The Truth Told Slant

Every winter I plunge into darkness.

As Seattle days shorten to eight hours with clouds covering most of the sky and the city readies for ten months of showers, my inner world becomes as bleak as the world outside. I burrow through three seasons like a shrew mole through the mud, tunneling deeper to cry, surfacing only to complain.

Born and raised in New York, I’ve not adjusted in twenty-seven years.

I suppose this isn’t surprising. All my grandparents were natives of Sicily, a place where even in winter daylight persists for ten hours with nary a cloud in the sky. The people of Palermo wake to sun 228 days per year.

When my grandparents immigrated to the US, they did well to settle in Manhattan, where the sun shines over Central Park 235 days each year. The Space Needle basks in sun rays only fifty-eight.

My doctor calls my melancholy SAD (seasonal affective disorder), a depression caused by lack of sunlight resulting in low serotonin. Those who experience it suffer desolation, petulance, anxiety, and social strain.

Since evolution has optimized humans for equatorial light, SAD is common in northern latitudes and climates with cloudy skies. Dark-eyed people like me are genetically predisposed. Blue eyes take in more light. Seattle is simply insufferable for someone with my genes.

I can’t, though, blame my darkness solely on the weather. The past six years have been tough. Just as my children left for college, I lost my full-time job, and I can’t seem to find a new one, thirty years of résumé be damned.

Since I’ve desperately tried to fill the void with a grab bag of pursuits not always suited to me—part-time, volunteer and temp jobs, housework, classes here and there—I’m left feeling frantic, lonely, worthless, bored, and more so every year.

This winter SAD struck hard. I could barely rouse myself mornings, sometimes didn’t bother dressing, cried if my cat crossed my path, overate, skipped the gym, ignored my friends. Every evening I pleaded with my husband, “Get me out of here! There’s nothing for me in Seattle, nothing at all but rain.”

But, in truth, I knew my husband couldn’t leave. He’s worked decades to grow his business and it’s not portable.

Once, I met an American woman vacationing in Tuscany. She told me that although she was married, she always travelled solo and lived alone too. Her husband preferred Boston and she Cos Cob, so they had separate homes.

When I asked the woman if she was ever lonely, she shrugged, “Why should I be? I’m never by myself. My favorite companion is me.”

At this, I remember passing judgment. How selfish. What’s the point of such a marriage? I could never be like her. Still, in the bleak of winter, I determined that I could.

If my husband couldn’t leave Seattle, I’d move by myself.

The idea was so radical and bewildering that my mind could scarcely comprehend it. I’d buy a tiny house. A house in North Carolina, where there are 220 days of sun. I turned on my computer, began to search online, and after ten minutes on Trulia, there my dream home was.

2026 Sycamore Street: The classic 1929 cottage was one-third the size of our Seattle house with lovely lemon shingles, cheerful side veranda, steep pitched roof, and sun-drenched lawn.  It had cozy rooms, quaint divided windows, sunbeams angling through the panes lighting the honey hardwood floors.

What relief this house would bring me, so tiny, simple, bright. I’d leave my tattered furnishings behind, discard my old books. I’d spend my time reading Kindle on the porch or planting a garden in the sun—azaleas, honeysuckles, witch hazels, asters, bee balms, goldenrods.

The inside of my cottage would be an uncluttered haven just for me, the outside an ebullient sight for the community. This would be the home of my heart. Thrice daily I ogled it on Trulia, walked around the block on Google Earth. How apt that it was located on Sycamore, for I was sick in love.

One rainy spring morning after dreaming of the house, I came across a poem by Emily Dickinson, as quoted in a Parker Palmer essay:

Tell all the truth but tell it slant,

Success in circuit lies,

Too bright for our infirm delight

The truth’s superb surprise.

Palmer was pondering depression, a state he claims is caused when we disrespect the true self, the person God created us to be.

When we honor the true self, we choose pursuits that employ our inborn talents, resist pursuits that don’t, and heed our natural limitations. Doing so brings us joy and enables us to serve those around us. Doing otherwise causes depression and burdens the community.

To honor the true self, we must listen to the promptings of its voice, which Palmer calls the inner teacher, others call the soul, and others the still, small voice of God. But this voice can often challenge the resistant ego, so to make acceptance easier, it sometimes tells the truth slant, using metaphor.

Could it be that the Carolina cottage was a trope composed by my true self? Not the dwelling I should buy, but the person I should be?

Rather than welcome less square footage, should I embrace my diminished role in the professional world? Instead of shedding tattered furnishings, should I drop unfulfilling work, like teaching basic grammar and dusting the church pews?

Rather than throw out old books, should I discard worn sob stories, like those about my SAD and unemployment? Instead of planting a new garden, should I cultivate pursuits I have and love, like writing and, yes, gardening, and caring for family and friends?

Who would I be if I did these things? On the inside, an uncluttered, tranquil person. On the outside, ebullient, generous.

It seems the brilliant sunlight angling through the Carolina windows is simply the truth about my life told slant. Now it’s summer, and I am listening.

