In Search of Beauty


"Behind every beautiful thing, there's been some kind of pain."
                                                                                         - Bob Dylan

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Walking along a New England harbor, smelling the ocean and its many, hidden creatures, feeling a cold blast of sea air tangle my hair and sting my eyes. My feet sink into the coarse and cool sand, gritty between my soft toes. I let thoughts both deep and superficial come over my mind in waves, as I hold my camera to my face to frame some view that strikes me. This is when I am most happy; and I feel the same when I am looking through the lens at a small New England village, or at a bustling Boston scene, or in a mossy and worn graveyard, or deep in an autumnal forest. I am rooted to this place of New England in some deep, mystical, unbreakable way. When I look through the lens of my camera, I am forced to acknowledge the beautiful, to pay attention, to seek it out, and to remember what brings me peace.

And when I am in the midst of battling my demons of anxiety and depression, I can take the tiny image that meets my eye through the glass and zoom in on it, forcing myself to focus on something interesting or stunning, to frame it, to perfect it. I click the button, and looking down at the tiny screen at the back of my camera, I inspect it to see if the image is clear, if the lighting is right, and when it aligns with  what I envision my heart warms and all is right in my world. I created my own form of instant art, my own instant gratification. There is something about creation and beauty. We humans were made for it.

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For me, depression is not a stranger. It is not a frequent visitor either, but it is recognizable, and I know the sound of its heavy footsteps as it approaches my door. When it does come, it does not gently knock, patiently waiting for me to answer; but rather it blows the door off the hinges, instantly enveloping me without warning, as my whole being is filled with overpowering apathy and hopelessness. It does not manifest in me in any way that is obvious to the outside world. I continue to care for my kids, I continue to engage with others, I continue to eat, to get up every morning, to clean and to feed my family. I survive. I exist. And that's it.

Depression and anxiety are so insidious. They can spring up, like a poisonous weed, quick and unexpected. My genes combined with childhood experiences conspired against me, and there was little doubt I'd be wrestling with these issues for a lifetime. I know few survivors of childhood sexual abuse who do not carry the dark stain of worthlessness on their souls for years. It is something I have continually battled to overcome. Add to that the expectation of perfection and purity inherent in my Mormon upbringing, and the battle for my sense of worth and hope would be perpetually waged. As a child, I was taught in Sunday School that we should die rather than to allow ourselves to be raped or to have our virtue stolen. Virtue was something that could be taken, without being given, and once it was gone it was gone. The message was clear to me, I was already ruined, already broken. I had also in some way sinned, though I was a child, because I didn't defend my virtue with my life. I was a guilty accomplice in my own destruction because I was still alive. Shame became a constant companion, and a sense of impurity and irreparable brokenness grafted into my bones and soul.

These sorts of demons should not be allowed to roam, unchecked, in our minds for long. They tend to grow in power and darkness if we let them. For me counseling has always been helpful, medications not so helpful. I know medications are a lifesaver to many, so I do not downplay or discourage them, but for me they do little. And I'm ok with that since my depressions do not last long, nor are they frequent.

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Melancholy is something I battle more often than full-blown depression. But it can be the precursor to true depression, and I find the most effective way for me to counteract the misery is to go find beauty, to create beauty; to express myself in writing and in images caught from a moment in my viewfinder and kept forever. My own little creations. My own form of validation that I'm here and I matter and my pain can be turned into beauty.

February and March were difficult for me. I made a big change in my life several months ago. It's a good change, a healthy choice, though difficult, and the transition made me sink into that dark, despairing, familiar place. I did battle with my old specters of shame and guilt. Old wounds were reopened. I had moments of weakness. I had moments of strength. And when my husband gave me a new camera lens that I had been coveting, it gave me fresh reason to go out and search for beauty, even in an abnormally cold and bitter March. I searched for beauty. And it was healing.

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I have found that there are gifts in being a person who, due to trauma and genetics, has known deep despair and hopelessness. Simple pleasures and beautiful moments are heightened and made magical. You can't fully appreciate hope and joy until they have been absent. The desire to create and to express myself in writing and in photography takes on an importance that would be unknown had I been a person of steady contentment, a person who lived an eternal spring in my soul. For when you endure a bitter winter, the spring is all the more magnificent.

