Posted by: Harold Knight | 09/30/2009

By the Waters of Babylon I Sat Down

Waking up at 4:44 AM. Loving the already-present little oddity, a quirk of numbers I could not have predicted, 4-4-4. Immediately thinking about the writing I started at bedtime last night. Making coffee and booting up computer. Saying good morning to the cats. Thinking about the “normal” feelings of yesterday, neither high nor low. In fact, pleasant. Nothing bothering me. Physically more alive than in a long time. Asking a friend if this is the way most people feel all the time. Not knowing exactly how to respond to nothing vexing, nothing hysterical, nothing overwhelming. Wondering how long it will last. A lifetime?

"The nights of crying your eyes out give way to laughter." (Eugene Peterson) Really?

"The nights of crying your eyes out give way to laughter." (Eugene Peterson) Really?

Words come remarkably easily to a chosen few sufferers with bipolar disorder when they are depressed. One might assume that’s a gigantic unintentional oxymoron, but it isn’t. When one’s mind is searching desperately for stability; when one’s mind is circling in on itself in futile introspection hoping to discover the cause of its unfathomable sadness; when one’s mind is bewildered by roadblocks to solutions as if the words explaining them are swirling waiting to be captured and used to recast one’s thoughts in shapes that will provide an answer to the question, how do I escape this “slough of despond?”

The Pilgrim’s Progress. Perhaps a version for children, but with all of the images intact. Why, of all the books available, did my parents read to us as a bedtime story John Bunyan’s “classic.” And why, of all the images in that bizarre tale of redemption, is the only phrase I have remembered from then until now “slough of despond.” Slough, as in “a hole full of mire, as in a road.” Despond as in “the condition of loss of hope, confidence, or courage.” I’m sure we were supposed to rejoice in the victory of the little Pilgrim, but all I could comprehend then or now was the misery and the inexorable sinking into the mire of despondency. This before reaching the fifth grade.

In despondency, those of us who write write write (the bipolar and epileptic kind of writing, not scholarly or creative or fanciful) explain our experience of lack of hope in vivid and heart-breaking detail. At any rate, that’s what we believe of our outpouring of words. Mostly it is desperate, not vivid. Mostly it is incomprehensible not explanatory. Mostly it fails in its purpose, to tell others how we feel, the great burden of our lives, the quagmire of negativity into which we are sinking. Our personal slough of despond.

Oh, yes, we have our patron saints who eloquently speak our despondency for us:
        “These poems do not live: it’s a sad diagnosis…
         …They are not pigs, they are not even fish,
         Though they have a piggy and a fishy air –
         It would be better if they were alive, 
         and that’s what they were. But they are dead,
         and their mother near dead with distraction,
         And they stupidly stare and do not speak of her.” (Stillborn)
What would we do for expression without Sylvia Plath? “Their [mother/ father] near dead with distraction.” The reality of our depressive writing.

Or Dickinson.
        “I felt a funeral in my brain,
               And mourners, to and fro,
          Kept treading, treading, till it seemed
               That sense was breaking through. “
Of all the Dickinson poems we were led to by Mr. Simpson in Junior English class (Mr. Simpson who committed suicide the year I went off to college), this one treads to and fro in my mind. I can recite it in toto.

We get it. We understand the pain of such writing. But to write today, when nothing seems sad, when I am joyful at the prospect of finishing my work, when I know what I have to do and have energy and desire to do it? That writing is a mystery. Have I not developed the vocabulary of “the power of positive thinking?” Have I not watched “Extreme Makeover” enough to know about happy endings? Have I not paid attention in church so I don’t really understand the joy of eternal life?

“Attention will be paid!” orders Rosencrantz—who cannot comprehend that he’s already dead. I will pay attention. But “turning one’s eyes upon Jesus,” or whatever the joyful do, will have to be a learned response. A response for which—today—I am ready, but in which I am unschooled.

Perhaps a new vocabulary.

Perhaps a new vocabulary.

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