Pollyanna, Meet Covid Plus
Could noticing grackles make you happier? Debi Goodwin says yes.
Each evening in the late winter, in the hour before darkness, the grackles settled in the bare branches at the top of the tallest tree in my yard. Perhaps they always did and I never noticed. In the winter of Covid I saw more things: which birds ruled the feeders, when the light shifted on my walls as the days lengthened, how, despite masks and parkas, people acted with warmth. Usually, I am not home in this season. I hate winter and I find a warm, cheap destination, preferably in the southern hemisphere with its longer days, to escape winter’s cold grip and darkness.
“Embrace winter,” my friends told me this year when travel was off the books. I tried. I hiked the beautiful woods of our region, centered my social time around long walks with friends on my town streets. And then I fell. During a hike. On an icy slope. I smashed my fibula and tore ligaments and ended up in a cast for five weeks before graduating to an airboot. And my isolation became complete. I called it Covid Plus.
But I did not despair. A saying came to my mind from a poem by the 17th century Japanese poet Mizuta Masahide. “The barn’s burnt down. Now I can see the moon.” I’m not saying I didn’t feel sorry for myself, eat too much chocolate and waste too many hours on Netflix and computer games. But I did go after the moon too. I turned my attention to books I hadn’t read, to my draft of a novel that needed the focused revision only hours of spare time could support. I paid more attention to the birds in my wonderful backyard and watched for the first fuzz of spring on my trees. And had a heart full of gratitude for friends who brought groceries and neighbors who organized to bring me hot suppers.
Maybe by this point you’re saying, ‘what a Pollyanna,’ and not in a good way, in the way I dismissed goodie-goodies who looked at the world with excessive optimism in my cynical, cool years. As a girl, I admired Pollyanna, at least as Hayley Mills portrayed her in the 1960 movie. I liked how in a comic version of the story I once read, bullies pushed Pollyanna down in the mud but her hand hit a coin which she waved at them in triumph. I recently read the 1913 novel by Eleanor H. Porter to recall that spirit. It’s a sappy novel, the non-Pollyanna critic in me would say, but it reminded me of Pollyanna’s glad game which involved finding the bright side in every situation. One story told how she first found gladness after she received crutches instead of a longed-for doll in a charity box because the crutches reminded her that she was lucky not to need them. It reminded me that my crutches were temporary and there’s some Pollyanna left in me yet.
It’s not that I believe good can come from every situation. It’s just that I’ve come, through tears and hard work, to recognize the difference between despair and setbacks.
My husband endured a lifetime of pain before a brilliant surgeon rebuilt his hip and leg when he was in his late fifties. His pain vanished and his energy for adventures and creative projects returned. So, when he died of cancer four years later – four years ago -– I did despair. I could see no moon worth looking at after his death. I could see no reason to be alive, except to keep my daughter from greater grief. At a family Christmas in the raw months after his death, I explained to a relative how unfair I found it that such a brilliant, compassionate man who had just entered a peaceful, pain-free phase of his life should die in more pain; and she said, “well, maybe he did what he came to do.” I held my arm straight out like I was a traffic cop protecting my heart, and said, “Stop.” I did not then, and I do not now, believe there is always a reason for everything. As the saying goes: “shit happens.”
But what the barn/moon story has always told me is that we have to adapt, we have to look for the positive in life, even if it’s not the life we planned to live. After my husband’s death I soaked up every grief book I could and tried every trick in those books. The one that stuck was a gratitude journal. Each day, I wrote three things I could be grateful for. At first, I found little to be thankful for: ‘’got out of bed, washed my clothes, ate vegetables from the garden.” But slowly the trio of daily items expanded as did my life.
Sounds kind of Pollyannaish, I know, but I think the practice saved me. Science has shown what the Buddhists have always known: that we can change the neuroplasticity of our brains through mindfulness practices. My practice shifted my thinking to a more positive approach to life, one open to giving and receiving kindnesses, one open to simple pleasures, natural wonders and new friends.
I still believe shit happens. I still get down. And I know Covid has brought despair to many lives. But for those of us grieving the loss of the world as we know it, an attitude of gratitude, a search for even the quarter of the moon in the night sky could keep us sane. Thanks, Pollyanna.
Debi Goodwin is a former documentary producer with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. She is the author to two non-fiction books. Her latest, A Victory Garden For Trying Times, is memoir on grief and gardening. When she can travel, she is also a travel writer. Photos by Debi Goodwin.