with the ignominious distinction of anonymity to all but those who loved me.  Yet I persisted with my own course of self-medication until I was thirty.
I cannot say that I, with a fit of passion and self-realization, quickly emerged from the chasm of melancholy where I had made my home for nearly a decade.  My ascent was gradual, albeit progressive.  At some point along the way, I cannot say when, I gained the perspective of the Romantics – I did not regret the melancholy of my twenties, nor did I wish to shut the door on it.  I had been humanized and humbled by the darkness; because of it, the light shone that much brighter.  I am indebted to Professor Wilson for planting the seed, which, though it lay fallow for years, eventually grew of solid stock.
A rose plucked from a garden is beautiful because it must die, as all beautiful things must, one day, come to an end.  A silk rose in a glass vase is a pale imitation because it possesses no vitality, it is a mere imitation.  I recognize that I am an imitation – not a mimic, but a feigned likeness of a whole human held out to the world – a world, which chooses, most often, to accept me for what I seem rather than peering behind the curtain to who I truly am.
Before I get to afar afield, let me bring us back to melancholy and to a close.  As I am grateful to Professor Wilson, I am grateful for my melancholic past, and, yes, even for the fits of melancholy that I will continue to experience throughout my life.  Emerging from the darkness, the light is all the more vivid.
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Walking On

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I was initially not pleased with how this photograph turned out.  The figures of my mom and Kemper are sharp, but the trees and leaves in the foreground are blurred, as I was fiddling with my settings to take earlier photographs with my wide angle lens and, candidly, I forgot to change them.  When I came back to it after a bit of contemplation, however, it grew on me.  The focus of this photograph is and should be my family, and the other blurred features, which seemed like a distraction at first, repose in a secondary position.

This is, I think, a good lesson learned once again from a photograph that has taken on a life of its own.  Family is, and should be, the focus.

I keep long hours in my job.  When I started, I would get in around 5:30 and leave after 7:00 in the evening.  I saw Nora and Kemper very little during the week, and it took a toll on me.  Nora was young enough that she changed daily, and getting home after she went to sleep meant that she had changed drastically in a week.  Kemper changed, too, but not as quickly.  Still, I missed being able to see them each day.

These days, I get into the office around 4:30 and leave around 5:30 or 6:00, and rarely do I miss either of them before they have to go to bed.  Nora runs to me now (or at least toddles quickly) and throws up her arms when she sees me.  I pick her up and she tells me about her day in her own language that she can only assume I understand.  I hesitate to put her down, even to give Kemp a hug, because this is our time.  When Anna feeds her and puts her to bed, Kemper and I have our time.  We have taken to lying in his bed and talking about both of our days, if for no other reason than to share that my days have their challenges as well.  He cherishes these “long talks.”  I do too.

My days are long, and I am worn out by the end.  I shoulder a lot of responsibilities in the hours that I am in the office, but as this picture attests, family is my focus – even if sometimes I lose sight of this for the blur that is the rest of my life.  Indeed, even when I forget to change the settings, the important things remain tack sharp.

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Kemp & Brynn

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My sister and I were close as kids.  We lived across the river (literally) from our school friends, and we were often the only playmates the other had.  Nevertheless, I knew which buttons to push to get a rise from her, and I was like a churlish child on an elevator for the first time pressing all of them at once, at times, just to see them light up.  To my memory, she only paid me back once, when I was six or seven and learning to rollerblade.  I fell, and she tried to help me up with her foot…on my back…twice…  If this is the worst that I can remember, then I suppose we had a pretty good relationship.

Since we had kids (Claire’s daughter, Brynn on the left, and my son, Kemper on the right), however, we have grown much closer.  It may be the newfound maturity on both our parts, but I would like to think that we are just in a better place to be even closer than we were growing up.  She is a single parent, and a damn fine one.  My dad and I have both taken on the male figure in Brynn’s life, and in many ways I think that this has made me grow up even faster than just having two kids of my own.

