“If you go slowly enough, six or seven months is an eternity—if you let it be—if you forget old things, and learn new ones. Even a week can last forever.”
Rick Bass, Winter

"In the midst of winter, I finally learned that there was in me an invincible summer."
Albert Camus

Friday, March 9, 2012

Day 93: Intelligent Optimists

Cindy just introduced me to a magazine called Ode: News for Intelligent Optimists.  The title cracked me up.  As a cautious optimist, I'd like to see what the smart hopeful set has to say.  She wanted me to read an article about Jim Cannon, the military strategist and visionary who wants the military to retool to save the planet and who inspired the comic film, The Men Who Stare at Goats.  Her son would like to join the navy when it becomes a branch of this man's First Earth Battalion and devotes itself not to war but to measuring rising ocean temperatures and melting polar ice along with policing dumping and illegal fishing in the seas. 

Cindy cultivates optimism.  She will wake up one morning and say, I haven't baked yet in 2012, and suddenly, there are scones.  As I write this post, my feet are resting near the quilt she made for Zoe from all our tossed-away bandanas from the groomers.  She is anti-gloom.  She is anti-clutter.  And she is definitely pro-beauty. (For more about Cindy, go here and there.)

For all these reasons, she didn't like the fact that we had Zoe's many medicines and herbs in a priority airmail box on the counter.  I'd written in my messy scrawl, "Do not move this" because I knew it was an ugly box to have lying next to the fruit bowl when the counter is clean and the light comes through the stained glass windows and the river glints just beyond, but I needed it to stay there so that everything would be easy to find.  She had written Zoe on it neatly in red and turned the box around, but that didn't satisfy her.  Who wants to look at an ugly airmail box day after day? 

"I have a beautiful box my sister gave me to put spa things in, in our bathroom," she said.  "You should use that."

the nice box on the left, the provisional on the right
"But don't you need it?"  I pictured a fragrant collection of herbal soaps and bath salts and oils, the smells of lavender and lemon balm, and then I glanced back at the cardboard box filled with vials of metronomic chemotherapy drugs, the Imodium and anti-nausea pills.  If I could imagine we were plying Zoe with spa treatments, it would make it all go down easier--at least for me.

Of course now I will have to scheme up something nice to give Cindy in return, something she doesn't know she needs, just like this box is for us.

"I really don't need it," she said.  "It doesn't fit in our bathroom.  And you can give it back to me, when you don't need it."

When you don't need it.  

We don't always sugar-coat things around here.  We're often quite frank.  But the family member whose medicine was going in that lovely box was currently getting her rump patted by the box donor, and we three know said family member to be one of the most intelligent of the optimists in our extended multi-species pack. 

My husband and I had just returned from Agway where we bought more dog food.  "What size, do you think?" I had asked my husband.  An innocent question, under other circumstances.

Without discussion we picked the biggest bag there was.  He had to haul it over his shoulder and he looked a little like Santa Claus.

The man behind the counter had gotten us onto this brand when the one we were using, from Canada, started playing hard to get.  So he knows what's going on with us and why we want the healthiest kind we can find.

My husband eased this heavy load near the cash register for scanning and said, "We're optimistic."

Zoe, of course, did not decipher the meaning behind the giant bag of food and the pretty new box, nor did she ponder the faith and aesthetics behind choices that would allow bulk and beauty, respectively, to replace the provisional.  She lives in the forever now.  And that's how we found her just now, on her favorite rug, waiting for another tiresome photo shoot to be over so she could get down to what matters: asking to go on a walk.

P.S.  As an intelligent optimist, I knew that my sister, Mira Bartok, was going to win the National Book Critics Circle Award for The Memory Palace last night, and she did!  She called me when we were having dinner to tell me.  Yea to Mira Bee!  Yea to sisters!  And Yea to the transformative power of literature to take a sad life story and make it resonant and beautiful and true and wise: a story that has touched countless lives.


  1. Lovely musings on optimism. (And a big congrats to your sister! That's such a honor.)

  2. So nice to hear from you, Jo(e). I read your blog every day and love it.