I read the thesaurus when I’m depressed. I curl up in a quiet corner and immerse myself in unfamiliar words. It is a habit I have developed over the years to cope with any sort of mental hardship. Plus, I have always liked words. It started when I was twenty-two, during a two week stint in a mental ward. My stay was semi-voluntary; I had signed the papers under pressure from a few people in my life at the time. They thought I needed to get help. I believed them. So, I packed my bag and off I went, convinced, at the time, it was the right thing. As always, I packed reading material. I had carefully chosen my books from the small shelf in my bedroom, I was a reader, but did not possess the home library I do today. The pickings were slim, to say the least, and I was unsure of what one reads while committed to the mental ward.
Hence, I packed the following: The complete stories of Flannery O’Connor, The complete stories of Carson McCullers, The Hotel New Hampshire by John Irving and We Have Always Lived in The Castle by Shirley Jackson. All books I had read several times and had turned to, often, for familiar solace. Upon my arrival, a nurse decided my reading material was not conducive to retrieving mental health, and confiscated everything. I spent a few days wandering around the ward aimlessly, I was unaccustomed to not being able to read through a depression. In the common room, I found an old dictionary atop a box containing the remnants of a Scrabble board game. I was so elated at having found a book to read, even if it was an outdated dictionary, that over the next week and a half, I read the entire thing from a to z, twice. Even today, I can distinctly feel myself curling up in the corner of that common room, the old vinyl chair sticking to my skin, and reading. At the end of my stay, full of medication and psycho-babble, I placed the dictionary back where I had found it, and walked out the door.
Today, at forty years old, I find myself in the midst of another upheaval in my life, depression has visited me a few times over the past eighteen years, but this is only my second experience with a major life crisis, or perhaps it is actually my first. The thing I have come to realize is that at twenty-two there was nothing truly wrong with me, except that I was twenty-two. I wonder if in another eighteen years, I will feel the same way about my present day self, that there was nothing truly wrong with me except that I was forty. True, there is my inability to find a job and my loneliness after having lost a group of friends, but I was in that same proverbial boat at twenty-two, broke and lonely. The only honest difference I have found between then and now is that I no longer view the world as a wide open place, filled to the brim with possibility. No one is trying to tuck me away in a mental hospital. And I no longer read the dictionary. Several years ago, I graduated to the thesaurus.
I collected them from yard sales, flea markets and bargain bins. They now fill the same little shelf that once housed my entire library. I get a certain giddiness each time I find a new one. From the thesaurus, I have graduated to phrase finders, especially the old ones that contain wonderful antiquated phrasing, uncommon in modern day conversation. My ever hungry mind filled with the vernacular of days past, I have become a rather bizarre and erratic conversation partner, much to the amusement of my husband and our good friend Marty, who often ask me to repeat myself so they can hear me say such odd things as, he doesn’t know chalk from cheese, a second time around. Marty, in his seventies, seems to get the most enjoyment out of this little game, possibly due to the fact that he has heard these phrases before, though not for decades. My latest acquisition is a handbook of synonyms, antonyms and prepositions that was printed in 1947, I found it while having coffee with Marty in a local bookstore. It cost five dollars and I spent all of this morning in the corner reading it.
In recent years, I have managed to pair my word consumption with walking around my neighborhood and channel it into my writing. I live in a small city. I am a people watcher and like to witness things change, as well as stagnate. I wander alleys and side streets. I stand on corners and observe my neighbors. I ride my bicycle in the park along the river and think about words and how they fit together. I am developing a strong, albeit peculiar, internal dialogue. I still read when I am sad, though not always a dictionary or thesaurus. I read novels and poetry, short stories and essays. I love the smell of books and the feel of paper between my fingers.
One last thing, when I was twenty-two, I dated a musician. I asked him once if he had to choose would he be deaf or blind. He chose blind because he could never, willingly, give up the sound of music. I hadn’t a preference at the time. Today, I would choose deaf, because I could never, willingly, give up the ability to see the way words appear on a page, to trace them with my fingers and marvel at the way they fit together. Below is a prose poem that came from a day of walking and reading some years ago. I have a series of them, all titled the same as this blog and numbered. I once claimed the numbers had a meaning, even a math formula. They don’t. The numbers are random. And that’s just fine with me. It’s the words that are the biggest toad in the puddle. It’s always the words.
Proust is My Co-Pilot # 52
They pulled a body from the river today. They pulled a body from the river. They pulled a body. They pulled.
The house is an oven, warm and square, where you keep to the corners, fever- browed and nauseous. Startled.
Feel the shifting of dust in the vacant rooms past your walls, the shifting of your own body, the shifting of ice on a half frozen river. The city itself, nothing more than a peeping Tom, the window sullen with its stark face, the face sullen with your stark window,
and always the whitened sky overhead.
Conversation is a cookie jar, high on a shelf, just out of reach, and brimming with words you’ve forgotten how to use. Grammar, skirts the room, punctuation makes a move for the staircase, while you, with a ballpoint pen, string of adverbs about your ankles, testing patterns and forms you’ve little use for,
think merely of the sound and the the suck of speech on your tongue.
A man with a camera strung from his neck stands outside your house. A man with a camera strung from his neck. A man with a camera strung.
“You’ve got a lot of excitement today,” he tells you matter-of-factly, ” They’ve found a body in the river, right over there.”
Together, you face the buildings blocking the water from view, he seems snagged in time, a prisoner inside a calendar, or perhaps a clock, ducking the smooth rotation of a second hand, spinning its axis again and again and again, he moves along with it, through the alley and into the city beyond.
Anger is a curious hobby. You sit with it by the fireplace, knitting its loose threads, fingers looping thoughts, into thickening knots, spinning a manifesto of animosity, a gem of isolation. Displacement no longer a physical misfortune, but that of wit and lack thereof.
You’ve lost the knack for charity, the taste for empathy. Finding humanity no more satisfying than the bright orange fruit left in the bottom of a crate.
Whether it be humankind or the peeling of an over-ripened Clementine,
either one will,
leave a sour taste in the mouth.