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bodydiagram

This is where my organs would ordinarily be, if they weren’t displaced by my all-consuming anxiety. 

I am so filled with anxiety that I am certain there is no room left inside me for my internal organs. They have been squeezed together in some tiny crevice so my anxiety has ample room to luxuriously expand. The knots in my stomach have all but filled my stomach so there is little space left for such old-fashioned things as digestion to occur.

I have spent a lot of this summer reminding myself to breathe. Taking deep breaths that require much more effort than seems normal, but then again when was the last time I was normal? I suppose the breathing has helped, as the threatening panic attack remains hovering at the edge of my consciousness, ready to jump in at any time an opening presents itself. The panic attack is like a first responder, but not the helpful kind.

Chief among the myriad reasons for this anxiety (although really, who needs reasons?) are two new schools. Tomorrow my kids will get on their respective school buses–they have never ridden buses to school before–and be delivered to elementary school and middle school for the first time. They will have new buildings to navigate, new teachers to get to know, new classmates who speak different languages, new assignments to remember, new school cultures to learn.

Of course I realize that kids start new schools all the time. This is the way of the world. But all those other kids aren’t mine. And my kids, unfortunately or inevitably or just because of good old genetics, share with me just a bit of that predisposition toward anxiety. We are a sensitive people. I remember years ago hearing the adage that having kids is like letting your heart walk around outside your body, and so it is. Starting new schools is like your heart has developed some confidence, a sense of style, a few signature jokes, and then suddenly it’s stripped bare all over again, completely vulnerable in a new environment. And now my heart is split into two, wandering through two new schools, looking around desperately for other hearts that will be kind.

This year for the first time I have a number of friends who are sending kids to college. Zeke’s previous preschool teacher and preschool director, friends from church, friends from high school and elementary school, and my yoga teacher all delivered offspring to college for the first time in August. (All to excellent Virginia schools, as it happens). When I think of them, even when I see the pictures on Facebook of their smiling kids in freshly decorated dorm rooms, I feel like my heart is not simply walking around outside my chest, but has been forcibly ripped from my body and flung hundreds of miles away, where it may be lying in a ditch, attempting to struggle to its feet. College! Thinking about this literally makes my chest hurt. My daughter is only seven years away from this prospect. When I ran into our wise preschool director the other day and mentioned this, she said not to think about it yet, just to concentrate on kindergarten and sixth grade right now. Which is good, because that is all I am capable of at the moment.

I try hard not to be a helicopter parent. My philosophy is much more free range, although it’s challenging in a culture of helicopters. I do believe in giving my children the opportunity to be independent, and learn things, and grow on their own. But what if kids are mean to them? What happens when kids are mean to them? Because it’s bound to happen and it’s already happened and it’s so hard. Did I mention we are sensitive people? This summer at a couple of camps some little boys said mean things to Zeke. I don’t know what all of the words were. Some of them, as I recall, were, “I don’t like you.” No one wants to hear that, but when you’re 44 it’s easier to give someone the side eye and walk away. Of course, when “I don’t like you” is accompanied by being punched in the back while you’re trying to make art, it’s harder to let it slide. Especially when you’re five. The day after this happened, Zeke was desperately and theatrically upset when I tried to drop him off at camp. It took 30 minutes for me to get to the bottom of the problem, but I did. I talked with the teacher and reassured Zeke that she would keep an eye on things and make sure the boys didn’t bother him. She moved him to a different team, and he was calm and everything was fine. By the end of the week he was playing with the same boys. Sometimes I don’t understand how life works at all.

With girls it’s different, of course. I’ve been hearing a lot from fellow parents of tweens that we should brace ourselves for the mean girls of middle school years. Optimistically I feel like we can bypass this particular trauma because we’ve been dealing with mean girls since Zoe was in kindergarten. While she had an overall excellent experience in elementary school and has always had lots of friends, there was rarely a time in which she didn’t have at least one “friend” who was trying to manipulate and control her. There was the girl who, in kindergarten, insisted that Zoe play Justin Bieber (Zoe didn’t even know who he was, but cried about it nonetheless), and later threw rocks at Zoe because she was trying to meditate when the girl wanted to play. And there were other girls for the following five years who tried to take advantage of Zoe, who threatened to abandon her if she played with other friends, who attempted to enlist her as a personal assistant. There was so much drama. And it wasn’t even middle school yet. So the good thing, I keep reminding myself, is that Zoe has so much experience dealing with this behavior and has learned how to stand up for herself and take care of herself in ways that it took me many more decades to learn myself, that maybe she’ll be ok in middle school. I hope.

