I drop the book with a sigh. Scents linger in my mind: lavender, thyme, rosemary. Images of alpine meadows, light-drenched fields of sunflowers, ochre roads winding into the Provencal hills dance before my mind’s eye. Sounds echo in my imagination: f bells tinkling as shepherds whistle dogs and herd sheep along ancient Roman tracks into the hills.
Then I am rudely returned to life as I know it. My office phone shrills, my cell phone vibrates, the dishwasher bleats its demands. Work beckons.
But piled next to me is dreamland, a selection of books that transports me across the Atlantic to places I have never been: Paris, Provence, the Loire Valley.
This has been a summer of acedia, that quasi-depression that sneaks in like a thief in the day, a feeling of numbness, boredom, and spiritual dryness that can be even more debilitating than typical depression.
Acedia, the so-called “noonday demon” is a close cousin of chronic depression but one with deeper, spiritual roots. I’m familiar with its twin cousins, regular old chronic depression and of course, anxiety. Like Janus the god of the Romans looking backward and forwards, I read somewhere that depression is lingering on the past while anxiety is looking ahead into the future.
If that is the case, then what is acedia? It is also looking backward, like depression, but lingering on regrets. Chewing on regret like flavorless bubblegum, reluctant to spit it out because at least you have it even if it is tasteless.
I’m truly blessed; I’m one of those rare people who have very few regrets. I regret running up credit card debt in my young adulthood because that debt kept me from doing many things I’d always wanted to do. I regret not buying a horse while I was still single. I regret gaining weight and not keeping up my fitness program.
Now, however, many of my regrets are old news. My debts are paid; I no longer struggle with credit card abuse. I may be overweight and out of shape, but I am working out again, although age and health conditions prevent me from the vigor with which I used to attack a good step class or circuit training. I’ve used my regrets as a springboard for personal improvement. When I sniff the malodor of regret creeping into my life, I dig until I find it’s root, then yank the stinkweed out with all my might. I correct my course so I won’t continue to wallow in regret.
There is one whiff of regret, however, which I cannot entirely eliminate. It is a window of opportunity that is now closed to me. Limited by family circumstances, crippled by anxiety and panic disorder, I made the right choice at the time, but one which, today, I wish I could change.
I regret not being brave enough to live in France during a summer 30 years ago.
I imagine it. My apartment in Paris, probably a one-room studio at the top of a four-story building without stairs or air conditioning and a shared bathroom. Slanted ceiling of a garret with the rooftops glittering in the sunshine beyond and the bells of Notre Dame chiming all to Mass.
In my mind’s eye, I am there, writing. I spend my days wandering the Latin Quarter. I visit the Louvre. I attend Sunday Mass in Notre Dame, grateful for Sister Mary Benedict’s instructions on how to say my prayers in French so I can follow along without giving myself away as an intruder, an American in Paris.
In my mind’s eye, I am taking that trip I’ve always wanted to, a horseback riding adventure through the Loire Valley. I am fearlessly riding a big chestnut gelding down a lane of linden trees where kings once hunted, sleeping under canopies in chateaus along the Loire.
In my mind’s eye, I am cozily ensconced in a tiny farmhouse in Provence. I cook on an open red-tiled braise, an open fire. I visit the market and spend my days lingering over wine with friends under the shade of graceful mulberry trees.
I’ve always loved French culture and style. I began studying the language at age 12 and fell in love with it, the play of vowels, consonants, the similarities and differences with English. Spanish felt common to me; German, the language of my grandparents, too coarse. Russian beckoned but wasn’t taught in my school, and I found myself immersed in French as my chosen language.
For seven years I studied French until I gained a considerable mastery over the language. I read Voltaire in the original French (it’s funnier that way) and enjoyed singing along to Bizet’s Carmen. As a college student, I debated minoring in either Music or French. Neither, the adults in my life said dourly, would pay the bills. An English major with a minor in French? The only careers anyone could foresee were teacher or translator, and I wanted neither.
I wanted to write; to travel; to explore. I wanted to create, to sing, to experience.
In the real world, however, bills beckoned, my parents needed me at home, and it was out of the question that I travel to Europe.
My friends left for school-sponsored trips to Europe. I looked at the cost and knew I couldn’t afford it.
My two best friends from the equestrian team, Cathy and Maria, decided to backpack across Europe during the summer between junior and senior year in college. They asked me to join them. For weeks, I hemmed and hawed, but fear held me back. Anxiety kicked in full throttle, and I said no.
Hearing about their adventures sleeping in convent-run youth hostels and finding cheap cafes that catered to students as they absorbed the art and culture of Europe made me wish I had gone, but it was impossible. Fear kept me at home just as surely as the lack of money for the plane ticket.
What was I afraid of? I don’t know. I just know that I was terrified of leaving home, of leaving the life I knew so well.
On the outside, I was a successful young adult. I graduated from college with honors and slipped right into a career in marketing that I loved. I had a job, I had friends, I had a boyfriend who I eventually married. My dreams took me on horseback riding trips through the Loire Valley or to an apartment in Paris, but my reality was that of a Long Island, New York girl, working hard, writing at night, studying for a graduate degree, and wondering why I couldn’t be bold like my friends.
Now I am about to turn 50. I haven’t ridden horses in years, although I still want to. I’m out of shape. I sit at a desk all day managing teams worldwide in a profession I still love. I write novels and blogs at night. I find myself slipping into acedia, the slow dawning of depression that creeps in as my days unfold like beads on a string, each identical, one after the other.
