My new favorite word for 2023
On the last day of 2022, I opened the front door of the rented Airbnb I was sharing with my husband and adult kids to find them (all but one) huddled around our elderly Labrador Samson, openly sobbing.
I knew Sam had had mobility issues that morning, and we had booked an appointment with an emergency vet… but what was this?
“He can’t walk,” my husband Peter said, completely choked up. I nodded, and got down low with Sam to stroke his velveteen ears.
The unsaid hung thick, permeating our little circle. It was clear that everyone around me believed Sam’s time was up.
I had just spent the previous few hours in the most delightful, soul-enriching conversation with two friends over breakfast, the kind of rare conversation that is like one long spiral of ascending hope and “synchrodestiny,” as Deepak Chopra would say.
We shared ideas over eggs and smoothie bowls, each thought igniting the next and the next, building on the one before: a reaffirmation of the unique power of a group in sync. I’ve felt that kind of magic before, but usually only when I’m acting in a scene with skilled improvisers.
When the participants — or in this case, the friends sharing breakfast — open their hearts and listen deeply, ideas flow effortlessly. Obstacles don’t occur. Creativity pulls up a chair and stays all day — which is why I could have stayed at that table until the sun fell.
Yet Samson was having trouble, and I was needed, so I hugged one of my friends goodbye and hopped in the car of the other one, who drove me to the Airbnb.
Our nuclear family of five hadn’t been together since before we sold the family house. Regular readers know that the whole selling, packing, and moving process was pretty heinous for me — though isn’t it always that way, for everyone? — but I’ve never written about the resentment that percolated in my youngest after we sold the place.
Still in college, Henry was blindsided by our decision. Sure, Peter and I had talked about it, but because we had waffled for so long, Henry thought it wouldn’t actually come to pass. His parents talked about a lot of things that never materialized.
He also struggled with our reasons for leaving New York State. To him, our departure seemed rash, founded on a reality he did not share. (More on why we left in my earlier essay, Cowardice and Courage.) Why did he have to leave behind such a Mayberry-like setting, (and his hometown sweetheart) just for his parents’ misguided principles?
In August, he loaded up his beloved old Jeep, slid behind the cockeyed steering wheel, and raised his hand in a half-hearted wave as he steered out the driveway for the last time and headed toward Boston, where a cheap flight to Athens, Greece, awaited. Fall semester of his junior year in college was about to commence.
Eight hours later, and forty-five minutes from his destination in Massachusetts, the vehicle rattled and knocked, and AAA towed it the rest of the way. He went off to Greece frustrated by the Jeep’s breakdown, sad to be saying goodbye to his girlfriend, and angry that we were selling his childhood home.
From there, he communicated with us via WhatsApp in conversations that didn’t seem to make anything any better. It didn’t help that his roommate’s father died within the first week, or that he contracted Covid almost immediately upon arrival, or that the Jeep was beyond repair and had to be sold for parts.
It didn’t help that a local real estate agent fleeced him and his roommate for €1300.
It also didn’t help that a few weeks later, riding a moped back to its rental location, he drove through a confusing intersection and crashed into another vehicle, flipping up onto the car’s hood and onto the ground. Banged up and bruised, but miraculously unharmed, he limped away from the accident, confidence shaken and morale plummeting. Paying for the destroyed moped swallowed up most of his savings — almost everything he had earned over the summer working at a bike shop.
Suspecting that the world was actively trying to crush him, he found evidence of its malintent when his computer screen zapped to black and never revived during finals week. Then, as he attempted to locate someone who could help him fix it, confirmation of his suspicion arrived in the form of a walloping illness: fever, exhaustion, wracking cough, etc., etc., etc.
Covid? RSV? Who knows. Who cares, when you finally know for certain that the universe is out to get you?
Unable to leave his bed and use the library’s computers, he failed three of his four classes. It was the semester’s coup de grace.