At her school open house, she was not the only kid to be walking around in a daze, clinging to a parent’s arm, wondering how she would figure all this out on her own. I know she won’t really be on her own. There will be 899 other kids there! I know she’ll be ok. But I also know it’s a little terrifying, and no amount of reassurance from her parents will take that away until she does figure it out for herself.

Less than 24 hours from now, my kids will be at school. I’ll be on my way to a new yoga class I signed up for, which will be an excellent way for me to not sit home and cry or give in to that panic attack. Then after yoga I’ll come home and attack the million work assignments I’ve been neglecting during the last week of summer when I’ve been trying to squeeze in the maximum amount of fun experiences with my family so they can have happy memories to hang onto during their own moments of encroaching anxiety. And I’ll try my best to focus on getting my work done while I count the minutes until those school buses pull up to our bus stop and I not very casually envelop my children in gigantic hugs and try not to pepper them with all my questions about how the first day of school went. I will exhale. And the next day at least it won’t be quite so new.

Today was the final Sunday of our November theme of abundance at UUCA. I led worship, along with my friends Bob and Kendra. You can watch a video of the service here: http://www.uucava.org/livestream/.

You can read my meditation and prayer here:

I encourage you to put your feet on the floor. Feel your seat beneath you and observe the presence beside you of caring people, whether they are friends or family or strangers. Notice your breath. Breathe in peace. Breathe out love. Breathe in comfort. Breathe out compassion. Breathe in strength. Breathe out generosity. Whatever you need right now, feel it filling your body every time you inhale. Whatever you wish to share with the world, feel it gliding into the atmosphere on your breath.

Spirit of life, we come together here today after having been scattered near and far during the past week. Some of us are refreshed and rejuvenated by time off from work and reunions with beloved family and friends. Some of us are weary from tense and difficult moments and feelings of obligation rather than joy. Some of us labored, some of us were served. Some of us were surrounded by love, some of us were lonely.

Whoever we are, may we find refuge here.

Spirit of life, as we begin again today, we ask for another chance. An opportunity to be kind to ourselves. To truly love ourselves so we can better love others. We seek relief and ease because some of us are Just. So. Tired. We seek clarity when facing an uncertain diagnosis, or no diagnosis at all, in the midst of debilitating symptoms. We seek reassurance as we endeavor to do right by our children when parenting can be so stressful. When we are young and when we are old, we seek acknowledgment. We want to know that we matter. At every age, we wish to be heard and understood. We seek grace along the path that is littered with our mistakes. We seek courage to be bold and step onto a new, unfamiliar path. We wish for the strength to unclench our fists and let the anxieties, the fears, the old hurts be carried away on the winds, leaving our hands and our hearts free. We long for the freedom to laugh and to cry with abandon. We seek release.

Whatever we seek, may we glimpse it today in this place, and claim it for our own.

 

And here’s my reflection:

FINDING YOUR ABUNDANCE

I have a contentious relationship with time. I am always running late, always composing an apology in my head. I promise it’s not because I don’t respect you or value our relationship. It’s because I am overly optimistic. I always think I have time to do one more thing before I go. Write one more sentence, put away one more load of laundry, cross one more thing off my to-do list. I am wildly unrealistic about how much time something is going to take. You would think that by this point in my life I would’ve figured this out, but no.

My family is so often late that we’ve invented a game called the good excuse bad excuse game. Note that we do not play this in the exact moment when we’re tumbling out of the house and into the minivan, because I would be way too flustered. But in a moment of calm, we can play. Here’s how it works. One person says, “sorry I was late, I decided I didn’t feel like getting out of bed, but eventually I did.” Everyone responds, BAD EXCUSE! Another person says, “Sorry I was late, I was rescuing 100 puppies from a burning building.” GOOD EXCUSE! And we continue to come up with the most pathetic or most heroic excuses we can think of.