Wake, feed cats, drink copious amounts of coffee, check email, check messenger apps, take a shower, attend more meetings, work, eat lunch, still more meetings, more work, work, work, make dinner, feed cats, water garden, exercise or weed garden, shower, read, go to bed. Day after day, the same. A routine that once made me happy now drags at me and I wonder why.
The longer I slip into the quiet blues I’ve grown accustomed to, the taller my pile of books on France grows and the more my imagination travels into the past. The what ifs are astonishing; what if I had said yes to Maria and Cathy and gone with them on their trip to Europe? What if I had minored in French and found the courage to spend a semester abroad? What if as a young adult I had paid my bills and saved my pennies and gone on that Loire horseback riding vacation?
The old saying runs through my mind:If wishes were horses, we’d all take a ride.
Like imagining the future, lingering over missed opportunities is all smoke and mirrors, dreams and dandelion fluff. Reality is thorny roses, hard oak branches, the sharp green smell of newly mown grass.
The past is always seen through the lens of the present, a lens which we tend to forget is colored, shaped, and molded by the experiences we have had between the longed-for then and the harsh reality of now. We imagine the person we are today stepping back into the shoes of the person we were then and making different choices when, in fact, we made the only choices we could at that point in our lives, choices limited by knowlege and life skills acquired to date.
The girl I was sat 20 is but a shadow of the rich, vibrant woman I am at 50.
I look back and think, “Why didn’t I say yes to Maria and Cathy? Why didn’t I just sign up as a French minor and figure it out as I went along? Why didn’t I say yes to the trip, yes to the dream?”
I didn’t say yes because I didn’t know how to say yes to life back then. I struggled for years with intense panic and anxiety disorder, depression, even OCD at times. It took me those thirty years of life to learn how to live.
Today, I embrace opportunities to explore new towns, enjoy new experiences.
Then? I could barely tolerate my own existence. Receptivity to the unknown was as foreign a concept to me as calculus. My brain couldn’t comprehend it. Just getting out the door to my college classes took all my courage when panic attack came screaming at me.
While I still cannot comprehend calculus, the life I have lived over the past thirty years, the experiences that have shaped and molded me, the daily battles fought and won, have granted me a measure of courage and fortitude that enables me to dream those long-ago dreams. Panic attacks are seldom; daily anxiety, a ghost banished to the past.
This person I have become is the sum total of that past but she did not exist back in college when I had the opportunities to travel abroad. Looking back at that time and putting myself, as I am today, in that time period is acedia-fueled time travel that mires me in useless speculation and clouds the joy of living the life I have built for myself here, now, in Virginia.
The life I have today is far, far better than anything my 20-year-old self could imagine.
I am grateful for boring days.
If, then, these musings on the past aren’t actually about the past, what are they about? If I cannot travel to France now due to work and family commitments, what can I bring into my present that satisfies this longing for France?
I think about the books piled on my table: the gardens of France, life in Provence, stories of Paris. What draws me to these tales and to the land of my imagination?
It is the lifestyle, I think, more than anything else. A lifestyle of ease, of friendship, of lingering over meals and conversation and good food and fellowship.
Perhaps I long not so much for the missed opportunities of the past, but for the lifestyle I wish I could live. Perhaps if I bring some of that lifestyle into my day now, here, I can satisfy the lingering feeling of missing a key ingredient from this recipe I call my life.
France creeps into my lifestyle one seed at a time.
My kitchen garden is a mingled patch of Hale’s melons and Jacob’s Cattle heirloom beans, Black Krim and Marglobe tomatoes, ruby red beets and sweet onions. Borage, catnip, chives, and basil bask next to peppers and heirloom beans. Cantaloupes and sweet potatoes vie for space in the big beds and sunflowers nod happily to the goldfinches eagerly awaiting their seeds. It is the potager of my dreams, a little French garden where I can putter about and grow delights for the table.
I buy a small crockery dish painted with apples and delight in the cherries poured into its homespun interior. I add colorful measuring cups to my collection and leave them on the counter to brighten a corner of the kitchen. I dry bundles of lavender from cords hanging on my dining and living room windows and the scent of Provence fills the air.
The pile of travel books and memoirs of life in France grows on my table. Someday, perhaps, I shall board an airplane for Lyons or Paris. I shall sip cappuccino at a café and tour Monet’s gardens and walk the paths of the royals at Versailles. I will worship at Notre Dame, blessing myself in French as Sister Mary Benedict taught me long ago in seventh-grade French class, and I will linger in a coral-tinted sunset over the Seine.
Until then, I linger over the blessings of today, of a life built over the decades since that 20-year-old self dreamed of France.
The sanctuary of my office overlooking the meadows and gardens of my home.
My husband of two decades with whom I share a business and a life, who loves to hike and doesn’t mind cats kneading into his lap while he reads a book.
My work as a marketing manager, teacher and writer, creative writing which feeds my soul, all of it as real and as good as a croissant nibbled in Paris.
Piles of books in a library with a fireplace and a comfortable couch are better than a garret. If I have a garden and a library, to paraphrase Cicero, I am at home.
The phone rings; it is the gardening group of which I am president. The phone rings again; it is someone from work needing advice. Messenger apps ping with client questions, and I am delighted to answer, drawing from those decades of advice to help them achieve their goals. There is a house to clean, cats to feed, gardens to weed. There is a life well lived here, now.
There is a 20-year-old in the past who longs for Paris but who is too frightened to say yes. She is a 50-year-old now who has built a rich, fulfilling life. She is me, and I am happy again.
Dreams of Paris remain, but it is here I shall remain content, banishing acedia by focusing on life, glittering beads on a string, all just perfect because they are crafted one day at a time from a life well lived.
This essay first appeared in Medium.com