Jan Vallone is the author of Pieces of Someday, a memoir, which won the 2011 Reader Views Reviewers Choice Award and will be re-released in fall, 2013. Her stories have appeared in The Seattle Times, Catholic Digest, Guideposts Magazine, English Journal, Chicken Soup for the Soul, Writing it Real, and Curriculum in Context. Once a lawyer at a large law firm, and later an English teacher at a tiny yeshiva high school, she now teaches writing and literature at Seattle Pacific University.

Art above: Douglas Garofalo and David Leary, Camouflage House, 1991.

  • Chad Thomas Johnston

    Jan, I believe this essay is what humble baseball umpires would call “a home run.” Going . . . going . . . GONE. :) This is one of my favorite pieces I have ever read on IMAGE’s blog.

    I relate to it as one who also finds himself in winter’s depressive quagmire, but most of all I relate to the choosing to find light and life in your circumstances and, paradoxically, regardless of one’s circumstances. :)

    It reminds me of Viktor Frankl’s “Man’s Search for Meaning.” We get to participate in making meaning in our lives, and I think that means we can choose to be kind to ourselves, to nurture those bright patches of sunlight until they blanket entire rooms in our lives. Challenging, but undeniably beautiful!

    It is a joy to write alongside you, Jan Vallone. You have a gift, and it may be that the dark season of the soul brought to you by Seattle has been the very thing that’s given it to you. :)

  • Rick Jackson

    Thanks, Jan, for sharing your inner-life journey with me and with us all.

    Outward Bound has a phrase that comes to mind: “If you can’t get out of it, get into it.” It’s clear that you’ve embraced “it” and by doing so, discovered more courage within yourself than you’d suspected. And your courage nudges others, including me, to face and get into the places in life that appear to be rubs and blind alleys. But maybe they are not just that, but narrow passageways that wind through my own soul for mysterious reasons yet to be discerned.

    So glad to be on the path of life with you!

  • http://rosenzweigshmuesn.blogspot.com/ daniel imburgia

    I am also a Sicilian in the Seattle area (Whidbey Island) and I have often shared your dour feelings about this gray environment (perhaps that’s why marijuana has been legalized here and not in California or Florida?). Yet, quite to my surprise, in the last few years after being a home-bound care-giver for an extended period, and them a home-bound care-receiver for a time, I have come to favor this cooler climate and to appreciate these slate, cinereal skies (although I still lament my harvest of green tomatoes every fall). I wouldn’t want to assert that you should simply ‘embrace the horror,‘ and of course the ‘truth’ is always and already ‘slant,’ but I think your post affirms that you have an openness to change and I hope you can grow towards the light (even if that light is trapped inside a carcinogen causing tanning booth).

    Oh, and maybe this favorite of mine from Thomas Merton’s “Rain and the Rhinoceros” in “Raids on The Unspeakable,” will offer you some respite this winter:

    “Let me say this before rain becomes a utility that they can plan and distribute for money. By “they” I mean the people who cannot understand that rain is a festival, who do not appreciate its gratuity, who think that what has no price has no value, that what cannot be sold is not real, so that the only way to make something actual is to place it on the market. The time will come when they will sell you even your rain. At the moment it is still free, and I am in it. I celebrate its gratuity and its meaninglessness.

    The rain I am in is not like the rain of cities. It fills the wood with an immense and confused sound. It covers the flat roof of the cabin and its porch with insistent and controlled rhythms. And I listen, because it reminds me again and again that the whole world runs by rhythms I have not yet learned to recognize, rhythms that are not those of the engineer.

    I came up here from the monastery last night, sloshing through the cornfield, said Vespers, and put some oatmeal on the Coleman stove for supper. It boiled over while I was listening to the rain and toasting a piece of bread at the log fire. The night became very dark. The rain surrounded the whole cabin with its enormous virginal myth, a whole world of meaning, of secrecy, of silence, of rumor. Think of it: all that speech pouring down, selling nothing, judging nobody, drenching the thick mulch of dead leaves, soaking the trees, filling the gullies and crannies of the wood with water, washing out the places where men have stripped the hillside! What a thing it is to sit absolutely alone, in the forest, at night, cherished by this wonderful, unintelligible, perfectly innocent speech, the most comforting speech in the world, the talk that rain makes by itself all over the ridges, and the talk of the watercourses everywhere in the hollows!

    Nobody started it, nobody is going to stop it. It will talk as long as it wants, this rain. As long as it talks I am going to listen.”

    Blessings and obliged.

    • Jan Vallone

      Thank you, Daniel, for this insightful comment and the Merton quote (I love Thomas Merton). I have to say that this year has been the most beautiful I’ve experienced in Seattle. Just take a look at today. Recently too, I was lucky enough to be hiking with my husband in Piemonte (near Barbaresco) on a very hot, sunny day–the kind I love. On the way back, clouds came out of nowhere and a deluge began. We stood under some trees for half an hour and were soaked to the skin. It’s already a treasured memory. I admit: clouds and rain can be lovely.

  • ewnimages

    A beautiful piece Jan. Remembering past conversations, I can celebrate with you and have double the enjoyment.


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