Melancholy and Me

When I was a boy, my mother would take me to greet my father as he returned from work.  He had traveled from the garment district in Manhattan via the D Train, then transferred to a bus in Jamaica.  An hour and a quarter later, having read the afternoon Herald Tribune and fifty pages of a book, he’d step off the bus, wearing that long gray overcoat, whose musty smell I still recall and treasure.

I’d run to him, happy every evening to have him home; and, with that melancholy smile of his, he’d fold me into his arms.  All of my most loving memories of my father include that melancholy.  When I think of myself now, when I imagine what I look like from the outside, I imagine that I am wearing a smile like his.

If you had asked me from the time of my youth through my 60’s what I would like to see reflected on my face, it would probably be joy or depth, certainly enthusiasm, seriousness of purpose balanced by playfulness, which would look like a wry smile following a witty comment. But at the age of 76, the expression that moves me most, inside and out, is melancholy, which the dictionary defines as “pensive sadness”.

But in my mind, melancholy includes a feeling for the humor of it all, a sense that there’s so much more than what we see on the surface.  For me, melancholy comes with an appreciation for the complexity of life.  For every joy there is a sadness; for every defeat there’s a triumph.  There is love and hatred, pleasure and pain.  One does not eliminate the other.  The melancholy person holds all of these feelings at once.

Picture Abraham Lincoln’s face, filled with that beautiful sadness of his.  Or imagine, Rabbi Nachum of Bratzlav, who, like Lincoln, was said to have absorbed the sadness of his entire congregation, and you could read their stories on his face.  I imagine Moses and Jesus and almost anyone who cared deeply about people and knew their suffering would have a look of sustained melancholy, even as they led us through various forms of wilderness to various holy lands.

Old age is a kind of wilderness.  There is so much about it that feels unknown, uncharted.  It is a humbling time, a time when we are inclined to be honest with ourselves.  We tend to cast off illusions and false hopes.  We acknowledge ourselves as we are.  With the passing years, we understand that we have grown less and less important, even to those who love us.  They are busy with their lives.

How could we not be humbled?  Our bodies ache and grow less responsive.  Our friends fall away.  We feel naked in this vast universe.  There’s nothing to do but acknowledge the decline.  And what kind of expression do you imagine on your face as you acknowledge these changes?  For me, it’s melancholy.

This melancholy I know is not depression, which feels different.  Depression is dull, withdrawn, often angry.  Depression is a clinical condition, possibly managed with chemical and interpersonal assistance.  Its colors are gray or black.  Its music is discordant.  In depression, you withdraw from others, no matter how close and loving.  Even their love feels like either a demand that you return it—and that feels like too much—or a lie.  They don’t really love you.  There is no depression in my father’s embrace.  It’s more like joy tempered by the knowledge of how fleeting the joy might be.  There’s nothing about depression that lends itself to leading a nation, a community,  a family.  Yet so many of our leaders, knowing the extent of their responsibility and the limitations of their very human power—they are often melancholy.

Our society doesn’t make this distinction.  Melancholy and depression are conflated.  It frightens people, who are taught that it is best to be upbeat, optimistic, gay.  Think of all those Facebook smiles.

I do think that melancholy was once more acceptable.  If you look at the photographs of historical figures, they aren’t smiling.  They aren’t bright and cheery.  They are thoughtful.  You see seriousness, comprehension and, yes, sadness in their eyes.  And, if you could ask them: Is this how you want to be seen, they would say: “Of course.  This is who I am.  Why would I want to appear as anyone else?”

This isn’t all others see on our faces, of course.  I’d bet, for example, that many if not most people would characterize my expression as determined, enthusiastic, amused, energetic, endorsing.  I love to watch the joy and excitement in children. Their whole beings light up when they achieve something wonderful, when they receive gifts, or when they have been surprised.  Adults too.  Old people light up, sometimes, in the most inspiring ways.  I heard an interview with Franklin Foer the other day.  He was talking about his grandmother, his heroine.  She had survived the Holocaust, yet she sparkled with vitality and hope for her grandchildren.  I listened as I drove and barely held the wheel, simultaneously applauding and tearing up.

But more often than not, those of us who have lived through decades of great and varied experience also wear our melancholic visage—which is as it should be.

