When I marched in Selma, my feet were praying.
--Rabbi Abraham Heschel
Recently, I saw B + G, two dear friends who had a baby last year. (Well, B had the baby. G is B's husband and the baby's father.) I hadn't seen them in a few months, and it was such a treat to spend time with their daughter again. She is an incredibly happy soul. (All the people at the restaurant know and love her, for instance.) As soon as I picked her up, I said, "Is it strange that your daughter already feels like my good friend?" It's hard to explain--it's not just that I find her adorable (which she is) or charming (which she definitely is) but more like there's something about her that feels comforting and uplifting at once. This makes sense, I suppose. I adore her parents. They are funny, smart and kind.
Aside from catching up, part of the day's pleasure, at least for me, was seeing how completely smitten B + G are with their daughter. As we were eating, I remembered what G had said to B that first month, when she was overwhelmed by being a first-time mother; he said: "Some things are just too important to worry about."
R would laugh at the thought of turning his words into a refrigerator magnet worthy quote. But, I do think about his wisdom frequently. Some things have far too much value to project one's anxiety upon. It's true.
I have experience with doing the opposite. When I was in my twenties, I was such a worrier that when I went to the doctor's office I might as well have listed "hypochondria" when asked the reason for my visit. Just after September 11, my nerves were so frayed that I went to visit a psychiatrist. He asked me what the problem was. I told him that my loved ones worried, about everything, and their collective anxiety was unbearable to me--what was going to happen to them if everyone kept stressing out? He smiled wryly, "So...you worry about the worriers--that's your problem?" (I sounded so unaware, now that he put it like that.) I ended up on a low dose of an SSRI, which I stayed on for a few years. When I went back to visit him, he would ask, "How your mood is?" because he is an ESL-speaker, and, when he put it like that, I had to say, "Good now." Even though I could appreciate what this medication had done for me (namely, given me the clarity to apply for graduate school), I decided one day that I'd had enough. So I did a slow taper. I quit drinking, started yoga and took all professional pressure off of myself. A few months in, I was better than ever. That was nine years ago.
(Side note: for those of you interested in this topic, my dear D has a new series about her experience, with beautifully-written, honest posts.)
Fortunately, worry, while still part of my constitution, has become considerably muted. I don't know that there's a magic formula--for me, it's maybe just acknowledging the passage of time, which has a wonderful way of telling its own story regardless. Also, a few years back, I had a startling dream, one that woke me up in the middle of the night; before I opened my eyes, I had a clear, strong thought: "My sensitivity is both my gift and my responsibility." Ever since, I've made a habit of taking good care of myself, paying attention to my limits, especially. This makes my life infinitely easier, remembering that I can't change the world, just myself.
Last year, I kept remembering a line I'd read somewhere, from Vivian Gornick (whose expert memoir is a must-read, by the way); she said, "For a woman, coming off of fear is like an addict coming off of drugs." This resonated; for anyone, fear, at its worst, is visceral--physically corrosive. It was strange, then, and almost exquisite, to experience random waves of non-localized anxiety through this lens. At times, I imagined the extraneous stress, breaking off in pieces, floating like ice down the river, distant. From this vantage, I was simply letting go of the worry habit, which, naturally, could lead to a very good (maybe even party-throwing) mood.
When my grandmother was dying in the late fall, I was not in a party-throwing mood. I was practical, e.g. Who could get the nurse? Did it make sense to throw away the half-empty water bottles that had collected on her nightstand? Would I accompany my cousin to Rite Aid to buy socks? (And then when we got to Rite Aid and bumped into the nursing home's resident busy body, how could we avoid conversation without being rude?) In reflective moments, I wondered if Nana might be even the tiniest bit afraid. She never said so.
She had, first and foremost, her faith. Also, she'd been joking about "kicking the bucket" for a good fifteen years; this was no taboo topic. (One of her great-grandchildren had even made her a card that read, "Hope you have a great time in heaven!" What I wouldn't given to have seen her face when she read that.) Despite preparations, she also had an unyielding life force, which came into sharp relief on her last day, when she could no longer speak. As someone who had lost her mother at the age of five, ran away from home in the thirties and then lost her husband long before his time, my grandmother's default was perseverance.
