Optimistic Pessimism

We buried the forest. We sawed the trees into meter-and-a-half pieces and packed them in cellophane and threw them into graves…Many years ago, my grandmother read in the Bible that there will be a time when everything is thriving, everything blossoming and fruitful, and there will be many fish in the rivers and animals in the forest, but man won’t be able to use any of it.
from Sveltana Alexievich’s Voices from Chernobyl

Today I was making breakfast when a man floated past my window. I hadn’t slept well. It was all I could do to feed the people in my home. My brother, who is staying with me because he has no electricity in his house and likely won’t for many more days, said, “They’re doing something to your tree.” …This was very bad news. Since the hurricane took down half our tree last week, the half that remained possibly wasn’t doing well.
Heidi Julavits The Folded Clock; A Diary

Tree Jason Gillman 2958

This is not a book report. Nor is it the spunky, newly–resolved-toward-hope-and-action new years post so many fibers of my being yearn to write. It’s simply what I wake with today; a strange synchronicity of passages from my recent holiday reading that has me thinking — searching for connections to my own state of being. Sometimes the universe hands you little gifts to validate your sense of things and help you see. In this post-holiday haze, I’ve been trying to figure out why I feel raw –stuck in the poignant passage of another segment of time-out-of-time with multi-generations of family in various stages of letting go and moving on.

It’s not just that holidays can be sad times. It’s not about the arrivals and too soon departures. It’s not just the New York Times riveting photos from a year in review, gorgeous pictures of unspeakable natural and human events, readers writing of their lost loved ones in 2015. It’s not about the trees we watched being cut down last year. It’s all of it combined in search of articulation.

Svetlana Alexievich won a Nobel prize for Literature in 2015. Since I didn’t know her work, I ordered Voices From Chernobyl knowing it would stir up horrors I prefer to keep repressed most days in order to keep functioning in my own life.  The voices in her pages awaken and remind me of realities I do not live currently, but could someday.

The Folded Clock; A Diary, is one of my current book group selections, written by someone I’d probably be interested in walking and talking with in the morning. Each short essay in this book begins with “Today I…” and then unfolds, (ok, this is my impression only half-way through) in meditations that follow no chronology, but offer layered, recurring patterns of observation of brokenness, superficiality, loss and surprise, silver- lining insights in and all around her. I observe Julavits losing and finding herself in these pages. And I relate.

What both books have in common is immediate voice and piercingly beautiful, plain, sometimes haunting language. Both are structured in ways that illuminate what is disorderly about what happens in our days and our world(s). Both reveal patterns of thought and human behavior: stoicism, humor, compassion, big love. Alexievich’s oral histories are riveting as they capture unspeakable loss and the fierce resolve to carry on in spite of fear, anger, and anguish after the worst nuclear disaster in history.  Julavits, a successful novelist and another voice of our first world worries, layers her observations backward and forward in time to capture chaos and grace, inner devastation, and resurrection. She’s a woman of  privilege like me, yes, but she delves headlong into deep waters. In doing so, she shows us a journey of self, and reminds me of the possibility that writing the way holds for any journey toward understanding. The gifts of this ripple out. Reading these books side by side gives me courage. Let’s not miss the little observations of our days.  Let’s not forget either, how we’ve weathered the worst and survived.

That’s my point.

I know this about both reading and writing. They inspire courage in us to regard the difficulty and beauty of the world.  And I forget this. Even writing these paragraphs involves an effort I find challenging to pull out of myself in these days of inertia. At the same time, writing this energizes me; enlivens something that felt dull and unsure where I was going when I started.

These books, at this moment in my life, strike me as tiny time capsules that speak to what we humans are capable of plucking out of ruin. Perspective, if you will. And that is a good thing.  Raw and real. If nuclear disaster, war, or exceptional weather does not level us; if our own denials about who we really are and all we’re capable of keeps us blind to our own flawed capacity and wisdom as human beings, it’s all just going to be horrible. But it’s never all one thing or another. I know this seems obvious, but I need reminding. I think we’re all schlumping along doing the best we can with the circumstances we find ourselves in. If we can call it the way we see it, day by day, maybe that kind of truth telling will embolden others. Good, bad, ugly, beautiful. At least it says (again). This is life. And life encompasses all of this.

I’ve lost people dear to me, pets and trees this past year. I’ve also been encircled in love and witness to abiding courage and kindness in my everyday world.

Which leads me to the end of this musing. Is it reasonable to be optimistic about pessimism? The bad news will never go away. Let’s not fool ourselves. There is much to be afraid of and as Heidi Julavits writes in her November 4th diary entry: “The old ladies are walking around making their optimistic pessimistic proclamations…This city’s coming down. ”

In spite of this, I come around to thinking that evidence shows a tenacity of optimism in the face of dubious odds and unstoppable change.  I don’t think it’s just me. Old trees die and new trees take their place. Maybe there’s something haunting and beautiful in how endings and beginnings live side by side to keep the world turning. It’s not easy to hold all of this in its exquisite balance. But today I resolve to try.

Beth Lodge-Rigal for the Poplar Grove Muse

Photo Credit: Jason Gillman

One thought on “Optimistic Pessimism”

  1. “tiny time capsules that speak to what we humans are capable of plucking out of ruin.”

    “a tenacity of optimism in the face of dubious odds and unstoppable change.”

    Thought-provoking and improbably comforting meditation for this new year, in which there is already so much cause for deep concern. MKP

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