Long before a turning point is evident, tiny shifts lead to change: The last cut of the axe before a tree falls, the gathering force of an avalanche before it lets go, the final few cells piling up to a clot that blocks flow and becomes the stroke, the gradual loosening of a sleepy child’s fingers before the toy slides to the floor, the droop and dangle of a leaf before it drops, the new insight added to insight as a mind is changed.
At autumn equinox, a near balance is struck when day and night are almost the same length before the northern hemisphere tilts toward winter. Minutes of daylight have been slipping away since June, and September’s days, though still sunny, are cooler. I don’t welcome the coming darkness, but accept it. And autumn has its compensations: apples, fires, and glorious colors.
Lately, I have been struggling to feel optimistic. The Ukraine invasion is heavy on my mind. In the big world, there are many other pressing problems (you know the list). Yet I want to be hopeful. In fact, I kind of insist on it.
I have been heartened by the astonishing global reaction to the Russian invasion.
I also remind myself that historically, when cataclysmic events have changed the world order, sometimes positive change happens too. It may be that having been through something terrible, people vow, “Never again,” as the Greatest Generation did after WWII. Their commitment to preventing more world wars held for decades, not perfectly, but mostly. Taking the long view gives me hope.
I strive for perspective and balance. I remind myself my own life is fine. But sometimes I backslide into overwhelm: How can we find lasting peace, address the climate crisis, shore up our democracy, and so much more? It all feels insoluble. What can one person do?
What I finally come to is, what other choice do we have? We have to keep trying to change and improve the world. And that means hoping.
Howard Zinn, in “The Optimism of Uncertainty” expresses what I believe better than I can—
To be hopeful in bad times is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty, but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness. If we see only the worst, it destroys our capacity to do something.
If we remember those times and places—and there are so many—where people have behaved magnificently, this gives us the energy to act, and at least the possibility of sending this spinning top of a world in a different direction.
And if we do act, in however small a way, we don’t have to wait for some grand utopian future. To live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvelous victory.
Since the pandemic began I’ve told myself the quarantine restrictions were “for now.” That my real life would begin again later.
Surprisingly, I was fairly patient with this odd limbo. Although I had bad days sometimes, I accepted that living with restrictions was necessary. I could handle this. My life was not all I wished for, but I could be content within the new parameters.
And seriously, I have nothing to complain of.
Despite my acceptance I felt a level of distraction, a channel of disruption or low-key anxiety running in the background, keeping me from being wholly engaged in my days.
Perhaps I was sparing myself from comprehending the limits and freaking out about them. But I was also banking my fires, saving my fully present self for later. As if this wasn’t my real life.
After nearly 10 months, I understand I can’t keep holding back. This IS my real life. The days, weeks, months are ticking by. I won’t get them back. There’s no psychic bank account where the losses are preserved, waiting for me to claim them, and restore them to my life.
My days are different from what I imagined they would be right now, but I remind myself that I’m already doing a lot of what I like to do. I’m still writing. Reading. Volunteering. Finding other creative outlets. I’m not as connected with friends and family as I’d like to be, but I call or video chat with them.
I haven’t completely figured out how to be immersed in this life, but I know that’s the answer.
Let’s see. It’s still winter. I’m done with it, but it’s not done with us. No use complaining (but that’s not stopping me). Weather isn’t personal. The same rain/snow/slush falls on all of us. The same ice clumps chunk off our tires. We drive the same roads that are scabby with ice or as slippery as Crisco.
Impeachment rages on and on. We know how this will end but the players must follow the script anyway.
No wonder I obsess about clay. I revel in the small personal thrill of throwing porcelain for the first time in years. Voilà! A small vessel I hope to make into an old-fashioned perfume bottle. Not to hold perfume. Just because I like the idea of them.
Maybe I’ll make stoneware wine goblets next. The sturdy kind without stems. Or stoneware tumblers for iced tea and mojitos with fresh mint. Mint that I’ll pinch from a plant in next summer’s garden.
Why not stoneware flower pots? That’s genius! When I’m not a potter, I’m a gardener. I could bring together two of my passions.
What about platters and bowls with sayings? Hmmm. I hate art that exhorts me to Live! Love! Laugh! Shut up, I think, even though I do want to live, love, and laugh. Isn’t stamping Ellen-isms into clay at odds with that? Too bad. I’m doing it.
I’ve been holed up in the pottery studio with my potter’s wheel spinning fast. It corkscrews my focus tighter and tighter until all I see is the lump of clay that I’m forcing to be centered. Even though it resists, throwing off stray blobs and splashes of watery clay.
Hours pass. My back and shoulders ache.
Now when I leave the studio at 5:15, it’s light out. The big wheel of the seasons is also turning. Slowly, slowly, but turning. Bringing me back to center.
For years, my mom had a clipping stuck on her refrigerator with a magnet.
Although it was in a semi-public place, the clipping was a private message for her, not a directive for the family and friends who might see it.
Mom knew she’d be in and out of the refrigerator numerous times a day. She probably hoped that by putting the clipping right there she’d be forced to notice it. At least once a day, she’d really see the words and be reminded of her intentions. Every day, she could rededicate herself to the effort of becoming her best self.
As a visitor, I saw it often but never thought too hard about it. They were her goals, not mine, and Mom wasn’t in the habit of preaching about her values or goals.
But when the clipping turned up in a box of Mom’s things that my sister had saved, I realized how much her example has influenced me. I, too, regularly rededicate myself to the effort of being my better self.
I make New Year’s resolutions (often the same ones about health and writing – they’re still good, because I frequently stray from my goals). Throughout the year, I also take stock and evaluate whether or not I’m living the life I want to live. For example, I might ask myself: Am I too bizzy with household tasks that don’t matter? Am I letting other people’s agendas overtake my own? Can I be more tolerant and easygoing and let go of irritation faster? Am I pushing myself creatively? And more.
My refrigerator is bare. Unlike Mom, I keep my resolutions and inspirations in journals or in the Notes app on my phone where I see them often. When I reread my intentions, I’m pleased to see that I’ve followed through on some. Others, not so much. But I’m easy with myself – effort counts. I’m a work in progress and I just need to keep trying.
Mom’s clipping lists five goals. I love that she circled the two that were most meaningful to her. As her daughter, I can tell you that most days, she nailed them.