Bellwether Vance

Hounds to the Left of me/Jokers to the Right

Bellwether Vance

Bellwether Vance
December 31
You'd like me. People like me.


Editor’s Pick
DECEMBER 19, 2011 9:26AM

The Optimist's Lament

Rate: 51 Flag
I'm not naturally pensive, or I say I'm not. I've been chirping so long I've lost my lower register, maybe never allowed it to develop, and who's to say if my natural song is canary or whale? In any case, I don't inhabit unhappiness comfortably.

It is common for happy people to believe that sadness without diagnosis is pure self-indulgence, and as I've gotten older it isn't enough to be rational. I must feel rationally – no, practically -- and happiness is the most practical emotion I know. In practice this requires a bit of social trickery, public acceptance of despair and private repudiation, a mental contortion of knowing and unknowing. I must be a magician who refuses to levitate, a stubbornly flightless bird, and that hasn't been difficult for me. Outside of a kitchen, I wouldn't expect my own magic to accomplish anything, nor would I trust feathers to keep me aloft when I see so many seagulls plowed into the asphalt on my daily trip across the bridge, downy piles of pale gray and dark purple, and on the trip back there is only a smudge. If flight is not an infallible power, I have no use for it, or any others that have the potential to turn out very badly. Optimism works best when you limit your outcomes.

Given my Panglossian ways, I'm always surprised when the most enchanting time of the year – Christmas –  kicks off a good six to eight weeks of emotional turbulence. It starts the minute I get out my Christmas cards and open my address book. Nowhere else is it laid out so flatly: those I've kept and those I've lost. There's my brother's address. I'm not sure I could find my way there anymore. Nannie, the farm's address and that of the nursing home just beneath it. Granny, Aunt Floy, Uncle Billy, Uncle Odie, cousin Ricky, my father-in-law. It's a list of tragedies, alphabetized by surname.

It's also a list of those I've neglected. High school and college buddies, former roommates, neighbors and co-workers, all with dormant addresses after I failed to follow them to their next job or new city. My guilt is proportional to distance and the agreeability of goodbye. Relationships frequently cool without the heat of proximity, and people change. It's okay to let go, move on. But there are those on the list I never lost passion for, and I lost them anyway. Dana is one of those. 

We were neighbors on a cul-de-sac of flimsy starter homes. She had two boys the same ages as my son and daughter, and they grew up together like a tumbling litter of puppies and were frequently dumped into the tub as a filthy pack. Old photos of my family gathered around the kitchen table, the backyard grill, a birthday cake or a Christmas tree, are as likely to feature her children as mine. 

At that point in my life I was a vague, decorative thing, an impressionist painting that merely suggested a woman, habitually charming – an unscrupulous talent in a young person – and as wise as a pet store finch. Dana was a little older and a lot more substantial, with a wide-open face, a generous smile that pushed her cheeks up to her eyes, and a directness I've always associated with those from Northern climates. (I suspect no one wants to beat around the bush if there's ice on the bush.)

Her husband Don was a burgeoning alcoholic who on the weekends accelerated from funny to foolish in fifteen beers. Accidentally but foreseeably, he set fire to the front lawn, threw a golf club through the windshield of his truck, and one Sunday morning –  in jolly horseplay – tossed his oldest son into the air and failed to catch him on the way down. Their son was unharmed, but Don was broken with remorse. Later that day, I was in their kitchen when he sobbed into Dana's neck, and for probably the thousandth time, begged her to forgive him. I watched a dozen hard feelings cross her face before she settled on a soft one, and she said, "You didn't mean to." Until then I had no idea that kindness is a choice.

My family was the first to leave the street, a few miles away, and we kept in touch. Then the Air Force moved them West, then overseas, beyond casual contact, and for years I received sketchy updates via chance encounters with mutual acquaintances. Don was sober. They divorced. Dana was in Virginia. 

Two years ago, when I'd almost accepted I'd never hear from Dana again, a Christmas card arrived. I joyfully copied her current address in my book, and put a return card in the mail that very day, anticipating many years of exchanged cards, updates and photos. A week later Don called to say Dana was dead. Simply dead, at forty-nine, when her heart just up and quit. I shake my head when I come to her name. "That's impossible," I say aloud, firmly.