As silly as this might seem, the good excuse bad excuse game points to an unspoken truth. The most valuable use of your time is often when you are helping someone else, when you are sharing your abundance, just like in the story Kendra read earlier. But what are the abundances we have to share? How can we find them when we so often focus on what’s scarce in our lives?

If you’re a Harry Potter fan, you may have sorted yourself into one of the Hogwarts houses. Is your abundance bravery, loyalty, intelligence, or ambition? Do you possess an abundance of patience in a world that prioritizes speed and multitasking? Are you able to bring presence into a culture of preoccupation? I know that I am awed by people who are able to be fully present with me, to make me feel like I am the only person in the world who matters at that moment. Yet this quality is not one of my abundances. For better or for worse, my mind is always tuned in to several channels at once. I can’t NOT hear a conversation happening across the room, or the oven timer going off, or notice that someone in the vicinity needs something. One of my abundances is an astute power of observation, but not focused presence.

Maybe your abundance is more practical, like agility with numbers and the ability to manage or make money. I interview a lot of people on behalf of one of my clients who say they became budget counselors because they always loved numbers. I have always felt like I am allergic to numbers. At the annual meeting at church, my eyes glaze over when they talk about the budget. I am terrible with money. I sometimes wish our currency were only in words instead of numbers. Then I could understand. This trouble with numbers often comes into conflict with another of my abundances, which is generosity. Are you raising money for Multiple Sclerosis research, or orphans in Haiti, or school supplies for girls in Nigeria? I am guaranteed to donate, whether or not I can afford it.

In fact, one of my favorite holiday traditions, for the past 10 or 15 years, has been giving alternative gifts to nonprofits that I hand pick—and now my husband and children help choose—for all of our family members. We do this at an alternative gift fair, like those sponsored by Alternative Gifts of Greater Washington, or in Arlington, Gifts that Give Hope—which is hosting this year’s event on December 9 at Discovery Elementary. Or online through the Catalogue for Philanthropy. What these organizations do is bring together wonderful charitable groups and tell you what exactly your $10 or $20 or $50 donation would do for their beneficiaries. For example, a $5 donation to your local animal shelter would buy chew toys for a dog waiting to be adopted. A $25 donation to a nonprofit that serves single moms who are survivors of domestic violence would buy a week’s worth of diapers. A $50 donation would buy a bike for a young person in an African village to have the transportation needed to start a business. We take time to think about what kind of donations would be meaningful to each family member. Like the dog toys for Uncle Larry and Aunt Susan who have loved dozens of dogs and cats over the years. Cooking classes in honor of my aunt who taught me to make delicious food from scratch. You get the idea. On Christmas morning, we open these gifts along with all the others and read out loud where the charitable gift will be going. My family’s goal on Christmas morning is to make people laugh or cry, and often these gifts elicit tears. And they don’t take up room on anyone’s shelf, and they’re making the world a better place. These gifts also remind us of just how much abundance we have in our family and our community.

Going for the laugh is also fun, like when I got my mom an autographed 8×10 photo of Adam Levine because she’s a huge fan of the Voice. You have to balance things out.

The paradox about my contentious relationship with time is that time is what people want most from me. Time is what my kids want, time is what my parents want. My husband, my dog, my friends, my clients, the church. Even though it doesn’t feel like I have a lot of it, time is my most valuable abundance to give.

My parents have everything they could possibly want, and more. But my mom is thrilled if I give her a Christmas gift of a day where I help her clean out her closet and go to lunch. We take each other to concerts and plays and readings, where we share the gift of time spent together, sharing an experience. Seeing and hearing live music is one of the great joys that my husband and I share. When we devote so many hours to working and managing the house and taking care of our children and our dog, the simple act of making the time to be together and do something we both love can seem monumental, but it’s so important.

What Facebook has abundance of is memes, and many of them are silly, and some are annoying, and some are offensive. But some are really good reminders of what matters. One I remember said something like, “if you have a stack of dishes in your sink, it means you have enough food to eat. If you have a pile of laundry to fold, it means you have enough clothes to wear.” It’s easy in Arlington, or in Northern Virginia, or Greater Washington, to feel like we don’t have enough. We have plenty of first world problems. But we also have plenty of abundance. Abundant opportunities, abundant amusements, abundant things to see and people to meet. Abundant chances to serve. Abundant ways to receive.

