As I write this by the bedroom window, I gaze distractedly at the familiar sight of a muddy sandstone tenement across the road, a grey-slate roof, darker grey tarmac, a cluster of tall trees in sagey green, and in the distance, the top of Queen's Park. Characteristically for the West of Scotland, the sky is thick with grey cloud and hangs low. A prosaic description of an ordinary scene, but I have had a bit of an epiphany, if indeed having a 'bit' of one is possible.
Every single year I suffer from mild to moderate depression, its onset usually occurring in January and lifting around April. Unlike severe depression, which is debilitating, the problem with mild depression is that you don't feel particularly ill and those around you don't perceive you as ill. It's a kind of generalised sadness, a lack of motivation, a general aversion to socialising. Ordinary everyday tasks get done, but they require more effort than usual, and I feel tired pretty much all of the time.
This seasonal blight is commonplace, and usually attributed to lack of sunlight. I do own one of those nifty light therapy lamps, but it's difficult to discern whether it does any good or not: maybe I'd be worse without it, who knows. Anyway, back to my epiphany bit.
It suddenly occurred to me last week that perhaps colour perception, linked to lack of sunlight, was linked to my state of mind. And sure enough, I found several reports of this phenomenon. One report, rather cheerily entitled 'The Quirky Brain: How depression may alter visual perception', by Harvard Medical School, suggests that when someone is depressed, the world may seem flat or monochrome, tinged with blue and grey – colours we use in metaphor when 'feeling blue'. Sure enough, the association between depression and colour is widespread in everyday language but also in art and music, for example, Picasso's 'blue period', and of course, 'the blues'.
Medical studies suggest the association between depression and colour is more than metaphorical, that changes in visual perception in people who are depressed may have a biological basis, and that one reason the world may seem grey when people are depressed is impaired contrast perception. Add to that my own observation, that if you live in a country where bright colour in nature is a rarity for at least six months of the year, and your colour perception is already impaired by depression, the world appears as a general sludge. I'm not quite sure why, but I was rather cheered by this discovery.
My dear friend now sends me photos of colourful things, and this morning she sent me a photo of a beautiful bed of wild, purple bluebells in Mugdock Country Park (see top of page – photo by Jackie Main). I immediately felt a wee bit better. So, if you think you might be similarly afflicted at this time of year, surround yourself with colour and get out there every time the sun makes an occasional appearance.
The wrath of God
Talking of colour, I'm off to Lisbon this weekend with my husband and very excited about our trip. I've never been to Lisbon, but I've always been fascinated by accounts of its rich history – it's one of the oldest cities in the world – predating London, Paris and Rome by centuries.
Lisbon is rich in Romanesque, Gothic Baroque and modern architecture, which is remarkable, given that the city was completely destroyed by a devastating earthquake in 1755, killing an estimated 40,000 souls and 85% of the city's structures. Baffled by the awesome catastrophe, theologians and philosophers of the time described the massive event as 'the wrath of God'.
In truth, my trip to Lisbon is related to God, as the real purpose of my visit is to travel to what is described by Catholic pilgrims as 'the altar of the world': the central Portuguese town of Fatima, home to the sacred Sanctuary of Our Lady of Fatima. Fascinated for many years by the story of this venerated shrine, I've finally got round to researching its intriguing and mysterious history.
On 13 May 1917 (I'll be there for the 102nd anniversary), three local children, whilst tending their families' sheep, reportedly saw an apparition of the Virgin Mary. What was once a tiny parish back then, is now visited annually by around six million pilgrims and visitors. This year I'll be one of them.
Cutting a long story short, these visions became prophecies known as the 'three secrets of Fatima'. The controversial 'third secret' claimed by the Vatican in 1960 that it was 'most probable the secret would remain, forever, under absolute seal', such was its apocalyptic vision. John Paul II said in 1981: 'because of the seriousness of its contents, in order not to encourage the worldwide power of communism to carry out certain coups, my predecessors have diplomatically preferred to withhold its publication'.
Since then, on 13 May 2000, the Pope released the 'third secret' in Rome. But critics have claimed that it has not been released in full. I'm intrigued and have my own undoubtedly over-imaginative theory which I'm developing. I can't wait to get there.