Wednesday, June 1, 2022

Hope is the thing with petals

In 1976, I completely missed spring.  I was in Ann Arbor, living for two months with a friend and her husband, trying to finish up my master's degree from the University of Michigan so I could start a Ph.D. in the fall at the University of Manitoba.  If I were simply there to finish a couple of English classes, this would have been a fairly easy spring.  But there were complications.  First, I was taking a very interesting course on the psychology of perception.  Although I had the principles down cold, it became clear from my mark on the midterm that simply knowing what we knew about perception was inadequate.  I had to tell the professor how we knew what we knew, which meant memorizing the dates of experiments, the names of experimenters, and the methodology of the experiments.  I clearly did very well on the final exam, but sadly, I'm afraid that all those dates and names obscured my memory of the principles. 

Second, in order to graduate I had to buff up my second language, which was Russian.  Luckily, an old professor was more than willing to give me tutorials and practice translations, but this came on top of memorizing names and dates. Before bed every night, I settled down to do another practice translation.  

Then there was the husband of the friend I was staying with.  Ginny was gone for a couple of weekends to conferences of librarians, and the husband and I discovered we both had frustrations with our relationships.  This resulted in a lot of long drives in the countryside around Ann Arbor, which is very beautiful in a winding hilly-foresty sort of way.  No, it came to nothing more.  The drives in the beautiful landscape were as far as the romance went. But it did confirm that I really didn't want to return to Winnipeg but had no idea what else to do.  As I spent hours in the final days looking at job postings in various papers, I couldn't help ask what I was doing with two useless degrees besides seeking what I had been told would be a third useless degree.  In the seventies, there was almost no hiring done in universities.  

Each day I walked the three miles from Ginny's house into campus and then walked back.  Ann Arbor is a lovely town, yet with stresses practical and existential roiling in my head, my eyes were turned inward.  I simply missed spring.  Just before I left to return to Winnipeg, I noticed that the maple trees had full-sized leaves on them.  When did that happen?

I've already complained here about this spring--the spring that wasn't.  The crabapple tree in my back yard has, for the thirty-two years I've lived here, bloomed on May long weekend.  Except for this year.  I worked very hard last Saturday to get my garden planted and my lawn fertilized before the rain showed up on Sunday, and the result came with a kind of euphoria.  At seventy-two, I can still work vigorously in the garden for hours on end.  But the soil simply isn't warm enough for seeds to sprout.  We're going to have another windy day today and overnight temperatures this week will be in the low single digits.  I've planted nasturtiums to add their bright colour and flavour to our salads this summer, but I'm not sure when they'll want to poke their heads above the soil.  Ever hopeful, I keep them watered.

But here's the wonderful things about spring this year:  I have paid careful attention to every shift.  I've noticed when the trees got fuzzier and when that fuzz actually became a brilliant lime green. You can only see this from a distance, as if perspective is one of the things you need to practice.  I've been out to talk to my irises every day to see if they are going to give me flowers.  At first I thought they weren't, and that I needed to dig them up and thin them, but last night I saw the thinnest, most transparent stems and flowers growing out of the spiky fans of leaves.  They seem paper thin and I can't imagine them turning into three-dimensional flowers, but I'm hoping they will.  

Last week, I sat on my little gardening stool and patiently sorted out the clematis.  Sometimes growth comes off old wood and sometimes the old wood simply needs to be carefully extricated from the tangle.  So I was out looking for little hopeful sprouts on old wood and pulling out the detritus.  Last night I went to see how they were doing and found that new growth has somehow emerged from the soil and overtaken the old growth.  How did it do that?  I tucked it poetically into the trellis so it wouldn't mass up on top and then fall to the back so the flowers are invisible. 

The crabapple tree in my back yard was old when I moved in thirty-two years ago, and I could see no signs of blossoms among the tiny vestigial leaves.  I thought maybe it had outlived its fertility.  Yet it not only bloomed last weekend, almost exactly a week late, but its blooms have held on during the rain and the wind. Those petals are so vulnerable and transparent, yet they hang on until they've done their work and the tree can set fruit.

Yesterday, Nikka and I checked the peat pots she'd planted our cucumbers in.  There are no leaves, but there's this tiny arc of stem pushing its way through the soil that we know means leaves are on their way.

All this is like hope.  Not like optimism.  I'm out of optimism.  I don't think we'll go back to something that looks normal after the pandemic; I'm not sure there will be an 'after.' I'm not optimistic about the war in Ukraine, and I don't think either the Russians or the Ukrainians are ready to quit once the Donbas is taken by the Russians or re-taken by the Ukrainians once the U.S. weapons arrive. 

Is optimism tied to age?  I was not optimistic in my teens and twenties.  We go to dark movies at art house cinemas and read Russian novels. At that age our shit-detectors are too good to be optimistic.  There was a stupid war in Vietnam and there were too few black students on the Ann Arbor campus--though enough to gather a good number for a demonstration.  And then, ohmygod, there was Watergate.  If anything could make me cynical, it was Watergate.  I lived in Boston that year, working at Brandeis University, about an hour's bus ride away. I began my day by picking up the New York Times at the corner pharmacy and reading it on the way to work.  When I got home, we turned on our tiny tv and watched the highlights of the day's testimony.  I brushed my teeth, rinsed, and repeated next morning.  If this wasn't going to make me cynical, I don't know what was. 

Optimism might have arrived with a wonderful baby and by feeling at home in the Ph.D. program at the University of Manitoba.  It took a big dip during a divorce, only to spike when I moved to Regina where I found a lovely city and a welcoming English Department.  It took a downward turn, more or less, with 9/11, with more stupid American wars in the Middle East. Obama made me optimistic, but then it took another sudden dip when Trump was elected--his election only highlighting some of the significant problems alive in the world. Optimism is a way of thinking--or a way of not thinking.  Of assuming things will be fine, no watering of irises or hilling of potatoes needed. Veronica didn't sleep through the night for two years; I may have been too tired to resist the pull of optimism. 

But I believe in hope. I think of those tiny little stems that are pushing their way through the soil and realize that I know exactly what those mean:  I've checked seeds hundreds of times in my life, so I recognize an unfurling seedling when I see one.  But I've also kept them watered so they could bloom. That's hope.  Hope at its best is active, as my brilliant friend Katherine Arbuthnott argued in an essay she wrote for a group trying to cope with the trauma of climate change. When researchers studied the hope of people concerned about climate change, they uncovered something surprising, Katherine tells us:  

"Only active hope was associated with pro-environmental actions, including support for environmental policies. Most importantly, participants reported that active hope was most strongly evoked by seeing others working to solve problems, both directly and indirectly....This suggests that the actions and communications of local individuals and groups are particularly important for encouraging and maintaining active hope. In a social species such as ours, it seems that the actions of every person matter because they can counter the ever-present news of climate inaction from our business and political leaders."

When it comes to hope, small actions matter.  I think I've written before--but it bears repeating--that the reason homo sapiens thrived when other hominids did not is that we're social learners.  We're good at doing things we've seen others do.  That means hope is catching and, like those tiny cucumber seeds, blooms in the small actions you take, the small actions you inspire in other people.  Who knows?  You might even inspire yourself.

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