I could get a new address book, start over, but that would be a temporary solution. Before long someone will have moved on or died and soon the new book would be  full of messy cross-throughs and vacant names that make me teary even as I'm signing our cards with cheery script. I know sorrow is not a choice, yet mine seems willful, and thin too, when I am capable of soaring happiness the very next minute. Only grief of poor quality would wear so unevenly, and only a loon, a dodo, a cuckoo, one of those diminished birds, would continue to send Dana a Christmas card. Because optimism works best when you limit your outcomes, I provide no return address.

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You beautiful lady. I loved this post and understand your sentiments so well. Happiness IS a choice. Happiest of holidays to you from a fellow Pollyanna.
Wow - A Thinker Keeper.

I have a Pensive Reputation.
Folk tell me that I ponder too.
I never am in a despair state.

I admit I feel angst. I brood.
My children tell me that too.
My three children say `I do.
When young they'd say` Dad.
It's 10AM. Close the door now.
It's time for milk and cookies.
eat and
enjoy a`
day! ah!
It 10:59!
One sec!
sip milk!
Lovely, BV, both the writing and the sentiment.
Holidays do bring out the blues and the realities of time and loss. This was such a bittersweet and charming example.
Holy Mother of Astonishing Writing. This is so wonderful for all the obvious reasons, and also for all the ones that bubble up inside me after I finish reading it. ~r
This was so sad, and so well said. I'm someone who's auto-set to happy, like you, and it's true that when the blues come, they can hit hard. I'm so sorry about Dana. Even with a few paragraphs about her, I felt I could understand why you liked and admired her, and reading that she'd died made tears come to my eyes. I think the only thing is to use our happiness to give us strength, and to keep sending out those cards to the people we're lucky enough are still around to receive them. I know your presence brings a whole lot of joy into the world. Happy holidays, and I hope you'll experience no more moments of sadness during the holiday season.
You're not supposed to make people cry, Bell. Dammit.
I relate so well to this. My address book looks just like yours. I've left my brother's name just as it was. As Miguela said Merry Christmas from a fellow Pollyanna. -R-
kinfred spirit, this is precious r.
Ah, the sentiments of this holly, jolly, melancholy time of year. Wonderfully done, Bell.
I love everything you write, but this will be my favorite. Sending you a cyber hug, from a kindred spirit.

I always suspected that you sought refuge in your recipes. 2 cups of sugar etc.
Don't feel sad for Dana. My optimistic nature tells me that she was old and wise enough to be finally freed. It's a good thing, see????
Ah, this is piece is too good for on the fly comments.Whole essays could be wrtten about this one.

Brilliant, Bell.
I know. My old daytimer looks like a graveyard of old, discarded friendships. I don't even send cards anymore; too expensive and I get very upset when one is returned due to the wrong address -- or worse. Your writing on this one is magnificent, Bell.

This was just wonderful. And perfect. Makes me wish I sent cards. And makes me glad I didn't.
A lot to process in this beautiful piece. For now I leave it at Wow.
Ah yes, I've lived my own version of the address book induced anxiety/guilt/love story. I have given up sending Christmas cards a couple of years ago, another thing to become obsolete within my lifetime. But my address book shows scratch throughs [with angst] then re-copied [with forgiveness] among other notes. Now I use for addresses for those to whom I send Xmas gifts and that's it. Soon even our address books themselves will become obsolete. I'm sorry for your friend and that you never got to re-connect with her.
What Joan said. ... On another note, I wish I had just a drop of what you and Miguela have in good supply. Rated.
You slammed me right in the gut with this beautiful piece. RRR
Wow, Just wow, girl...
And on another note, I love this line "and a directness I've always associated with those from Northern climates. (I suspect no one wants to beat around the bush if there's ice on the bush.)"
I tell people growing up in my house "tact" was a four letter word. :)
Just amazing writing, Bell.r
It's that holiday inventory that drops my voice an octave or two as well. I always wonder if sending a greeting to someone I have lost or neglected will be received joyfully, as an insult or received not at all...

What do they call it? Taking stock, I guess.
I love the way you post only when you have something worth saying and writing about.
Open Salon is a never ending gift basket for readers, and this post is one of the special ones, with the extra pretty ribbon.

I think this is my favorite line: "At that point in my life I was a vague, decorative thing, an impressionist painting that merely suggested a woman, habitually charming – an unscrupulous talent in a young person – and as wise as a pet store finch," but there are so many wonderful phrases, I can't be sure my favorite won't change.