As we close out our month of abundance, and our weekend of abundant food and company, and we look ahead to a month that may be filled with hope or anxiety, love or loneliness, generosity or uncertainty, or maybe all of these. Remember to take with you this month your inner abundance. Is it compassion? Vision? Wit? Steadiness? Creativity? Maybe you can’t name your inner abundance right now. If that’s the case, give yourself time to find it. And when you find it, give it away.

May it be so, may it be so, may it be so.

betsy-art

Some of my art

I cannot shake this feeling that what’s happening tomorrow is apocalyptic.

Throughout my 42 years many world events have caused me to worry that the world as I knew and loved it would somehow end, but all those scenarios began with bad guys from some other part of the world coming in and taking over, attacking us, poisoning our air or water, and taking away our freedoms.

I never imagined that an orange-haired guy from Queens and his idiotic henchmen would be the culprits.

I can no longer listen to NPR on weekdays because anything I hear about the incoming regime makes my stomach clench. I can’t read the paper. My news is nicely distilled for me on Facebook, which gathers a wide variety of sources, and every time I check my feed my chest tightens and I have to squeeze my eyes shut and turn it off.

I am making calls to legislators when I can, although I’m still not clear about whether that’s effective, especially since I am fortunate to have a Congressman and Senators who hold the same views as I do. I’m giving to organizations that I know are fighting to protect people who need protection and safeguard our rights. I am committed to my church’s movement to live the pledge to end racism and I am facilitating reflection sessions. And of course I’m going to march on Saturday.

But still.

And yet.

I keep thinking about Elizabeth Gilbert’s post the day after the election encouraging us to choose who we want to be, even and especially in the most challenging situations we face. I know she’s right. But it is so hard to feel open-minded and curious and loving and calm and hopeful when these tsunami-sized waves of dread crash over you again and again and again.

Lately I’ve been making a lot of art. I am not an artist, really. I like to glue things together. My kids and I bring home bags overflowing with recycled materials from UpCycle Creative Reuse Center and we create. When I am gluing small things onto other things, no bad thoughts can penetrate my brain. Making art creates a force field around my spirit. I am running out of space to put my art.

Tomorrow I’m going to celebrate kindness with friends and family. We’re going to make art and eat delicious food and listen to music and focus on how we can offer kindness to the world. At least for tomorrow I will put up that little force field around my family and friends. And they will give me strength. We will be kind and we will survive. And the next day we will wake up and march. And those hundreds of thousands of people who will be marching with us, in DC or in other cities, or in spirit, they will give me strength. Maybe I will give them strength too. Maybe our presence and our voices will be art, and all that beauty will sustain us over the next four years.

Maybe we will learn how to live and be brave in a post-apocalyptic world.

2015-03-10 13.15.22It’s disconcerting to see something moving across the floor in your peripheral vision when you’re in your living room and your kids are in bed asleep. Nothing should be scurrying about on your rug. No one should be darting under your furniture or hiding under your son’s toys.

Despite the fact that we have removed three mice in various states of incapacitation from our house, and I found another mouse–dead–in front of our front door yesterday, we do not seem to be rid of our mouse problem. Following Randy’s suggestion (see left), I have not had the courage to remove the dead mouse from in front of our house yet, but I suspect his fellow mice have not seen his current unfortunate state because they are inside and he is outside.

We had a repairperson here yesterday fixing a variety of things that have broken over the past months (maybe years?) and he filled some suspected mice holes. So either there are many more holes we have not yet identified, or a bunch of mice were already inside. Don’t they know it’s nice outside now? The weather has warmed up! They can go back outside and frolic! There’s no reason to stay in here, protected from the snow and ice. The snow has mostly melted! It’s not even raining. Go ahead, mice, go outside to the playground! Have a picnic in the park! If your holes are filled, I will gladly open the front (or back door) and let you out. Enjoy the spring, mice.

Unfortunately this is NOT the mouse I saw in my bathroom at 3am.