I was deeply worried about him. He sounded so hopeless on the phone, like an airless balloon. Gone was the cheery confidence, the scrappy joie de vivre. I couldn’t wait to be in his physical presence, to hug him and tell him it would all be okay.
After Christmas, the five of us finally converged, and I was able to do just that. But by the 31st, however, all was not well.
Samson is a rescue, who came to us 11 years ago when an exasperated 10-year-old Henry said, after listening to months of well-intentioned back-and-forthing about the pros and cons of dog ownership, “are we EVER going to actually GET a dog??”
Acquiring Samson was more bureaucratically arduous than having a child, which probably says something about the mixed-up world in which we live, but I can’t actually put my finger on what.
We had never had a dog before, only cats, so it took some time to adjust to Samson’s canine ways — his penchant for lying in muddy holes in the rain, his desire (and ability!) to eat anything and everything, his regular confiscation and burial of single gloves.
He also had to adjust to being a part of our family. He jumped up on us and on visitors a lot in the beginning, and he broke through the electric fence a few times, chasing a fox deep into the woods. On one of those occasions, he got lost and ended up wandering on double yellow of Center, a 55-mph road half a mile from our house. We joked that he must be a genius, because he thought he was just following directions: “Center!”
Over time, Sam calmed down. He stopped jumping on people. He loved everyone, including the UPS driver (though that may have something to do with the dog treats he brought), and the two cats we had. He sat on anyone’s lap, and would remain there indefinitely, panting his wharf-like dogbreath and hairing up their pants with his toasted marshmallow-colored fur.
Everyone loves their family dog, and we were no exception.
So six months ago, when his bark slowly but surely disappeared and his breathing turned ragged, we were all concerned. After performing a few simple tests, the vet determined that he was declining in normal labrador fashion, with “laryngeal paralysis” due to degenerative nerves — which was also causing some reduced hip mobility.
“There’s not much you can do,” she said kindly, which, as usual, I rejected. Not that I said that out loud; I’ve long given up on arguing with health professionals unless there’s something immediate I need, like a prescription only they can provide. And even then, I don’t argue, I flatter them into it.
I put Sam on some herbal supplements and added some myelin sheath rebuilders to his diet, and within a month, his breathing improved. He was definitely still having some trouble jumping into the car, but nothing too dramatic.
So when I walked in on the family, clustered around him in abject despair, I was confused. I was also, if you’ll recall, coming directly from The Transcendent Breakfast, which had left me in a state of pure, expansive, creative bliss.
As I took in the scene, then stepped into the scene, I had a peculiar floaty feeling, like I was both part of the reality and outside it, simultaneously.
Grief surrounded me, but all I felt was love. At various moments that love distilled itself into compassion for Peter and the kids, or into gratitude for Sam and his sweet presence in our lives. It also transmuted into hope.
As dire as the situation was — he could not, indeed, walk — I was not actually able to project into the future and imagine his demise. I could only stay in the present moment and absorb all of the love radiating from and to every being in that room. Really, the whole space felt full and alive and pulsating with goodness.
Which is why, when I came across the word “apocaloptimism” in's Substack a week later, tears stung my eyes. I’d never heard the word before, and I still don't know who coined it, but I knew that was what I had experienced.
It's defined online as the attitude someone takes “who knows it's all going to shit, but still thinks it will turn out okay.”
There is no more perfect word for how I feel about the world right now, or for how I felt as I stood there witnessing my dog’s inability to stand and walk. I was so lit from within, I couldn’t conceive of an outcome that wasn’t okay. It was like I was embodying the adage, attributed to many:
“In the end, it’s all okay. And if it’s not okay, it’s not the end.”
For those of you who are not Apocaloptimists, let me put your mind at ease right now.
We drove to the local animal hospital, where the vet listened carefully to the circumstances of Sam’s debilitation, looked him over, and pronounced him in good shape — a little arthritic in the hips, but with plenty of life ahead of him. She gave him an NSAID painkiller, talked with us knowledgeably and encouragingly about natural alternatives, and sent us on our way.
