Our almost-every-Sunday family dinner went on the road last weekend. A handful of us traveled about 20 miles into the big city to son Josh’s place, a cool little house he is renting near Forest Park in St. Louis. Josh grilled hot dogs, brats and kebabs, and we had several “sides” to meet proper Sunday dinner requirements. While the others played a game about detonating make-believe bombs, I wrestled and goofed around with grandson Lukas, who turns 3 on July 31. If you forget when his birthday is, just ask him.
A good time. The kind of day that I’m sure I’ll remember fondly when I’m in my 70s. Yet I felt sad, from the moment I woke up and all the way through the laughter and conversation at 1000 Kuhs Place. Don’t feel sorry for me. It’s kind of my way of life. I’m used to it. Mostly.
“I felt that I breathed an atmosphere of sorrow.”
Edgar Allan Poe, possibly a manic-depressive
Things took an interesting turn when we got home late that night. Knowing myself as I do, I could tell my gloom would hinder a good night of sleep. So both weary and alert at the same time, I plopped into my recliner and grabbed the remote control to see what kind of stuff is on cable at 11:30 on a Sunday night of a holiday weekend.
My expectations were low. To my pleasant surprise, I found a channel with concerts from some iconic artists. First up: Crosby, Stills and Nash. I joined the show near the end but in time to see an outstanding encore, as David, Stephen and Graham sang their classic “Suite Judy Blue Eyes” live for the first time in many years. They first recorded that song in 1969, when I was 8 years old, but it became one of my favorites during my teen years. I had chills watching and listening.
Jumping ahead in the TV guide, I saw there was a Beach Boys concert scheduled for the wee hours of Monday morning; I pushed the “record” button. I probably should have gone to bed, but Monday was the Fourth of July and I didn’t have to work; I could sleep in. So I could stay in my recliner to watch Willie Nelson’s concert from Billy Bob’s Texas, billed as “the World’s Largest Honky-Tonk” in Fort Worth, as Willie’s show followed CS&N.
And my depression evolved into melancholy.
Once upon a time, doctors called what we know today as clinical depression “melancholy” or “melancholia.” Abraham Lincoln apparently received a diagnosis of melancholia. Today, melancholy is a quaint word defined as “a feeling of pensive sadness, typically with no obvious cause” and “a mental condition marked by persistent depression and ill-founded fears.”
A writer with a handy thesaurus could have found plenty of words for my mood Sunday. Unhappy, dejected, glum, morose, heavy-hearted – all of them would attempt to suffice as description for the way I seem most days, I guess. Anyone with depression knows none of those words are accurate, though. The sadness and sorrow of depression involve a depth for which words fail to explain.
“Depression is melancholy minus its charms.” Susan Sontag, writer and filmmaker
“Melancholy is the happiness of being sad.” Victor Hugo, writer and filmmaker
Willie Nelson was in his 40s when I saw him at Kiel Auditorium in St. Louis in the late 1970s, one of the best of the almost-100 concerts I have seen in my lifetime. He was an icon in music. Maybe he was country, maybe he was country folk, maybe he simply was the musical “outlaw” he claimed himself to be.
Willie was 83 years old when he performed the show I watched that Sunday night. He presented many of my favorite tunes in that concert, but he didn’t sound anything like the Willie I heard at Kiel. He sort of spoke the lyrics while playing his beat-up old acoustic guitar, every once in a while sort-of singing three or four consecutive words. Instead of feeling sorry for him or lamenting the toll the years take even on the talented and successful, I thought of the places I had been when listening to the music decades ago – the places, and the people who were there with me.
Then he “sang” one of my favorite Willie Nelson songs. Actually, Willie wrote it but it has more famously been recorded by many other artists, from The Spinners and Al Green and The Supremes to Elvis Presley and Harry James: “Funny How Time Slips Away.” Part of the song’s musical beauty is its flexibility, its ability to be molded into any genre.
Another aspect of its beauty is an enduring lyric that defies time or geography or race or age.
Well, hello there
My it’s been a long, long time
How am I doin’?
Oh, I guess that I’m doin’ fine
It’s been so long now but it seems now
That it was only yesterday
Gee, ain’t it funny how time slips away
How’s your new love
I hope that he’s doin’ fine
I heard you told him that you’d love him till the end of time
Now that’s the same thing that you told me, seems like just the other day
Gee, ain’t funny how time slips away
I gotta go now
I guess I’ll see you around
You don’t never know, never know
When I’ll be back in town
But remember what I tell you
In time, you’re gonna pay
And it’s surprising how time slips away
For some reason, Willie’s recitation of the lyrics with the simple accompaniment of his guitar added a greater sense of sadness to the tune. But this sadness resonated differently than the sense of despair that usually aligns with my usual depression companion. This mood felt tied directly to something I was able to identify – the passage of time.
“The soulless have no need of melancholia,” Russian writer Vladimir Odoevsky said. It’s not that suffering major clinical depression indicates the lack of a soul, but it can descend upon anyone without warning or reason; even though such suffering can produce strength and even virtue, the victim of depression wants only for it to lift quickly. This melancholy felt uncomfortable, to be sure, and led to tears slowly rolling down my cheeks, but more out of sentiment. I’m 55, yet looked back and wondered where the last 35 years have gone. I remember the people, places and dreams of those years in high school, college and the early days of marriage and parenthood. “It’s been so long now, but it seems now that it was only yesterday,” Willie spoke. Yes, the memories feel as clear as yesterday. Even more clear, perhaps.
I closed my eyes and saw faces, heard voices, felt things I hadn’t known for a long time. “Gee, ain’t it funny how time slips away … ” An English proverb says: “He is a fool that is not melancholy once a day.” I wouldn’t call that foolish. Rather, such a person doesn’t reflect on a lifetime of blessings. Not everyone has memory banks filled with the many faces and voices that have blessed my life. Still, thoughts such as those can provide some relief from depression, such as it is.
I can’t use that as a coping tool, though. “You don’t never know, never know, when I’ll be back in town … ” Melancholy comes and goes without prediction or provocation.
It really is surprising how time just slips away.