Unfortunately this is NOT the mouse I saw in my bathroom at 3am.

The worst part of last night, at least for me, was not Zeke’s persistent crying and refusal to sleep horizontally (although that was quite unpleasant) but rather the fact that after I plopped a weepy Zeke on our bed with his dogs Kirby and Uh Oh Dog and woke up Randy to keep an eye on him while I used the bathroom, when I turned on the bathroom light I saw a mouse dash out of the bathroom, across the hall, and into my office (also our guest room), which caused me to pee in my pants. I am not typically one of those people who is terrified of mice (although I don’t love them cohabiting with my family) but seeing a mouse vacate the bathroom in our bedroom and relocate to another bedroom, all on the upper floor of our house, where we sleep, does not sit well with me. Suddenly my mind switched from exasperation over Zeke’s restlessness to fear that the mouse (and perhaps his whole family) would be crawling over our faces if we ever did get back to sleep. tiny slug

A few weeks ago when our family was suffering from round after round of stomach viruses, twice during wakeful, messy nights, I spotted a tiny slug in the corner of the kitchen. The slug’s presence was disconcerting, but not alarming. First of all, it was tiny. Second, it was as slugs are wont to do, moving quite slowly, so I didn’t feel like I had to attend to it immediately. Slugs are notoriously easy to apprehend and Randy removed both slugs to the backyard without incident. This happened in the kitchen and I never once worried that slugs would crawl over our faces as we slept, leaving poisonous trails of slime. But a mouse. Those things are dangerous. Our exterminator told us to use gloves and masks when he reminded us many times to remove the mouse poop from the utility shed behind our house. You’re not going to want to come over for dinner now, are you?

Not that we can have anyone over for dinner these days anyway, because we are always sick or trapped inside by snow and ice. Not really trapped, Boston-style, but stuck inside because where are we going to go when it’s snowy and icy anyway? Our weeks of isolation began on January 29 when Zeke was first struck with norovirus, which he generously shared with all of us in turn. We were supposed to have friends over for dinner a few days later but had to cancel. And every weekend since then, someone has been puking or feverish or something yucky. School has been closed or delayed. I have postponed and rescheduled work meetings and personal appointments and social events over and over again.

When my mind is forced to spend those days (and nights) home with sick kids, or sick husband, or sick me, it tends to wander off toward dark and dismal destinations. I was fairly convinced throughout February that I was a terrible parent, incapable of compassion or patience, and also to blame for everyone’s illnesses. I was sure I didn’t have any real friends and somehow my children and I were being excluded from all fun things that were happening everywhere. I spend a lot of time worrying about all the things anyone could possibly worry about, and then I create some new things to worry about. I embrace my tendency toward worst-case-scenario thinking. Meaning, I am always on some level planning what to do if I need to take someone to the ER or what if someone never comes back from that errand or that trip, or what if we lose power and so many other what ifs that actual reality has no room to exist in my brain. I’ve struggled to figure out how to extract myself from this hole. Everyone I know seems to have crap they’re dealing with, much of it significantly more challenging than mine. Or everyone is just sick. During one of my doctor visits in February, my doctor said there were three groups of people in this area: people who’ve recently been sick, people who are sick now, and people who are going to get sick soon. He said the virus season this winter is the worst he’s seen in a decade. Still, knowing other people are sick does not at all make me feel any better, or even absolve me of responsibility for our germs. We wash our hands all the freaking time. While toddlers are not known for their hygeine habits, even Zeke loves to wash his hands, wipe up spills, and bring out the dustbuster when there’s a spill. We bleach, we wipe down, we spray. And yet the germs circulate and attack us again and again and my mental and emotional state deteriorates. So it’s been hard for me to reach out. I don’t like to complain (maybe you can’t tell that from this post) and I don’t like negativity. I am an optimist. I don’t like whiners. But the past five weeks, which feel more like five months, my sense of hope and positive attitude have diminished. My creativity and confidence have crumbled. I’ve felt increasingly lonely and isolated. I am an extrovert (or to be more accurate, according to my reading of Susan Cain’s work, I’m an ambivert, but still I need some outside stimulation). It’s not been good.

