In which I try to process my feelings through books

  1. Little Women

One Monday morning in January, I was home from work for the bank holiday. I had been dragging my feet on starting the first assignments for my online course in climate science. Reluctantly, I started playing the lectures as I boiled beans for chili, darting to my computer to pause the video and take notes in between chopping sweet potatoes and onions. At noon, I poured all the chili vegetables into my slow cooker and bundled up against the cold.

Despite the occasional light snow this winter, Monday was the first day I saw ice on the street. I walked up to a café to meet with a friend who is taking the same online course and warm my red hands with hot tea. A small mop-headed dog sat by my feet and occasionally nudged my leg for pats while I talked through the assignments with my friend. As we sat together, I wrote a discussion post and took two quizzes. The material was interesting and not too obscure, and I felt that the ice had broken (as it were) on my science imposter syndrome. Then I headed home to change for ballet.

Monday night ballet is beginner-level, the class I started taking when I only had time and energy for one fitness class each week. By this particular day in January, I had progressed several levels and went to Monday night ballet for comfort. A slow, guided warmup with beautiful movements to beautiful music is usually as relaxing as yoga, but this Monday’s class was unexpectedly difficult, as the instructor introduced a number of steps we don’t typically do in the beginner class. I had to ask her to show us the new choreography for each exercise more than once, as I was running back and forth to lead both ends the barre and needed to get it right twice. Went I got home, I sank into a hot bath with a liberal dose of Epsom salts, a tumbler of whiskey, and my unwieldy copy of His Dark Materials which I managed not to get wet.

Afterward, warm and toweled dry, I felt strangely expansive–like my chest was a wide-open green field in the sunshine. Not just content. Not just peaceful. Oh god, I thought. I’m happy. And I went immediately to write down how I felt.

It seemed strange, if not inappropriate, to be happy. The days were cold and gray; the night came early. The world was burning, although we did not yet feel the heat of it. And I did have my own griefs; I wrote down a series of small ones, easier to seize in the shadow of the larger indefinite sadness for my aunt, and for my mother who lost a sister.

I blame Little Women. I had seen the recent film adaptation with some friends and had been blown away by the vivacity of it. In the beginning of the story, it is Christmas and the girls are lounging at home and reflecting how much happier they would be if they had no worries. You might say that the argument of the book is that it isn’t the absence of worry that makes happiness, but having something to do. Again and again the industrious sisters find the most joy when they are busy–and together.

The life I’ve always wanted–the life I felt I was missing when I was mired in dissertation writing or slowed by my malfunctioning thyroid–is a busy one, doing work I can take pride and pleasure in but with time to enjoy learning, to enjoy being with friends, to enjoy being in my own body. To my surprise, I found that I had it.

2. Hunt the Good Stuff

In March it was still possible to be busy, although my enthusiasm for it waxed and waned. I took up another online class in addition to climate science, and worked from home during the day, and scheduled video hangouts at night. I wrote a lengthy to-do list on a full sheet of paper, crossing off items as I went, and rewriting the uncrossed-off items on a fresh sheet when the list got too messy. Some days I skipped the virtual dance classes and social calls, and let myself sink into the isolation. (I thought often of My Year of Rest and Relaxation on these occasions–a book that finally made the phrase “guilty pleasure” make sense to me.)

I work as a marketing writer for a university that houses the first graduate program in positive psychology, and that department released a free, non-credit online course about resilience skills for uncertain times. I wrote a blurb promoting the course and, in the process, talked myself into trying it. (That’s the second course I picked up this term.)

I was skeptical at first, but before long I found that I was looking forward to the times I set aside to do resilience lessons and exercises, many of which were reflective and introspective. Some were strategies, like this one: when you find yourself (or someone else) circling or spiraling in negative emotions, go ahead and think about the worst-case scenario. Then think about the best-case scenario. Then think about what will probably happen, which might be somewhere between the two. Then make a plan for what you will do in each case.

