Warning: The post you are about to read is quite lengthy. If you see the glass half empty, this post may make you want to puke or maybe make you spill your drink. And it may seem like one long rambling journal entry – which it kind of is – with wonky paragraph formatting structure that I haven’t been able to fix. Last year this would have bugged me.
I didn’t see this coming. If you told me just over a year ago, when I turned 35, what this year had in store for me, I would’ve called you crazy. My little old jaded, glass-half-empty, pessimistic, everybody-dies-anyway, self would have told you that you had me all wrong. There was no way that this was going to happen. I am me. This is who I was born to be – expecting the worst and definitely not hoping for the best. I had little faith in people and I was always waiting, with an almost obsessed anticipation, for the other shoe to drop. Life was about completing to-do lists and planning. Always planning for the unexpected, planning to be at least an hour early for everything. The future was just around the corner and I needed to be prepared for it. It was my husband’s job to believe in the good of humanity and to point out the silver linings. I was there to bring us all back to reality when the bottom dropped and the true colours – the darkest clouds obscuring those irritating linings – surfaced.
But this year something changed. I couldn’t pinpoint what it was until I turned 36 just a few weeks ago. I re-read my blog posts from this year compared to posts from a few years ago. I silently observed my feelings and emotions and how I responded to unexpected situations. I took note of how I communicated with those closest to me, including myself. I even compared pictures of myself I took this year in contrast to years past. I looked in the mirror and took note of how I felt about what I was looking at.
There was SOMETHING different this year.
Part of it probably has something to do with me wearing Spiderman goggles when I am stressed out at home:
We went on a road trip a couple of weeks ago. There was a lot of driving over the course of the trip. We took turns taking 4-5 hour driving shifts. When I sit in the passenger seat, and there are no immediate navigational responsibilities, I take off my shoes and curl up with one of the dozen books I bring with me. My husband drives in silence so this works for us. If I come across something interesting in my reads, I share it with him and sometimes a conversation begins and sometimes he nods and continues driving in deep contemplation.
On one of these shifts, a few days before my birthday, I picked up this book:
I was looking at the Table of Contents when one of her essays jumped out at me: Optimism: An Essay 1903. I immediately turned to the page and began to read. Helen Keller writes of her early experiences “where no hope was, and darkness lay on the face of all things.” And she poses the question, “Can anyone who has escaped such captivity, who has felt the thrill and glory of freedom, be a pessimist?” In this book, all her essays have an undertone of optimism. When she speaks of the senses she uses – the “seeing hand” or “smell, the fallen angel” – her words are filled with gratitude, wonder, and above all hope.
Here is what struck a chord from her Optimism essay:
My optimism, then, does not rest on the absence of evil, but on a glad belief in the preponderance of good and a willing effort always to cooperate with the good, that it may prevail…The world is sown with good, but unless I turn my glad thoughts into practical living and till my own field, I cannot reap a kernel of the good. Thus my optimism is grounded in two worlds, myself and what is about me…The desire and will to work is optimism itself.
I finally knew what had happened this year.
An optimist was born. Barefoot and all.
A reluctant optimist, but an optimist nevertheless. Let me explain.
When I was 29, the last year of my twenties, I made this scrapbook layout about myself:
I scrapbooked 7 things about myself. Most were negative aspects that I was honest about. Some things still hold true: I still have a crush on my husband, I hate ignorance, and I indulge in chocolate and 90s r’n’b slow jams. There have been changes. First and foremost, I no longer feel like a fraud. What you see is what you get. No more facades. At that time, I had a newborn, 2 year old, 4 year old, and 9 year old. Life was about putting on a show. I had to prove something. I chose to have 4 children so I couldn’t ask for help. I had to have it all together most of the time. Why? I can’t really tell you. It was just that way. I also resigned to the fact that some things would never change like my ill feelings towards cilantro and mornings. Life was supposed to be tough and gruelling. Yes we would have lighter moments but those would always be pleasant surprises and not the norm. I told myself, crying over spilt milk again and again, the scene playing like a broken record, was the life I chose. Buck up and stop whining and wallowing. Embrace the fatigue and toughen the skin.