One bright spot during this time has been the sermons by Rev. Aaron McEmrys at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Arlington. I’ve been a member of All Souls Unitarian for nearly a decade, but for a variety of reasons it’s become untenable to attend services there. Recently a friend invited Zoe to participate in the sex ed (appropriate for second-graders) segment of the Sunday morning religious education class, so I figured I would go to services while Zoe was in class. I’d been to UUCA a couple times before in years past and found it pleasant but not powerful. This time, though, I was surprised and moved by Rev. Aaron’s preaching. I find his sermons to be thoughtful, challenging, exquisitely written, and passionately delivered. And this week he challenged the congregation to do something fun or frivolous or whatever it was they needed to do to be more resilient–to live more and work less. By example he told physicians in the room to work five fewer hours this week and do something entertaining or fulfilling instead. But he said he didn’t know what we all needed–we did. And what I needed to do was write this. It is embarrassing to say you’ve felt lonely and sad. I was raised not to feel sorry for myself. But sometimes you just need to say how you feel. I also, as a writer, constantly struggle with reluctance to put words out into the world unless they are fully formed and somehow worthy. Unfortunately, I just don’t always feel worthy. But I still need to put words out there before they burn a hole inside me, as they sometimes threaten to do.

So I am praying for spring. For health. For sleep. For the mouse that is upstairs in our house to move out. For a new show to materialize that makes me laugh as much as Parks and Recreation did. For more books like Wonder, which I read in a day sometime in February and would recommend to everyone. And for you, if you are in a hole, to find your way out as well.

04277121_zi_blue_silverLast night around 6, when I was waiting for a friend to pick Zoe up for tae kwan do because I didn’t want to bring Zeke because he was coughing and his shoes were soaking wet because I let him stomp in a puddle when we were picking up Zoe from school and when we got home I discovered the dryer, which we just paid $400 to get repaired, was screeching mercilessly whenever I turned it on, I started feeling panicky. I was upstairs waiting by the window with Zoe to spot her ride when it arrived while downstairs Zeke had found a tray of Christmas treats Zoe had left out, and was stuffing chocolate covered peanuts in his mouth. When I ran downstairs to find him, there was a blend of saliva and chocolate seeping all over his face and clothes and his mouth was full of unchewed peanuts because he still doesn’t have that many teeth. He had also managed to open Zoe’s Finding Nemo DVD that she received for Hanukkah the night before and had somehow smeared it with chocolate as well. I wiped off his face and yanked off his shirt and fleece and went to put them in the bucket that we soak stained things in but discovered I had left it outside on the patio and it needed to be washed. And I couldn’t wash it because the sink was full of dirty dishes and bottle parts because even though Zeke will drink water from a cup he still refuses to drink milk unless it’s in a bottle.

I was short of breath, my chest was tight, I felt nauseated and dizzy. I have a friend just a few years older than me who had a heart attack last year. Someone else my age with whom I graduated from college died this year from one. And one of Randy’s grad school classmates just died from a possible heart attack. I was increasingly panicked. I looked up the signs of a heart attack and a panic attack and found several websites that said the symptoms are remarkably similar. How helpful!

When Randy got home he dropped me off at urgent care. I should have just gone to the ER. The people at urgent care did not demonstrate any sense of urgency whatsoever. The receptionists and the physician’s assistant all seemed bored and completely uninterested in their jobs or the fact that people they were helping might have some sort of problem. They acted like they had been hired for jobs at lackadaisical care. The PA greeted me with, “So are you having a heart attack?” I told her I didn’t know what was wrong, that’s why I was there. Later when she was doing the EKG and tears were streaming down my face she repeatedly told me to relax. Oh ok. Thanks for the advice. The doctor, who was at least friendly, said I was fine and there wasn’t really anything he could do for me, as my heart and lungs and blood pressure were normal. He asked if there was anything stressful going on in my life. I didn’t even know where to start. I offered, “I have two young kids…” He said something like, is that all? I didn’t go into the running my own business thing or the fact that it’s Christmas and Hanukkah and so many things are undone or the fact that tragedies local and global are constantly breaking my heart and assaulting my soul. He asked if I wanted anything to calm me down, like a Xanax. I declined, as I have attempted to use Xanax in the past and even in small doses it makes me feel drunk and unable to function. Calm, sure, but not really worth it.

