A Reading Life (prt 12): An Impasse and Seasonal Affective Disorder

Image result for lucy psychiatric booth christmas

By Joe LaGuardia

A Reading Life is a blog series focused on the literature that has shaped my life and call to ministry. Find the introduction here.

I must apologize, everyone. I have not been in the mood to read or write lately. I blame it on the recliner and cold weather. My cat may be in on this too.

Its been an arid month: no inspiration to read anything, no impetus to write. I had an existential crisis just today: How come I don’t feel like reading? What about my “A Reading Life” blog series?

It was just, “Meh.” I suffered from Seasonal Affective Disorder when I lived in the north, but haven’t since I moved south. This is nowhere near as bad, but I have a feeling that people who do suffer with SAD during winter can relate. Where has all that passion gone?

Now I just sit in my recliner when I am not cleaning, exercising, playing, cooking, or doing churchy things. I read a devotional. I catch up on the news. I (gag) scroll through social media. I fall asleep with my cat on my lap, a cat who finds her way over to me whenever I am in a resting position.

This is not new for me just as I’m sure it inflicts other bibliophiles. You’re in between books. You pick up a book here or there and nothing really captures your heart. There are false starts and impassioned leafing through of pages. No titles catch your attention. You wonder why half the books on your “to read” pile are there in the first place.

Even the old love affair with book catalogues grows stale, and your eyes wander to other things. I started watching a lot more television. That’s always a bad sign.

I don’t know how it is for others, but for me, reading and writing go hand-in-hand. If I am reading a lot then I tend to write a lot. If my reading tarries, my writing dries up. The muses fall silent. The Television turns on, and it is a distraction.

I decided today that I must move on. I can’t stay in this malaise forever, and I need something to get out of this rut. We went to our local used-book store (a weekly routine), and I determined to find something to read.

Sure enough, I returned to that genre that has saved me on more than one occasion: long-form essays, usually in the tune of a memoir or travel narrative, which have appealed to me during times of melancholy. They are short so there is no serious commitment. They are not laborious, so they tend to be compelling and artistic. They inform, but are personal enough to get me out of myself–to move my sense of consciousness beyond my little world and into the larger world where life moves on.

Essays have always been an easy and quick escape in my reading repertoire. There are essays by Marilyn Robinson and Annie Dillard. There are anthologies, such as the annual The Greatest Essays publications. Several years ago I picked up This is New York by E. B. White, an essay that originally appeared in a travel magazine. That was SOME essay–an amazing tapestry of words and thoughts, and probably one of the best things I’ve ever read in my life.

It took me a while to find the right book. I perused travel, biographies, classics, mysteries, and the religious sections. I was tired, so I sat in a plastic lawn chair among the memoirs. I spotted an autobiography by Ephriam Tutt, Yankee Lawyer. I don’t know who Tutt is, but the inscription on the inside was to an “Uncle Harry” and dated Christmas day, 1943.

Parker Palmer’s Listen to Your Life was nearby, and it too had an inscription from Jen to Mitch: “Food for thought along your vocational journey.” It was dated January 25, 2002. Not quite Christmas day, but close.

I spotted some books I donated several months ago. I picked up several of them and saw my own notes throughout their pages. It is odd to see your handwriting in a book that is for sale, as if it was inscribed by some alien life force and is now staring back at you from across the galaxy. (If you go to the religion section and you find the print “The Library of J. V. LaGuardia”, wonder no more.)

And, back in the memoir section, I finally found a book worth reading. It is an essay just as I preferred, and published originally in Vanity Fair or some such magazine. It is by Pulitzer-prize winning novelist William Styron, Darkness Visible, about his bout with clinical depression. The subtitle (“A memoir of madness”) did not catch my attention so much as the writing did; and I didn’t get it because of my own lethargy. I got it because of its brevity and its well-written prose. It will do.

I realize now that my feelings of lassitude is not uncommon around this time of year. Many people get a little angst around the holidays. Charlie Brown bemoans of his own existential crisis to Lucy (psychiatric help for a nickel!) in the Christmas special my children and I watched earlier today.

But ’tis the season, and books will always find a way to speak into our lives. We will eventually move off the recliner and into worlds that words construct or conjure. It takes some time, and in only a few days that Christ Light will shine in the darkness of all our nights. And, eventually, this too shall pass.

A book can save someone’s life

I admire the Gideons and their faith, for theirs is the belief that just by picking up a Bible and reading it a life can be saved. For many Christians, the Bible is a powerful source of inspiration. It is God’s Word.

For folks throughout Christian history, however, the Bible is not the only book that has the power to save. Many have discovered God’s presence in the pages of a well-worn monograph. Consider that some classics, such as “Streams in the Desert” and “My Utmost for His Highest,” have defied the test of time as inspirational literature throughout the world.

I had several such experience with books in my life, but one in particular that I reminisce about every winter.

Every year about this time, I get more melancholy than usual. It must be the cold or shorter days.  It might be all of the burdens that build up from the past year.

In one such winter–2004 to be precise– I faced more than melancholy. It was full-blown depression.

That particular year was a pivotal one for me. I graduated from a master’s program but couldn’t find full-time work. I took a graduate exam (twice) for a PhD, but utterly bombed the math section. I was at a crossroads, and I did not know the direction God wanted me to go in. I had my first child–a wonderful event for sure–but experienced paternal postpartum depression as a result (yes, there is such a thing).

There is nothing like depression: the feelings of meaningless and lostness, the random bouts of tears, and lack of appetite. I felt the absence of God for months. I spoke with several folks in my family and community, but it was hard to describe my illness.

One person with whom I spoke was my grandmother-in-law, Granny. Granny is an incredible person of faith. She is one of those prayer warriors who wear out chairs by the sheer number of hours she spends praying.

When I mentioned that I did not feel very close to God, she told me about an author–Henri Nouwen–of whom she became very fond. She purchased one of his books for me–“The Way of the Heart.”

The first time I read it, it seemed that God had dropped the book in my lap at the perfect time–His time.  Since then, I have read it so many times, it is now a beat-up, stained, bent, and stretched relic.

“The Way of the Heart” is about God’s way of conforming us into a more prayerful people.  God’s way is often through the wilderness of solitude–a metaphor for those vacuous, deserted places in our spiritual lives we often avoid.

In it, Nouwen highlights certain saints–the Desert Fathers and Mothers–who mastered prayer in a wilderness place of spiritual growth. For them, the wilderness “was a furnace of transformation” and was the “place of the great struggle and the great encounter.” Solitude stripped them of all comforts, and they were forced to look into their own hearts (struggle) and to rely solely on God for sustenance (encounter).

It was the wilderness that exposed the lingering darkness in their own lives, and forced them to surrender to the light of God’s grace-filled love.

In solitude, we come into contact with God’s silence–not a silence of absence but one of magnificent presence. It’s the type of relationship in which words become unnecessary.

Every time I read that book, I have to stop, reflect, and pray.  I connect with the text, and I am reminded that books hold a kind of power in which God’s Word, found in the unlikeliest places, can steer us into His wonderful, consoling presence.

Trinity Baptist Church and I wish you a Merry Christmas.  If you are experiencing grief this season, know that you are in our prayers.