Pollyanna-ish is a column about the process of becoming (undefinable). Exploring the intersection between life and art, these essays will explore and intermingle different aspects of the author’s life, interests and development. We are very excited to share it with you.
Four years ago, I retitled my blog hello pollyanna and made it public. While fond of Lagom Lycklig, I wanted a title that was easier to pronounce and remember. I had started my blog, which loosely translates as ‘just the right amount of happy’, to keep in touch while on exchange.
I was then in my second year in Canberra.
I remember that year as one of ennui, sandwiched between moving to a new city and the chaos of 2015. I remember swirling Baileys with ice that summer. I remember telling a friend, ‘I like the numbness’, and her look of concern (or was it pity?). I remember the kiss of evenings; the oppressive heat a balm to office-chilled skin as I crossed Kings Avenue.
(What is more accurate, more truthful? Relying on memory alone and saying nothing much happened that year or mining my diaries for details? Perhaps the truth lies somewhere between.)
I was afraid of losing the part of me that marvels at life. I was afraid of dying without actually dying.
First published in 1913, Pollyanna by Eleanor H. Porter is the eponymous story of a girl who touches the lives of others through her kind, open heart and “simple” optimism. I say “simple” because staying positive is fucking hard, a constant decision. Pollyanna has come to mean “a person who is constantly or excessively optimistic”, and therefore naïve or foolish. This irks me.
Pollyanna’s brand of optimism is less about expecting good things to happen and more about finding the silver lining in every situation—the “just being glad” game. When her father dies, she is taken in by a reluctant aunt who immediately fills her days with lessons. Pollyanna is dismayed:
‘Oh, but Aunt Polly, Aunt Polly, you haven’t left me any time at all just to—to live’
‘To live, child! What do you mean? As if you weren’t living all the time!’
‘[…] I mean living—doing the things you want to do: playing outdoors, reading (to myself, of course), climbing hills, talking to Mr Tom in the garden, and Nancy, and finding out all about the houses and the people and everything everywhere all through the perfectly lovely streets I came through yesterday. That’s what I call living, Aunt Polly. Just breathing isn’t living!’
I want to live, to really live. I too am greedy for life, terrified of walls closing in. I know what it’s like to go through the motions. For months, I dragged myself from bed to work, counted the hours to 5pm, then went home to a manuscript that was going nowhere. I dreamt of quitting the daily grind; I was sick to my bones of deadlines, meaningless tasks and chores—my empty shell of a life.
Just breathing isn’t living.
I recently tweeted a six-second video of a young Chinese woman crushing her male opponent in a cotton candy eating contest. I watch her gear up, again and again. She grabs the candy, flings the stick away, and rams it into her mouth. I caption the video: it me. (except replace cotton candy with life itself). I want it all—time for writing, for my parents and friends, for music, exhibitions and plays.
Just breathing isn’t living.
My copy of Pollyanna was published in 1972. On its mostly pink cover, Pollyanna is reaching up to hold her hat in one hand and carrying a large bag in the other. She is in a red dress and stepping towards home, her face tilted so the reader sees her smile and two long plaits flutter behind her.
I bought it from Smith’s Alternative, a local art/music institution, after missing the 10.07 bus home. It was late, but the manager kindly let me in and after a browse of the floor-to-ceiling shelves, offered me a shot of whiskey. He and his friend were talking about the game that night and asked who I barracked for. ‘No one,’ I laughed. ‘But the guy I’m seeing goes for the Swans.’
One time in bed, I asked what his favourite thing about me was. ‘The fact that you get out there and do so much,’ he replied. My love for life put another way, I wrote in my diary. To have someone notice this after knowing me for a month, and more importantly, to appreciate this and pick it as his favourite thing about me… I thought it meant something but years later, he said it was a lucky guess.
Perhaps I heard what I wanted to hear.
Shu-Ling Chua is a writer of memoir and criticism, who focusses on sex, culture, femininity and growing up. Her work has appeared in Feminartsy, Peril Magazine, The Lifted Brow and Meanjin, among others. She tweets @hellopollyanna and is working on a collection of essays on coming of age as a young Asian-Australian woman.