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Posts Tagged ‘optimism’

memorial church memorial hall harvard university
I was left to my own devices
Many days fell away with nothing to show

And the walls kept tumbling down
In the city that we love
Great clouds roll over the hills
Bringing darkness from above

But if you close your eyes
Does it almost feel like nothing’s changed at all?
And if you close your eyes
Does it almost feel like you’ve been here before?

How am I gonna be an optimist about this?
How am I gonna be an optimist about this?

—Bastille, “Pompeii”

I fell in love with this song about a year ago, when my husband started performing it with his a cappella group, the Mass Whole Notes. (I know I’m a little late to the Bastille party. J is constantly discovering brand-new music, the way I am always finding new books. But my musical tastes skew several years behind the times.)

“Pompeii” entered J’s performance repertoire around the time I lost my job (which happened a year ago this week). I have found myself humming it often this year, because it captures perfectly the in-between state in which I find myself.

Some things – in fact, many important things – in my life have not changed since last May: I live in the same light-filled apartment. I go to the same tiny church. I call my mother once a week, text my sister about Friends lines and my nephews, talk about golf and movies with my dad. I read scads of books and write lots of reviews. I am married to the same generous, funny, understanding man.

I also spend my weekdays in the same neighborhood where I’ve worked for three years now. Every morning, I sling the same two bags over my shoulder and head for the Red Line subway platform near my house. I get off in Harvard Square, looking up at the same brick buildings and tall, gracious towers. I head to Darwin’s for a spicy chai latte before walking to my office.

If I close my eyes – though that is dangerous when navigating a Cambridge sidewalk – I can almost pretend that nothing has changed.

harvard yard autumn light leaves

And yet.

This spring finds me working in a sixth-floor office, with new colleagues, in a temporary role. This job is different both from the one I lost last spring and the other temp gig I held from Thanksgiving until mid-March. All three roles have been at Harvard, doing communications work, but there are varying duties and projects, distinctive office cultures to navigate, constantly shifting expectations. I am a person who likes to have a plan, and the past year has made that difficult.

I have been constantly surprised by how the job hunt has played havoc with my sense of self: as an individual, a writer, a career woman, a part of the Harvard community. Previously, I had never thought of myself as a person defined by her career. But the lack of a job, a title, a defined place in a working community, has made me question so many facets of my identity and the stories I tell myself. Also, inevitably, it has caused a shift in my relationships, most notably the ones with my former co-workers. I don’t blame anyone for that; it is simply what happens when things change.

On some days, the refrain of “Pompeii” thrums through my head in a depressing rhythm: How am I gonna be an optimist about this? That question is harder to answer when I’m struggling with (more) rejection, or simply having a tough day. I don’t always know how to be an optimist about this. I do remember, usually, how to keep going forward (make a cup of tea, write another paragraph, answer another email), so mostly, that’s what I do.

On some days, though, I am able to simply be grateful for what is now: this job, this office, this paycheck. This group of quirky, sarcastic, whip-smart colleagues. This routine, which still contains so many things and people I love. This neighborhood, with its uneven brick sidewalks and colorful local businesses and budding spring flowers, that has become a part of me. This chance to spend my days doing meaningful work – even if I don’t know quite where it will lead.

Some days I teeter on the edge of nostalgia, and it’s tempting to slip inside it, like a familiar cardigan. If I close my eyes and burrow down into it, I can pretend for a moment that nothing has changed at all. But the truth – the harsh, rich, complicated, often beautiful truth – is that things have changed, both in ways I can point to and in ways I still can’t quite articulate.

For now, although I’m sure I’ll keep humming this song, I’m adopting a slightly different approach. Because after this turbulent year, I am still here. I still get to walk through the city I love – dark clouds, tumbling walls and all. It’s not always easy, but I’m doing my best to keep my eyes wide open.

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“I wish you’d stay home, Anne. I don’t see what you want to go away and leave us for.”
“I don’t exactly want to, Davy, but I feel I ought to go.”
“If you don’t want to go you needn’t. You’re grown up. When I‘m grown up I’m not going to do one single thing I don’t want to do, Anne.”
“All your life, Davy, you’ll find yourself doing things you don’t want to do.”

Anne of the Island, L.M. Montgomery

anne-of-the-island

Anne Shirley learned this lesson earlier than I did. As an orphan who was dependent on other families for her welfare, she spent her childhood caring for babies rather than playing with her friends (she didn’t have any) or going to school. Once she came to Green Gables she had more freedom and many new friends, but she still had to do the chores (such as sewing “unimaginative” patchwork squares) that she didn’t want to do. By the time she’s preparing to head off to Redmond, in Anne of the Island, she understands what it is to tackle an unpleasant chore, or to have mixed feelings about a course of action and stick to her decision anyway.

I’ve been remembering these words recently as I (reluctantly) wait on increasingly chilly subway platforms, squeeze onto crowded commuter trains, squint at my monthly budget, or deal with nagging life admin items such as doctor’s appointments. Every day, I find myself doing things I don’t want to do – which would shock eight-year-old Davy Keith. But I do them anyway – sometimes because I have to, sometimes because I know that my life (or someone else’s) will be better if I take care of this or that task. Most of the time, I try not to gripe about it, though I do my fair share of grumbling about bad weather, long lines or high prices.

Anne is one of my heroines not only because of her starry-eyed optimism, but because of her honesty about the small trials and victories of everyday life. She wasn’t complaining when she made the statement above; she was gently chiding Davy, perhaps, but she was also admitting matter-of-factly that life – even a good life – isn’t all ease and pleasure.

Sometimes, on a gray day or one filled with not-so-appealing tasks, it helps to remember Anne’s clear-eyed words, and tuck them into my pocket as I take a deep breath and tackle my next dull or irritating task. Even Anne had to do all sorts of things she didn’t want to do. And she managed to maintain a cheery and hopeful spirit – which means I can cultivate one, too.

(The cover image is from Wilfair. That’s the edition I own, though it always bothered me that Anne is wearing pink – she never wears pink, because of her red hair!)

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