We’re heading into what Vermonters call “stick season,” the time of year after the last crimson leaf has dropped from the last maple tree and before the first snow covers the ground. All you see when you look at the woods is “sticks,” dull brown, gray, and beige. When I look at the news these days, I feel bruised, as if I’ve been beaten up with sticks.
Almost everyone I know is fighting despair. Covid’s rearguard action, Ukraine, Israel, Gaza, the US government, the daily mass shootings, and the highest fall temperatures on record: the sticks and the beatings go on and on.
One of the worst is the stick of survivor guilt. Every day I ask myself what I have done to deserve my cozy cottage, the food in my fridge, the pet food (raw turkey and special veggies!) in the freezer, my intact family, my books, my flourishing houseplants, the twin miracles of my artificial hips, my drawer full of balled-up socks? Stepping onto the warm tiles after my shower this morning (our bathrooms have radiant floor heat—how decadent can you get?), I felt a spasm of guilt. Why is the universe coddling me in this extravagant way?
And then there is the stick of fear: what if the universe changes its mind? Any day it could be me, breathing my last in a supermarket aisle, victim of a deranged gunman. Or cowering in some basement as the Second American Civil War rages over my head. Or swept away by floods, or incinerated by forest fires.
The next stick, the stick of frustration, is a hard one too. I am frustrated that there is almost nothing I can do to make things better. If I went off to bandage wounds in field hospitals or help dig children out of collapsed buildings, I would be a hindrance rather than a help. The money that I give to charity is less than a drop in the bucket of need. Ditto for the energy I save by turning down the heat to 68F. And most of the plastic that I so piously recycle ends up in the landfill anyway. There is so little that any of us can do.
All these sticks and beatings lead to depression and despair, which deepen in the darkening days of autumn and which never did anybody any good. Viktor Frankl, imprisoned in a Nazi concentration camp, said that the one thing that, no matter how dire the circumstances, couldn’t be taken away from us was the freedom to choose our mental attitude.
So I am trying hard to offset the stick beatings with moments of gratitude for the good things that are strung like beads all along the length of my days: the friend across the lunch table, the duvet on the bed, Bisou’s round head under my hand, the feeling of my toes inside my fuzzy slippers. And for the rest of it, I do what I can, trying to inflict the least possible harm on my fellow creatures, trying to make my footprint on the earth as light as possible.
I don’t think that we can get rid of all the sticks, nor would it be a good thing if we could. These are not good times on our planet, and we have an obligation to be mindful of the pain around us even if it leaves us feeling bruised, and do our humble best to alleviate it. But a balance between awareness and serenity is what I’m after, in the hope that a peaceful contentment on my part will in some mystical way radiate outward and put a tiny band aid on our suffering world.