The depression spring brings me also leads to greater things. A sense of melancholy strikes me. (Not sadness, but a contemplative pensiveness.) I seek the quiet and begin to put life into perspective. I stare into space, facing what my uncle calls “the gap between the material world and another world we long to inhabit.”
Granted, the springtime blues often paralyze me. I sleep a great deal, spend a lot of time wanting to write and doing nothing. The inaction and heavy mood makes me feel inadequate and ineffectual, just the kind of thing that brings an aging husband, father, and friend even deeper into the depths. “Oh, well,” I say to myself, “such is my lot in life.” I grab another handful of chips and eat away the bad feeling, which, of course, only makes things worse. At that point, I laugh. The absurdity of life and life’s meaninglessness all strikes me, and I keep from hanging myself from a beam in the basement.
In spring, my mind slows down. I’m aware of my thoughts. This is a different state for me, a guy whose mind races and bounces around like a pinball in a pinball machine. When things are good, I am often not as reflective as when spring me takes me below ground. Even as I descend into the restless sleep that comes in the late morning and early afternoon, I’m concocting ideas for essays and poems. This is perhaps the greatest gift of the spring blues, the heightened ability to snatch poems from the breezes on which they float.
Today, however, my thoughts reached back to the innocence I had as a youth. Because of the vagaries of life in the family home, I sought to grow up as fast as I could. I couldn’t wait to become somebody, and I grasped at the only straws at hand.
For me the symbols of maturity were drink and cigarettes. I took to both early. By age 11, I was well at both. I have written extensively about my vices and addictions and so won’t go into them here. But these drugs and chemicals, often useful in the hands of moderate people, were implements of self-destruction for me.
When I took to them, though, they made me feel consequential and worldly. I was the fat kid who had no skills at academics, society, or athletics. The one way that I could stand out was by becoming the cynical, sophisticated chap lurking in the corners of the schoolyard with a pack of smokes and a medicine bottle full of pilfered whiskey.
Now, that’s the way I fashioned myself. I was not as cool as the other smokers, though I aspired to their level of respect and intrigue. I joined the Boy Scouts and smoked with the older kids. We snuck communion wine from the closet in the church basement where we had meetings. We went on overnights, and I acted like I knew just how to accomplish all of the outdoor activities we faced. I was a good scout. At age 13, I attended my Eagle Scout ceremony floating on Old 1889 and slugs of communion wine. I went on to earn nearly 100 merit badges.
So, despite my dissolution, I was still an overachiever, even if I never felt I gained the respect and admiration of those around me.
But I think back before I started drinking and smoking. I remember I was an obsessively devoted kid. I believed all the hellfire and damnation stories we learned in grade school. I went to church and received communion with the greatest of reverence. The idea of sin took hold early, and it made me live in dire fear that I might die out of the state of grace, which would lead to extended time in purgatory or even an eternity in hell. The result is that I prayed hard, confessed often, and served mass with a sense of duty and excitement.
The one break in my holy endeavor came when Joe Bushman and Keith Stockbauer stood in the choir balcony at church one time. They were in the back of the very back of the crowd and standing in front of a window. I was on the altar. Besides me, only the priest and other altar boy could see them, and both of them had their heads bowed in faith. At a particularly quiet time in the mass, Bushman and Stockbauer started waving their arms like they were signaling an airplane, a gesture meant for me. It was everything I had to keep from laughing out loud and I did anyway. Afterward, the dour Father Kelley gave me the once over and rapped me on the noggin for besmirching the ceremony.
I was a wide-eyed kid who faced every new introduction and event with wonder and hope. Though I was set up for disappointment, I didn’t let it stop me from making new acquaintances who stuck with me until they found out what a dork I was. All the while, I had my doubts. Like Heller’s Major Major Major Major, I always felt that total strangers deprecated me, “with the result that he (I) was stricken early with a guilty fear of people and an obsequious impulse to apologize to society.” Major Major Major Major suffered. “Nobody would have anything to do with him,” Heller writes. “He began to drop things and to trip. He had a shy and hopeful manner in each new contact, and he was always disappointed. Because he needed a friend so desperately, he never found one.”
Those lines gripped me when I first read it over 30 years ago and have haunted me ever since. Even so, I gave everyone the benefit of a doubt and never once eschewed anyone’s confidence or friendship.
I think I always wanted a world where people were morally consistent. It made no sense to me that we schoolkids would go to Lenten mass and leave the lessons of the homily inside the church. More than once, I puzzled over the ways the bullies beat me almost as soon as we hit the playground after mass. My dad often lost his patience with the family at home and set to yelling, screaming, and slapping. I often thought to myself, jeez, didn’t you hear what Monsignor said?
At home, I faced each new day with the hopes that I wouldn’t get beaten, chided, pinched, or ear-twisted. I had hopefulness built into me and met my parents and siblings with cheer. Later, I became a merciless and cruel older brother, but before cigarettes and booze, I possessed an naivete that I held onto like anyone in a state of denial about his plight.
This morning, as I was lying down for my springtime depression nap (of three hours), I began to ask what I was like before I decided to grow up so quickly. The answer, or course, is that I was a good kid, despite the messages I received at home and my thoughts about myself. And then, while I edged toward the symbols of adulthood, I retained a kind of innocence that only age, experience, and drink would take from me.
I don’t miss being a kid. I am nostalgic only for fleeting moments. The way I look at my youth is that everything I did or said, everything that happened to me, all the mistakes I made and hurt I caused leads me right to this point: It’s a melancholy day. I have a good life with good people around me. I can blow it. All it takes is that one bottle of vodka that will lead to endless others. I don’t want that today, and I certainly don’t want to be young again.