It’s January twenty-four, minus twenty something degrees that ‘feel like’ ten degrees colder. I haven’t actually bothered to check the official temperature because I’m too cold to get out of bed, turn on the heating and reach for my phone. I feel like jumping out of the window. This is my first thought as I open my eyes, and close them again.
I want to wish myself away – as far away as possible from this oppressive city, a dystopian reality with a semi-lockdown, and an empty inbox with no yoga bookings. The weather should be hardly surprising. “This is Canada,” my ex-husband often reminds me, in case I have forgotten where my love for him in sunny India led me to: a country with seven months of winter (although no one likes to admit this as the topic of discussion is quickly diverged to our free healthcare and exemplary democracy).
I feel like a giraffe that has been planted in Antarctica.
It isn’t Montreal’s (Antarctica’s) fault, but considering the fact that a giraffe wouldn’t survive a day in this climate, my efforts at enduring the great freeze, I’d say, have been rather heroic. And today, after sixteen years of drawing countless gratitude lists about the benefits of living in this free and democratic country, I have run out of good cheer.
My melancholy is at its peak. I call it melancholia [from the Greek melankholia: melas, melan (black) + kholē (bile, an excess of which was formerly believed to cause depression) because it sounds almost romantic, and less alarming than a formal diagnosis.
I don’t wish to be defined – and limited to – a label that emphasises my shortcoming, malfunction, or worse: a disorder; a dis·ease. I have a keen interest in psychology, and an underlying fear that tendency towards depression runs in my family, amplified by a culture that takes pride in suffering.
My country’s national anthem celebrates a history of the Magyar nation “long torn by ill fate,” and thanks to pianist Rezső Seress’ famous composition Szomorú Vasárnap (“Gloomy Sunday”), we even have a national suicide song! (Incidentally, Seress himself committed suicide in January 1968. After he had survived jumping out of a window, he choked himself to death with a wire in hospital.)
My father, in adherence to Eastern-European stereotype, loved his drink, and loved to tell me while he drank about his “genius plan” of diving into an active volcano, and thus ending his own suffering. One day, when I grew tired of hearing about this genius plan, I suggested buying his flight ticket to his chosen volcano and even give him the final push. Oh, how I despised his pessimism and helplessness, which I saw as an excuse for brushing off responsibility. I vowed to never be like him as I stayed away from alcohol, and eventually, stayed away from his company altogether.
In truth, I was scared. I still am. Every time I feel less than that American ideal of “Don’t worry, be happy,” I am fearful that I am my father’s daughter after all, and that I have failed, despite my stubborn efforts, to pull myself up by my bootstraps.
Pulling myself up by my bootstraps has been particularly challenging to do during the pandemic, which happened to coincide with my divorce. Early this fall I experienced shortage of breath, spontaneous sobs and general fatigue that my doctor diagnosed as anxiety. She encouraged me to consider medication. But as someone who grew up seeing her mother pop anti-migraine pills like candy, I was reluctant to find the answer in pharmaceutical substances. I prefer to self-medicate with yoga, meditation and my pillola della felicità: Italian literature. Dante has been a close companion, followed by Calvino, Ginzburg and Ferrante.
My daily Italian ‘incantations,’ as my daughter refers to them, have been my lifeline. But today even the most beautiful words in Italian fail to distract me from the gloomy surroundings that offer very little hope.
Hope. There’s the rub.
I’m struggling to find hope in a pandemic stricken world post-vaccination that feels no different than a pandemic stricken world pre-vaccination, and just as my hope in love had been resuscitated, it was stamped out with a heartless betrayal. My work has stalled and I’m worried about making ends meet. My mother is in Budapest and my brother is in Australia.
I find it in my daughters’ eyes and smiles, but sometimes I worry that the pressure on them is too great. It is not their job to provide me with hope, as if it wasn’t challenging enough to find hope for themselves. But this week my girls are with their father so I can fall apart without having to pretend that I’m okay.
But not alone with my feeling of hopelessness, as it turns out. Our routine phone calls, clandestine meetings in the cemetery and shopping trips to the PA and Home Depot confirm that I am doing better than most of my friends. I have been disciplined in setting up my yoga business, I write on most days and have somehow managed to graduate from university with great distinction. Even my divorce proceedings were amicable and my ex-husband and I continue to support each other as we co-parent our daughters. I know people who are lonelier in their marriages.
If yoga has taught me anything, it is gratitude. But gratitude is not a band-aid you can slap on any wound in the hope that it would disappear. “Don’t worry, be happy,” may make a catchy song, but as an attitude to life, it is naïve in assuming that you can simply wish worries away with artificially induced happiness. Having a perspective is important, yes. There is no end to the tyranny and unfairness in the world, and there is always someone much worse off than you. But reminding myself that no one is thriving right now doesn’t change the fact that I’m still struggling.
I guess my wound goes deeper. Perhaps at the heart of my melancholia is a sense of homelessness.
