The last appointment I had before the pandemic really drove me inside was in my therapist’s office. Thank goddess.
After hearing me blather on about Stella’s pneumonia (was it just pneumonia?!) in late February and my mom’s fever and the idea of spending days on end trapped in 1300 square feet with my adorable, creatively maladjusted children, she said: “Want to work on some tools to manage your anxiety?”
She reminded me that I have a body—legs and arms and a spine, no less. She had me breathe. I held a rock the color of a pea shoot, but stormy looking, and noticed how smooth it was. I felt a little silly, but I also felt a little better. I wrote it all down, as if I needed operating instructions for my body forty years into living inside of it. And I do, reader.
It turns out, I have never lived inside this body in this particular place and time, where—in fact—I am not safe. None of us are. And that’s a wild thing to live in a body knowing. I have spiritual muscles for all kinds of strange states—being a person with a person inside of my body, being a person mourning a person disappearing from the earth, being a person heartbroken because I no longer see someone I know is still on the earth. Hurricanes, cancer, rejection, unemployment.
But I have none for this—the closest national moments that this resembles as far as my vigilant, strung-out spirit is concerned, are September 11th and Trump’s election. Those moments cleaved my life—a time before and a time after. In the after, I felt nubile and aimless for awhile, like my insides were lit up with an enigmatic fear. In both cases, it turned out that the house I was living inside—whistling along, as I watered my expectations each night and watched them grow each day—was not well-made.
I remember sitting outside eating a slice of pizza on the Upper West Side on September 11th, 19-years-old. I was staring blankly at the sidewalk as women in business suits walked north, their high heels in their hands, and asked my college boyfriend, “Will I ever have children?”
And the morning after Trump was elected, I lay in bed next to my husband and said, “What nation will our children know?”
Which is all to say, I have had to rebuild my worldview brick by mental brick before. Not enough for it to feel familiar, as I imagine it might for those who have experienced repeated displacement and trauma. But enough to give me a reference point. Ah, my body says, this is one of those moments that demands far more than rearranging furniture. This is one of those rebuild the whole fucking universe things.
A pic of us not social distancing in our little house while social distancing, by Maya.
My anxiety has been mild, sweetly acquiescing to my iPhone memo at certain times. At other times, it laughs its ass off at the quaint suggestion that remembering I have legs might stop my heart from racing. In Maya’s new favorite series Polly Diamond, Polly loses her little sister at a science fair and says, “A worried feeling goes through me like a slippery eel.”
That’s exactly how it feels. A slippery eel slithers through me every time Maya’s head feels slightly warm or John updates me with another NYT Daily podcast synopsis or I see an Instagram post of someone at a raging party despite the warnings.
But there’s something else happening, too.
Next to the anxiety is something like freedom. In a moment like this, we can acknowledge that the world is more astonishing than anything we can ever imagine—beautiful beyond any rational explanation, and also, as terrifying and horrible.
Those stories we tell in our imaginations when they are at their most catastrophic and dark? Some of them are true. Some of them are true right now. When I’m anxious and I try to push it away—Nothing is going to happen. I’m fine. The girls will be fine.—it feels so bad because, on some existential level, I know it’s a lie. I don’t know that. I can’t know that. No one can.
We don’t know if it’s going to be okay. In so many ways. So many of us are riding waves of anxiety built on riptides of no control. But there’s a sort of quiet freedom that comes when you stop trying to tell yourself it’s all okay. It’s not okay. Never was, but especially not right now. This being alive thing is a terrifying mystery.
We’ll never be the same after this. The world was one place before this virus, and it will be a different place after this virus. And there is no amount of information right now that one can glean from forwarded emails from public health experts in someone’s extended family or charts on social distancing or home schooling protocols that will make that less true.
Once you have enough information, for now, to do the best thing for your own health and the collective health, turn it off. Feel the slippery eel move through you and out of you. Savor the mundane. Put your hands on a body you don’t have to distance from, or a pencil, or a heavy, grounding pot and fill it with edifying food. Greet the next wave of anxiety with her proper due—yes, hi, it makes sense that you’re here.
You are not okay and you are not alone. And as elusive as it may feel, there’s some freedom in experiencing those realities side by side.
And hey, like so many creative people, I’m experimenting with Instagram Live right now as a way to help people feel connected. At 8pm PST I’m going to read a poem and then give you a writing/reflection prompt. They stay up for 24 hours, so feel free to tune at any point during the day that works for you. (I’m taking tonight off for my women’s group zoom, but will be back on tomorrow) I’ll do the same over here for Friday’s discussion thread. See you on both/either platform. Take good care.