It fits the great, late transitions in our lives.  As we ‘retire’, we leave communities that have been so much a part of our lives.  We are equal parts glad and sad to leave.  When we talk about the departure, there’s more relief and wonder and very little depression, but we are aware of our losses and aware that we are beginning an uncertain future.  As we talk with our friends about how we feel, you see the beautiful melancholy in our smiles.

Melancholy feels just right when we say that dying is coming closer.  Most of us aren’t terrified or angry, at least most of the time, that we must yield — that we must leave the ones we love.  That’s just as it is.  I smile at such a moment, a wan smile, a sad smile, but a smile nonetheless because, at the exact moment that I recognize the loss, I am also grateful for all that I’ve had.

The music I listen to nurtures my melancholy.  I like jazz and the blues.  I like Yo Yo Ma playing Bach cello sonatas.  I like poetry and take notice when ee cummings describes his father, who “walks in dooms of love.”  There is so much sadness and joy in the music and the poems, and I dissolve into it.  I lose myself in my melancholic ruminations.

Many of the films that I love are filled with melancholy.  Think of those Humphrey Bogart stories where he has to walk away from the woman he loves.  Casablanca, for one, ends as Ingrid Bergman flies off with another man, and Bogart, with humor and a depth of sadness tells Claude Rains:  “Louis, I think this could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”  Life doesn’t always go your way but it has its compensations.

Think of the excruciating beauty of For Whom the Bells Toll.  The “earth moves” for Roberto and Maria—because they love one another so deeply and because the war will soon separate them.  Much like the image of Moses leading his people to Israel but remaining behind, overlooking the land from the mountains but forbidden by God to enter.  These melancholic stories, combining our best hopes and greatest fears, speak to some of the strongest images in the history of our civilization.  We oughtn’t run from them.

When I accept my melancholy, when I refuse to fight it, I enter a contemplative mood, much like the best of my meditations.  My heart slows.  My vision clears.  When I yield to my melancholy during a walk in the hills and near flowing streams, when I don’t tell myself that joy or exhilaration would be better, then I dissolve into the pleasures of the scene.

I find more of these experiences in old age than at any other time in my life.  After years of confusing melancholy and depression, after decades of holding off the melancholy that offers the most enduring key to my heart, I accept it now with my whole heart.

For many years, I have been searching for a kind of wisdom that I thought would lift me out of my suffering – what I imagined that Buddha discovered under the Bodhi tree or Yeats’ ancient wise men, “whose ancient, glittering eyes, are gay” found in the high mountains.  But I no longer think that is the path for me.

For me, wisdom runs through melancholy.  It comes from an honest assessment of life, with its immense variety of experience.   I don’t have to work to achieve melancholy; it is simply there.  I can admit this to myself and to others.  It is rooted in the reality that gives me great strength and a quiet mind.

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Ritual and routine hold me like a good mother

I imagine that I’ve pushed the limits of your patience with my apocalyptic warnings about the state of our nation and my “honest” talk about the trials of getting old.  For a change, I’d like to talk about my good fortune at having arrived at an advanced age feeling good.

It’s 6 AM and the sun has already risen.  I hear the fountain outside our bedroom window, spraying water from the little pond right outside, and — I know this even though I can’t see it from my bed — spreading the coating of light green algae to the pond’s far edges.  A few robins are chirping.  A squirrel is chirping, too, as he speeds up the oak tree’s trunk.  I feel so damned good this morning. =

Already, the day reminds me of an ee cummings poem that I loved as a young man, a poem, coincidentally, that my sister-in-law, Marcia, recites to herself each morning, wanting a reminder of what the day might be.  I’d like to quote it in full.

i thank You God for most this amazing
day: for the leaping greenly spirits of trees
and a blue true dream of sky; and for everything
which is natural which is infinite which is yes

(i who have died am alive again today,
and this is the sun’s birthday; this is the birth
day of life and of love and wings: and of the gay
great happening illimitably earth)

how should tasting touching hearing seeing
breathing any–lifted from the no
of all nothing–human merely being
doubt unimaginable You?

(now the ears of my ears awake and
now the eyes of my eyes are opened)”

There are too many days when I’m not as attuned to those “leaping greenly spirits” as I’d like to be, but even before and after I explode with exasperation at what I read in the newspapers, I am still aware of the great privilege I have in being alive at 76, with my ears and eyes still working, my body ready to go, and my spirit alert to possibilities.