When still in love, my husband and I had agreed that our daughters would finish their primary school in Montreal, but we would return to Europe once they are in high-school. In the meanwhile, our marriage has fallen apart, and with it our plan to return to Europe. As my youngest daughter is about to finish her last year in primary school, I can’t help feeling that my Antarctic sentence that already felt too long to bear, has been extended by another six years. I am a hostage to my daughters’ aspirations, or rather, my love for them. A love greater than any aspiration, or dream for myself. But today, as a more feasible option to jumping out of the window (that is too frozen to open anyway) I am considering packing my bags and leaving, even if it means leaving without my daughters.
I call my mother. She picks up, her voice is jovial. I cry. “Ima,” I say in Hebrew. “I want to come home,” I continue in Hungarian. “I can’t take it anymore. I’m tired. I just want – ” To be mothered, I think, but don’t say it. She listens. Then she says, calmly, in Hungarian, “I understand. I wish you could come home too. With the girls. But in the meanwhile,” her voice breaks as she reminds me how I have done little else but survival since my separation five years ago. “I know you are a responsible mother,” she says. “But do you think you could take a month, or two, to just take care of yourself? Why don’t you write? You know that writing will make you happy. It is important that you make yourself happy too, you know. Can you afford it?”
Can I afford not to? How much does my sanity – my life – worth?
I don’t tell this to my mother, but there is no need. “Hakol yihiye beseder,” everything will be fine, she says in Hebrew, and although I don’t (yet) buy her optimism, the window and the plane seem a little less attractive. I open my computer.
Risk! Risk anything! Care no more for the opinion of others, for those voices. Do the hardest thing on earth for you. Act for yourself. Face the truth.
The post-it on my computer feels appurtenant right now. It reminds me that life – truly living – comes at a risk, but that it is a risk worth taking. The truth is a little trickier. Not always unbiased and often elusive, it takes some digging to get to it. This digging can sometimes be painful, but also healing. Often it is both. The potential pain is why I avoid it, the healing is the surprising reward once I finally brave it. Katherine Mansfield was right. Acting for yourself and facing the truth, through writing, can feel like the hardest thing on earth. It feels like it right now.
I never know what truth the words I type on the page will tell me. I am equally frightened, and curious by this prospect. But I am too exhausted to fight it, so I give in. I allow my melancholia, my pain, to talk to me as a good friend. I give it permission to be whatever it wants to be: a navel-gazing rumination, or a rare masterpiece; a poem, a short-story, a play, a novel, or incoherent scribbles on a page; in Hungarian, Hebrew, English, Spanish, French, or Italian; words that would be published, or deleted shortly after they have been written. I sit back and the first word I type is
How Curious. Or perhaps not curious at all. I have always felt more comfortable writing in the third person when the subject feels too close to home. The third person gives me the distance I need to be truthful, to dig deeper, to venture into perilous territories that the first person would be tempted to steer clear of. But what do I need to write about? I wait for my melancholia to tell me. And suddenly the writing gushes out of me like water, and I am in a hurry to capture every drop. The subject matter is my recent heart-ache, so why am I suddenly smiling, instead of sobbing despairingly like I did the day before? I don’t yet have the answer, so I carry on writing, to find out. Eight hours and 5023 words later I am driven by a sense of purpose. I am no longer a victim of betrayal, but the omnipotent architect of a story that I can shape into any narrative I want. In 5023 words I have gone from powerless to powerful and it feels exhilarating.
The 17th century philosopher Baruch Spinoza said, “Affectus, qui passo est, desinit esse passio simulataque eius claram et distinctam formamus ideam.”
An emotion, which is a passion, ceases to be a passion, as soon as we form a clear and distinct idea thereof.
Viktor E. Frankl equated affectus, emotion, with suffering. Both definitions ring true to me. The passion I feel towards the man who has betrayed me, the passion I feel for life, and the passion for passion itself – is also the wellspring of my suffering. But with each word that I write on this uncertain journey to get to the truth, I begin to form a clear and precise picture of it. And in the process, I feel this passion, or suffering, slowly transform into a gift; a gift full of meaning.
“We tell ourselves stories in order to live,” writer Joan Didion famously said. It is still dark outside and minus twenty-something degrees that feel like ten degrees colder. My lover is gone, I have no work, and I miss home, desperately. Nothing about my circumstances have changed. I (still) worry, I am not (always) happy, but something about admitting to the pain through writing feels a little more bearable. Hopeful even.
I heat up some borscht and while it is cooking, I turn to my childhood heroine Rita. Bgida (betrayal) is a quintessential eighties anthem. I wonder what was the inspiration behind the song, written by Rami Kleinstein, Rita’s husband, twenty-seven years ago. “Lo emtza menuha afilu balajla,” I belt out the words that make me feel like my nine-year-old self again as I dance. Dance foolishly, greedily and abundantly, like someone alive with her sorrow, joy and gratitude merged into one.