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Thursday, November 21, 2019

Pollyanna, Mr. Rogers, and the Trials of November

And so it began....

November so far has been a rough month, starting with the weather. Unusually early snow, unexpected in its quantity as well as its timing (calendar winter not yet arrived), was a trial to all of northern Michigan. Even the business provided to the guys who do the plowing was not an unalloyed cause for rejoicing on their part, because many of those same guys do lawn maintenance and hadn’t yet gotten up all the fall leaves. In fact, many of the leaves had not yet fallen and are even now coming down on top of the snow and making a real mess of things. 

Autumn storms also brought additional shorline erosion, not as gradual loss but overnight disappearance. 

Well, what would Pollyanna say, that character in the novel by Eleanor Porter (1868-1920)? Pollyanna was a little World War I-era orphan who pulled crutches as her gift from the Christmas barrel instead of the doll she wanted. Well, she got through the trials of her life by playing the “glad game,” finding something to be glad about in every situation. The good thing about the crutches was — she didn’t need them! So if we apply the glad game to a blizzard that kept people home from work and school on one November Monday, we see how lucky we were. Spared forest fire, hurricane, and tornado, most of us were able to take refuge in place rather than being forced to flee our homes. And while we may not have chosen to have it in early November, who doesn’t love a snow day?

And there's no denying it was beautiful.

Trial #2, the impeachment hearings, is more of a challenge to a player of the glad game. The president, of course, feels persecuted, but the whole country is suffering, and the suffering goes back to the campaign that led to the 2016 election, when partisan divisions became more than acrimonious and turned downright nasty. Also, unlike a snow day, we can’t turn the impeachment hearings into fun by baking muffins and making hot chocolate. 

Impeachment is always regrettable. Whatever anyone’s feelings and opinions about whatever president it involves, the impeachment process is an attempt to solve a worst-case scenario -- or what we have come to hope is the worst that can happen. And what if it isn’t? If things got worse? Much worse has happened in many countries around the world over the course of human history. And so even sleep provides no surefire escape: “Perchance to dream! Ay, there’s the rub!” To have the country’s leadership invade our hours of sleep seems a most egregious violation, does it not?

As a nation, though, we have suffered and survived periods of horrible political division before this. Without harking back as far as the Civil War, I think back to violent protests over desegregation in the 1950s, Vietnam in the 1960s, and the rash of nightmare assassinations then, too. Surely, in those times as well as these, lies were spread, friendships destroyed, families torn apart. 

But it does seem that lies travel faster in these times — almost at the speed of light. “Misinformation,” as it’s called, has become an industry, prolific and profitable. So it’s hard to find anything to be glad about in our present whole situation, isn’t it? 

And yet — as I must remind myself almost hourly — we can be glad that the situation is being addressed by hearings in Congress rather than by military coup; that men and women of courage and principle are willing to put their devotion to country above political expediency; and that we still have reliable sources of news and can hear testimony for ourselves rather than having it filtered and presented in Newspeak.

Overwhelmed, we have to carry on.

Well, the blizzard was regional. The hearings are national, with international implications. But of course each of us has, besides, always, our personal trials. I will not go into mine, because it’s an old story — the behemoth in the room — and I would be either preaching to the (tiny) choir or beating my head pointlessly against the wall. 

What I can be and am glad of in the current global retail situation are those individuals, both the ones who saw the writing on the wall from the start and those only belatedly seeing where present trends would take us all, if continued — that small but perhaps expanding contingent — the people who value and support real bookstoresI’m glad of every visitor to my bookstore who doesn’t waste my time with idle questions about business but asks instead about books and takes the time to browse seriously. I'm glad of the many wonderful authors I've met over the years. And I am especially glad of and thankful for every single customer, neighbor or stranger, who leaves with a purchased book (or more than one), because that’s what it means to “love bookstores.”

Strange as it may seem, then, when I take the time to dig down under what I can’t help perceiving at times as the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,” I’m still glad to have chosen this life in the slow, challenging, difficult lane strewn with trials and tribulations. Not giving thanks for the hardships, you understand, but grateful for the opportunity to scratch out a living without compromising my principles and extraordinarily grateful for having a coterie of loyal supporters in that endeavor. 

I’m so glad my goal is not now, never was, and never will be world domination and expansion into outer space! What could be better than our green planet? I’m glad to be able to say that I have invested instead in myself and my own small-town vision.

Now, as for that small-town angle, a couple paragraphs above I used the phrase “neighbor or stranger,” but I’ve been reading quite a bit lately (as have you, perhaps, the new Tom Hanks film getting quite a lot of press) about the late Fred Rogers, who so famously and unforgettably asked on his television show, "Won't you be my neighbor?" And reading about Mr. Rogers, I can't help looking into the way I live my life and asking myself some pretty hard questions. 

Mr. Rogers spoke directly to children, to all of their fears and confusions, and also to the confused and frightened children inside every adult. I wish I could say that I always do the same, but that wouldn't be true. More often than I want to admit, I respond too quickly (even when I attempt to hide that response) from a feeling that I have been attacked or insulted or dismissed as inconsequential when there was no such intention in the words that wounded me. 

And what if there really had been an intention to inflict pain? 

I think the possibility of intention to hurt is much rarer than our almost automatic response of self-defense, actually: my personal concerns are not the center of anyone else’s consciousness, and so what other people find important to say, whatever the context of our conversation, will seldom address my core concerns but simply express their own. But whether the words of another came from ignorance, thoughtlessness, or what looks like plain meanness do not matter at all if I think of them as the words of a child, which is how Mr. Rogers counseled us to respond to one another. 