Now in my mid-thirties, I see a shift has been made. Looking back at the list, I note how most of the changes occurred over the last few years, and most changes have taken place in this past year. As I continue to wake up at dawn and order dishes heavily flavoured with cilantro, I am hopeful. I have slowly come to relish my morning rituals of solitude and I no longer gag with every bite of that herb. (Baby steps.)
Reading Helen Keller’s account of how beautiful she “sees” the world, despite having only touch, smell, and taste at her disposal, can only leave one optimistic and hopeful:
I trust, and nothing that happens disturbs my trust. I recognize the beneficence of the power which we all worship as supreme – Order, Fate, the Great Spirit, Nature, God. I recognize this power in the sun that makes all things grow and keeps life afoot. I make a friend of this indefinable force, and straightaway I feel glad, brave and ready for any lot that Heaven may decree for me. This is my religion of optimism.
Trust. Faith. Hope. This has become my holy trinity, turning to these three not as a passive acceptance of life unfolding, but as a means to survive. To survive the emotions accompanied with my children growing up. To withstand the flood of anxiety and worry that tries to wear me down as they leave my side. My optimism wasn’t born out of a slowly acquired wisdom but by necessity and preservation of sanity. I have to trust that the world is inherently good. I must have faith that I have done all I can to prepare my children to make their own choices. I need to hope that love will always prevail in the end. If I don’t believe these things, how can I let go of my children with my complete blessing?
These things – trust, faith, hope – began as my crutches, my aids to mobility – how can I keep moving without being overwhelmed with worry as my children are away from me for longer and longer periods and more frequency? But without these things, without a general optimism, I have learned that fear can be crippling. I know how dark things can seem when the fear of moving forward, the fear of trusting the goodness in others, the fear of trusting the goodness in your own self paralyzes you.
I haven’t known another year where I’ve let go with such frequency and such magnitude. Letting go of control. Letting go of the need to fix. Letting go of keeping everything in a nice little box. Letting go of expectations. Letting go of old hurts. Letting go of perceptions and judgments. It’s been a bit of landslide, picking up speed as my optimism buoys any rough patches. It is no longer a crutch but a blessed gift that began when my 16-year-old hopped on a plane to go halfway around the world.
When I vacillate between the past and the future, which is inevitable as I watch my family grow up and grow out, I look back and see our beautiful life’s progression with the sharp edges fading away and our future anchored in love no matter what storms we encounter or where our collective and individual ships end up. It’s like forgetting the pain of labour and only remembering the miracle of birth.
The labour of 35 years ending up in the birth of an optimist.
Trust me, this is something just short of a miracle. And this year has felt like a course in miracles.
I feel like I have been climbing uphill most of my life, pushing a boulder like the mythical Sisyphus, only to reach the top to have the weight of it push it back down. I still feel like that sometimes. There are days when I feel my life consists of futile, repetitive, and laborious tasks like waking up to bits of cut paper all over the floor every morning – I either nag the perpetrator to clean it up, again, or just sweep it up myself, again. But Albert Camus wrote something interesting with respect to Sisyphus’ return down the mountain just after witnessing the large boulder roll down yet again in The Myth of Sisyphus:
It is during that return, that pause, that Sisyphus interests me. A face that toils so close to stones is already stone itself! I see that man going back down with a heavy yet measured step toward the torment of which he will never know the end. That hour like a breathing-space which returns as surely as his suffering, that is the hour of consciousness. At each of those moments when he leaves the heights and gradually sinks toward the lairs of the gods, he is superior to his fate. He is stronger than his rock.
That is a miracle. Those moments of consciousness. Those moments even when hope seems to be lost. Those moments of respite and deep breaths as you walk down the mountain to face those boulders of to-dos. Those moments when I can just walk over the cut pieces of paper with a shrug and a smile on my face. All miracles. The more I trust in goodness, the more I see it. Whether it’s always been there or not is irrelevant, the miracle is that I see it. The miracle is having the faith that the world will take care of my children if I let it. The miracle is trying to return to being hopeful and helpful when it’s easier to be hopeless and helpless. The miracle is in recognizing the miraculous in the minutiae of my life – the sun shower while we are biking after being hit by torrential downpour; the humour I can find after a disastrous day out of the house; the one kind word spoken from a child who had a difficult time; the apologetic gestures between siblings. All moments of love. All miracles.