I am in awe.
in a good way!
Panglossian Lady, this is one of the best lines i wish
i coulda wrote:

"At that point in my life I was a vague, decorative thing, an impressionist painting that merely suggested a woman,
habitually charming –

an unscrupulous talent in a young person –
and as wise as a pet store finch."

buncha wisdom seriously accumlated somehow.

oh i see how.

u like me.

"I know sorrow is not a choice, yet mine seems willful,
and thin too,
when I am capable of soaring happiness the very next minute. "

emotions. argh.
You know what happens when one of your posts appears? I slow down and prepare. Maybe make a cup of tea, take a few deep breaths, then click. It is always a matter of degrees, the relishing. This was one of the best, in the same memorable bowl as the nightgown piece, and the one about working in the concentration camp dog pound. I'd pay to read your work, but that it is so freely and generously offered makes it even sweeter. Thank you, Bell.
Joanie H. expresses it perfectly, "Holy Mother of Astonishing Writing." :)
Tri-tto on what Joan H. said. r.
Miguela -- Pollyannas unite! I know for a lot of people happiness isn't a choice, so I'm grateful that - to some degree - it is for me. Happy holidays to you too!

Art -- It's difficult to imagine you in a pensive mood. Your poems are so far from Sylvia Plath, head-in-oven. You are so far from tragic prose, but we all have unplumbed depths, and I sense yours are quite deep.

Boan -- Aww. Thank you.

Lea -- Seeing those names in a list is striking. There is no time of year where I see it laid out.

Joan -- I'll take your "Holy Mother." ;)

Alysa -- For those of us who have "happy" as a default, I often wonder if we are trained seals or seriously happy, and, after training, if we'd know the difference? Or if it matters?

Matt -- Your eyes are sweating!

Christine -- I think we're right to leave the names as they stand. It's history, as much as we'd like to deny it. And one day we'll appreciate this scant evidence of their presence.

Jonathan -- I know you're a kindred spirit.

Unbreakable -- I don't know why I'm always surprised by these feelings. You'd think I'd expect them by now...

Fusun -- I appreciate your hugs. The same to you.

Fernsy -- Refuge is a good word. It's easy to make things (marginally) better. It's harder to make things actually RIGHT. And how you bridge that gap determines how satisfied you are with the world.

Lezlie -- That's the worst, getting a card back.

Jlsathre -- There were several years when I didn't send cards. It's always a dicey affair and who needs that during the holidays?

Barb -- I'll take "wow." :)

Deborah -- I hold tight to my address book even though it is a dying sort of book. Like recipe cards.

Deborah Mendez-Wilson -- Thank you! I assume you mean chile sauce? I'd go with Miguela's recipe first!

Bea -- Didn't mean to slam ya, but I'm glad you felt what I wanted to convey.
Hugs -- It's good to know my instincts are correct. Here in the South everyone talks 'round and 'round and 'round and anyone who doesn't know the score gets dizzy and irritated.

Linnnn -- I love greetings from beyond. Facebook has kind of make that obsolete, but I'd prefer them to come thoughtfully, with a stamp.

Ann -- Thank you! Happy holidays to you and your family.

Sarah -- I don't know about that. Sometimes when I click the post button I wonder if what I had to say is interesting or worthy of that mouse click, so I always appreciate it when people stop to comment.

keri -- Gee, you make me blush, and so happy. Happier!

James -- Yes. Emotions, argh! They complicate everything. In the worst and the best ways.

Greenheron-- I'd pay to read praise like that. And I'd pay more for sincere praise like yours.

Clay -- It's so good to see you on the boards. I was wondering where you'd gone. Thanks for stopping by.

Fingerlakes -- My motto is "Always trust Joan."
I feel the same way. There is some degree of choice in how you feel, assuming you don't have some biological reason for being unhappy. I think any social group--a family, a country--encourages some feelings and suppresses others. Dana's kids have a better than even chance of choosing the kinder view of others. If you're not lucky enough to have Dana for a mom, you can talk yourself into and out of feelings. Not always, not totally, but you can in fact direct your feelings substantially. Happiness may not make for dramatic blog posts, but it is surely more practical than depression.
I love how you start out in one place and end up in another, Bell. I lost a friend from high school days this month, he was just 45 and it doesn't see right that he's not in this world anymore. I might try your method - Facebook makes that easy. (and Merry Christmas, dear Bell.)
Bell, you really are a remarkable writer. From the opening sentence, through the traverse of optimism and on to an illustration of how it can get the best of you. Limiting your outcomes is an approach I’m inclined to, though I’d put it as limiting the expectations. I’m not sure if they’re the same, but at least with lowered expectations you can be pleasantly surprised.

