The Power of Grumpiness

A late-summer bloomer

A late-summer bloomer

From August through the end of the growing season, the lazy gardener grows ever lazier. And seriously grumpy. In August, syrup-thick ninety-five-degree days broil hosta, lilac (Yes, there is one that’s hardy here-it’s called ‘Miss Kim.’), and heuchera leaves to a crispy, rippled brown. The echinacea are a wave of burned black seedheads, and the accursed black walnut trees have already started to litter the yard.

By late September, the garden is looking positively tragic, awash in dead leaves and vigorous weeds; the potted plants are wilting with neglect; and I am hard-pressed to care. I think this may signal some deep character flaws that I am not prepared to face right now.

To make matters worse, the promised luminosity of early October has mostly failed to materialize this year. I count on the early fall to restore my energy, to launch me back into the garden under a sparkling blue sky with that pencil-line, haze-free horizon that usually disappears around June 3rd and returns several weeks after Labor Day.

Am I choosing to remember some kind of Platonic ideal autumn that never really existed? Maybe so, but as it happens, I do write in a day planner every day, recording a few events of the day and, very often, adding a few little symbols that denote weather phenomena. A little cloud with dots below for sprinkles, lines below for heavy rain…you get the idea. Flipping back through the little notebook, I’m seeing a few little suns here and there, and a whole lotta cloud symbols with something or other falling out of them.

Not only do I not feel like working in the garden, a sodden muckpile of leaf litter and half-eaten, squirrel-spittled walnuts…I do not even want to look at it. Right now, it doesn’t look like an achievement or an improvement upon whatever came before. It looks like a host of problems to solve. Mildewed leaves to rake, seven-foot high weeds to hack down and pile up somewhere (and then wonder what to do with next), puddles of water breeding a host of mosquitoes that will form whining clouds around my face when I do finally face the backlog of garden maintenance.

Me, having a "good attitude" whilst on vacation

Changing elevations in August radically improves my attitude

Maybe this is entirely the wrong attitude. I’m OK with that. Because Barbara Ehrenreich has in effect given me the go-ahead to occasionally act like a sour-puss. In her new book, Bright Sided, she suggests the “power of positive thinking” may just be ruining this country. I like it!

I haven’t, um, actually read the book or anything, but here’s my take on it. Granted, it can’t hurt to have a “good attitude” about things when the IRS audits the living shit out of you, or when you are diagnosed with something awful or when you acquire a case of poison ivy that makes you look like an alien emissary from one of the more horrific Star Trek episodes. A good attitude makes you feel better, and it makes other people less likely to avoid you in the midst of all these hardships you are now suffering.

The problem is, a lot of people think that “positive thinking” can actually cure the disease and the poison ivy and make the IRS decide that they agree with your deductions after all. To me, this is bullshit of the most nefarious variety. The minute a positive outlook–by itself, with no additional action on your part– gains the power to heal you, make you rich, or solve your problems, then we have to conclude that people with financial problems or a disease they can’t “lick” have brought these horrors upon themselves. Not only do they have to suffer the original ailment or difficulty, but now they have to contend with their own failure of faith or optimism to fix all their problems. Ehrenreich specifically points out, additionally, that merely thinking “positively” about layoffs or hungry people or folks without health care undermines social justice movements. Sometimes real change is needed, somebody’s got to get on with the steadfast hard work, fueled by a little righteous anger, to make the change happen.  Facile smiles and pats on the back, choruses of “It’ll be OK!” don’t produce a civil rights movement or reform health care.

See? Inna DOES smile!

See? Inna DOES smile!

I appreciate the value of optimism to keep us happier, but what about when it’s not connected to reality at all? If your best friend dies, is it not OK to be not just sad, but &$^#ing demolished over it, mad as hell, and even a bit depressed for awhile? Why shouldn’t we rant and shake our fists a bit when something awful happens? My wonderful Russian friend Inna laughs at the way we Americans always tend to smile and say everything is OK, even when it’s not. “You never complain,” she says. “We always do.”

I’m not inveighing against hope, just giving folks the option of feeling trampled down by circumstance once in a while. I personally don’t have any reason to feel that life has dealt me a heavy blow right now, but I have more than a few beloved friends who have every right to feel that way. And I’m inviting them to call me anytime they feel like it and say, “I am #$%@ing pissed off right now.” And to cuss as much as they please.

Hope is fine. I just need for it to be connected in some way with reality, with something tangible, rather than just floating around in the ether, a creature from the bottom of Pandora’s box. Hope with an object to fix upon, now that has power. It gives you something to focus on, and then a starting point from which to launch your plan of action. Because to me, it’s action, and not mere positive thinking, that has the potential to change our lives. The inmates I met last week, women (some of them) serving life sentences, and taking classes towards an associate’s degree–is it the very height of futility to change a life that may never see the free world again? I don’t think so. I think it’s incredibly brave.

As for the garden, I’m fully aware that being in an upbeat frame of mind is not going to clear out the weeds and the walnuts, the leaves or the spent blooms. But just now, walking by the sun bed, I noticed the sedum “Autumn Joy” blooming, and I felt a spark of hope. I do appreciate a late bloomer. I think it may just give me the energy to get out and weed, maybe clean up the beds for winter.

"Autumn Joy" on a day that was actually sunny

"Autumn Joy" on a day that was actually sunny

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