The experience recently of my oldest grandson and his mother brought to mind one I had by happenstance 47 years earlier when I was eight years older than he is now.
Due to the genes I inherited, I’m probably fortunate to have avoided depression, but September 1967 is the first time among a handful that I slipped briefly into that state.
Even as infrequent and relatively shallow as my experience has been, I can vouch for the argument made by Andrew Solomon that “the opposite” of depression “is not happiness but vitality.”
That first time, I was having a crisis of identity and spirit. I felt strongly that I shouldn’t be in Lyon, France, but rather 8,000 miles further east fighting in Vietnam alongside side friends and family.
A both/and alternative didn’t seem possible with the state I was in.
When I finally found my way back home and tried that other path, it was betrayed by the seven inch scar down the right side of my left knee.
No matter how many times I tried to enlist in various branches of the military, or how successful the rehab had been in 1966 after a tear in my patellar tendon from playing football, the answer was always no-go.
I grew up a Mormon surrounded by a wide range of cultures in that Yellowstone-Teton nook of my native Idaho.
But I was not just Mormon.
I descended from sixteen lines of ancestors who, 120 years before my crisis of spirit, had endured incredible hardship and journeys of thousands of miles to congregate at various points on the western slopes of the Rocky Mountains.
I was born at the most northern outpost of this meridian of my DNA but carried the full length of its expectations on my shoulders.
Ironically, however, I found solace and rediscovered my spiritual center one bright late September day when a friend and I slipped into the very back pew of the darkened sanctuary of the Basilica de Fourvière and heard the Gregorian Chants of a midday service.
For nearly four decades, my church attendance has been walking through nature with music such as this playing in my headphones.
The official choir of that Lyon basilica is now Les Petits Chanteurs de Saint-Marc, a children’s choir that can be heard singing at this link and here singing the contemporary Pie Jesu, a segment in a requiem mass Andrew Lloyd Webber composed in memory of his father.
I experienced that level of depression three more times over the next twenty years, just enough to help me empathized with the 4.1% of Americans who suffer it deeply.
It was relatively mild each time but I understand those who describe it as a “slower way of being dead” or as Solomon writes, “a funeral in your brain.”
What is now called the Basilica’s children’s choir was formed two decades after we dropped into its sanctuary first as the focus of a two year practice choir at l‘Ecole Sainte Ursule, a part of Le Centre scolaire Saint Marc a Lyon .
It was hazy that day, but on other days I could see Mount Blanc, 140 miles to the east and the highest point in Europe. It was one of the areas my dad skied at the end of WWII on leave from chasing down Nazis trying to escape through the Bavarian forests into Austria and Switzerland.
But the thing about depression even at the relatively minor degree I was experiencing it is that you don’t seem to care about anything anymore.
I didn’t mean to ramble on about that moment in time which lasted only a few weeks but seemed like a lifetime, but these essays are written, in part, as memoirs for my grandsons.
They have been attending the Madeleine Choir School, one of a kind in North America but patterned, in part, on choir schools like that one in Lyon. It is a Catholic school that teaches a complete curriculum with the choir at its center.
It isn’t the first brush with Catholic schools for our gene pool. My grandparents sent my mom 250 miles south from where they lived to a Catholic High School in Salt Lake in a failed effort to separate her from my dad in the months before he left for the war.
Every other year, the “big” choir at Madeleine takes a week long concert tour to Italy singing in numerous Basilicas after studying their architecture, history and the geography surrounding them.
This year my oldest grandson, chaperoned by his mom, was eligible to take this extraordinary trip.
The capstone was singing mass at St. Peters Basilica in the Vatican, within earshot of the Papal apartments, and then watching Pope Francis give the blessing above the square outside.
The tour began in Venice, 28 miles south of where my second cousin and dad’s best friend growing up was shot down over Susegana, Italy when the B-26 in which he was a tail gunner was hit by AA fire and exploded during a bombing run to take out bridges across the Piave River supplying the German Army.
Edward Bowman was buried there and his dog tags hung over a cross in an orchard by a farmer, until my dad found the grave and brought his remains home for burial on our ancestral ranch.
He was only twenty-two years old.
The tour by my grandson’s choir also included Florence, Assisi and many other locations. Given my memory of how I felt stepping into that sanctuary above the Roman ruins of Lyon, I can image the feeling of spirituality that permeated their trip.
A star soccer player, my grandson was a “walk-on” of sorts for the choir but by the conclusion of the tour he figuratively made the varsity and lettered.
Scientists have isolated a gene that is shorter in people who experience depression. I think the one that I must have was much less severe than it was in my father and his mother.
Just like the one that results in essential tremor, which has yet to be discovered, both were probably handed down to my offspring. My prayer that they skip the boys may be in vain but, if so, they have already been offset by other inherited traits such as grit, determination, and drive.
It is important to remember that inheritance is not destiny. It is how we express our genes that makes the biggest difference.
I can read the worry in letters to me from my parents and sisters during that time of spiritual crisis forty seven years ago. It wasn’t the first nor the last time they probably felt helpless while watching me experience pain.
But I’ve lived a life well worth living and for that I owe them.