Years ago I did substitute teaching and regular tutoring up at Northport School (one of many “side jobs” undertaken over time in order that my bookstore might survive). Teaching children wasn’t what I had been educated to do, and I quickly realized that subject matter (math or spelling or whatever) is only part of the job. Kids don’t leave their personal lives and feelings in their lockers when they come into the classroom, and sometimes they can say or even do hurtful to one another or even to their teachers. They can behave destructively. And if the behavior is not somehow checked they can be dangerous to themselves and others. 

My big take-away from those experiences was this: I never encountered a child I felt was really malicious. Bad behavior might result from frustration or hurt or embarrassment or fear or confusion, but it was always a reaction to something, never sui generis meanness. 

American society in our time has taken on a pretty mean look. Movies, “reality” television, business, politics — in all these realms, it seems that dirty tricks and name-calling are held up to us as behavior to emulate. Even “Pollyanna,” the name of the character in the old story, is generally used as a derogatory term, like Goody Two-Shoes. It’s like calling somebody “Stupid!” Kind of a dispiriting picture of twenty-first American culture, isn’t it?

A year or so ago I asked someone I don’t know all that well how she maintained her positive attitude. I really wanted to know. I needed her answer. Didn’t she sometimes feel overwhelmed by threats to free speech, truth, democracy, and the natural world (of which we’re all part, even when we forget the fact)? Didn’t she ever feel downright hopeless? I cannot quote her response exactly, but it was something like “Lead from your strength.” When speaking or writing, putting her words out in the world, she wanted those words to be encouraging and hopeful. 

We need those words.

Because we can all see the negative. What we need from each other are reminders that good things are true, too, maybe something we’ve overlooked or forgotten or just temporarily lost sight of, something good we can build on. I don’t know how many times I have sat down to write in a terrible mood but managed to find some small kernel of gratitude and hope, a kernel that grew as my sentences proliferated, and that's because I am aware of writing for a community and trying -- honestly! -- to draw and lead from my strength, although I may have to dig pretty deep some days to find it!

More than one good friend has told me in person or has written to me that they appreciate my ability to find joy in small, everyday sights and events. Whenever anyone says or writes something so complimentary, I feel compelled to tell them not to give me too much credit, because it can often be a huge effort for me to seek out those small joys, and that's true despite the fact that my life in general is really quite blessed. So if you're struggling, you're not alone. Many of us can slip all too easily into feeling overwhelmed and despondent, particularly in November. 

Even that lucky dog, Sarah, is not always wagging her tail.

But who wants or needs to hear the sob story of a fortunate person? The old Eric Berne book on transactional analysis, Games People Play, called that game “Ain’t It Awful?” Ick! Who wants to be invited to that party? Besides, commiseration even with real tragedy can be best in small doses, or it risks being counter-productive and exacerbating the misery.

And we all need the gift of light.

Pollyanna’s game was one she played to keep herself cheerful in trying situations and times. Fred Rogers went deeper, inviting everyone to be his neighbor. The two messages are different but compatible. Don’t we enjoy neighbors who bring cheer rather than gloom into our lives? And aren’t we better neighbors when we look for the good in others, wherever we meet them?

Neither path is always easy, and most of us will fall down over and over, but we can get up and try again each time. As little children must.

One word of caution to neighbors in northern Michigan: what looks like wet pavement these days can sometimes hide — yes, in plain sight! — a thin coating of ice, so step carefully! My own Wednesday morning fall on an icy sidewalk brought no terrible consequences, but not falling must be the standard for which we aim.

Namaste, as neighbor Paul says. Thanks, Paul! You are a good neighbor! And thank you, Maureen, for starting my bookstore Thursday off with your smiling face, and Karin, for the beautiful journal you made for me out of that old, falling-apart school book from Quebec, and all the rest of you who buy your books from me in Northport. And please, I urge you all, while I'm gone this winter, to take your custom down the road a piece to Leelanau Books in Leland and/or Bay Books in Suttons Bay. We will keep getting each other through, one day at a time.

Love to all,


Anonymous said...

Pamela, as a public school teacher, I was often (yearly!) “subjected” to all-district gatherings as a new year began. One thing that stuck with me from a speaker was this: Kids don’t “spond.” They respond. Yes, all comes to school with them, the good and the bad. It’s one of the many challenging things about teaching. (Posting as “anonymous “ because I can’t remem how to sign into my Google account. Bettie)

P. J. Grath said...

Thank you, sister Bettie!!! And what's true of kids going to school is true for all of us as we go about our daily lives. That's what I get from Mr. Rogers.

Candace said...

You ,my dear, are such a good writer...perhaps the future......

P. J. Grath said...

Candace, thank you so much for your support and for taking the trouble to leave a comment, even though I've gone back to moderating, which may deter some friends but is the only way to keep out spam. Sigh! I do appreciate the compliment. Happy Thanksgiving!

Kathy Wessell said...

Thanks for the inspiring words!

P. J. Grath said...

Thank you, Kathy! You are a sweetie-pie!

Barbara Stark-Nemon said...

What a lovely, poignant post.. I identify with so much of what you've written the "on the one hand... on the other hand" nature of how we react to the vicissitudes of life, and your wonderful photos. Wishing you and The Artist and Ms. Sarah a safe and easy journey to Arizona, and look forward to hearing from you from there!

P. J. Grath said...

Hi, dear Barbara. I must have really struck a nerve with this one, judging from comments. Having comments at all surprised me, too, as I just went back to "moderating," which means a comment doesn't appear until I say it's okay. I was just getting too much spam and not enjoying having to patrol and purge bot stuff on a daily basis.

Thank you for your good wishes. I do look forward to the end of the journey west -- arriving at our little cabin and nestling in for the winter. Best to you, too!