(Two miracles in this picture: 1. Lying down in the sand 2. A funny face selfie.)
Don’t get me wrong, I still yell and have moments of anger and frustration. I still have less than stellar mom/wife/daughter/friend moments. I doubt myself. I get wary. I lose faith. I lose patience. I have honest and raw moments of pure selfishness and self-loathing. I cower from the outside world. I hurt and get hurt. I say the wrong things at the wrong moments. Guilt trips are given and taken. My children will make off-the-cuff observations like “You haven’t yelled yet today Mom.” Yup, I still have those days.
The difference is that I wake up each day HOPEFUL. It’s a morning feeling that’s new to me but has been gaining momentum each and every day. Every day it’s a little easier. Every day there is something to be grateful for and something to hope for. There is this general shift from pessimism to optimism that is unforced and natural. I went from just surviving to thriving. To be honest, the verb “to survive” was always hanging over my life, even as we began our journey with our family of 7. There is no other way to put it when little people are depending on you for their every physical need. Thriving, as an individual human being, needed to be put on hold. My babies needed my love and my presence to survive, even as I struggled to physically take care of myself, and I was in a fog of survival. This year the fog just began to lift. The veil of every role I have ever filled is lifting to reveal that individual again who is a culmination of many survivor experiences but isn’t limited to them anymore.
Clarissa Pinkola Estes’ book,
Women Who Run with the Wolves
, described this transition perfectly for me:
Instead of making survivorship the centrepiece of one’s life, it is better to use it as one of many badges, but not the only one…It is not good to base the soul identity solely on the feats and losses and victories of the bad times. While survivorship can make a woman tough as beef jerky, at some point, allying with it exclusively begins to inhibit new development…I liken it to a tough little plant that managed – without water, sunlight, nutrients – to send out a brave and ornery little leaf anyway. In spite of it all. But thriving means, now that the bad times are behind, to put ourselves into occasions into the lush, the nutritive, the light, and there to flourish, to thrive with bushy, shaggy, heavy blossoms, and leaves. It is better to name ourselves names that challenge us to grow as free creatures. That is thriving.
This year I have shifted my time to make room for thriving. I am no longer that dandelion growing in the cement crack – happy to just survive. It was a year of feeling my intuition return. Although we still have challenging moments in our household, I rebound faster. I can read my children and their moods better. I see the dynamics unfold with more clarity. I forgive, I apologize, and I communicate honestly with more efficiency. I look at the big picture more often and focus less on the little things that used to get under my skin and push my buttons. I am better at relinquishing control and asking for help. Overall, my response time is quicker because of trust, faith, and hope.
I am not a fool. I know I will get enticed to think in defeatist terms when times get bleak, when people I love get hurt, when life throws me its dependable curveballs. I know there will be times that test this reluctant optimist. But I am also an active optimist. I will not sit idle in ignorance or indifference.
In her Optimism essay, Helen Keller writes:
I proclaim the world good, and facts arrange themselves to prove my proclamation overwhelmingly true. To what is good I open the doors of my being, and jealously shut them against what is bad. Such is the force of this beautiful and wilful conviction, it carries itself in the face of all opposition. I am never discouraged in the absence of good. I never can be argued into hopelessness. Doubt and mistrust are the mere panic of timid imagination, which the steadfast heart will conquer, and the large mind transcend.
I imagine a world of abundance and of light. I imagine love always winning. I imagine that I can make a difference with a simple gesture toward kindness and compassion. I imagine myself to be more than my frustrations and my disappointments. I am those things AND more. I am also unbridled joy, humour amplified, and no longer a “work-in-progress.” I am a hope-in-progress. I am a love-in-progress. I am a patience-in-progress…who occasionally wears Spiderman goggles when she needs a little bit more of it.
(And this year, I was able to take selfies, partly because I am normally the photographer and partly because I realized that I do like seeing myself smile – and there’s been a lot more of that this year too.)