Just after sunrise this morning, I walked on my small deck with a steaming mug of tea in my hands. There was the delicious scent of wet soil from the season’s first rainstorm, which blew through the Bay Area early Tuesday, and the hint of a dusky bouquet that I recognize as the smell of Fall in San Francisco, a combination of woodsmoke, shed eucalyptus leaves, and sea breeze. It’s an intoxicating juxtaposition, a desiccated vegetal fragrance that mingles with the dank and aqueous aromas from Ocean Beach. It positively enchants me with its complexity.
I watched my Jack Russell Terrier puppies frolic among the Nile lilies, which they’ve menaced with increasing savagery as they’ve grown from wee pups into gangly adolescent dogs. My garden is currently littered with the lime green lanceolate leaves that Lucy and Iris rip with great delight from the squat clumps of Agapanthus. They’ve also pocked the yard with holes of various depths as they practice their digging skills, hunting for any gopher stupid enough to still occupy this small patch of earth.
One might think I’d be a bit peevish at the dismantling of my garden, but I’m not. Quite the opposite, I felt something today that’s been absent from my life for too long. I felt a sense of contentment making a welcome return. I felt peace, even if it was momentary. I felt the gladness of greeting not only this day, but of recollecting many other happy mornings in my tiny backyard.
Joy has been hard to come by. The past 12 months have been among the most difficult in my life. My beloved 18 year old dog died last October, followed by two other deaths a few months later: my sweet and troubled “gay boyfriend” Daniel who leapt from the Golden Gate Bridge on January 8th 2018, then 4 days later Jerry, my high school bestie’s father. He was an important figure in my late adolecense and early adulthood, and I adored Jerry’s autodidact tendencies and his fascination with science, technology, and photography. He was in hospice care, and living in Virginia, which doesn’t have a right-to-die law. Always independent in spirit, and a DIY kind of guy, Jerry took matters into his own hands. I might have been less troubled by his self-inflicted exit if it had come at another moment, but two suicides in one week was too much for me to bear. Add to that a slew of other deaths, a dear friend with a nasty brain tumor, along with a family member’s diagnosis with a serious progressive neurodegenerative disease and it’s easy to see why I’ve been a complete mess.
Depression and anxiety have been my perennial companions, not only throughout this heartbreaking year, but from late childhood forward. I have a squirrelly neurodivergent brain, and I’ve come to recognize that the insidious frisson of prickly fear and the heavy blue moods of melancholy are in me, they are part of me. But for months my sorrow has been profound, and my fretfulness has been disquieting and constant, vexing my sleep, and goading me to eat way too many calming carbohydrates.
What makes these troubling moods all the worse is that they dampen the saturation of my synaesthetic colors. All of my tinted synaesthesias have been dialed down; my graphemes have been less brightly hued, my spaces and sequences less luminous, and my chromesthesia has decreased to a pallid wash of aquarelle. This experience of diminished synesthetic perception is in no way unique to me. In a paper from the University of Edinborough (Kay, CL, Carmichael, D, Ruffell, HE & Simner, J 2014, ‘Colour fluctuations in grapheme-colour synaesthesia: The effect of clinical and non-clinical mood changes‘ British Journal of Psychology. DOI: 10.1111/bjop.12102) researchers Collette L. Kay, Duncan A. Carmichael, Henry E. Ruffell, and Julia Simner note that “negative mood significantly decreased the luminance of synaesthetic colours”. Additionally, Dr. Simner and her colleagues found that “synaesthetic colours were also less luminant for synaesthetes with anxiety disorders, versus those without”. In regard to depression, these researchers concluded “evidence suggests that colour saturation, too, may inversely correlate with depressive symptoms”.
The findings of this synesthesia research team are in line with my experiences over this most challenging of years. The most unfortunate aspect of my mood impacting my synaesthetic perception is that my mirror-touch synaesthesia has been more flagrant. I’ve had more mirror-sensory pain, more quirky mirror-proprioception in some truly awkward moments, and increased MTS sensations throughout each day.
I believe that Autumn inspires reflection and soul-searching. Historically (in the northern hemisphere) it’s the dying season, and a natural time for a rise in melancholia. But this year I’m feeling a sense of renewal, something Spring-like in these darkening days. Perhaps it’s my puppies, who are imbuing my world with moments of pure joy. Maybe it’s simply that enough time has passed for my heart to start healing. I can’t say for sure, but I did notice this morning as I read Paul Verlaine’s mournful Chanson d’Automne, the colored words were quite lovely and rich. And while Verlaine’s autumn song is doleful and somber, my own is wishful and filled with hope.