On Melancholy

LittleTalbot-5

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

NCWinter2018-45

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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Quest

LittleTalbot-9

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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Driftwood Core

LittleTalbot-13

At the core, we all have holes.

Some are larger than others, and while most can eventually be filled in, some remain empty.  My paralegal lost her daughter in August just after childbirth.  The sorrow was unimaginable, and we did all that we could for her, but nothing we did or said could fill the hole of the loss of her only child.  Her daughter left behind a husband and three children, five, two, and a newborn.  Our paralegal was out for three months, and our practice slowed in her understandable absence.  More than anything, I missed my friend, and I looked forward to the day that she returned.

She came back at the start of January, less than complete and not totally present, but she was managing better than I could have.  My job (self-appointed) was to keep a smile on her face, to listen when she needed it, and to offer a shoulder to cry on in the moments when she needed to be vulnerable.  I brought her lunch, and we joked with each other, superficially, but still she laughed.  It was a little thing, but it was a bit of normalcy.

On Saturday tragedy struck again.  The baby stopped breathing, and could not be resuscitated.  He was gone, and so too was she once more.  I could not do a thing but tell her that I loved her and that I was here for her – howsoever she needed me.  I cannot imagine the gaping hole that this tragedy tore asunder, ripping the partially healed one of her daughter’s death back open to the elements.  I don’t know if it will ever heal.

My own holes are filled for the most part.  There are still remnants of them, cavities and interstices that remind me of the voids that were once a part of my life.  I do not dwell on them as a practice, but at times like these, I am reminded of the grace and providence that allowed me to see the faintest hint of light peeking through the chasms.

We all have holes at our core.  Some will be filled by time, but the unimaginable others, I just don’t know.

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Growth

Panthertown Valley

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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Lichen

AngelColor

This little lichen (Usnea Florida) hung from the limb of a eastern red cedar (Juniperus Virginiana – not to be confused with the live oak (Quercus Virginiana)) dithering ever so slightly in the wind that had been left over from the storm the day prior.  I chronicled the Sunday walks I take through the swamp in Nocatee Preserve in an earlier post, and this day was no different, save for a different lens.   Instead of capturing the hidden beauty of the swamp in a macroscopic, wide angle tilt, I opted to only bring along my macro lens and lighting apparatus, which makes for a very serious looking photography setup to the uninitiated.  Few people passed me this day, on bike or foot, as the paths were still muddy from the day before.  The epiphytes, like this lichen, were bright and renewed from the downpour.  This particular varietal reminded me of the microscopic pictures of neural pathways and ganglia in the brain.  The common pattern, I am certain, is no coincidence of nature.

Interestingly, I later found out that usnea lichen contain potent antibiotics which can halt infection and are broad spectrum and effective against even tuberculosis. Usnic acid (C18H16O7), a potent antibiotic and antifungal agent, is found in most species, including this Usnea Florida.  This, combined with the hairlike structure of the lichen, means that Usnea lent itself well to treating surface wounds before sterile gauze and modern antibiotics.  It is also edible and very high in vitamin C.  As I mentioned in a previous post, I am not confident enough in my sight identification of mushrooms or lichen to test the medicinal properties of either, though there are no lichens nicknamed “Death Angel” or anything so nefarious, so I might be more willing to nibble on the ganglia of this lichen than an anonymous mushroom–if push came to absolute shove.

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Quarry

NCWinter2018-24

As I stared at the tall, sheer rock face of the long-abandoned quarry, in the middle of the Pisgah National Forest, my dad reminded me that one of my relatives had been a dynamite man for a quarry back in Maine many years ago.  Whether he was deaf from the work, or simply unsocial, my father never knew.  The long drills would bore vertically into the solid stone, and then he would carefully lower the dynamite into the channel to blast thousands of tons of rock and rubble from the mountainside.  Most of the bores in the Pisgah quarry were high on the stone face at least ten feet long, irregularly spaced, but distinctively smooth interstices in the jagged profile of the mountain.  The small paper birch trees were deceptively omnipresent in all of the photographs I attempted, and I was not satisfied with any of them–even as I took them.

As we began to walk on, however, I saw this remnant of a small bore, and I snapped a quick photograph of it, not thinking too much about it at the time.  This hole was unique from the others.  It was only a foot or so long, and its edges were not smooth like the channels higher up.  The crevasses and splintered stone that surrounds the bore suggests that it was an afterthought, and the jagged striations within the shallow channel evidence a blast that wrought the uniformity from it.

This photograph is a microcosm of the quarry, but far more representative than a wide-angle shot of the sheared-off face of the mountain with its uniform bores.  It is evocative and telling that the work was violent and loud and dangerous, but the quarry no doubt was necessary in supplying building materials for the early denizens of Brevard.  Though Robinson Jeffers noted, as I have quoted before, “Not everything beautiful is pleasant,” I have to believe that the opposite might be true.  The violence of a volcano or a blast-torn bore can be beautiful if the time is taken to appreciate it.

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