Monday, April 10, 2017

Free Essay: "Silver Linings" by Shawn Michel de Montaigne

[Note: This essay was first published to subscribers September 2016. It will be featured in To Make an Assay, which will be released before May.]

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PEOPLE FEAR change. I do too many times. It can be very scary.

I started writing full-time in 2004. I split time writing with trying to build a tutoring business, one that ultimately failed in 2010. I had no desire to work for anyone ever again. I wanted to call my own shots and make my own name for myself.

As it turns out, I couldn’t have picked a worse market than San Diego, California, to start a tutoring business. Despite having the highest number of Ph.D.s per capita of any large city on Earth, the city is virulently anti-education. The dropout rate back then was seventy-five percent. You read that right: three out of four kids who entered high school in the San Diego metropolitan area in 2004 didn’t make it to graduation their senior year. I don’t remember the statistics for later years, but it doesn’t matter. The business went belly up, as I said, in 2010. It was barely surviving as it was, but the recession finally, mercifully put a bullet in the back of its head, and that was that.

Change has often been like that for me. It appears as a horrendous calamity. I’ve had to fight to keep from seeing it as such, because, as in this case, it really wasn’t as negative as I originally believed.

“Every cloud has a silver lining.” Perhaps not when you look up at them at first, certainly. But in my case, at least, I can say that, eventually, every cloud gets a silver lining. It’s just a question of when, and also if, I decide to look up and see them. That doesn’t always happen.

I went to the eye doctor this past week. I hadn’t been to one in many years. They have this newfangled machine, one that eliminates the need for drops to dilate pupils in order to check for cataracts and glaucoma. You press your nose up against this pliable plastic barrier while gawking into a lens with your left eye, then your right. A bright light makes it painful. If you press hard enough, your eye gets right up against the lens without touching it, and the painful light turns green, which is the machine’s way of saying you’re pressing hard enough. At that point the nurse takes a picture of your eye, which involves an even more painful bright yellow light passing quickly by.

It turns out I’m developing a cataract in my right eye. I’ve got pigment floating around in places it shouldn’t in both, and old scar tissue around the edges of both, cause or causes unknown.

I’ll let you in on a little secret. I suffer from clinical depression. Over the course of the last decade and a half I have learned how to manage it to a degree that, though I’m certainly not satisfied with it, I can live with it as I learn how better to take care of myself.

In the past, news like the one the eye doctor gave me would have been very difficult to get around. I would have fallen into the Black Swamp, as I call it. I would have refused to look up for those silver linings.

Instead, this time I shrugged. Both externally and internally.

Is it depressing that I’m more than half a century old now, that the days seem to be sniffing cocaine, that my eyesight is potentially failing, at least in one eye, that my body looks nothing like it did even in 2010, that I have two partially frozen shoulders from overtraining as a young athlete, that bending over to touch my toes seems a harder task than jogging up Mt. Hood, that I have hair growing out of spots that God never intended, that my chin’s antigravity is definitely failing, that I no longer have freckles but liver spots?

Damn straight it is.

Still, for the most part I have managed to avoid the Black Swamp. I think I know the reason why.

In 1998 I was still teaching high school kids. It wasn’t what I wanted to do. In fact, I hated it. The stress was overwhelming, the hours more so. It didn’t help that Loveland Public Schools paid me less than fifteen thousand dollars a year. That’s not a typo. And that was for a full-time position. I was putting in eighty hours a week and making less money than the night janitors, who weren’t full time and paid by the hour.

I knew what quitting ultimately meant. I knew I was going to struggle like hell for a long time. I still am eighteen years later.

Struggling doesn’t exacerbate depression if what you’re struggling for is what you have always wanted to do with your life. Does that make sense? If you look forward to getting out of bed in the morning to do the work you know in your heart you were meant to do, no matter what is facing you, no matter how insurmountable it appears, depression has a much harder time gaining a foothold. I speak from stark experience.

I still experience bouts of depression, most definitely. When they come, I deal with them as sanely as I can. My life circumstances provide plenty of fodder for a quick hop, skip, and jump into the Swamp, despite the fact that I have been hugely blessed with the chance to write full time. Sometimes, without even knowing I’m doing it, I take the dive. Splash. I’m a ball of goo in bed, and the days and nights ooze by like they have sandpaper on them, and I’ve just been skinned alive and had lemon juice poured on me.

Psychologists claim that depression is anger turned inward. I don’t buy it, especially these days. Depression is depression. For some there may be a component of inwardly turned anger; but not for me. The inexorable march of time ... the dreams of youth long since gone ... the abandoned goals, the futile strivings, the grinding failures ... those are my triggers. They don’t inspire self-anger or judgment; they inspire profound sadness. I know myself well enough to say that with complete confidence.

Art picks me up: a good movie, or a well-written essay, or an inspiring song or video. So does connecting with my readers.

It isn’t a guarantee, of course. Sometimes I’m so low it takes multiple immersions in them.

Nature works well too, especially here in southwestern Oregon, where she makes a grand show of herself no matter which way you turn to look. My affliction comes with Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD—wouldn’t you know it?), which exacerbates my condition as daylight wanes through fall and winter. I endeavor to be even more vigilant after September 21.

The one constant in life is change. It powers the universe. Nothing is ever the same. Heraclitus said it best: “No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.” The full realization of that has freed me somewhat of the tangles of the Black Swamp, for this too, said the ancient Sufi poets, shall pass. Even the Black Swamp.

For now, I endeavor to look up.

Thank you for reading!

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