The Bright Side: Is There an Optimism Gene?
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The Bright Side: Is There an Optimism Gene?

Go ahead, call me a Pollyanna. I'm one of those super-cheerful moms who always sees the silver lining -- and I'm secretly happy my kids have inherited the sunny gene.

"What about these?" Ben asks as he holds up a pair of empty tissue boxes -- two of dozens we have down here, waiting to be recycled into art projects. He is 11 years old and standing in our basement, ankle-deep in freezing water. In 10 minutes it will be midnight. "There are tons more, and if we cut them open and taped them together, we could make a kind of channel for the water."

I don't have any better ideas. It has been a crazy winter: It snowed, snowed more and then kept snowing, like snow was the new air. Snow piled up in drifts so high that the children tunneled a maze of snow caves through the yard. Cardinals have been posing picturesquely, red against the white, as if they're waiting for us to paint them. Lovely. Truly. Only now, after a sudden thaw, melted snow is Niagara-ing over the baseboards and we are trying to move it across the floor, drainward.

"Oh, honey," I say. I'm tired and despairing. "That's a great idea -- but shouldn't you go to bed?" But he's already duct-taping boxes together. "Are you kidding me?" he says, his eyes shining. "I love this!"

And he does. He tries the box channel, which works briefly before sogging into uselessness. He tries taping together toilet tubes, plastic clamshells, wooden blocks; he sketches solutions on a piece of cardboard; he scratches his head and taps his chin like a caricature of a person problem-solving. The water rises and my husband, Michael, who is tinkering with the sump pump, sings the Titanic theme song in full vibrato.

Obviously, I'm not precisely happy -- but this is far from the least fun I've ever had. In fact, it is strangely delightful: I can't help noticing how creative and helpful my son is, how capable and good-natured his father. I can't help noticing how, on the two floors above us, the house offers us all the sheltering warmth we need. I can't help noticing, in sum, how lucky we are. This is how it goes for us: Given the fact that our lives are far from perfect, we seem to spend a lot of time in the glow of the silver lining. We make a lot of lemonade.

Not Even Lice

Which is not to say I didn't utter the f-word when my 8-year-old daughter, Birdy, took her helmet off after a bike ride last summer and I saw something scurry along her hairline. What the...? Before long, though, we'd turned delousing the family (yup, all four of us) into a kind of ad hoc spa vacation. I put everyone in old T-shirts before massaging warm and fragrant olive oil into all of our scalps. We wore shower caps for 24 hours, which meant, apparently, that we had to stay home, rent Naked Gun, and order a pizza. ("Long story," I said to the delivery guy, who raised his eyebrows at our plastic-wrapped heads.) First Michael combed the lice out of my hair, and then one at a time I sat each person down, programmed the iPod and combed out the dead bugs and teensy eggs. I tried to work gently because, as you may already know, tearing and swearing are rarely actual time-savers. And I reminisced. You simply cannot gaze at your child's scalp without remembering the endless days of babes-in-arms. Studying those downy whorls of hair, inhaling that otherworldly infant-head smell and even picking idly at cradle cap; the scalps of my children are pure nostalgic topography. I'm not saying infestation is the key to happiness -- just that it wasn't without its pleasures.

I try to remember this every time someone sits in my lap in a doctor's waiting room: I remind myself to lean forward and kiss flushed cheeks, to breathe deeply, even if I am taking time off work I don't have, even if it's the fourth time in six weeks this child has had strep and her feverish hands are hot as dinner rolls. Even if this child is 8 now, or even 11, and fits in my lap as gracefully as a full-grown giraffe. Still. There is only ever, as the Zen folks like to say, this moment, right now: time with a beloved child, even a sick one.

My incorrigible look-on-the-bright-sided-ness may simply be my birthright, courtesy of my mother. She's English, and England is the land of glasses so rose-colored that people there can see hardly anything but roses. "There's blue enough to make a Dutchman's breeches!" my mum likes to say, squinting optimistically at an imaginary clearing in a storm-gray sky.

Best Day Ever

My kids, too, seem to take after their grandmother. They're learning how to harness difficulty in the service of gratitude; how to work disappointment like putty, to shape it into something new; how to see the glass as half full, even if it's not with the exact drink they were thirsty for. At my parents' house, where we spent a recent weekend, Ben was briefly sick in the night, then spent the next day under my mother's exquisite care: Coke, saltines, TV, the works. "That was one of my favorite days ever," he said later.

Of course, we would not be sighing gladly through a real catastrophe. But maybe that's the point: knowing the difference. There is always, at the very least, the miracle of pulling air into your lungs. But there's usually more: the velvet face of a pansy, the dark crescent of your sleeping child's eyelashes, starlight. There is so much to be glad for. "If he were nice all the time," Birdy says, about our often cranky cat, "we wouldn't appreciate him as much." True enough.

"If we were rich," I say sometimes, when we're feeling especially broke, "we might not do some of my favorite things!" Tent camping, picking wild grapes for jam, fixing broken items instead of buying new ones.

"I'm sure we'd find new favorites," my husband says, and I laugh. Fair enough.

But for now, Ben and I have managed to wick the water across the floor with a long rope of knotted rags. It is late. Within the week the basement will be dry again -- or as dry as it ever is -- but we don't know that at the moment. We just know that we're cold and we're tired and we're flush with our small, wet success. I kiss him in bed, and Ben is sleepy and smiling. "That was fun, right?" he says. "That was the best." And he's right. It was.

Catherine Newman lives with her family in Amherst, Massachusetts, where she looks for silver linings in every cloud she spots. One recent happy discovery: Uneaten kale turns into exceptionally rich compost.

Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, March 2012.

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