Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Citizen of 4F, Jan. 12, 2010

554447Mood is a strange and fickle human quality.

After two days in a quietly gray mood, I find myself this morning in a mood that is equally quiet, but most definitely happy. How exactly did this transformation occur? I wonder. It happened very subtly.

Perhaps it began when friend called me late yesterday, excited with good career news. She has an infectious personality, and it was pleasant to listen closely to her happiness.

When I left the office for the day, though, was when I noticed a definite uptick in my mood. Part of it was that at 5:15 pm, for the first time in recent memory, the sky was still light. At these latitudes, a cloudy overcast in the days just prior to the Dec. 21 solstice will see Minnesota night lasting from 4:30 in the afternoon until the following morning at 8:30 or so. But it was clear yesterday, and we're now more than three weeks past solstice, and so paying close attention shows that the painstakingly slow crawl back to spring is already underway.

More than this, though, the sky was painted with a whole spectrum of colors thanks the setting sun, and if you paid close attention, you could see that the sky echoed every color you could see in the neon store signs reflected in the windows: blues, reds, indigos, oranges, yellows—in the far west, you could even see pale greens streaked across the sky that echoed the green of streetlights in "go" mode. The whole thing left you with a feeling of wonderful symmetry between the natural and manmade worlds.

This morning, rather than go to work in the darkness, I took a later bus, stopping first for coffee and the New York Times at the nearest Starbucks. As I read the arts section, I noticed a father and son sitting off in the corner. The son was perhaps 13 or 14 years old, and was struggling with unhappiness of some kind. It wasn't clear to me if the boy was perhaps ill——his face was slightly flushed--or if he was wrestling with some early adolescent angst of some kind. But at one point his father reached over and gripped the boy's wrist in comfort. Like most boys in early adolescence, the young man's face showed a mixed response to this public display of affection from a parent, but it pleased me to see this father ignore the rules of adolescent protocol and comfort his son in this way.

On the bus ride, one could see that the foggy night had painted the trees with a hoar frost that looked like the most delicate lace. The urban forest around the skating rink at Lyndale Farmstead park looked like something from the most fanciful set in a Tim Burton movie.

When I am in a productive stretch, I have sometimes found that a 30 or 45 minute bus ride will find 2,000- or 3,000- word business letters or blog posts composing themselves in my head between home and office, so that all I'm left with is transcribing what has mentally hatched. It's pleasant to realize, for this one morning at least, that a bit of that creativity has returned.

William James, the pioneer psychologist, wrote more than a century ago, that "the strain of attention is the fundamental act of will."

Perhaps transforming unhappiness into happiness is really just a matter of choosing what to pay attention to.


excavator said...

I'm so envious of you that the business letters you compose stay so firmly in your mind that all you have to do is transcribe. My mental constructs are ethereal things and many is the time that I watched the perfect articulation of an idea vanish. Hurts.

Paul said...

Although I'm usually able to notice the moment my mood drops (and what caused it), I'm not always able to reverse the process. I may be getting better at it, but I know that once I get down that road so far, I'm in it for the duration. There is a physiological aspect to it for sure. Like once the adrenaline gets into the system it has to run its course, and that's that.

On the other hand I can notice the moment my mood changes and begins moving upward. Fortunately, those periods of darkness are much shorter than they used to be. Hours or a couple days at most. Instead of several days or weeks.

The weather, also seems to have a lot to do with it. It's not 10 degrees here (I'm really glad for that) but it's raining and dreary. Which is typical. Spring is my favorite time of year for good reason.

Oh, and I, too, am envious you can keep your (very good) writing in your head. My mind is like a chalk board full of notes. The problem is, some fastidious custodian (alter ego?) follows along with an eraser. What's left is just a bunch of chalk dust I try to scraps together into coherent sentences. It's very tedious work.