I love seeing Kemp, Brynn, and now my daughter Nora, all playing together.  Kemp is gentle and kind with both girls, and very protective.  Brynn mothers Nora, and Nora adores them both.  We had the chance to spend a good chunk of time together in North Carolina over the New Year, and it is the best family vacation that I can remember.  Everyone was on their best behavior – even me – and the kids played constantly together.  This photograph was taken on a short hike on the property to an amphitheatre that was built for the boys’ camp that existed on the property in its earlier life.

Although I was trying to get Kemp and Brynn to pose for a shot, this one is candid.  It perfectly captures Brynn’s childish pleasure at being with the whole family (especially Kemper), and Kemper’s sly amusement at the world itself.  I love this shot, and I smile every time it comes up on my photo album that I have playing in my office at all times.  Claire and I were close, but I know that we want our kids to be even closer.  I think that is, ultimately, what we worked towards growing up without even knowing it.

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Quest

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In the end, we are all searching for something.

The quote I chose for my yearbook junior year of high school was “Life’s a journey, not a destination, and I just can’t tell just what tomorrow will bring.”  This was from Aerosmith’s Amazing, which hit so many chords with me even then.  The quote is hackneyed and attributable to dozens of people, most commonly Ralph Waldo Emerson (though he does not appear to have written the exact quote, just the sentiment).  Some days I regret choosing it instead of Faulker’s quote from the Unvanquished: “I realized then the immitigable chasm between life and print – that those who can do, and those who cannot, and suffer enough because they cannot, write about it.”  That, I think, would have been more appropriate for that time in my life.

Kemper has inherited many things from me, but at his core he does not know what it is to deceive.  We often joke that he acts the same for Anna and me as he does for his teachers, and as he would for a stranger; what you see is what you get.  It is a brilliant, albeit foreign, trait to me.  As he has matured, I have waited for the introversion to take over, but he must have received a recessive gene from Anna.  Though he cedes to quietness after a long day of entertaining people – and not as a defense mechanism – he is not like me, like who I was.

In my earlier years, if you saw me, casually, on the street, to you I looked happy.  I was the greatest liar that ever lived.  That did not seem like hyperbole at the time, and when I look back on the years between college and where I am today, I can still say that without any reservation or apprehension (which, perhaps, is a testament to how often I convinced myself of my own deception).  But then I recovered.

I am different now, too.   I remain introverted, but the life I lead is no longer a duality of darkness and feigned brightness.  Hawthorne once wrote “No man, for any considerable period, can wear one face to himself and another to the multitude, without finally getting bewildered as to which may be the true.”  I read this quote (from The Scarlett Letter) in high school, and I still remember it to this day.  I lived the quote, not as much then as in my later years, but even at sixteen, I recognized my ability to con and fool others (and even myself) into believing I was capable of feeling joy.  But then I recovered.

I have found that capability, and I experience joy every day.  I am cautious though.  The joy is always tinged at the corners with a fear of free-falling back to a time and place I can now barely remember.  I do not regret my past, nor do I wish to shut the door on it.  Instead, it has made me who I am at this moment, and this moment is all I have until the next one passes.  For now, I have joy and contentment and knowledge and peace that there are things both within and without my control.  Honestly.  Because I recovered.

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Growth

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Christmas break was supposed to be a reset.

Kemper had begun showing out at school, becoming increasingly obstinate to the teachers.  It had not fully made its way home, but we received emails every night or notes home in his folder that he had refused to do work or told the teacher he did not want to do something she asked.  He was five, and she was a brand new teacher, so we thought he might just be going through a phase and feeling out her boundaries.  Little did we realize that it was just the beginning of a truly rough patch.  But Christmas break was going to be a reset.  We would go to North Carolina, and all of the energy that he longed to let loose could be released in the mountain air.

