Genus irritabile

This past fall was an intense period for me. During August and September I edited my 400-page book manuscript. I worked on it fiercely, I was beyond determined, and then after I was done, I turned my discerning, bloodshot eyes on those around me. I edited everyone and everything. Just ask my husband.

I was genus irritabile, a term I came across recently for cranky poets and authors. No one and nothing met my high standards. Oh boy.

I love the language of irritability. In my thesaurus it is described as an “excess of sensitiveness,” and terms for it are: impatience, intolerance, itching, wincing, disquietude, ruffle, hurry-scurry. Descriptive words include: feverish, febrile, hysterical, delirious, mad, moody, maggoty-headed. And also: on the fret, touchy, techy, pettish, peppery captious, querulous, exceptious, and restive.

Maggots are not the only living creatures that help us describe our disquietude: we are owly, we are waspish, we are cross as crabs, we are like a bear with a sore head.

Eventually I saw what I was doing (who wants to behave like a bear with a sore head?) and why. Not only had I been working intensely on my book, I’d been paying close attention to catastrophic global climate change for over a year, and my ever-growing concern was fraying my nervous system. I needed to try to figure out how to both take care of myself and to carry this burden.

These are such strange times. I read about the newest dire prediction — for example, that all the fish and seafood in the ocean may die because the carbon in the atmosphere is making the ocean too acidic to support life — and then I turn to the sports page to read about last night’s basketball game. As a friend who is deeply concerned about climate issues says: “We still have to live.”

One aspect of my book, the part about oil pipeline spills in northern Minnesota, makes me tense every time I work on it. Such spills are just one of the hazards of using fossil fuels. Burning them and sending that carbon dioxide into the atmosphere is threatening the future of life on planet earth.

It became clear to me late this fall that I’d come all the way out of denial about the climate problem, and on top of that I was focused on the damage to our northern land caused by oil spills. Thinking about both was a double burden. I was getting fried. While denial may be the very human trait that does us in, it came to me that in measured doses it might be useful.

I told my loved ones that regarding climate issues or oil pipeline issues, I was off duty on evenings and weekends. I didn’t want to read about them or talk about them then. I would do my best not to think about them. I would deal with them only during working hours. I needed to give my old bear brain a rest.

My husband and I vowed to go forward with patience and tenderness, to cook good dinners, to take one day at a time, and to have more fun. For example we are following Gopher basketball, both men’s and women’s teams, and enjoying it. I also thought it might be time for me to work at taking the opposite mental approach from the crabby one I’d been stuck in earlier in the fall. Rather than be endlessly critical, I would focus on what I was grateful for. So I’ve been thanking people around me, and sending thank you cards and emails, whenever I get a chance. 

When I find myself obsessing at night in bed about what is going wrong, I instead steer my mind to what has been going right. I have found this remarkably soothing and successful. These grateful thoughts aren’t exactly prayers. I’m not sure who I am addressing, I’m just sending out vibes. The insignificant inspires my gratitude, as does the essential: I am thankful for the color peach, for our snuggly down comforter, for the patient, tender man on his side next to me, for the sweet dog asleep at our feet.

I am thankful for the roof over my head, made snugger by our improved insulation, for lotus green tea, for the newspaper arriving on the doorstep each morning, even when it is severely cold out. You get the idea. Funny, isn’t it, that the positive is not nearly so compelling to the fevered brain as the negative. A little bit of thankfulness is enough, already, and then you conk out.

This way of thinking is actually changing my body chemistry, it seems, which would surprise New Age folks not at all. I am calmer. While still challenged, I am coping. 

Mary Jean Port writes at home, near Minnehaha Creek and Lake Harriet, and teaches at the Loft Literary Center.