I might focus my gratitude on the love that persists in my marriage and family, but today I want to focus on simpler things: the routines and regularities of life in retirement that bring pleasure to even the worst of days and allow me to pay attention to nature’s bounty.

Each day, as I awaken, Franny is next to me.  I can see the sky, cloudy or sunny, it doesn’t matter.  I ease out of bed, walk about 20 feet to the bathroom and go through my ablutions.  I like the rhythm and the sound of the electric tooth brush and the taste of the water washing down the two pills that I take.  Dressing, especially in summer, is easy: underwear, t-shirt, and shorts.  Everything feels clean.  I’m ready.

Next I make coffee for Franny and me, and we sit in our easy chairs with the newspaper.  The news isn’t so great but there we are, together, as the light shines through the roof windows and the window door and gentles our moods.  Almost every morning, we look at each other, nod, and feel our good luck.

After the newspaper, we separate. Franny either stays in the living room or goes to the second floor to do some work, or what, she says, passes for work these days.  I go to my study to write in my journal, first in that free, undirected, ambling way that I’ve practiced for almost 50 years.  If I’m not calm to begin, the writing calms me.  If I’m calm, it deepens the feeling.

Next I write something “serious.”  I work on an essay for my blog or chapter for the memoir that I’m writing.  Sometimes this goes easily and well.  Sometimes it’s a slog.  Then I push and either break through or give up, hoping — maybe assuming — it will be better tomorrow.  I can get aggravated when I feel the writing has gone badly but I am comforted by the fact that I am there.  I have been sitting in my desk chair, in front of my computer, thinking and typing away.  Every day.  It’s the everydayness that soothes the aggravation.

When I’ve had enough of the writing, I read a few articles from The New Yorker or the New York Review of Books, which make me feel just a little smarter, just a little bit more in touch with the New York intellectuals I’ve long identified with.  It’s like touching base with my community.

Now I’m getting a little restless, though.  I feel it in my body.  When I get up from the desk, my knees and back are stiff.  I’m thirsty.  I need to move.  So I do.  Franny and I may take off on a walk.  These days, I may hit a tennis ball against a backboard for about 25 minutes, and then walk for about 40, knowing that I need to put in at least an hour of exercise to reassure myself of my health — and to feel good.  I have always needed exercise to get those endorphins going in order to calm my body and soul.

Upon returning home, there’s a shower, and very few things feel as good as that hot—or cold—spray running down my body, taking away the sweat and the effort, until I am fully relaxed.  Even the drying follows a ritual.  First my hair, rubbing and rubbing with a towel, probably until the brain is active again, then my back and chest, then the legs and the feet.  The towel always returned to the hook for drying.  The return to my very light clothing.  I’m ready for the next act.

In the late afternoon, I read, generally nonfiction — a biography or a history book — leaving fiction for the evening, when I no longer require myself to keep learning.  The reading might make me sleepy and, now in my dotage, have begun for the first time in my life to take naps.  They are sweet.

Franny and I come together for dinner.  Then we might have friends to visit.  We might read, talk on the phone, or watch TV — we love mystery series, news, and documentaries.  I love sports.  If there’s a big basketball, baseball, football, or tennis game on, we split up, then come back to each other for conversation and sleep.

Not every day is like this.  Sometimes, I do some work—coaching young executives, for example.  A little strategic planning consult with a nonprofit.  A meeting for a board of directors.  On Mondays, I spend time with Franny and Lucy, our 17 month old granddaughter.  On Tuesdays and Thursdays, we spend a few afternoon hours with our 5 and 8 year old grandsons.  At times we travel and then there is no routine.  Franny has her own activities, of course.  And frequently we meet friends, separately or together, for walks, coffee, or drinks—or to dream up future projects.  There’s always something new.

But it is ritual and routine, by surrounding and supporting all the other activities, that relaxes me enough to appreciate what is new and different.  It’s the surrender to the routine, not having to be in charge all the time, that keeps me calm.  It’s the routine, holding me like a good mother, steadily but not too tightly, that invites me to notice the leaping greenly spirit of life.