Our worry boxes

On Monday morning, Stella, four-years-old, woke up and informed me that she wanted to make a worry box. She’d seen a short video about it by Jaime on Cosmic Kids Yoga. I was shocked. She’s not my worrier, or at least that’s the story I tell. I followed her lead.

We found a Kleenex box, decorated it with stickers and patterned paper, put some teeth on the opening, and then I offered to write some of her worries down.

She told me a few: “What will happen if some of my friends are sick? What happens if Kima [our cat] dies? What happens when I go back to school and my teacher isn’t there?” Then she wrote a few of her own—curving lines, that universal pre-literate language of little ones. We fed them to the box and she went about her day.

I tell you this, not because I am a Pinterest mom recommending you make a worry box with your own child. The magic of it was that it was totally initiated by her, the kind of thing that would have gotten an eye roll if I had suggested it to the girls.

I tell you this because it was a good reminder for me that the inner lives of other people are vast and unknowable and terrifically tender. I made this human. I spend the vast majority of every waking hour with her , and I had no idea that she was harboring a worry box-worth of little slips of paper in her mind.

I suppose I shouldn’t have been so surprised. I was a worrier when I was little, too. There was a period in the mid-80s when I would lie in my little canopy bed, unable to sleep, and call out to my mom. She would bring me Celestial Seasoning Sleepy Time tea, the smell of which can instantly send me into a panic at this very moment, and play a visualization tape on our little silver boombox. I don’t remember what the voice said very well, only that there were two paths in a forest. I can’t remember which one I was supposed to take.

It’s been a year of worry. Of waking in the middle of the night and watching the moonlight move across the walls. A year of observing our children’s breath and smelling things—not for joy—but for reassurance. A year of worrying about the short-term stuff—paying the rent or the mortgage—and the long-term stuff—our children’s social skills, our parents’ isolation. It’s been a year of interiority—stuck in our homes, stuck in our divided country, stuck in our brains.

Stella’s worry box reminded me of this collective store of worry that we’ve been amassing. And it made me want to interact with everyone, even myself, with a little more gentleness, a little more grace. It reminded me of Naomi Shihab Nye’s gorgeous poem, “Shoulders.” Observing a father carrying his small son across the street through a rainstorm, she advises us

We're not going to be able

to live in this world

if we're not willing to do what he's doing

with one another.

I stayed up too late last night watching the Oprah interview with Meghan and Harry. And here too, was a store of worries, of suffering, inside the most ornate box of them all. A palace of worry. A gorgeous woman dying inside. She and her man rescued one another, it seems. They fled a hollow performance, a racist, sexist entrapment, for the big, wide world of real, human vulnerability. Even our worries are a sign of life, as it turns out, a sign that we love and so inevitably fear the loss of it.

And this is just it, I guess, what I’m trying to say. Whether your worry box has paper teeth or ballrooms and balconies, you are not alone. We are worried, too, and need someplace to put our worries that is outside of our own minds. We need to carry one another through the rain that is still falling. We need to keep remembering that we don’t know what we don’t know about the inside of other people’s ribcages, about their vivid 2am imaginations, about their addled hearts.

We are all scribbling a pre (or is it post?)-literate language of fear and heartbreak and hope with one another. The point is not to decode it all. I didn’t ask Stella what her pieces of paper said. The important thing is that I know they’re there.

Hey, I’m honored to have a piece in the first-ever edition of The Nation on parenting. Check it out here and read other amazing essays by Imani Perry, Jamilah Lemieux, and others.