Despair and its Antidotes

You can be sure things are getting really bad when your doctor is moaning and groaning about the state of the world while he’s absentmindedly prodding your prostate. This really happened to me last month. “Please,” I wanted to say, “could we postpone discussion of Armageddon for at least the next couple of minutes?”


You know things are getting really bad when you can’t have dinner in a restaurant without scanning the room and wondering, “Which one of these Trump supporters is likeliest to volunteer for guard duty at my concentration camp?”


You know things are getting really bad when your eyes flutter open in the morning and your very first thought is, “Oh shit.”


I know, I know. Trust me, I know. And I’m trying.


Evidence #1

Just the other day, we went to the local farmers’ market. This guy used to drive a truck in South Jersey. Now he tends pigs in Colorado. My wife complimented his pork. He professed true love for his pigs and issued a sincere invitation for us to visit his hog farm. I was nearby, standing in line for bread and pastry. She made his day, I thought to myself. I heard her laugh. I saw him smile. They chatted some more. At what cost to her? Being present, being herself. Considering his feelings. 




Evidence #2

Whenever I have the opportunity, I roll up my pants and stand in cold water until I can’t feel my feet anymore. It helps, for some reason.




Evidence #3

I remind myself: Read a poem, Jim. It always makes you feel better.  Like this lovely one by Ben Jackson at Poetry Daily (published first in New England Review 37.2 / 2016), which I think he should have titled “The Warped World”:


Table Bay


Down at the water—
glancing through
a web of fingers—


a mirrored face,
veering blues,
a cirrus. And my father


underwater roving
I’d dreamt of tapping


in one long-held
breath. Kneeling
at the dock’s edge,


I watched him scour
silt and lichen,
flash of a play-thing,


as I settled on
the sob’s octave.
Earlier, by the spider’s


silk on the swim
ladder, I’d seen
under the dock


into the colony of cool
rot, and through
to the warped world


a well will pull in,
to what monsters
dwell in bodies


of water. I’d seen
fall thinning
the flocks, a chain


of ripples shuddering
under an osprey’s
dripping talons.


And at home,
the stove-fire,
the three-story absence.


Kneeling at the dock’s
edge, snagged,
I fixed my gaze


on the bay’s boony
depths where my father,
feeling along the pitch-


black of centuries-old
soaked larch,
followed my taut line


straight to the shimmer
snared in bark.


he picked at each
hook of the lure,
a solemn, meticulous


sifting as if he were
parting skin
for a splinter in my palm.


His touch traveled
the line, the rod,
into my hand.


Evidence #4

I try to take the long view: the Black Death in Europe was probably worse.


And after all, I did once study and teach classical history and literature (Homer, Iliad, 1.1.-5, translation by Robert Fagles):


Screen Shot 2016-07-17 at 10.29.04 AM


Evidence #5

Look, I make an effort to say to myself.  This is it, you jackass. It’s not out there, somewhere else, filed under Certified Beautiful or Guaranteed Redemptive. If you’re going to find it, it’s gonna be right here or nowhere. Right here on a Thursday afternoon at 5:30 p.m., along Auburn Avenue in Atlanta, on your way home from a truly mediocre day at work, with nothing in the pantry for dinner, nothing to look forward to except more of the same: this pure light, for example, and later the door opening to the sound of, “Hey, I’m home! Where are you?”




Evidence #6 

Here’s where you come in. When all else fails, I do a sort of inventory of all the people to whom I feel I’m forever bound by an unbreakable bond. And trust me when I say that someone you love is doing something similar in this time of grief and sorrow. They want and need to know you’re there: let them know.



One thought on “Despair and its Antidotes

  1. Evidence? Sitting on the low back machine at the gym. Quiet here. H at the pool after a spontaneous invitation from church family on the way to being friends. J at home. Notice that nothing feels urgent in just this moment. And into the space of noticing Julia Stone Hardeman comes
    to my mind. I savor for a minute that I knew her. Then I think of you. Coming here looking for pictures and find this post.

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