So many people I know get depressed in the winter. Some of them take medicine, and some use special lamps to mimic sunlight. Although I do not especially like being cold, or walking home in the dark, winter has never really bothered me. But for the last few years I have been feeling sad and restless and wondering what it all means and so on as soon as winter ends and spring comes around. I get all full of longing and I keep asking myself why, with the world so beautiful—I have a fellowship at a place where the birds twitter and the fruit trees blossom and the air is fragrant, the whole bit—I feel so antsy and blue. What do you think? Is it really true what they say about April being the cruelest month?
—Wondering near Williamsburg
By “they” I assume you mean T.S. Eliot who, in 1922, began ‘The Waste Land” like this:
April is the cruelest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
It would be very cool if you also meant to refer to Edna St. Vincent Millay who, a year earlier, began her poem “Spring”:
To what purpose, April, do you return again?
Beauty is not enough.
You can no longer quiet me with the redness
Of little leaves opening stickily.
(I sometimes wonder whether ol’ T.S. didn’t see her poem and just decide to run with it, while agreeing with the New Critics that ol’ Edna was not even worth including in their anthologies and lists. But perhaps the election has made me bitter. Besides, even if his opening salvo may not be all that original, his line breaks are the best in the business. Now back to your question.)
Both poets were writing just after a terrible war, and both have a bone to pick with April because the sense of hope and renewal it gives is inadequate and misleading in a world laid waste or, speaking more broadly, a world where loss and death are inevitable. As Millay says, spring with its beauty is not (or is no longer) enough. As Elliot adds, it can just tantalize and taunt and expose us, whereas winter, as he later says, “kept us warm.”
Yes, April can be the cruelest month to some people. Not all people, certainly: not busy gardeners, baseball fanatics, people with S.A.D., homeless vets, active kids, unreflective people, or families with terrible heating bills. But the early spring can be a terrible time for some people who are older, or nostalgic, or bereaved, or lonely.
And it has been my experience that the springtime can also be hard on the poets, dreamers, and academics among us. Maybe there is some correlation between choosing academic, literary, or speculative pursuits and a tendency towards springtime melancholy. I have no idea why this would be, except perhaps that the world’s annual renewal may seem more empty and ironic to people who make a habit of thinking about matters existential, especially about how nature as a whole may remake itself every year but all individual living things age and die. (If so, I wonder which comes first, the existential quandaries or the life choice?)
I have also found, although my evidence here is highly anecdotal, that people who think and operate more in terms of the academic than the natural calendar may have more emotional dissonance in springtime. For many students, academics, and parents (and some people, like me, for whom old associations die hard) the world begins at the end of summer, with new projects and schools and courses and bills and backpacks and sublets—and an invigorating autumn tang in the air. This is when we start anew and, reassuringly, until we pass middle age the world in autumn actually seems a bit older, a bit farther along, than we are. But in spring, when the lovers are trysting and the sheep are cavorting and the lark’s on the thorn, and fragile flowers are reaching and passing their single perfect moment, we are trying to wrap things up at school, or getting ready for an onslaught of young people in our houses, and feeling stressed and tired, and envying all those lissome kids applying to be lifeguards or staying out at clubs until three. Our year is old, and the young world seems to be passing us by. Just a thought.
But let’s return to the practical side of things. For starters, how sad are you? And how old are you? If you are youngish (as your having a fellowship implies) and not so much deeply unhappy as full of inexpressible longing, you may just have what used to be called spring fever. You say you are restless. If that means you are feeling a rush of energy you don’t know what to do with, especially if you think about love or sex a lot, maybe you are simply the educated human version of a healthy young animal in the springtime! In that case, you should consider getting outside and moving a lot, always a good idea anyway. And, if your fellowship duties allow, follow your restless heart and devote some time to your love and sex life, whatever that may be.
On the other hand, if you feel a deep sadness, and if your restlessness feels more like anxiety than any kind of romantic or sexual longing—and especially if you feel old, jaded, or tired—my totally unprofessional diagnosis would be not so much spring fever as plain old depression: a kind of seasonal affective disorder, as I see it, just not caused by the usual season.
Whatever your age and circumstances, if you feel sad for weeks at a time you should try getting some help. Call your doctor, a therapist, or a counselor at your institution. You should also seek help and advice if you do not enjoy your life the way you usually do, or cannot do your work, or feel lonely.
Although I would never advise against reading poetry, and especially not during National Poetry Month, I do caution you not to read too much of the lugubrious kind until at least July, when you will probably be too busy cursing the heat to worry about mixing memory and desire.
I visit my grandmother in her nursing home every week or so. I don’t mind doing it: it gives my mom a break, and I love Nana and owe her a great deal. Besides, she is fun. She is getting frail and does not go out much, but we love to watch old movies together, and sometimes she and my musician boyfriend sing standards and doo-wop songs together at the home’s piano.