Thinking about the best-case scenario is critical: it induces positive emotions and literally makes you feel better, which can help calm you and make it possible to think clearly. Many of the coping strategies we discussed were about inducing positive emotions by looking for the good in each day and feeling gratitude for it. I’d already been doing this with friends, without knowing why; I didn’t always want to ask “how are you?”, so instead I asked “What are you doing for fun and relaxation? What’s something you’re excited about? What color do you need more of in your life?”

I learned this sort of thing from my mom. My dad used to call it “another damn silver lining.” But he smiled when he said that.

3. War and Peace

I started rereading War and Peace for pleasure and comfort, and by the end of April had come to the chapter when Nicholas Rostóv loses an unimaginable amount of money playing cards with Dólokhov. (Dólokhov, at this moment, is in love with Sónya who is in love with Nicholas, so he plays with the intent to financially destroy Nicholas.) When Nicholas gets home from the card game, devastated, his sister Natásha and cousin Sónya are singing.

At first Nicholas wonders how the girls can sing when he has just financially ruined their family (which, of course, they don’t know yet).

Nicholas began pacing up and down the room.

“Why do they want to make her sing? How can she sing? There’s nothing to be happy about!” thought he.

Sónya struck the first chord of the prelude.

“My God, I’m a ruined and dishonored man! A bullet through my brain is the only thing left me—not singing!” his thoughts ran on. “Go away? But where to? It’s one—let them sing!”

But he finds that he can’t help singing, too.

Oh, how that chord vibrated, and how moved was something that was finest in Rostóv’s soul! And this something was apart from everything else in the world and above everything in the world. “What were losses, and Dólokhov, and words of honor?… All nonsense! One might kill and rob and yet be happy….”

The first weekend in May was gorgeous, blazing blue and gold. I placed an online order for wine from my local bottle shop and walked up the avenue to pick it up, planning to make a brisk errand of it but still get some sun on my face. It was warm enough not to need a jacket, and the city trees were still bursting with pink and white.

When I got home I was near tears. The narrow sidewalks were spilling over with people, so walking was like playing Frogger with disease vectors. Often I gave up and walked in the street. Many of my neighbors were wearing masks, for which I am grateful, but what disturbed me is seeing people stroll like it was simply a normal nice day, a regular spring passeggiata. A trio of people sprawled in front of the bottle shop, where they’d simply stopped for a six-pack on a whim while walking their dogs. A cluster of older women leaned over a baby in a carriage. A couple sat down on a bench and pulled their masks under their chins to talk.

When I finally washed up and calmed down, I tried to feel more empathy than fear. After all, didn’t I want to enjoy the nice day too? Isn’t it a good coping strategy to seek out pleasure and positive emotion? It usually works for me. It seemed to work out for Nicholas Rostóv, who (spoiler) survives war and ruin relatively unscathed.

But I keep thinking about this brutal-year-old line: One may kill and yet be happy!

4. We lived happily during the war

Today is another beautiful, bright gold May day in the midst of a pandemic. It is also my birthday.

I packed a bag: a bottle of iced tea, some homemade cookies, a book my gentleman had sent in the mail, bleach wipes. I put on sunscreen and a pleated mask my mom made, packing a second mask just in case. I walked down to a park I’ve never been to, although it is only about a mile and a half away. I walked around a lake and ambled through some woodsy paths and read at a picnic table for awhile. The park is a designated “Important Bird Area” and I did see some important birds: many mallard duck couples, some swans, bold red-winged blackbirds, a black-and-white warbler. There were soft gray birds high and low–I think they are catbirds–and I saw one snatch a bright orange-and-white moth out of midair. I startled a few snakes. I was startled by an enormous crane passing like a low-flying airplane.

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I turned off my phone notifications because I don’t like to handle my phone much while I’m out, but I had already seen a few messages before I left. Happy birthday! Hope you have a wonderful day! Enjoy the sunshine!

And you know what? I did. And I think I am happy. If anything, I am lucky–and busy, and loved.

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