I was planning on posting about gardening. I had been tinkering with the short post on and off for a couple of days, no longer having the concentration for sustained writing . But when I sat down with it this yesterday evening, I found the whole thing unrecognizable. I mean, I knew I had written the post (my all-too-familiar tics and malapropisms were easily spotted in the draft). But I did not recognize the tone at all. The person who had written those words was describing pleasure, hope, possibility and creation. The person I was yesterday evening possessed none of those qualities. I deleted the post in disgust, and I came close to deleting this whole site—recoiling at what seemed to me suddenly cloying sentiments and fortune cookie life-lessons.
Today, of course, I regret the lost post—and will try and reconstruct it later. But traveling as I am in a kind of liminal space between the despair of yesterday and the hope of the day before, I can’t help but wonder if there isn’t more to learn from my darker self than we often allow. While hope is a feathered thing we must keep always within reach (or better, just out of reach), despair has its lessons and its truths that we are perhaps too quick to discount.
It is often the most prosaic of things that sends us careening into the ponds of despond. In my most recent case, it was— in addition to the ongoing slog of illness, diagnosis and treatment to which this blog is dedicated—a series of financial shocks to the system: 1K for a broken furnace, 2K for out-of-pocket hospital charges, an unexpected increase in real estate taxes… the usual speed bumps of adult life. But just because that which derails us into the quagmire of despair is almost always the most unpoetic of stumps and stones does not mean that there are might not be a poetry to be gleaned from the landscape into which we now find ourselves.
The problem is that the landscape does not translate. Neither does it navigate. “No Man can compass a Despair,” Dickinson put it. Like so much of what she sought to map—death, the unconscious, pain—despondency is precisely that which resists mapping, navigating, mining. What we end up with when we do attempt to explain to another the prospects from our blighted landscape is not the Hallmark optimism that hope can so easily sound, certainly, but it risks its own cliches even more profoundly. When we try and speak the experience of despair we sound like a fifteen-year-old poet, or worse, like Morrissey.
As adults, we rightly recoil from such expressions for their puerility, but also because we know them to be inadequate to the vistas they would encompass. But of course they are inadequate. Having been trained from childhood on to be ashamed of despair and to judge any loitering in its grounds as “wallowing” or self-indulgence, we are left dumb in the face of the hard ground of despair into which we all will be thrown from time to time. Repeatedly and throughout our lives. It is, in truth, the most solid ground on which we will stand for much of our life. We cannot, should not build our lives there, for to do so would prove fatal. Hope cannot breed there, flowers cannot grow. But it is and will always be our second home, however much we deny it—the one home we have that resides on solid ground. And the one home we can never acknowledge, furnish, or name.
Instead we focus on the rocks and stumps that derailed us from our moving cart to this place: heartbreak, money, illness. The usual. But this trash is never the thing itself, because the thing itself refuses uttering, rejects poetry … deletes blog posts about gardening. The thing itself demands a language beyond utterance that we have spent our lives learning not to learn.
Jared Gardner is a professor and patient at the Ohio State University.