14 comments:

Tina Marie Church said...

Beautiful. As a fellow comrade in the passion for New England and of melancholy...I thank you for such a candid essay.

Tina Marie/Turkey Hill Road

Leanne Paxton said...

Oh Alyson, your post has moved me so much. Such an honest, raw and brave post. I, too have the black dog following me from time to time. Like you I function, and that's it. I have found living a simpler, quieter life, and trying to see the beauty around me helps enormously.
Sending an absolute ton of love from West Cornwall
Leanne xxxx

Emily Anne Leyland ( Art-n-Sewl) said...

My dear sweet, lobstah. Such a brave post. You already know this, but I love you, your courage and bravery. When I grow up I want to be just like you. xx

pattianne70 said...

Such a beautiful post, Alyson. I have tears in my eyes reading it- for the beauty of both the truth in your words and for the beauty in the photos. You are an inspiration! xx

Leeann @ Join the Gossip said...

I don't want to speak ill of your religious upbringing, but what a terrible thing to teach children - that they are guilty for sexual abuse. That's such a rough thing to deal with already. But I love the way you channel it into the beautiful pictures you share with us. I hope it brings you some joy knowing that your pictures do that for your readers :)

Heather said...

Hugs to you my wonderful New England friend. You've had a hard HARD road, but you've overcome so many things to become such a wonderful wife, mother and friend. You've experienced things no one should ever have to, and melancholy is something that so many of us struggle with--- and you've handled it all with grace and clarity of thought. I think it makes you such an introspective and thoughtful soul, and one who will never take beauty for granted. I am so happy for you that you live in a place that nourishes your spirit, and Im so happy ive had the chance to walk with you there in such amazing places. The lobstahs will reunite again, some day! LOVE your photos (you are so talented girl, you need to open an etsy shop and sell these things!!) and your words. You are gifted, my friend!

Live Oaks and Coffee said...

Your courage is remarkable and inspiring. I am so proud of you for speaking about your experiences. I hope you continue to have strength to follow through with your changes and transitions, no matter how difficult they may be.
Regarding depression- you are right- the positive side is once you have lived in the dark, you appreciate the light all the more. It's true- it makes us want to create beauty in both words and images. As a kindred spirit who likes to grab a camera and chase a sunset or sit at the keyboard tapping through my thoughts, I could not agree more. You articulated something that has been rumbling around in my mind for quite a while.
Thank you for writing this.
-Kim

martha said...

Beautiful Alyson....and a blessed gift to others who are unable to articulate the same experience.

Donna said...

I'm sorry you were (and still are?) going through a difficult time. I'll always be here to support you no matter what.

Kelly said...

I'm way behind on my blog reading, so I just saw this. Thank you for your lovely thoughts. I am so glad Spring is here finally, literally in the weather, and I'm feeling more of that in my soul lately as well.

Megan said...

Your opening paragraph made me instantly breathe deeper, and the rest of the post I pondered those of us with deep souls, who feel the impact of even subtle nuances of this existence upon our well-being....we are all drawn to others who are capable of such a richly textured way of perceiving the world...which is why your writing creates a gathering place. The thing most startling to me is how the rich inner world of creative passionate souls so easily goes unnoticed as we carry on. We feel alone unneccesarily....when we create, connect and share ourselves (as you do when you write) joy rains down on all of us! Wish I could have a daily meander around a village with you (including a good chat and stop at an eatery daily!). Next year my kids will be in school all day :) We can meet at places to meander!

paigenicholl said...

This is a stunning and inspiring piece of writing. And I love Megan's comment about how we feel unnecessarily alone (I am guilty of this) until we create, connect and share. To me, this is what the blogging world is all about. One of my favorite quotes is "Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle." Based on this beautiful post, I would say you are winning the battle. : )

The Pierce Family said...

I am moved and awed at your ability to convey your story, your life, and with it give my own experience in life words. Thank you for this. What major changes have you undergone though? I hope whatever they are/were they bring you great hope and peace.

The Pierce Family said...

I am always amazed and awed by your ability to give meaning and words to a story I know so well myself. I am curious what huge changes you have made, but I hope whatever they were or are that they bring you a great measure of peace, hope, and light!