People who know me today might guess that I grew up in some light and happy way, patiently parented in a loving nuclear family, my needs met at every turn. In truth, I was split between my parents’ homes by the age of 2; my memory is full of dark corridors, dark curtains. Down them are moaning creatures, maybe parents, certainly strangers, minds torqued by intoxicants, or just the vapors of the sixties out of which they emerged. Further down the tunnel are basement rooms with foldout chairs and muddy coffee, the rough-shod world of the newly sober announcing their transgressions, seeking serenity. Behind curtains there is a man with a gun shining in his belt loop, my father receiving a black plastic package through the space.
As a teenager into my late twenties I did my due diligence in the land of self-pity; told my “story” of being the latchkey kid, child of an addict, to anyone who would listen. I milked the gasps of horror and the head-shakes of sympathy it brought me from others with less dramatic upbringings so well it almost became a shtick, a stand-up routine. “Say have you heard the one about the drug-hotel?”
I muddled in my personal themes in my fiction for years, even through my graduate writing program where my final mentor, Alice Mattison, accused me of writing a story collection that could have been called “Bad Mothers” (though my mother was not “bad”).
I believe the beginning of my shift toward optimism came with marrying my husband at the age of 24. Prior to that, I’d been a pretty good victim. But I didn’t marry a man who loved a victim. He has always believed in taking responsibility for oneself, and models what it looks like to talk about what scares you and ask for what you need. Take it from me: it’s really hard to communicate when one person always plays the martyr.
Optimism is often equated with sickly sweet Pollyanna cheer—an irksome happiness that burns as it shines. But I don’t think that’s optimism, after all; I think that’s a denial of the shadow side of things. Optimism, to me, is accepting that life is hard, painful, scary and STILL feeling hope that things will work out.
It’s also a form of taking personal responsibility for life, of making a choice to see beyond the difficulty of the moment. But in order to see beyond the difficulty, you first have to make a little space for it, as Eckhart Tolle says, “wrap your arms around your pain” and embrace it rather than trying to run from it and numb it. I think that optimists feel the pain of life quite keenly. Certainly I do, and it even occasionally involves moments of terror, for it’s my optimism that gets me to take risks that scare me, say yes to opportunities I don’t know I’m up for, and practice vulnerability. In fact, my optimism is very much an offshoot of my larger personal life strategy of “fake it till you make it.”
And yes, I have little tricks. Reading is my best escape. I watch a few shows, but I’d much rather curl up on the couch with a book or kindle. Three years ago, after a lifetime of inconsistency, I learned that regular exercise provides me with a kind of mental peace I never even knew was possible. I spend a lot more time appreciating what I have than thinking about what I want. And there’s nothing that builds optimism more than watching my five year old son deal with his small disappointments as though each one is a tragedy.
I know how much is survivable because I know so many survivors.
Perhaps my unstable childhood taught me that, in lieu of relying upon stability, you have to keep reaching for it, looking for ways to create it. And if it isn’t here now, it might just be over there, a little way down the road.
Photo Credit: Hope Is A Good Thing by Nagesh Jayaraman is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.