Dark Turn of Mind

“Now I see the bones in the river / And I feel the wind through the pine / And I hear the shadows a-callin’ / To a girl with a dark turn of mind…”


Gillian Welch’s new album, The Harrow and the Harvest, has been my soundtrack of late–unrivaled when I’ve got darkness in my bones. Some days I wake up with a terrible stink cloud hanging over my head, infiltrating my thoughts. Sometimes it catches me by surprise. Some days I simply know: the bitch is back.

I’ve been reading Kathleen Norris’ Acedia & me for a few months now. Throughout the book, she defines acedia using different sources, in different contexts, distinguishing it from depression and working to recover its spiritual history as one of humankind’s most insidious ailments. Quoting Thomas Merton (who is riffing on St. John Cassian), Norris lays bare the essence of my own struggle with this particular stink cloud: “It [acedia] is ‘the sadness, the disgust with life, which comes from a much deeper source–our inability to get along with ourselves, our disunion with God.‘” Put into that context, I guess my stink cloud is really more like a putrid fount, bubbling forth black waters.

Today I wonder, has it been sneaking up on me for days? Did it build in my dreams? Is there something I’ve failed to attend to, some defense I neglected? Why the breach? And why now?

Now I haven’t finished the book, so I’m mostly in the diagnostic phase. David of Augsburg (also quoted by Norris) writes that acedia is of three main types. My brand of torpor falls under the first: “a certain bitterness of the mind which cannot be pleased by anything cheerful or wholesome. It feeds upon disgust and loathes human intercourse…[and] inclines to despair, diffidence, and suspicions…” William Caxton in Order of Chyvalry expands upon the loathing of human interaction bit (which, for me, and for those around me, is a torment unlike any other): “A man that hath accydye or slouthe hath sorowe and angre the whyle that he knoweth that an other man doth wel.” It’s true. When I am thus afflicted, I cannot stand the health and happiness of others, which only serves to breed more disgust with myself.

I understand, in theory, the importance of paying attention to my thoughts, but the practice of casting aside the wretched ones so as not to follow them into an even pitchier darkness, well, that’s a whole ‘nother mire. The monk and scholar Gabriel Bunge says, in accord with St. Isaac of Syria and St. John Cassian, that “tears are a powerful antidote.” Prayer is imperative–so why is it the last thing I remember to do? Sometimes the Psalms, with their plain-speaking candor, will rise up from a vault deeper than that putrid fount: “From the end of the earth I call; my heart is faint.”

In his book, The Noonday Demon, Andrew Solomon remarks, “I do not love experiencing my depression [his “depression” is Norris’ “acedia”], but I love the depression itself. I love who I am in the wake of it.” I, too, feel like my best, unvarnished self after a particularly bad stretch. There’s nowhere to run, and if there was, I wouldn’t want to anyway. I am content, for the moment, with today, because I have remembered that it is all a matter of falling down and standing up again, no matter how many times. Abba Moses asked Abba Sylvanus, “Can a man lay a new foundation every day?” The old man said, “If he works hard, he can lay a new foundation at every moment.”

Which brings me back to Gillian: “You know some girls are bright as the morning / And some girls are blessed with a dark turn of mind.”

A cup of coffee never hurts.

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