Fall is a time of melancholy reflection in New England, and the 2008 election season has put many of us over the top, obsessing over the possibility that our candidate, the young man who offers us healing and hope, will be vanquished by the old forces of fear and greed. What can one do besides give money and time to his campaign? Not having formal ties to any external belief system, praying is just not an option for me.
Lately it has become almost impossible to think about anything else. So much is at stake. Correction: EVERYTHING we care about is at stake. In my opinion, this is nothing less than a referendum on our understanding of what it is to be human. I was beginning to bore and irritate my friends with my outbursts. (As in, "Yes, Nader is a great man, I respect his accomplishments, but he's not friggin' ever going to be President and if he siphons off enough votes to wreck this for the Democrats you and all his misguided supporters will be partly to blame for untold suffering and maybe the end of the world..." You see what I mean. I was getting a little worked up. )
So I decided to escape from New York City to the Gulf coast of Florida for a week, to see if a change of scenery would calm me down. My plan was to do some writing, walk, bike and swim, watch the last Obama/McCain debate with friends and return refreshed and feisty.
In a city where most drive, even short distances, I had the sidewalks mostly to myself and the anoles, tiny dinosaur-shaped lizards who constantly dart like rush hour commuters between bushes and across the pavement, somehow projecting an air of cameraderie. (Or maybe it's just their Manhattan energy that I like...)
The third time I passed the window of the Christian Science Reading Room in downtown St. Petersburg, I paused and allowed my gaze to fully rest on the sign in the window. (Ah, the advantages of being on foot when all the world is otherwise whizzing by.) The first two times I had noticed it and hurried on, self-conscious to be seen reading religious slogans in the window of a storefront "church."
Droplets of sweat trickling down my back, a strange feeling of peace invaded my body. "Here Tell Your Anguish"- the sign wasn't promising to fix me, it was just assuming that to be human is both to feel anguish and also the need to "tell" it.
A devout agnostic/humanitarian, I found those words and that thought powerful and comforting. They had a hypnotic cadence that was mystifying to me. There was an intriguing mind behind those words.
Returning home, I simply typed them into Google Search, and Eureka! the author appeared to be Charles Lamb (1775-1834), renowned English essayist. (I'm telling you, essays rule.)
And if anyone has the right to expound on anguish, it's Mr. Lamb: his beloved older sister killed their mother in a fit of temporary insanity, and he took care of his sister the rest of his life. His novella of unrequited love ("Rosamund Gray") is now on my must-read list. (Note: in several other Google entries, the quote is also attributed to Thomas Moore, in the hymn, "Come Ye Disconsolate". But I am still happy I was first sent to Charles Lamb.)
There was more gold in my first excursion: a whole series of references to the appearance of "anguish" in quotes from various writers. Here's a killer:
"The beauty of the world has two edges, one of laughter, one of anguish, cutting the heart asunder."
Virginia Woolf, from "A Room of One's Own"
Words were beginning to soothe me.
To some problems, there are no solutions, divine or otherwise.
But to put our feelings into words- that makes us fully human. Our unique task, and our unique privilege.
To finish, I offer a cherished quote from a tattered piece of newsprint (brown with age) that I carry in my wallet-
it's taken from a poem by W.H. Auden, who manages to stumble his way to the sublime more often than not:
"Time that is intolerant
Of the brave and innocent,
And indifferent in a week
To a beautiful physique,
Worships language and forgives
Everyone by whom it lives."
Is this thought comforting?