And Panglossian? I think not. Ditto you ever being merely vague and decorative.
OMG, you write beautifully. A pleasure to read.
Wow! Beautifully thought out, BV, and wonderfully written. What a superb piece. You are a fine spirit. R
This was worth a second read. I don't know where my first comment disappeared...but here's a second. With congrats on the cover.
This is such a profound contemplation on life and change, using the example of a Christmas card address list.
What a beautiful piece, thank you. As one whose emotional bellweather indicator is usually pointing towards doom and gloom, it was wonderful to read about your positive view of the world and the losses we all experience as we rock on towards the end. You may have edged my indicator back towards optimism just a little!
"Outside of a kitchen, I wouldn't expect my own magic to accomplish anything, "...oh but it does. All your sentiments expressed so well have a home in my nest, assembled as it is with tinsel and twist ties, trying to keep me together.
Oh, my, so much resonates! Thank you!
(I find that putting words to my thoughts is SO healing. You've done it for me.)
ain't life grand? after a few decades of this, the next stage becomes tolerable, even appealing.
The holidays are always a bittersweet time for me. I've been cynical since childhood when I learned early on, it's not exactly the most wonderful time of the year. I have a similar address book that I can't throw out and I agree, sometimes walks down memory lane are painful. I wish you and yours peace and contentment during this crazy season.
And choosing happiness is not wrong. Nothing bad about looking on the sunny side of life. Nothing.

And thanks for your comments on my retirement piece.
Sirenita -- You get it. Happiness -- even if it isn't entirely heartfelt -- is a way of being that gets you though life very efficiently, and as long as you don't rely upon the simulated version of it too often, where your happiness becomes a facade, choosing optimism works.

Lucy -- I'm so sorry to hear about your friend. It does feel unreal, that people are here one moment and then gone. And it's almost ridiculous when those people are OUR AGE!

Abrawang -- You are a sweet-talker! (Keep on talking.) I was at one point a silly person, and have my silly days. Remembering them keeps me from being so again.

Leslie -- Thanks so much for stopping by and for your comment.

Thoth -- It's always good to see you 'round. Thank you!

Julie -- I so appreciate your kind words, and seeing your smiling avatar.

Vivian -- I hate it when comments get eaten. They're never as profound when I'm trying to recreate them! You're a trooper for commenting a second time.

ccdarling -- This time of year we all take stock, and the losses are heavier. There are de facto lists all around us (I keep thinking of the chairs at the table as well). It's enough to make anyone sad if you think about it too much. So don't think about it too much!

Marcy -- I hope so. I'm always happy to convert a pessimist.

Dirndl -- Your next of tinsel and twist ties is probably more tightly and artfully woven than any other I can imagine.

mynameise -- Writing is healing. (I'm sure you have your own healing words to type out. I'd love to read them.)

al -- Well, that's a pessimistic form of optimism, but I like it!

Franish -- I wish the same for you as well.

Mary -- From one sunnyside to another!
Oh Bellwether, you are such a beautiful writer...
Thank you for this.
The season's past, almost time to put away those cards. But this is a timeless card, one that I hope to keep and bring out and appreciate for years to come. I've told you before that your profile is right. I like you.
Read "When grief comes to you like a purple gorilla" by Matthew Dickman if you haven't before. It is no less beautiful and memorable. And no more.
Bell(e): Looks like I missed some of your posts leading up to the holidays. You would have been proud of me -- I was the 'hostess with the mostess' for two big (30 peeps at once) family gatherings which is how I must've missed this. I could've written this (since you represent my philosophical bent) -- only -- I couldn't have written it so well.
The first graph was a post in itself. Full stop.

The last 2 sentences of the 2nd graph were complete to the nth ~ If Confucius didn't say it first, YOU WIN for best original quote since his last nomination.

As to the 1st sentence of the 3rd graph... Panglossian? - off to

(apologies for the delayed response...we may share a little bit of those Panglossian tendencies, but I'm generally silently sanguine ~ or vocally dyspeptic - it's a 50/50 toss up).

As for address books, I've never thrown one away. They are shorthand for a poor man's journal and a walk through time that costs me nothing, not even a stamp. Yet the time I get to spend in Reminiscenceland is well worth the storage. No return address indeed.
You may be an optimist, but you just nailed my one of my favorite subjects for writing: regret.