We started the year with high hopes for Kemper.  We had begun to see a child psychologist before we left for North Carolina, and Kemper seemed to react well to him.  He showed none of the behavior that had been plaguing him at school, and we thought that he might have moved past the obstinance that he had begun to show.  The first day back was a disaster.  He yelled at the teacher, swatted at her, and flatly refused to do his math work.  He was sent to the principal, and Anna was called in to pick him up.  We disciplined him as we then thought appropriate, taking away his beloved stuffed animals, and this seemed to affect a change in his temperament.  The next day was as bad, if not worse.  The day after that he barely made it into the classroom before he had an outburst that sent him to the principal’s office.

We had him tested, and he proved to be off-the-charts gifted (which came as no surprise to us), and we thought he was just bored.  After many tears and gritted words, we walked away with a diagnosis of severe AD/HD.  The poor little guy could not physically sit still long enough to focus on his work, which he was being forced to do and then being scolded for not doing appropriately.  The psychiatrist suggested medication, which we very reticently put him on.  The change was immediate. Saturday was his sixth birthday, and we saw for the first time in a while the true Kemper coming back to us.

I took this photograph of a small patch of crustose lichen growing on the fallen trunk of a large red oak (Quercus Rubrum) in passing while on one of the many hikes that Kemper enjoyed (though he lamented his boredom along the way).  It did not mean much to me at the time, but in context it illustrates to me the rebirth of a new year.  Christmas break was not the reset we expected.  The fallen oak did not immediately sprout new leaves.  But in the darkness, there was a hint of life anew.  I may come upon this tree when we go back to North Carolina in June, and the lichen may cover the trunk by that point…or, it may just remain there in that little patch, growing slowly but steadily.  And that progress, as small as it might be, is enough.

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Astride

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This photograph of Kemper was taken not too long ago at Big Talbot Island.  He is in his element among the low-lying branches of the fallen live oak (Quercus Virginiana).  Kemp is ever-cautious, and consequently has not broken any bones (so far).  Even convincing him to climb the trunk, no more than four feet off the ground, took some coaxing.  I am fine with his wariness of danger.  It would have served me well as a child, who, by his age, had already broken both wrists and a couple of toes.

Despite his cautious nature, he is impulsive and fiery.  His temper burns hot, though it is extinguished quickly with proper redirection.  This has caused great consternation at school, where someone will call him a name, and he will explode momentarily.  In that instant, he cannot control himself.  I was not as impulsive as a child, though as an adult, I find myself irrationally upset at times, which quickly cools.  I cannot help but think that he has seen me in such moments of weakness, where my sarcasm and passive aggression come through in full technicolor.  I hate that he has witnessed this, and since his temper has blossomed at school, I have made every effort I can to dull my own temper — especially around him.

He is a sweet child, and wants nothing more than to make those around him smile or laugh.  His intelligence is off the charts, but his emotional maturity lags behind significantly.  Eventually this, too, will catch up (though I admit, I am waiting for my emotional maturity to catch up even at age 34).  By every account, we are good parents, and he is a good kid.  Nevertheless, since he returned from Christmas break, he has been sent to the principal’s office nearly every day by his young teacher, who appears incapable of managing his behavioral outbursts.  He sees no point in doing the multitude of worksheets, on subjects that he has known since he was three or four, and he is overwhelmingly bored.

We have sat down with the principal, assistant principal, grade level chair, and his teacher, but the conflict between Kemper and his teacher persists.  Anna, especially, is questioning our decision to place him at this particular school, which is, admittedly, rigid in its principles.  Her years of training as a behavior specialist gives her great insight into how to manage children with his unique blend of intelligence and immaturity, which makes it all the more difficult to see him go unmanaged and unmotivated.  This, too, shall pass, and we may move him before the school year is up.  For now, we will provide him the positive reinforcement that he so thrives upon, and continue to embrace his unique personality.  I will continue to bring him to Big Talbot, where he has begun to climb the trees with less and less coaxing, and I will pick him up when he inevitably falls.

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Cheeky

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This photograph of Kemper, and my niece Brynn, was taken a few weeks ago in Brevard, North Carolina.  The two cheeky little gremlins had just been sloshing through the creek that was running higher than I had ever seen it on account of the torrential rain and snow melt.  Still, it was shallow enough in places to come just over their wellingtons, thereby defeating the boots’ entire purpose.  I think they had more fun splashing in their boots on dry land, listening to the sucking sounds that their feet made within the boots, than they did in the creek itself.

