Optimist Case Study

One Good Thing: Sweet P’tate

Welcome back to One Good Thing. Part do-gooder spotlight, part travelogue, part humor column, this series captures the journey of award-winning novelist and filmmaker Owen Egerton. You may recognize Egerton as one of the hosts of the Texas Optimism Project’s monthly podcast, The Good Newscast—an extension of what we hope to accomplish with One Good Thing.

When we started the One Good Thing column, we chose a central theme: Optimism.

That was in January 2020.

Who knew, right?

Optimism has been no easy task this past year. We’ve been made frighteningly aware of how very fragile our health, our economy, and even our democracy actually is. More aware than ever of how few lifeboats our ocean liner provides and how very unjust our justice system can be. I honestly wonder, how can anyone be optimistic?

Early this year, our family signed up for a weekly box of produce from Johnson’s Backyard Garden, a Central Texas farm. In one box, we found an oddly shaped sweet potato roughly the size of a squirrel. Our fifteen-year-old took an immediate liking to the sweet potato. She sewed him some clothes, announced he would never, ever be eaten, and named him P’tate.

P’tate snuggled with us on the couch on movie nights, peeked in on Zoom classrooms, took walks with us around the neighborhood. P’tate joined us at the dinner table even as we devoured his fry-shaped cousins. Eventually P’tate found his throne—an old jelly jar by the kitchen sink.

As weeks rolled into months, P’tate began to change. He acquired pronounced ripples and new bumps as if entering some bizarre sweet potato puberty. Then came the tendrils. Seriously, tendrils. A dozen or so two-foot, twisting springs reaching up toward the kitchen window like woody tentacles from some stoic starchy muppet.

A family deserves a mascot, and ours is P’tate—an ever-growing, ever-changing representation of the unexpected, the hard, and the outright weird of this past year. With his bulbous form and root-like extensions, he’s grown into something beautiful. Actually, that’s not quite right. It’s not that P’tate has grown into something beautiful, it’s that he has grown and that is beautiful. In the midst of all that this year has been, our sweet potato friend found identity, cheered our days, and reached out in twirling, twisting ways toward the light of the kitchen window.

I believe that when we look back upon this difficult year, it could be with a sense of awe.

I’m still trying to figure out in which direction I’m growing. Sometimes I lean bold, other times cynical, often exhausted, and occasionally resourceful. There are days I feel the crushing weight of the latest headlines and other days when all the world’s hardships seem as unrelated to my life as the events of some over-wrought television series. I’ve seen family and friends struggle and celebrate, ponder and listen, grieve and care. Some of us have grown together. Others have grown apart. Some of us feel more connected than ever and some of us are lonely as hell. There are times I sing and laugh with my family, and also middle-of-the-night hours I walk empty streets, wishing I could simply hug my Mum and Dad.

I am bruised. We are bruised.

We are families sliding into poverty with little or no help to crawl out. We are citizens crying out after centuries of racist oppression. We are more than three hundred thirty thousand dead in our country alone.

I do not believe in a divine being who hands out suffering as homework. I do not believe there is some ordained purpose or judgment behind the tragedies and struggles of the past year. But I do believe we can learn compassion from suffering. I do believe we can grow from pain. If we choose to. If we allow the lessons to sink in and listen to the voices too often unheard.

So perhaps I am optimistic about the future, but conditionally.

Change is hard. Growing is hard. My wife Jodi, who is trained as a birth doula, reminds me that the most difficult moments of labor for both the mother and the baby are transitions—the painful, challenging shifts forward. It’s the moment someone is most likely to cry out, “I can’t do this.”

Surely we are in a moment of transition now. A moment of exhausted astonishment when we can choose despair or choose to grow forward. I hope we choose to grow, to summon the courage to mourn deeply, to transform new awareness into new engagement, to live with a bold strain of kindness, and to stretch in wild unexpected ways, as spectacular as the tendrils twirling from a sun-hungry sweet potato.

I believe that when we—and our children, and our children’s children—look back upon this difficult year, it could be with a sense of awe. An appreciation of the good things begun because of what we have learned from suffering. Learning what justice for all means in actual practice, learning that a moment of crisis is too late for a country to begin caring for those most in need, learning how to be actively kind to our neighbors, our families, and as importantly, ourselves. Learning the value of science, the fragility of life, and the unfathomable wonders of a hug.

– Owen

Illustration by Mark Conlan.

Award-winning novelist and filmmaker Owen Egerton is the author of a number of books including The Book of Harold the Illegitimate Son of GodHow Best to Avoid Dying, and the PEN Southwest Book Award winner Hollow, which was named one of NPR’s Best Books of 2017. He is also the writer/director of several films including the Mercy Black (Blumhouse, Universal, Netflix), and the horror comedy Blood Fest (Rooster Teeth, Warner Media). Egerton is one of the hosts of the Texas Optimism Project’s monthly podcast, The Good Newscast. He is also one of the talents behind the Alamo Drafthouse’s long-running comedy show Master PancakeTheater and has been named Austin’s Best Author six times by the Austin Chronicle.

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