Even as her organs were failing, she insisted: life. I remember sitting next to her the day that day, holding her hand and watching as she kept breathing. Three weeks earlier, when I'd visited her with Karen, Nana was full of determination, telling us that she was going to work diligently on her posture because "all some of those people"--a.k.a. the other ones with walkers--"ever do is look at the floor." In case we were worried, that was not going to ever be her, she assured us. (We weren't worried.) Now, twenty short days later, I was at her bedside, squeezing her hand, which I hope she felt. I thought, If you, of all people, can let go of your existence, I can let go of the small stuff, anything. I meant it, too. Anything that was non-essential (as Oliver Sacks put it recently) such as worry, myopic concerns, outworn beliefs. Anything.
She died later that day, after Sunday mass, but before Sunday supper (which my cousins and I ended up having at Applebee's because what else was there to do, except eat fried food and stare blankly at the chipper waitress, who asked if we were having a "Sunday-funday?" I guess the she couldn't tell from the piles of balled up tissues on the table?) Nana's actual passing was beautiful, though. Nine of us formed a circle, praying as she took her last breath. That corridor was hard, lovely, meaningful, heart-warming, and incomprehensible. Post-Applebee's, I spent the rest of the evening stupefied, lights out, unable to sleep. I wanted to talk with someone. I did talk with someone. I just can't remember with whom.
Keeping my promise, I did my best to stay true: no more time-wasting. When 2015 began, with its onslaught of global bad news, I worked out (or, if I am to be honest, I thought about working out more than I actually worked out, but this was a start). I made a point not to take anything personally, which is to say, not being overly empathetic. Not only did the world seem in chaos, but many people I know have been facing intense situations: undiagnosed illnesses, sudden deaths, and, in the case of a former church acquaintance, violence. By mid-January, it was just too much. I was exhausted, my emotional reserves depleted, especially after the fall. Maybe it's the weather, I thought. Or my toilet that won't stop flushing. To a friend, in an email, I wrote, "I don't have any exclamation points in me today."
It was a short loss of faith, but a loss nonetheless. By the time I saw B + G, I'd slowly been regaining my energy. I met them the day after my birthday, which brought renewal. At brunch, B mentioned those first few weeks after their daughter was born. She didn't quote her husband, but she did cite the calming presence of her friends as a reason that her daughter was such a joy. I seriously doubted that, but it reminded me: "Some things are too important to worry about."
From where I stand now, I would say that's right. Some things are too important. Everything that matters--your relationships, your work, your family, your health, your sense of purpose--deserves to strengthened by faith, by trust, rather than eroded by nerves. Peel back the worrisome layers, hands off the wheel, and there is love.
Easier said than done, I guess.
Until it's easier done than said. When Karen interviewed her years ago on video, Nana told her the story of her childhood, but before she got to her mother's death, she said, "Well, it's going to be kind of a sad story, so maybe we just better skip the whole thing." She laughed, but also, that was her way.
The other day, I leapt out of bed with excitement, for no reason in particular (except, maybe for my new diet, with which I am madly in love). This is my way. Usually, in the morning, I am like the Applebee's waitress--impossibly upbeat, yet, this winter, it hasn't been easy, for any of us. Without trying to force myself into positivity (because seriously, what is more depressing than that?) I recognized in front me one very fine day. Later, good news came, news that made me spontaneously holler. It was sweet to have a reason to bolster my celebratory mood, and then more reasons came: a funny text exchange, a belated birthday present, a glimpse of sunset so magnificent it begged me to change my plans so that I could get a better view. I stood at the water's edge, enveloped by sweetness and sky. Nana often tried to end conversations by saying, "Well, you don't want to talk to me all day. You're young! Go out and enjoy yourself." And here I was, showing up.
This is it, the better view.