Within 30 minutes, he was looking like a puppy again.
We’ve traded the NSAID for food-based anti-inflammatory supplements and CBD chews for his joints, and he’s been jumping in and out of the car with no problem. It feels like a minor miracle.
Joy and woe are woven fine,
A clothing for the soul divine,
Under every grief and pine,
Runs a joy with silken twine.
It is right it should be so,
We were made for joy and woe,
And when this we rightly know,
Through the world we safely go.
~ by William Blake
There’s one more piece of this story.
A few days after Samson’s reprieve, I hung out with Henry, chatting. His spirits had improved considerably since the end of the semester, and he seemed genuinely happy to be back with the family.
The subject turned toward the house, and I could sense the direction we were headed: another round of “my reality is realer than your reality.” I had no desire to go there, and told him as much. I also told him I love him, and that that is all that really matters.
To my surprise, he took a different path. He expressed concern for me. He reminded me that when Covid started, I told him his father and I were on different sides of the fence because I wasn’t willing to stare into the abyss of human darkness the way Peter was. It was too frightening, and I didn’t want to live from that place of fear.
I agreed; it was all true.
“Aren’t you doing that now?” he asked, gently. “You write about dark stuff now, stuff you didn’t want to focus on. Or stuff you never used to care about.”
I wanted to interject, but I held myself back. I just nodded, listening.
“And you’re not writing plays anymore.” His eyes welled up. “I’m worried that you’re not happy.”
Any defensiveness vanished. “Oh, Hen,” I said. “I understand.”
I’m sure it was confusing to him. How could I explain how the past few years had changed me? How I went from avoiding the stuff I was afraid of, to having the courage to stay curious, to accepting reality — all of it, light and dark?
I talked about my deepening connection with Source giving me strength, allowing me to step out of fear and act on principle.
I talked about how the events in our lives change us, how my interest in healing became an obsession when his sister got sick and doctors couldn’t offer her anything, how I care deeply about freedom now that I’ve experienced the loss of it.
I tried to tell him how I moved from blind optimism through despair and into the place I find myself now: a state of constant cultivation of hope in the midst of uncertainty.
I talked about all of that, and other stuff, too. “I’m happy, Henry. I really am,” I said, immediately realizing how impossible it is to convince someone else of that.
In the end, I don’t know how much any of what I said really made the difference.
I suspect that it was our embrace, heads on each other’s shoulders, silent and teary, that healed us.
And so I nominate “apocaloptimism” as Word of the Year for 2023, because in order to manifest anything, you must first name what you desire.
This powerful word, so filled with gorgeous sorcery, has been coined recently because we need it. We need a way to describe the feeling when you believe your dog is dying, or your son doesn’t understand you, or the world is going to shit… and you still think it will turn out okay.
Apocaloptimist...that's a word that could only have been coined for our chaotic times.
The wisdom in your essay, summed up by Blakes poem:
We were made for joy and woe,
And when this we rightly know,
Through the world we safely go
Our hearts are safer when we rightly know this. When we understand that both joy and sorrow are part of life and if we keep our hearts open through both, we can stay optimistic until the end. As long as we're still here, the story isn't done yet. So we may as well become the change we wish to see while we play it all out. Glad Samson got a reprieve and you got a great hug from Henry!
Bravo! Inspiring us all, gently and warmly, to take the right option! There's really only apocaloptimism or giving up, and I know which I prefer!
Having confessed in an earlier comment that poetry is the form of the arts I find least accessible, I am also delighted that you quote from the one I most relate to - the spiritual giant from my hometown of London, William Blake. If I may, I'll offer back another line from the same poem: "Across all human lands, tools were made, and born were hands". This line for me evokes for me a world founded on humanity and human participation. A vision which certain apocalyptic forces now seek to eradicate. A vision which you and I and a great many others strive to keep alive. And we shall.