M stencilFlannery O’Connor famously wrote nearly three hundred letters to a woman referred to only as “A”, whose identity (per her request) was kept secret and sealed for twenty years. In 2007, her letters were made available to the public through Emory University. “A”s new (real) name? Hazel Elizabeth “Betty” Hester.

While I’m no Flannery O’Connor, it occurs to me that my melancholy is a little bit like Betty Hester: thoughtful, intelligent, reaching, private, even reclusive. A friend, in ways like Betty, that I can exchange thoughts and ideas with. As O’Connor puts it in a letter to “A” (I will always call Betty by her single letter), “I would like to know who this is who understands my stories.”

Very clearly yesterday morning, as I walked downtown in the semi-bustle that is Canton, OH, the week of the Football Hall of Fame Induction/Parade/Game, I met up with “M” again. That is, I recognized that she’d been hanging around, waiting for me to notice her.

Because gosh, I’ve been sad. An ache in my soul for weeks. At first I called it exhaustion. Then I said it was the drugs (either too much or too little). O, must be those crazy hormones.

But no, it is just my melancholy, whose hardly even had wallflower status in the party that is our life—I think, in part, because our life has been about familial survival for almost three years now. The boys are all okay, in mostly good grooves, so maybe my whole self has room to surface. A girl can only repress for so long. The definition of a crisis is that it will eventually end.

I am thus grateful and disconcerted. Having not had the luxury of “M”s presence for awhile now, I need a feel for her substance.

M gold red antiqueShe is heavy and full. A kind of ripeness that smells of sour milk (which my grandfather would simply call buttermilk and pour over his stale chocolate cake).  She urges slowness but can drag me into a sticky molasses sleep. In the morning she almost blesses me, like the sky, but by noon she’s gone parking lot grey, filling me with oppressive heat. She can beget creation; she can beget despair.

In honor of her reemergence, I physically wore myself out yesterday and stayed outside as long as possible (my best way to bear her particular kind of friendship). I walked downtown to work and then walked back. The boys and I cleaned up the yard, swept the driveway, and toted rocks to mallet in the mulch that’s been escaping the bricked wall near our front sidewalk. I weed-whacked. I mowed. This morning it felt like yesterday was the first day of basketball practice; I liked the way the aches lined up.

And today I was sufficiently worn out to take it slow and handle the slowness without being drug under.  Which was exactly the point: my being in relationship with “M”, which is a way of saying how I manage a relationship with myself.

m lower shaggyI read a very true thing about writers and their work last week, the gist being that the writer writes to be, for a moment, more than she truly is. Melancholy reminds me of a reality not driven by circumstance. It’s about reach.

Writers and their books will always be inextricably connected, but the relationship between them isn’t simple. As [George] Saunders told me, “A work of art is something produced by a person, but is not that person — it is of her, but is not her. It’s a reach, really — the artist is trying to inhabit, temporarily, a more compact, distilled, efficient, wittier, more true-seeing, precise version of herself — one that she can’t replicate in so-called ‘real’ life, no matter how hard she tries. That’s why she writes: to try and briefly be more than she truly is.”

Maybe, as a reader, that is what I keep falling in love with — not the author, but the art of reaching.

Margo Rabb, from “Fallen Idols” in the New York Times Sunday Review of Books 

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