In Praise of Pollyanna

Yep, that Pollyanna. This isn’t a book review; I’m thinking of Pollyanna herself and her attitude, her “Glad Game.” She is practically synonymous with that positive view on life which is gratitude. We tend to think of gratitude as ‘saying thank you’ – but it runs a whole lot deeper than that. Gratitude isn’t just saying thank you for a gift, it’s a matter of what you recognize as a gift.

Pollyann statue (18902222832)Pollyanna is a surprisingly unpopular child in this day and age; I have even heard “Pollyanna” used as a put-down or insult, when someone is deemed to be unacceptably positive or optimistic. And there, in a nutshell, you have the two fundamental ways of looking at life, the positive and the negative, the Pollyanna and the put-down.

One looks for the best in everything, and is thankful for it. The other sees the worst in everything, and is continually discontented and grumbling. I myself have been far too often guilty of the second, but I have hopes of reform. It will no doubt take practice, but hey, what’s neuroplasticity for, if not holding out the hope of lasting change?

Epicurus and Epictetus, the two Epic philosophers (the management apologizes for the irresistible pun) both had something to say on the subject of gratitude. The former advised people to “not spoil what you have by desiring what you have not; remember that what you now have was once among the things you only hoped for.” The latter contented himself with noting that “he is a wise man who does not grieve for the things which he has not, but rejoices for those which he has.” Different words, same idea. Count your blessings.

ravensbruck_camp_barracksOf course, counting other people’s blessings for them is seldom a good idea – unless you’re sharing their difficulties as well. Consider the astoundingly thankful Betsie ten Boom, who, according to her sister Corrie, was even thankful for the fleas which infested their barracks in Ravensbrück concentration camp. Why? Because of Paul’s urging to “Be thankful in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you who belong to Christ Jesus.” Corrie admits to having been somewhat dubious, until she realized that their contraband Bible and totally forbidden Bible studies were escaping notice because none of the camp staff wanted to go in to inspect the place. God moves in mysterious (and sometimes itchy) ways…

So if Betsie could be grateful even for fleas in a concentration camp, surely we can find things to be grateful for in our own lives! Let us be honest with ourselves. Very few people will not be thankful if they are given an obvious gift, but the world still has an enormous number of basically negative people. I know – I’m a recovering negativeer myself. The problem isn’t that we are all basically pre-haunting Ebenezer Scrooges; the problem is that we don’t recognize most things as gifts. As G. K. Chesterton pointed out, “When we were children we were grateful to those who filled our stockings at Christmas time. Why are we not grateful to God for filling our stockings with legs?”

StockingsYou may answer, because we don’t all believe in God. And perhaps you don’t, but it is still necessary for you to be grateful, even if you find yourself in the somewhat awkward position of being full of undirected thanks. Because people who are not grateful, who are never thankful for all the good things in their life but take them all for granted and focus only on the shortcomings and lacks – these people do not have good lives.

I don’t mean to suggest that if you expect bad, bad happens, and if you expect good, good happens. Your attitude isn’t in complete control of what happens to you, but it does control how you experience what happens to you. Life is a mix of good and bad for everyone. What matters is what you focus on and what you skate over. Beauty isn’t the only thing in the eye of the beholder.

Two years ago, 689,000 Facebook guinea-pigs users were subjected to an experiment: if what they saw on Facebook was filtered to skew more positive or more negative, would what they wrote move in the same direction? Answer: yes. There is quite a bit of controversy about this – not least the ethics of experimenting on people’s emotional balance without their permission, or, indeed, knowledge – but it raises an interesting point.

Looking at flowers? No – looking at Facebook.

So be grateful. Not just for the obvious things, but for the unlikely ones, the ones that aren’t immediately recognizable; the ones that fade into the background of your life, the blessings that are too big to notice. Because there’s a reason why the word “ungrateful” is so often followed by the word “wretch”.

As with so many things in life, gratitude is easier if you get in the habit of it. The Caped Gooseberry and I finish each day tucked up in bed thanking God for the good things of the day. It’s something the Caped Gooseberry started in the earliest days of our marriage, and we’ve made it a habit. It works for us, and it makes sure that at least once each day, we focus on seeing the good. Even the worst day, when reviewed in memory, proves to have hidden pockets of blessings for which to be thankful.

And happily, there is no statute of limitations on gratitude! You can be thankful for the same thing(s) for years; you can be thankful for something you just remembered from years ago. There’s no correct technique to worry about, just have at it! But if you’ve forgotten how to be grateful, take a course of Pollyanna.

Unashamedly Weird

I am weird and I admit it.
Fortunately I have friends who don’t object to my weirdness.

The weirdest thing I’ve ever done – and my nearest and dearest may wish to contest this, but it’s the first thing that comes to mind – is to attend a party wearing a jester’s hat (red and yellow motley, with bells on) and while there, embark on a fly-killing spree.

Yes, I am the Death of Flies (also Ants, Fleas, and Other Parasitical Insects).