So the good news is I didn’t have a heart attack. The list of things to do remains long and the stacks of stuff to deal with are piled high. I am struggling to resist the urge to climb back into bed with my book–The Gravity of Birds–which is so good. In the meantime, I will listen to John Denver and the Muppets and try to get back to work, and be thankful that my heart is good.

marineopium05I should have changed the station when I heard Terry Gross say that her guest on Fresh Air was going to be the New York Times reporter covering Ukraine who was one of the first people on the scene of the wreckage of the Malaysian Airlines passenger plane that was shot down by some evil and selfish people over there. But somehow I didn’t, and so I listened while she described what it looked like when she was walking through the rubble and how some people’s bodies were completely intact, still buckled into their seats, because the plane had exploded in the air instead of just crashing into the ground. When she said, “especially the children,” I had to change the station. And it was too late, because now that image is in my brain and won’t go away.

Yesterday, immediately after hearing the fragment of that story on NPR, I conducted a phone interview with a medically retired Marine. As part of my contract work as a writer for the Navy-Marine Corps Relief Society, it is a privilege for me to interview many former Marines and Sailors and their families about their involvement with the Society, as well as interviewing the staff members and volunteers who work with clients. I have no military background so these conversations are usually fascinating and revelatory to me.

Many of the retired Marines and Sailors I speak with were severely wounded while deployed. At a minimum, they have post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injuries. Many also have a variety of severe physical issues as well. Many have struggled with addiction since returning to civilian life and trying to deal with the mental and physical anguish they returned to in the States. Typically I ask about their service–when they joined, where they served, what caused the injury that sent them home. Typically they give me the highlights. “I was blown up during my second deployment in Afghanistan.” Or “I was on patrol in Fallujah when we hit an IED.”

Yesterday the Marine I spoke with took me almost minute by minute through the day when he was hit multiple times by Taliban attacks while on a rescue mission. He just kept talking and I kept listening and writing down everything he said. It seems like the least I can do to listen to his story. And my job is to share his story–chiefly the part where he gets connected with a Navy-Marine Corps Relief Society visiting combat casualty assistance nurse–so other servicemembers like him, or their spouses or moms or siblings can find out there’s another way to get help. So these guys feel less alone.

I am thankful that this is part of my work and it is an honor to do this very small thing to help. But it is hard to hear. It is hard to hear horrible things on the news. It is hard to hear tragedies that strike people I know or the friends or family members of people I know. It is hard to understand why our military is sent out to do unbelievably dangerous work that changes their lives not usually for the better, and for questionable reasons when you hear the news today and know that militants in Iraq are forcing innocent families to die by starvation and no one is able to stop it. Hearing these things just crushes my heart. But I cannot ignore them, and part of me feels responsible for being a witness to the suffering. Still, it crushes my heart.

 

When I’m driving and am powerless to harness them, the ideas and deliberations zoom in and out of my head. Sometimes I feel like my brain actually hurts because of the volume and velocity of thoughts. I had a conversation recently over milkshakes with a friend who is an excellent writer but that’s not what he does chiefly at his job. He is trying to figure out how much of a creative writer is in him, waiting to emerge. He said he doesn’t necessarily feel like he’s one of those people who is compelled to write.

I am one of those people, but so often I hold myself back. My overdeveloped sense of empathy serves as an effective censor. I am frozen by my concern for how others might feel about what I have to say, even strangers. This temperance toward my writing makes me feel like less of a writer. I’ve heard that the thing you love most about your significant other can also become the thing you most despise. I suspect this is also true about yourself.

swirlIt occurred to me recently that, at least among my closest family and friends, there seem to be two basic flavors of anxiety: past and future. Not to say that you can’t get a delicious, panic-inducing swirl of both if that’s your thing, but most people seem to relish one or the other.

A few people I can think of pore over every detail of past events and past decisions. What if I had done this differently? What if this other person had gone another direction? What if any number of things that happened had not happened? This manner of hindsight anxiety is highlighted in the spectacular musical If/Then, which I recently saw on Broadway. I recommend it highly. The play, not the anxiety.

