Yesterday, I had the TV on for background noise while working on a writing project, and there was a dude on Naked and Afraid claiming he had nothing but good vibes while being absolutely devoured by mosquitos. By contrast, his female companion and co-contestant was quite freaked out and complained lots. He had less tolerance for those complaints — i.e. her honesty about her discomfort — than she had for the mosquitos.
Of course, I found it hilarious that his supposed good vibes were so powerless against the agitation he felt as a result of how his partner met her own needs. His belief that his (selectively) good attitude was the only acceptable response to the mosquitos reminded me of a relatively new concept: “toxic positivity.” It insists that if we just turn that frown upside down, all will be well. Or better, at least.
While I’m not a Debbie Downer, I am a known skeptic of silver lining theories, and it’s refreshing that some positivity is being called out as harmful. Why must we take everything in stride?
The idea of “toxic positivity” wasn’t born during the pandemic, but it does seem like the term is having a moment. It’s similar to the way in which Tr*mp and so many of his deplorables were poster children for “toxic masculinity.” They didn’t invent it, but they gave us a picture to put next to it in the dictionary. At least that’s behind us. Now that there’s a new administration, toxic masculinity is a thing of the past. That’s sarcasm. Look on the bright side, I still have my sense of humor. The bad news for the sun-will-come-out-tomorrow crowd is that it’s a dry, mostly dark and humorless humor; I’m a Yankee through and through.
Speaking of being a Maine girl, I do know a thing or two about pulling myself up by the bootstraps. I suppose there’s some positivity flowing through the veins of that idiom. I accept that. But what it means for me is that even though I refuse to take everything in stride, I intend to survive.
The form survival is taking right now is double-masking when I have to go out and telling anyone who’ll listen that I’m getting more and more fearful. Quite often, that confession gets me looks of concern, and those looks continue to catch me by surprise. Have people numbed to the idea that being around other humans could be deadly? I’m by no means obsessed with it, but I am being more careful than most, and news of more aggressive variants is the opposite of what I need to hear.
But don’t you dare take my honesty about my discomfort — or what the Naked and Afraid dude would call whining — as a sign of weakness. I intend to survive. I’m sorry if I’m ruining your pandemic experience by actually behaving like we’re in a pandemic.
And anyway, “crankypants” is kind of my brand. It’s listed in most of my social media profiles. Like a warning label. The call to be positive (i.e. stop being negative) is a close cousin to shame, and I won’t have it. Society seems to need some of us to hold back. Those interests are not aligned with mine. It’s the COVID-era version of you’d be “prettier if you smiled more.”
In the opening of this post, I mentioned a writing project. I had two of them going, but a third flirted with me over the weekend, and I followed her everywhere. I gave her — sexy, shiny object — all of my writing time on Saturday. I’m going to need a way to focus on one project at a time to make any progress at all (I think), but I do know why new ideas keep tempting me: writing toward a project is new to me, and I’m not good at it. So I keep squirming away.
For years, when assembling manuscripts, I’ve been writing random poems and then seeing what themes they have in common. I’ve used those existing connections as organizing principles, guiding what belongs and what doesn’t. Currently, I have the themes up front, and I don’t have enough poems for them yet. There will still be lots of surprise in the writing. I’m not dictating any particular outcomes. But the assignment I’ve given myself is to write in a predetermined universe. It doesn’t come naturally.
I pulled the collage stuff out of boxes yesterday (yes, more evidence of squirming away from those projects) and plan to leave it out on the table for now. It’s already inspired me to cut and compose and glue.
I won’t be able to tolerate the mess for too long, but I’m going to live with it a while. The materials buzz a bit. Like mosquitos. I give them a swipe as I walk by. Something interesting emerges from my discomfort. It’s almost necessary for my process. The stewing. The examining. The digging. Faces don’t need smiles to be beautiful.