I am in subtropical Northern Argentina in the winter, in Puerto Iguazu, watching a cat walk lightly across a red tile hotel roof, watching tourists by a swimming pool outlined with jasmine and palm trees, the palm trees adorned with small strangler figs. It’s cool in the late afternoon, after a rainy morning; my clothes are slightly damp and I’m sleepy from a quarter-bottle of wine, and there is thunder in the distance, the threat of rain. (The threat is imminent, there is a sunny late afternoon thundershower, I am writing under a covered patio in the rain, looking out at the plashing on the pool). There must be an unexpected confluence that has brought me here, now, this afternoon: A missed flight, a chance conference, global oil economics, two years of undergraduate Spanish (now jumbled and forgotten), the way tourism works and how you can be a part of it, something. It is lovely.
Wikimania, that semi-miraculous conference (miraculous in its occurrence and method and feeling, and one can only hope outcomes) ended a few days ago, and I ended up by staying up all night, exhausted, exhilarated. Then followed a few days of casual conversations and hotel lobby meetings; most people wished they could have had more time to just talk before going home. As usual, I met many new people and talked to many old friends; and gave one talk and attended many more.
Wikimania was great. This was one of the best Wikimanias ever; I listed some of the details that shone in a previous post. I am astounded as always by the dedication and quality of those who organize this conference (every year, not just this one); I know how hard the organizers have worked, sacrificing an entire year’s worth of free time to making something great for the community.
Among others, I went to talks this year about declining community demographics (true? if so, how to measure?); scholarship about Wikipedia (there’s a lot); how to expand participation in Wikimedia (Erik M. has lots of ideas); and OLPC in Peru and Uruguay (they are close to 100% saturation in Uruguay, truly amazing). The two sessions I helped run were about covering Wikimedia’s community (Noam Cohen wants to do it right); and what the future of Wikimania should be (I’ll post notes).
But apropos of nothing (another year? a hangover? a long-semi-suppressed state of affairs? all of the above?) I was depressed afterwards; not perhaps unexpected but a stronger sensation than usual, and in a break from my regular habits I talked about it to a number of people, which apparently led to some general concern on my behalf. Frankly, this startled me. I am so used to keeping to myself, and always have been, that to talk about one’s depression as a real and tangible thing seems not just a bit gauche but bizarre. But I am trying an experiment here; I am trying to reach out more, and see what happens. I am fortunate to have people who care about me.
My depression has, fundamentally, to do with this: I don’t know what to do with myself that would be useful. I do a lot of things, it is true, and exhort others to do even more (in both a professional and non-professional capacity) so this is a bit odd, perhaps. And there are a number of lifestyle changes (more dating, socialization, scheduling, exercise) that would no doubt improve my quality of life, make me happier on a daily basis. But. Perhaps it is just the fact of knowing so many people who are quite clearly making some sort of life worth living that makes me have high standards for myself. It’s not a difference, per se, that I want to make (whether intentionally or no we all make that; it’s the kind and quality that matters) but rather, I want a good life, one that makes not just my days but other people’s better. This is vague, I know, but I know what I mean, and the absence (when it seems there is one) distresses me. (And here I am writing on another continent, far from home; adventures rarely feel that way in the passing).
An acquaintance of mine told me this Wikimania, about the people that she sees every year, that she worries about people moving on with their lives in Wikimedia. She sees the same people every year, she says; but everyone seems to be doing the same things. Shouldn’t folks move on, to be healthy themselves? She didn’t mean it personally, but I took it to heart; when was the last time I moved on about anything?
Depression feels like just — an emptiness, the bowled-in hollow of cloud in a storm. It’s feeling like you will never have the energy to get up, or to move, or to get dressed and go to work again; and because you must do so, moving slowly so as to get through the day is better than the alternative, which is the inability to do anything at all. It feels… like the meaning of one’s actions is basically inconsequential, but that the most trivial details of life (what to eat, what to wear) must be quite important because they are so hard to figure out. If you have good habits, you can get through depression, or at least you’ll continue doing interesting things by rote, and thus fool most people. This becomes important, as do certain other details that one may obsess over, to the endless annoyance of anyone you should happen to share this obsession with. Everything seems hard, and thus everything becomes hard, and it is painfully difficult to separate the two, or in fact to make the kind of life one wishes for. Ad nauseum.
I hate it, and I fight it, and I have spent years of my life in this condition, though I think (and close friends agree) that it has seemed worse the last year or two. This isn’t shameful or odd, I guess; it is what it is.
There isn’t anything to do in this world but doing what you love, and trying to do it well, and trying to make sure that what you love and what matters lines up. (Our community conferences, like any community gatherings, matter because among other things they are affirmative — it’s not just you who thinks what you do matters). I say that, but there are other things as well; I have been kept going emotionally for months at a time by a kiss, a hug, a nice dinner, a long evening in my family’s company. I crave this sociability with people I know who understand me — don’t we all? Of course we do — and hope to build this into any life of mine. I try to keep people around me who inspire me.
There are ants on my patio table, big black ones; as my new ex-pat friend down here says, the arthropod life of the subtropical jungle here is amazing. I saw some of the most beautiful butterflies I have ever seen in my life here today, with delicate yellow and black eye patterns on the undersides of their wings, and brilliant blue and red on the top. In their own way, they are as amazing to me as the falls we hiked down to see, the largest ones in the world, more or less, which thunder down hundreds of thousands of gallons of water a minute into a huge basin and churning tower of mist, with swallows diving deep into the constant grayness towards a river bottom they have never seen.