A few weeks ago, I was talking with my dad about what he and my mother plan to do after they retire in June. Somehow the conversation got around to where they wanted to live, “down the road,” which I took to mean when they are quite a bit older, and when they may need more help. My parents and siblings live on the east coast and I live in Illinois, which I believe my east coast father thinks of as “the prairie.” I told him that they were very welcome to live near us, mentioned the lower cost of living, the relatively good healthcare, the proximity to us, and he said, “Well, the thing is that you have terrible weather. All year.”
This is very true. So true, in fact, that I no longer have a “favorite season,” because all of the seasons in central Illinois suck in some significant way—the tornadoes, allergies, rain, rain, rain, wind, snow, snow, snow, cold, and the worst of all—The Gray. Two years ago, winter lasted from November until April, and by March I was so desperate that I bought a light box, which made me feel ridiculous, like Holling on Northern Exposure, for anyone who remembers that show. But boy, was that money well spent—after 2 days, I felt like a flower turning my sad pasty face up to the sun.
Then last winter, I got really depressed, light box notwithstanding. Like incapacitated depressed. Like I had to go to the doctor in my pajamas depressed, because putting on clothes was out of the question. That experience last quite some time, and was very unpleasant, but it was also a tremendous gift. Even when it was almost impossible to read, there were several writers whose work helped me: David Whyte, Parker Palmer, Lauren Slater, Gwyneth Lewis. In her lovely book, Sunbathing in the Rain: A Cheerful Book about Depression, Lewis writes, “If you can cope with the internal nuclear winter of depression and come through it without committing suicide—the disease’s most serious side effect—then, in my experience, depression can be a great friend. It says: the way you’ve been living is unbearable, it’s not for you. And it teaches you slowly how to live in a way that suits you infinitely better.”
This was very true for me. Depression, like winter, is an experience in which certain parts of life simply disappear, things you would prefer stayed where they were, like your ability to leave the house. But like winter, depression has a cyclical nature, which is very important for anyone going through it to remember. It will stop, and if you are attentive, you will see that something new has emerged, “in the ashes of your life,” as poet David Whyte writes.
But it’s still winter in Illinois, and yesterday was Ash Wednesday. Ash Wednesday is about repentance, but also a reminder to “Remember, O man, that you are dust, and unto dust you shall return” (Genesis 3: 19). And any seasonal perspective on life reminds us that returning to dust doesn’t just happen once at the end of your life, but over and over again.
So today’s poem, which helps make sense of this, is Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “All Return Again:”
All Return Again
It is the secret of the world that all things subsist and do not
die, but only retire a little from sight and afterwards return again.
Nothing is dead; men feign themselves dead, and endure mock funerals
and mournful obituaries, and there they stand looking out of the
window, sound and well, in some new strange disguise. Jesus is not
dead; he is very well alive; nor John, nor Paul, nor Mahomet, nor
Aristotle; at times we believe we have seen them all, and could
easily tell the names under which they go.
I don’t know enough about Emerson to say how much of what he is doing here is about a Christian idea of heaven or even resurrection, and this is sort of lame, because knowing the background or the story that went into a poem helps you understand it more fully. But what this poem makes me think about is the unavoidable truth of things retiring “a little from sight,” and how sometimes those things are parts of you—the self you relied on to stand up to your life, to shower, eat, work, get kids dressed, think, pay bills—that you would rather not live without. And yes, they do return again, life returns again, spring does come, but it is often in “some strange new disguise.”
This is true not just of the struggle with depression, but of the struggle with change in general—children grow up, and who they were when they were younger, who we were when they needed things from us that we understood how to give, disappear; we face retirement, and the selves we knew “retire a little from sight,” and who we need to be will eventually become clear, but perhaps will feel like “strange new disguises” at first.
And there are many ways to “feign death”—when we choose not to participate in the life we are given, either through depression, addiction, or some other kind of numbing out; when we refuse to speak truthfully, generously—to our spouse, our child, our colleagues, to the self who has been trying to get our attention for years, and who, mercifully, hasn’t given up yet.
We write “mournful obituaries” for the lives we wish we had, or perhaps did have and lost–the relationships, the work, the selves. And perhaps this is quite necessary at certain moments. But it is also necessary to ask ourselves how we will place ourselves in relationship with the new life that always comes, the one we view, “sound and well,” from behind the glass. What will it ask of us? Who will we be in it?
How alive can we stand to be?
And now, at the beginning of Lent, in the middle of winter, we are reminded that hope, which holds us, is not dead–
not Jesus, “nor John, nor Paul, nor Mahomet, nor Aristotle; at times we believe we have seen them all, and could easily tell the names under which they go.”
Hope, this poem reminds us, doesn’t actually go anywhere. It is just there, on the horizon, calling us forward.
*The title of this post is from David Whyte’s poem, “The Journey,” which he wrote for a friend whose life was undergoing significant changes as she was leaving a marriage of long standing. The line is from the last stanza of the poem:
the bones of the black
sticks left when the fire
has gone out
someone has written
in the ashes of your life.
You are not leaving
you are arriving.
from David Whyte, “The Journey,” House of Belonging