In Defense of Melancholy



The days following New Year’s are always the ones we inevitably balance by looking back and looking ahead at the same time. We assess and dismiss and excuse and celebrate our actions and inactions from the last year, and we resolve to act and hold back in the year to come. For me it is hard enough to do one of those things, but both simultaneously is a juggling act which makes my mind melt out of my ear. I need to process things differently than others I know. I made my resolutions and so far I’ve held to them both, so now as I walk outside where nature forgives my shortcomings, I take some time to look back. I love looking back.

I get up early in the morning by design. I like to listen to that pre-dawn stillness which in no time at all a thousand voices will disturb. I like the way the light holds off a while, almost as if it asks permission to spill across the sky. And then slowly the silence creeps off and hides behind some trees somewhere just before the phone rings, before the traffic picks up, before it is time to track time again and multitask.

I spend some of the morning looking forward to the day and some of the day remembering, but mostly I prefer to simply be present as the sun comes up and the morning flock feeds behind the oyster boats on the bay.

And I like the steady rain in the late afternoon. My son and I take pictures of the local waterways just about then, or we are home throwing the football; on those days neither of us can catch the slippery skin, but we don’t care. We are so much in the moment, eyeing down the ball, blinking at the wetness on our faces, knowing we’ll be inside and dry soon enough, soon enough indeed.

I like to walk along the river and recall a friend’s voice from college telling me everything I’m doing wrong as he loved to do, always with a laugh; or my grandmother’s voice when I called telling me she would let me go almost as soon as she answered because she knew I “had to get going.” I love how I can see clear as sunlight my father putting his fingers up to show me how much Scotch he wanted, the same amount every time. I love how I remember that so well I can still see him sitting there and hear him saying, “Just about this much, thank you” to the point I can’t breathe. Some people go lifetimes without missing their dads, cursing them for convoluted reasons. I love how I loved and was loved so that now my eyes sting. Why would anyone not want to feel this way? Why would anyone wish to avoid the sadness that comes with good memories?

If I could take only one memory with me when I move into an age of forgetting, it would be walks to the river, my son on my shoulders, the sun on my back, those moments. Or the times we went fishing when he was four, never catching a thing and never caring. Or maybe the sound of house wrens just before dawn, or the whippoorwills just after dusk. I’d like to take that feeling of an open fire on my face and the cool night on my back. Or the sound of my father’s voice telling me to sleep well. Or my mother’s laugh, the way she takes a long breath. I’d like to forget all the times I got angry, all the times I was critical, and replace them with the memories of all the times I listened to the sound of rain on the canvas awning at our home when I was a child.

I know I’ll want to remember one more time the foghorns on the Great South Bay drifting through the air, my brother and sister still asleep, my mother making coffee, my father in his bed. I take it the grand design allows we forget the minutia as we age, but I’ll salvage what I can. I like remembering the way my son laughed uncontrollably when he was two and I chased him across a field. Or the echo of the speakers at my high school football game, or the sound of cars off in the distance when my friends and I would hang out in someone’s back yard or neighborhood street on a Friday night, laughing, telling stories about nothing at all.

Sometimes now when I am out for a walk, I stand at the water and wonder where everyone is. And I look up the coast and imagine my childhood friends, now adults, sitting with their families, reading the paper, watching a movie, most likely long ago forgetting what we did when we were young. But I’m glad they’re there, just a few decades away, somehow still part of some shared history.

I embrace melancholy; I celebrate memory. This is not to say I don’t spend the majority of my time planning and moving forward to what’s next. It is just that in the early morning, before the sun has had her say, before I am about to walk into the realm of a thousand voices and the movement of life, I like to remember that it’s been a good ride so far.

The length of a lifetime from the beginning looks nothing at all like the brevity of that life from the end, like standing on a diving board terrified to leap, knowing you have to anyway for all the others lined up behind you waiting to have their chance. It’s your turn so you jump despite the fear of how far it is to the water, but when you “rise again and laughingly dash with your hair,” you look up at where you started and think, that wasn’t so far at all.

No, it isn’t far at all. Which is why while planning ahead I also like to find a friend and say, “Hey, do you remember that time we…”

And then we laugh a long time. Until we cry.


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