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Optimism

By Lilly Wehmeyer (‘25)

My father’s long fingers stretch to steadily louden the radio voices of WBUR morning news. This is routine; the daily commute before two separate, but equally busy, lives. A High School version of me grumbles “Why so loud so early?” Without turning his eyes from the road, my tall father tips his head slightly downwards and utters, “It’s the news.” My legs shift to the other side of the seat, now pointing towards the car door. A symbol of defiance.

Louder now, the ever-critical radio hosts talk in hushed voices about a viral outbreak in China. I sigh, just to reinforce my current contempt. Finally catching on, my father swiftly clicks a button, and the car erupts in pop music. “You know, the news is important…they talk about things you will hear about in school,” he claims. I sigh again, lighter this time because I got my way, “Ya, but the last thing I want to do right before school is learn.” My father shrugs, and rolls down the car window.

The fresh March air rushes in to release any tension. It is spring, so I can’t help but gaze out the window. Snow is melting down to small, white islands, green is just starting to peek through on trees, and sunrise happens just in time for our drive. To me, these observations signal transition. Although, it’s not clear what kind yet.

An invisible lightbulb flashes overhead as it dawns on me: the daily poem.
I rummage through my backpack to find the black, tattered composition notebook. My father raises an eyebrow, asking “Are you inspired, or something”. I click my pen open and launch into writing. “No no,” I respond hastily, “I just forgot to write my poem today for AP language and composition.”

He’s unfazed by this, I am always scrambling to make ends meet in school. “What is this one about?” my father inquires. However, my brain is already writing. Rule number one is if you don’t have anything to write for poetry, the weather is always a solid option. So, this is exactly where my pen is going. I scribble metaphors and similes about the spring being a time for positive change. I juxtapose nature’s cyclical seasons with the predictability of human behavior — my english teacher will eat that up.

I slap the flimsy notebook shut, and click the pen close right as we pull into the school parking lot. Just remembering my father’s question, I say “It’s almost halfway through March, so I wrote about spring.” His eyes widen, moderately intrigued, while I zipper my backpack. “Well, have a good day at school,” he instructs sing-songedly.

I close the car door, and my father simultaneously switches the radio back to the beloved news station. I chuckle to myself on the walk into school — I knew he was going to do that. Yet, I didn’t know it would be our last morning ride together.

That day, I don’t remember much. No lunch fight, no weird food, no difficult test, no sport game, and even no after-school practice. For every class period, the date March 12, 2020, was ever so normally placed in black pen at the top of my notes. Little did I, along with everyone else, realize this would be the last ordinary day for a long time. The teachers would pass out their last paper worksheets. The students would eat their last cafeteria lunch. And the faces once so familiar would be covered for another two years. Unknowingly, we made our last encounters with significant people. Unknowingly, it was goodbye. We cheered, elated at the school-wide announcement of a two-week break. But the break never ended, and it was never celebrated thereafter.

I have always been a skeptic, a proud one at that. A mirror image of my father: strictly cynical of all things, a worshiper to the facts, especially on WBUR local news. This exceptionally shows in classes titled “Theology” or “Scripture Studies,” where I pressed on the uncomfortable questions. Why does the Bible not include depictions of dinosaurs in its creation stories? Why do Jesus’s teachings get overshadowed by homophobia? How can an all-loving God induce suffering onto creation?

Through and through I am an inquisitor. My doctrine was disputing all things faith related. On one of the many morning commutes, my father proudly informed me of my title. “An agnostic,” he said, and it was true, to the core.

Though, the scale is delicate with this strict skepticism. Questioning attitudes are fluid enough to become sardonic. In this sense, skepticism is delicate.

My epiphany of this delicate scale manifested in social distancing. The world sat alone, indoors, alongside a few immediate family members. I barely remember this time, but when putting a shovel to these memories it feels overwhelmingly dark. The skepticism did not serve me here. Like a fan, it blew the despondent darkness into every corner of my perceived life. In school, my questioning nature was enriched by the lights of education. I was rewarded by grades that reflected curiosity, although fueled by skepticism. After March 12, everything changed. The fuel once burned to direct my thoughts ran dry. An external locus possessed me. I was no longer cynical to the world; the world was cynical towards me. The defeatism drove downwards into all aspects of my being, nearly permanently.

During the turbulence of global chaos and a lack of joy, I realized that skepticism is eager to morph into cynicism, then pessimism.

In my former mind, optimism was for the weak. Attending Catholic school, hopefulness was often equated to believing in God’s plan. So, I rejected the idea of faithfulness in a positive future. I am grateful to reflect that this rejection almost destroyed me.

It was the small walks, the banana bread, the emails from my favorite teachers, and journaling, that brought my mind back. In quarantine, the optimism came from these pockets of positivity. These quiet, almost invisible, acts of joy lost in the bustling of pre-pandemic life — these are what make me an optimist.

No longer was it possible to be a pessimist. The raging pandemic, the death of my best friend’s father, the closeness of my brother’s disability, and the despondency of life called me to act optimistically. In navigating this world, I find peace in the quiet things that underlie strifes of humanity.

Every day, I choose to believe there is some meaningful good in this world. My skeptical gaze loosened its tight grip, so I can walk more softly. There are not many beliefs I seek out or subscribe to. However, like the alien-curious Raquel Cepeda, optimism is something I yearn for, scraping for specks of positivity in the obscurities of life. The pandemic has dulled me down like an unsharpened pencil. Nonetheless, I persevere with something more powerful than skepticism. Carrying hopefulness is a heavier burden, but I know it is worth the load.

Food for thought: An excerpt from a poem about optimism I wrote during 2020, inspired by the piece “Memory” written by Lucille Clifton…

Alone
Ask me how it feels

to be kept inside during light and dark,
oblivious to what day it might be.
Only being able to peek in between the curtains
and view outside through
a pane of glass.

Ask me how it feels
to press my hand against the glass,
wanting to break the barrier of separation.
But knowing that the glass, the walls, and the roof
are the only things keeping
me safe.

Ask anyone how it feels
to be removed from daily life-
forced to adapt to something so unforeseen.
Yet, knowing that optimism is the
only ounce of normalcy
you might be able
to control.

But if you did ask
it would be too much,
for the world only looks with a mirror in its hand.
Too much to understand
too much to deal with.
Even before quarantine
we were alone.

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The Literary Magazine of Regis College

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