I make up for the Caped Gooseberry’s extreme pacifism by wreaking wholesale slaughter on the pestilential creatures whenever they cross my path.
The party in question was held at a house that seems to be regarded by flies as the paradise of paradises: warm, airy, and with lots of high ceilings where people can’t get at you with fly swats.

Over the course of the evening, with the assistance of a rolled-up newspaper, I managed to kill over a hundred flies. And how did my friends react? Being, as they are, such excellent and eccentric-friendly people, they pointed out the flies I had missed (or rather, hadn’t seen yet) – particularly if conveniently resting on someone else – and raised a ragged cheer when I hit the century.

Tendulkar closup

There are two lessons to be drawn from this:
1) why hide your weirdness? if you aren’t the kind of person who likes to make small talk with strangers at a party, do something else to make it a memorable evening.
2) choose your friends carefully. Friends who accept you as you are are worth their weight in gold.

Writing In Flow

:Keys to Enhanced Creativity
by Susan K Perry, Ph.D.

This book is based on the thesis which earned her that Ph.D. – hence the 8 page Appendix, 10 pages of biographical information on the writers who provided her research material (including Diana Gabaldon, Sue Grafton and Ursula K. LeGuin), 19 pages of notes and 12 pages of bibliographical references.

That said, it’s by no means a dry tome – Perry is primarily a writer, after all – and it holds the interest, whether you approach it from the academic level (what an intriguing phenomenon, I wonder how it works) or the personal (do others experience this the way I do and what can I pick up from them?

The “flow” referred to is that experience of losing awareness of the world around you, when the words just pour out of you, and time stops.

sorry but i lost track of time

The ‘sweet spot’, ‘the zone’ – whatever you call it, that’s what we’re talking about here. In great detail. Too much to cover here, so you’ll just have to read it yourself if you’re curious.

Chapters cover what flow is. How it happens. What it feels like. The keys to getting into flow – have a reason to write (“Don’t coerce yourself. Find your motivation.”), think like a writer, loosen up, focus in, balance among opposites. Writer’s block – the complete opposite of flow. And my personal favourite, Specific Techniques for Luring Flow.

These include: specific rituals or routines around writing, specific writing tools, time and space, music/silence/meditation, re-reading what you’ve written so far/reading others’ work to spark your creativity/stopping in the middle of something, eating/drinking/fasting, walking or jotting or knitting or doing physical work or tiring yourself out or climbing a tree or (like Colette), picking fleas off your cat.

Reading in Trees

Obviously, you can’t use all of these at once. (Picking fleas off a cat halfway up a tree while knitting? I think not.) But there’s plenty to play with here. Try something. See how you like it.
Try something else. Play with the combinations and wait for the tumblers to go click.

Peg and Bank Safe

Myself, I am drawn to the rituals/routines and the specific tools.

For example, I like to drink tea while I write. Actually, I like to drink tea most of the time, but I let myself have a lump of sugar in it if I’m writing. Perry notes, “As a writer who wishes to write regularly, you need to seek out ways to complexify your day to day life so that it remains fresh and inspiring to you,” but then, she is a full-time writer – a DDJ being more or less the antithesis of fresh and inspiring, yes?

As for writing tools, I believe I have mentioned before that I write with a Faber Castell fountain pen. It’s old enough that it uses actual ink from bottles, not plastic cartridges like my modern Parker does. I thought it used an Archimedes screw to draw up ink (how awesome would that be?) but apparently it doesn’t.

Archimedes screw

There is a screw-shaped bit, but it sucks up ink in the same way an eye-dropper sucks up eyedrops – it creates a vacuum, which nature abhors and therefore obligingly fills with ink.

Which is all to say that I will need to buy a bottle of ink sooner or later. Possibly later, given how long the ink lasts. For purposes of comparison, a disposable pen (ballpoint) contains between .27 and 2mL of ink. The smallest bottle of ink I’ve seen for sale contains 30mL.

At present I am using a fine blue ink bought for me (along with an elegant blue/green glass dip pen), by a friend visiting Venice. (Clearly, this is a Good Friend.) But what shall I use when the blue is finished?
When I started writing up notes for The Black Joke, I decided to use creamy paper (I bought a ream) and sepia ink from an old calligraphy kit, (the Made in China kind – bleeds like mad).

T on skin, ink bleeding

So when I read this book, two synapses touched, there was a minor explosion, and I thought ‘I could have a different colour ink for each Work In Progress – a thematic colour, as it were.’

Hard upon that thought followed the question “I wonder what the thematic colour for Tsifira would be?” At the moment, I lean towards a sort of amethysty purple – bright enough to be light and sparkly, but dark enough to be actually readable. Preferably even by candlelight, for the winter dark comes on apace.

Purple ink octopus

I shall leave you with a final thought to chew on from Susan Perry’s book: “Your own preferred way of thinking about and describing flow is as unique to you as your writer’s imagination. Learn something about your creative process by taking a moment to consider your own sense of what flow is and how you get there… If you construct your life around words, the right metaphor can be critical.”

What is your metaphor? What is your method? I’d love to know.