I have little patience for this brand of anxiety. I am a practical person and I feel like what’s done is done and it serves no purpose to wonder what could have happened because it didn’t and it’s too late to turn back now and life goes on.

I have plenty of time, however, to obsess about what might happen in the future, however remote the possibility may be. What if there’s an earthquake and the crack in the bricks outside our house makes the house collapse on my baby while he sleeps in his crib? What if we are in the wrong place at the wrong time and encounter a crazy shooter? What if we get a flat tire on the beltway? What if we run out of money? What if someone I love gets seriously ill? Or dies? The rewarding thing about this kind of anxiety is there are so many variations, layers, and nuances. Some of the worries are extremely unlikely and very much out of my control. Short of living inside a bubble, we assume the risks of living in the world and some of these are really scary these days. But still unlikely. And some are inevitable. Some people I know will get sick and someday will die. It’s already happened, for sure. But the prospect is still terrifying. Again, nothing I can do about it. I haven’t yet found a magic wand or fairy godmother or medical miracle to protect everyone I love and enable them to live forever. And then there are the worries that I could do something about, but are still hard to face. I could save money by going out to lunch less. But I love going out to lunch and it keeps me from going insane at home alone. I am frequently torn between the mantras of self-improvement and self-acceptance that are constantly swirling around me.

Instead of removing the possible causes of future-predicting anxiety, what I need to do is attack the anxiety itself. I have meditated, but not in a long time. I don’t know why meditation, which is so simple, can be so intimidating. I do yoga, but have not had a regular practice since my 13-year-month old was born. Even after he was born I enjoyed mommy-baby yoga with him for a while, but once he started crawling the jig was up. I’m trying to find a way to create a new practice for myself. I was going to go to a new class today, but didn’t count on the rush hour traffic and had to cancel at the last minute when I discovered I would get there 15 minutes late. Happily, the studio owner called me back right away to say I wouldn’t lose the class despite the late cancel and suggested some classes I could take that aren’t during rush hour. So I took a four-mile walk, and it’s a beautiful day, and that was good.

Mister Rogers said in the midst of tragedy to look for the heroes, and it’s easy when you’re anxious to turn minor annoyances into major catastrophes, because they might become larger scale annoyances or even genuine problems. But I try to look for the heroes, even the minor ones. Last Friday afternoon I had just picked up Zeke from day care and I was on my way to pick up Zoe from school, after which we were headed out of town for a weekend away with friends. I ran out of gas, which was dumb. I’ve never done that before. And likely I will never do it again. But I did, and it turns out in our minivan, the two gallons you can put in with the gas can that the nearby service station loaned me is not enough to get it started again. You need four gallons. So by the time I discovered this, Zeke and I had spent a while hanging out on the sidewalk in front of the house where our car had conked out. Hero number one was the guy whose house it was, who came out to ask if I could move the car because his wife was headed home and I was blocking the driveway. I explained my situation and he was totally understanding and asked if I needed anything. I desperately needed to pee, so he invited me in to use the bathroom. Hero number two was the AAA service guy who arrived to see if I needed a jump start. I didn’t, and he suggested I probably needed more gas. He asked if there was anything else he could do for me and I guess could see I was getting a little upset. He asked if I was thirsty and gave me a bottle of cold water he had in his truck. I’ve never had a AAA driver offer me water before. I’m sure that was his own supply of water for him to drink. I was grateful. Heroes number three and four: my parents, who immediately came when I called and split up to retrieve each of my children and bring them home while I waited for a tow truck or more gas (before I knew what the problem was). Hero number 5: my husband, who came and picked up the gas can and refilled it and came back to me with more gas, which enabled the car to start. And everyone was kind and patient and no one made fun of me for running out of gas. And we made it to West Virginia with our friends, even though we got there after 10pm. We missed all the traffic and drove in the cool darkness and Zeke slept and Zoe watched Frozen and all was well. All of my anxieties about what was wrong with the car, how much it would cost to fix, the prospect of Zoe freaking out that she hadn’t been picked up yet, the prospect of Zeke freaking out on the sidewalk, none of them came to fruition. It was a sunny day, everyone helped, and it was ok.

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