Living square in the suburbs, Kemper and Brynn play “outside” all of the time, meaning they play with chalk on the driveway, ride their bikes and trikes, but they do not have the chance to slosh through the creeks in Florida.  There are too many unseen dangers, the least of which are alligators and moccasins.  So, to be able to traipse through the mud and cold water in North Carolina was as much a release for the kids as it was to watch for the grownups – my sister, Claire, Anna and me.  We got to see the nature of our kids come out in the natural elements.  Though Kemper lamented the long hikes, he loved to play with the sticks and threw the rocks that he found along the way.  Give him a mud puddle, and he will have fun for longer than any sow or elephant might.  It was heartening to see them both having fun, and whats more, having fun together.

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Climbing

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My parents have identical photographs of me at Kemper’s age climbing amongst the rocky shores of Maine and up to the narrowest branches in the trees in our yard, which in hindsight (now as a parent) was a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad practice.  Kemper is a bit more grounded than me, less of a risk-taker, which is why in his almost six years, he has not yet broken a bone.  By his age I had already broken both of my wrists (at the same time), a few ribs, and a number of toes.  I look back at this period of my life and laugh, though as a parent, I cannot imagine what I put my own through.

Kemper found the supine trees on Boneyard Beach at Big Talbot Island, which have been the subject of many posts in the past, and though they were only feet off the ground, he was still tentative in climbing them.  I urged him, almost begged him, to overcome his fears and climb.  As you can see by the wry smile on his face, it was a worthwhile pursuit.  Of course, once I got him to climb one without incident, every new one we came upon needed to be ascended, which made for a fitful photography session of the trees, but was great fodder for capturing him candidly enjoying his boyhood.  When we were in North Carolina last week, he had shed his fear of climbing somewhat, and mounted the rocks on the property with great aplomb.  Still, he was more keen to slosh in the creeks and melted snow puddles with his wellingtons.  He is grounded, and this will undoubtedly bode well for him in the future.  Breaks are a part of childhood, a part of life, but his caution may let him escape the many breaks of bone and heart that I experienced.  This is my hope, perhaps a naive one, but my hope no less.

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Stirring

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I would like to say that this was a Christmas Eve candid of Kemper and Nora gazing into the lights and contemplating the true meaning of Christmas.  I would like to, but that would be disingenuous.  This “candid” took a half hour of bargaining and cajoling, many takes, and ultimately one perfect photograph.  In the end, though, that is what matters on Christmas–the memory of the moment, and not the chaos that went into the whole charade.  Christmas this year was one of the best I can remember, certainly in my adult life.  On Christmas Eve, I gave Kemper my old DSLR (a Nikon D40), which he will grow into and out of faster than a pair of tennis shoes.  On Christmas morning, we went to the Nocatee Preserve for his first photography outing.  As he took photographs of sticks and tree trunks, I thought back to when the photography bug first bit me in middle school.  Although Kemper is very young, only turning six at the end of January, he is just as curious as I was at that age, and he loved walking with me while I took pictures in the preserve or among the driftwood at Big Talbot Island.  Now he has his own camera, and in time, he will develop his own tastes.  As I said in a previous post, I have no doubt he will surpass me in time, when his patience kicks in (perhaps when he is thirty or so), but for now I will enjoy my little photography buddy.  I will teach him all I have learned, but the pose–that is all his own.

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Kemper at the Cypress

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I rarely take portraits of people, though the ones I have taken are some of my favorites. In my photography, I try to be as unobtrusive as possible.  My son Kemper, however, is a willing and able model when I get the itch to add a human touch to my photographs.  This gnarled Monterey Cypress trunk just off of Ocean Avenue in Carmel, California would have been interesting enough with the rays of the late afternoon sun coming in from the southwest, but Kemper’s knowing stare off into the distance gives the photograph so much more meaning.

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