The problem is her horrible roommate, Mrs. Addisone. Mrs. Addisone, as she will remind you within the first five minutes of any conversation, will be 97 years old this coming June. Aside from a few minor short-term memory issues she seems to be sharp as a tack. Especially her tongue. I was going to say that she has no filter, but the more time I spend with her, the more I think that the mean, hurtful things she says are quite deliberate and that she actually puts quite a lot of work into them. Last week she told me that she was sorry my mom was too lazy to come visit and had to send me, because Nana was always disappointed when I took her daughter’s place. This didn’t really bother me, because I know my Nana likes to see me. But another time Mrs. Addisone asked me whether I ever resented my sisters because they are so much smarter than I am. This hit home: I am adopted, and my younger sisters (both biological) got into much better colleges than I did. I love them both, and nobody in my family has ever done anything to make me feel less capable or less valued than my sisters. But you know how it is.
There are plenty more examples I can give you, but one of her more recent digs pretty much sums things up. Enrique, my boyfriend, came into the home with me a couple Saturdays ago. He had just dug up some Nelson Riddle arrangements for piano and had transposed some of them down so Nana could do them justice with what’s left of her voice, and we were happily chatting about it as we came into Nana’s room. I guess I had my guard down, because when Mrs. Addisone smiled at us and asked us to come over and stand where she could see us I assumed she had some benign or at least neutral purpose. Instead she just smiled at us—she always smiles when she delivers one of her zingers—and said: “Look at you two! Why did one of you get all the weight?”
Enrique—who, as I am sure you have guessed, is as slender as I am zaftig—just rolled his eyes and, as we were wheeling Nana out to the room where the piano is, gave my butt a sweet little pat, as if to say that he knew exactly why I got all that weight. Even so, I felt about twenty pounds heavier and a lot less desirable for days afterwards.
So mostly I just try to slink past Mrs. Addisone’s bed and draw the divider curtain when I come into Nana’s room. But what I would like to do is confront Mrs. Addisone, or at least talk back to her when she says one of the rotten things she says. My mom insists that I should just overlook it—that anybody that old should get a pass and be able to say what they want. What do you think?
—Needled near Newark
I disagree with your mom that old age alone should give Mrs. Addisone a bye. If she had a cognitive or emotional impairment that made it impossible for her to control her impulses or her venom, I would feel differently. But it sounds as if she is basically just a spiteful old lady. I realize that being isolated, dependent, and very old is no picnic. In such cases it is great to be compassionate. But it is not necessary to be a doormat. As you describe her conduct, it sounds as if she knows what she is doing, and there is no good reason why she should have a license to be mean-spirited and nasty to other people based solely on her advanced age.
The best thing to do would be to ignore the old bat’s comments: laugh them off, and then erase them from your memory and your psyche. But it appears that you can’t manage to do that—which is totally understandable, since she seems to have a real gift for ferreting out people’s insecurities and finding ways to play on them.
Since you can’t simply ignore and forget Mrs. A’s jabs, getting her to shut up, or at least tone it down, would be a good idea. I agree, therefore, that you should confront her. The real question is whether doing so will help. If, for example, the next time she lets loose you reply by saying something like “Why do you say such mean and spiteful things?” she may just shrug her shoulders and change not a whit. She may even be delighted that she has so obviously gotten your goat, and this might actually spur her to more frequent and even nastier snipes.
Still, it might work—she might be one of those bullies who caves in at the first sign of resistance—and I think it is worth a try.
Or she might respond by going all innocent, or all cute-old-lady. If so, at least she will have been warned that you know what she is up to. And she may be just a little bit afraid to continue sniping at you once she realizes that you are going to call her on it when she does.
I suppose she might also become sincerely upset—perhaps nobody has seriously objected to her conduct for years—and cry, and press the buzzer for the nurse. If she does, that’s fine.
Your letter left me with a question: does Mrs. Addisone seem to focus on you, or is she equally mean to other people? I am thinking in particular of your grandmother. Have you ever seen Mrs. A. go after her? Have you ever talked to Nana about it? Mrs. A. may not have the inclination or the nerve to attack Nana, or Nana may not care if she does. But if there is a problem, consider talking to your mother and grandmother about changing rooms or taking some other action. Nana needs to be happy and relaxed, or her vocal styling may suffer.
Cleaver’s in-house advice columnist opines on matters punctuational, interpersonal, and philosophical, spinning wit and literary wisdom in response to your ethical quandaries. Write to her at [email protected]. Find more columns by June in her attic.
Image credit: Charlotte Coneybeer on Unsplash