A Personal History of the Word Melancholy

Melancholy–a pensive sadness with no known cause. A happy sadness, and a recognition of the terrible in the world, all wrapped up with the good. Evil meets goodness, greed meets friendship.

I remember the room–a small yellow room on the second story of a concrete shopping center. The building was an anomaly, and the part we were inside even more so. It is, quite frankly, incredible how much of your life can wind up revolving around a single shopping center.

My mother, engineer turned teacher turned annoyed syllabus-reader told me and a few others that we were reading a book called Because of Winn-Dixie. I took one look at the book and decided that I disliked it. It was full of greens and browns and the kind of washed-out neutrals that can only be properly observed in run-down Florida strip malls. I read it anyway, because I was supposed to be a good example and didn’t want to provoke her wrath, like fire raining down from on high.

The book itself was exactly that: a run down Florida shopping mall, a few miles from the beach, retirees and their peculiar scent, the residents of backwoods Florida that grew up in posh New England suburbia. The ones that couldn’t afford the expensive retirement living communities with names like allegro and vista village. Or perhaps the ones that came here before the corporations scooped up coastal swamps to pave them in concrete and building them into menacing condominiums. It was set in a time before Winn-Dixie moved out of Florida, and I can remember my mother reminding me to always check the expiration dates on the milk and the beige-brown walls that did nothing to complement the spotted bananas.

It was all Because of Winn-Dixie. I can remember very clearly: the lozenges that tasted of melancholy, the volume of War and Peace and left a lingering impression of melancholy, the lives looked back upon and tree strung up with beer bottles and the interior of a Winn-Dixie store and retirees’ mobile homes, all melancholy.

There is a sense of melancholy about the old: leaving it behind, accepting the inevitable demise, perhaps mourning something that will never be again. There is a similar sense about the new, and the shininess of things and how it will never be that shiny again, how it will always just be a merely physical item, and all that you are doing is projecting your own desires upon it.

Melancholy, that day, was a new word. It was not a dictionary definition, but something alive and strangely fluid, like those skyscrapers that are means to bend with the wind, because it is the flexible reed that survives the hurricane, not the sturdy oak tree.

It is, now, the same thing I experience as I walk the dog, imagine the number of rituals I could complete to try and ward of this sense of change, to say some kind of goodbye. I have lived here for my entire life. I have known no other house, much less with the same intimacy of the things that occurred within the walls. If only they could talk.

So it is now, as I walk across the neighborhood, carefully placing each foot on each concrete block of sidewalk, trying to touch every piece of the place that had been the stage for childhood adventures, for curiosity, and for growing pains, that I think of melancholy. It is a happy sadness, and sadness that runs deep through my veins, bones, soul. Here is concrete that has held blood from skinned knees, tears from tempers unleashed. Here are the houses whose stories we made up: the people with the dalmatian-print siding, the formerly-highlighter-orange house, the place that used to be a drug house.

I know that the family home will likely sell to a rich man who sees the nearby university as the perfect business opportunity. He will strip out our family secrets lodged in the paint for calming neutrals, refurbish the elderly idiosyncrasies of a well-lived-in home, and rent it out to four different college students who will bicker over the bathroom and drunkenly spill beer on the laminate and slam the garage door too hard. It is not so hard to leave. It is hard to imagine what will happen after we leave.

This is melancholy: trading a personal history for a fresh start.

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Green Ink

You replaced all the ink cartridges in your pens today. All of your black, red, and blue pens are no more. They all have green ink now.

You don’t remember why you did it originally–perhaps it had seemed like a grand philosophical gesture at the time, but you were drunk and ordering pen ink off of Amazon. You don’t order anything that can be used for a grand philosophical gesture off of Amazon. Not while you’re drunk, at least. You disassembled your pens anyway, painstakingly screwing them back together, laughing to yourself about the sheer Frankenstein-ness of your hybridized pens.

