A still life by Ernest Blaikley, 1916.
Last week, we finally took the jacket and the boots to be repaired. I bought the jacket and the boots about ten years ago, and they were already a good thirty years old by then. For a long time now, the lining of the jacket has been so tattered it’s hard to get your arm in the sleeve for the web of fraying nylon. And the boots are infirm: bowed and unsteady, with a distinct wiggle to the heel.
“Let’s get those repaired,” said my husband.
“Oh, I will,” I said vaguely, knowing I would never do anything of the kind.
One day he said, “Why don’t you want to get your jacket and boots repaired before the cold weather comes?”
And when I thought about it, I realized that a part of me thought they could not be saved: that I would have to listen to someone tell me they were broken beyond repair, and that when I loved them, and wore them, I was loving something irretrievably damaged.
We took them together. And the dry cleaner furrowed her brow, and the cobbler shook his head. But they would try, they said. If only I had come sooner …
While we walked, I told my husband about some work news—good news, by any normal standard.
“Aren’t you happy?” he asked, puzzled by my demeanor. “You should feel proud! I’m proud of you.”
I thought about it. “I’m not … unhappy,” I said. “What it makes me think of, first, is the work it will mean. And then, how much more I could achieve if I worked harder and took more risks. But … it doesn’t make me feel actively good, no. I mean, a fraction of the same level of bad news—even the possibility of it—would make me feel a hundred times worse than this actual good news makes me feel good. Does that make sense?”
“I know what you mean,” he said.
“But that’s just human, right? I think negative things have more power for everyone.”
“Of course, to a degree. But,” he paused. “But … I think your filter is slightly off right now.”
I was silent.
I thought over the past days—the increased exercise, the forced socializing, the happy songs I’d been playing, the little treats, the walks to look at my favorite building carvings or past the puppies in the window of the pet store. All the small, well-worn tricks that I’d hoped would snap me out of it. When that failed, I’d tried to think of things in my life that might be distressing me—a “reason” for the flatness I felt. I could not find one. I recited affirmations, feeling silly. I wrote lists of things for which I was grateful. And I knew then that there was nothing in the world that could have made me truly happy and excited. And now I didn’t even have my tweed jacket.
That is the scary moment: when you realize your reality is departing from that of the rest of the world. That maybe it’s you. You still feel reliable; your thoughts still sequence and process as usual—but somehow the numbers add up differently. And there is sometimes a window in which you can recognize this—fix this—or fight it.
There’s a sign high on a building wall at Seventy-second and Broadway, just above the Sleepy’s and the Gray’s Papaya. DEPRESSION IS A FLAW IN CHEMISTRY, NOT CHARACTER, it says. It is very comforting; I often walk by even when I’m not getting a hot dog.
I had been looking at the sign only the day before. And I’d thought that I was pulling it off, that I’d conquered it, that no one knew and at least I’d be saved the guilt of imposition. But of course, that had been part of the distortion. My filter was off—that’s a good way to put it. Somehow the joy and confidence and optimism was filtered out; only the negative bits made it through.
Funnily enough, we had been talking about getting a new air-conditioning filter. But I said, was it even worth it, with the nights cooling down? I was sure there was life in this one yet. I’d taken out the old one and scrubbed at the mesh with a wire brush, removing lint and dirt and whatever it is we all breathe all the time. The result was still pretty grubby, but better, I think—if you’d seen it before. In fact, I was pretty sure, in retrospect, that the uncleaned one had been making me sick.
Some people derive comfort from fixing what they can. And I? I think I like to imagine that if nothing can be fixed, then there’s nothing really wrong with something being broken. But the boots are fixed—they don’t feel the same, but I’m sure in real life they look better.
Sadie Stein is contributing editor of The Paris Review, and the Daily’s correspondent.
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