Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Engaging Melancholy As Reverie

It doesn’t surprise people who know me to learn that one of the things I find most rewarding in retirement is “reflection.”

Some people only see that I am going about retirement with the same intensity that has always been my trademark, holding to self-imposed rituals about learning and adaptation while continually perusing a variety of very new challenges.

Reflection now is much different than the times during my life and career when I would occasionally find myself replaying an interaction over and over looking for what I could have done differently, sometimes at the expense of a good night’s sleep.

It is also different but in some ways related to my life-long love of “sad songs.”  As country singer-songwriter Rodney Crowell noted in a recent interview, he “can engage in melancholy as if it were a kind of reverie…even on a day when I wake up zippity-doo-dah outside,” he noted, “the blues are still close by.”

I felt this in myself from as early as I can remember possibly dating to pre-school when my maternal grandmother would serenade me at the piano with My Funny Valentine.

I know that from the time I was between the current ages of my two grandsons, Patsy Cline was a soothing soundtrack until her death in a plane crash when I was age 14.

Her 1957 rendition of Walkin’ After Midnight is also a perfect illustration of country music’s unique ability to give even sad songs an upbeat tempo.

I remember the way Rick Nelson’s Lonesome Town resonated at age 10 and still does today as well as the impact of Teen Angel the next year.  Frozen in a memory from a year or two later is laying close to the speakers of my parents console listening over and over with the volume turned low to Gene Pitney’s Town Without Pity so no one else could hear.

And then when I was a rising 16-year-old came the iconic Yesterday and Heart of Stone as a backdrop to the escalation of the Vietnam War in 1965.  It was also about then that melancholy as protest came into my life when I first heard Bob Dylan’s interpretations of his own songs.

Reflection now in my mid-60s, is looking back without regret, but through a lens that affords time to see what worked and what didn’t to this stage of my life.  I now celebrate what I often failed to take time to celebrate at the time and acknowledge things I wish I had done much differently.  I marvel at how fortunate and blessed I am.

I come from a long line of “stiff upper lips,” which may be why I failed to properly grieve a devastating loss many decades ago.  I remember a particularly useful book I read at the time entitled something like The Art of Being Alone or The Art of Loneliness but in reflection now, I realize rather than fully endure the pain involved in the steps of the grieving process, I skipped over some.

In the words of John Prine, at times I may have even broken the “Speed of the Sound of Loneliness.”

Looking back, I never got to to the step of acceptance of that loss until recently. I thought I did back then. Others thought I did because I quickly turned the sadness and anger into something positive rather than self-destructive.

I know now in reflection that skipping steps in the grieving process is a mistake that I’ve gone back to remedy.

One thing I fully embraced so many decades ago from reading that book on loneliness is how easy it is to confuse loneliness with solitude.  According to an essay by Hara Estroff Marano, a long-time editor-at-large and journalist for Psychology Today, the former is a negative state marked by the sense that something is missing.  You can be lonely in a crowd.

In her penetrating essay Marano notes that:

“Solitude is the state of being alone without being lonely.  It is a positive and constructive state of engagement with oneself.  Solitude is…a state of being alone [or in the company of another] where you provide yourself wonderful…company.

Solitude is a time that can be used for reflection…or enjoyment…loneliness is…a state of discontent imposed on you by others…Solitude is something you choose.”

Best friends have always understood my need for solitude.  Rather than dismissing it or trying to distract me, they willingly join me.  It is also the state in which I worship and give thanks.

This is an insight I wish I had understood earlier in my life but in reflection, it was meant to be now.  As Crowell so eloquently put it, I’m in a very happy, peaceful time in my life but life is fragile so, “here’s turning heartaches into art, it’s open season on my heart.”

Image of Tetons from the west by Jack Brauer and Mountain Photography

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