It takes you the rest of the weekend to get used to them, but pretty soon you don’t even think of it. Pens always spill green ink: that is the way that it is, the way that it was, and the way that it always will be. However, when Monday morning rolls around, you find yourself staring blankly at the bank teller as she lectures you about signing your checks “in blue or black ink only”. It makes you feel a strange sense of injustice: how dare that lady accuse your green pens of wrongdoing!

You have begun to get attached. Even though you have no defense when a coworker asks you why you’ve written all your meeting notes in green, again. You try anyway. “Green is a calming color,” you say, and when that gets laughed at, “I don’t like the color blue.” You try a dozen lines, and then a dozen more. Jokes, arguments, stony silence. Nothing seems to get through.

Why is the green ink so important to you? You have no idea. It just is.

Knight of the Heart-Eyes Emoji

9:45 pm on a school night and already the boy ain’t right. Staring, upside down, at a tiny glass-and-plastic screen, waiting for the three bubbles to stop boiling like a caldron and to start spitting out messages meant only for his ears, his eyes, his mind and heart.

Nothing comes out though, and he can feel the words rising towards his mouth, his fingers, begging to be let out. If this was a meeting face-to-face, he could communicate his message with his blushing cheeks and shifting eyes and the desperate tension in the face of the average teenage romantic, desperate for attention and maybe even affection. If this were a phone call, he could listen to the breathing on the other end of the line, and synchronize the rise of his chest to the fall of hers and the tone of his voice in the near-silent whispers as he tries to make sure his sister and mother and father don’t hear and communicate that way. If he was sitting at a desk with pen in hand and sweating palms, he might write a short note–four simple words, “Do you like me?” and two checkboxes with the affirmative and the negative written beside.

Instead, he sits before a screen as proof yet again that technology is corrupting the youth and that the smallest part of the man controls the whole of his body like a rudder. Sure, the Bible said that was the tongue, not the fingertips and cell phone screen, but the guess was pretty good, considering the two thousand years’ time difference.

Finally the words come back: I LIKE U 2. Like the band, but with a space, making the meaning completely different. With a little heart emoji tacked on the end, the technological remains of what would otherwise have been i’s dotted with hearts or a corny doodle.

Before his twitching fingers can get to typing, a second text comes: SURE, COFFEE AFTR SCHOOL WOULD B COOL.

She waits long enough for him to respond: OK, MEET U THEN! ❤

And the conversation is over. Coffee tomorrow after school. The entire interaction catalogued like court proceedings in a shorthand that is not quite english. The exhilaration passes, rather quickly, since he can only stare at the words for so longer before his eyes start to hurt, he starts to get a little impatient. So he hits his the home button on his phone and checks his social media for any signs of life and then goes to take a shower.

Maybe, deep in the dusty recesses of his mind, a thought shivers in the corner before fading into obscurity: is this the epitome of modern romance? Secondarily, thought much more publicly, he realizes that reality is still inextricably connected to the world inside his phone and that in and of itself was terrifying. Anxiety finally set in, properly this time. What this a joke, a mean-spirited prank? He hadn’t thought to ask for proof.

Oh god, proof.

His tries to push the thought aside. Hot water runs cold and he’s stuck there, eye scrunched shut, hoping that one of her friends hadn’t grabbed her phone and typed in a message, perhaps so cunning as to mimic her real texting style.

So he goes on the search for answers: first social media, for the first signs of his own stupidity coming back to bite him, and then to WebMD for the reason why he was shaking and terrified, and then to WikiHow to figure out how flirting was supposed to work (why not teach that instead of algebra?). And so his life went on. Proof was not the end, the date was fine, and when his mom texted him thirty minutes after dropping him off for a picture to prove he wasn’t fucking her in a cornfield (google maps: cornfield nearest suburbia; answer: two hours away), he willingly complied, his second thoughts consisting only of annoyance at the interruption.

Never mind the twitter notifications.