Feeds:
Posts
Comments

On Anxiety

I have a picture of a brown trout taped into my notebook. The fish has two lampreys attached to the top of its head, rasping through its scales and slurping up its vital juices through the raw bed they scrape. The lampreys are velvety black, snake-like, with no discernable faces. They arc away in two directions, looking like a fool’s motley cap, or like two hoses in science fiction drawing all the fish’s thoughts away. When I think of the picture, I recall the fish appearing distressed, or stunned, but when I look at it again, the fish has no expression at all, or rather, a fish’s only expression—blank-eyed, slack jawed.

My summers are mostly my own, free of teaching duties. My kids are old enough not to need constant tending. But without any structure in the days, the idleness makes me anxious. I wander from room to room, carrying things around for a while and setting them down again, wasting time trying to decide how best to spend my time. By July, it was so bad that I re-activated a long dormant meditation app I’d downloaded in a previous difficult time. The meditations are short mindfulness exercises, focusing on this moment, tending the wayward child of the mind, jogging after it and steering it back with an arm around its shoulder. None of them were really doing the trick.

Anxiety governs democratically, opening the public square to any concern demanding a hearing. The Antarctic ice sheets slumping into the ocean jostle for space alongside: the plants growing in my front gutters, tall enough to flower; a Syrian father keening over his dead son; an email I was supposed to send; the rotten window sills on the north side of the house. I would go running for the short relief it gives– a few hours afterward when I am wrung out. Once, with the rest of the roadside litter, I saw a star-spangled lighter with red and blue lettering like something from a political campaign. As I passed it, I looked down and saw it read, “We’re Screwed 2016.”

IMG_0757When running wasn’t doing it, I headed north to do some hard walking. Two days and a night on the Kilkenny Trail north of the Presidentials in the White Mountains, and then a day spent circling the Pondicherry Wildlife Refuge. The walk in was on a rough trail. I hiked hard, self-flaggelating with raspberry canes. Insects raised welts on my arms, and as I got closer to the ponds, they grew thicker. Ticks crawled up my legs. Something buzzed between the sheets of my Tyvek map. I put on my head net and trapped a hive of mosquitoes inside it with me. Increasingly deranged, I slapped and slapped, hitting myself in the glasses and knocking them sideways. I sat down at the pond edge and gave in. On my knee was a decrepit lightning bug, ragged winged, missing a leg. Butterflies landed on me, seeking my salt. Flower flies tapped me with their tube tongues splaying. A dragonfly with a torn wing rested on my thumb, his abdomen heaving in and out; he’d been in the wars. I ate my lunch and, unwilling to retrace the hard walk back on the trail I’d come in on, I took the longer circuit around the far side of the pond. On a wet dirt rail trail threatened by marsh on both sides, I sloshed through six inches of water and found a crayfish in the middle of the path. The only human I’d seen in a long while came around a bend: an old man with pants tucked into his socks and a wide brimmed hat on. “Awful lot of bugs,” he said. “Plenty,” I answered. In places along the trail, weathered wooden poles that used to hold telephone lines leaned toward the marsh like crosses. “These are the works of man,” I thought.

After a while, the trail met the pavement and I settled into a hard road walking speed past barns and weedy fields. I detoured into a little cemetery and there found a three foot tall silhouette of the Old Man of The Mountain cut in plywood, painted, and stood up among the headstones. The Man himself was long since lying in jumbled pieces at the base of a cliff over in Franconia Notch, but it appeared that his grave was here. Two stones over, a grave, a wife’s name underneath, and “Infant son 1913-1913.” The works of man. I walked as hard as I could and still call it walking. I looked along the shoulder and thought I saw a turtle (a rock), and a mouse (a run over pinecone). I took a little video of what the road looked like as I went, and how little was going on. As I lowered the camera and put it away, a bittern flew out of the streamside ahead of me. In my life, I’ve seen two standing still, pretending to be reeds, and one bursting up out of the weeds, both of us startled, but I’d never seen one flying at its own leisure. It went, wooden-winged, hingeing across the road. I kept on to my car.

I got back from the trip and the walking medicine wore off and the anxiety slipped its fingers between my ribs again and squeezed. I dutifully did my meditations each day, but felt only a little bit better, and only for a short time before the lampreys came rasping at my head again. Then, one afternoon, the meditation asked me to name the thoughts preying on me. To recognize that they aren’t me, that they are not intrinsic. “Call them by their names,” said the lisping Englishman on the recording. “Hello old Mrs. Doubt. Good afternoon, Mr. Self-Criticism.” I rolled my eyes under my closed lids, but listened on. Then, rather than Mrs. Doubt clad in her gray woolens, it was crows I began to see in my mind. Spark eyed and hopping, they closed on me.  They carried tools, little short sticks they’d stripped of bark and sharpened. They jumped around and peered in and fished into my head, down my ear canals with their sticks. The Englishman talked on, but I didn’t hear him much anymore. I could see, down in the dark, in the bone cup at the bottom of my skull, a white grub curled up. Down into the dark the ends of the crow sticks rasped and poked but could not quite reach. The grub shifted a little in the dark but that was all. It was imperturbable. The meditation ended, and the Englishman thanked me for joining him, and wished me well. I sat at the table with clear sight, crying. What euphoric relief it was to know the crows were not me, that I was cured.

Later on, out for a run again, the gleam off the revelation, I wondered if my true self really is a fat, dull grub, barely sensate, and what price I would pay for peace. And ego, vain ego, covets those glossy, blue-black feathers.

 

(Note: After a long hiatus during which I pondered trying to get my writing published, and thus, hoarded it, (since posting it here would make it largely unpublishable in conventional outlets), I gave up. I might as well have what people are interested in my writing just read it. So, welcome back, whoever you are, or just welcome.  -SC)

marcelo-leal-525139-unsplashTen days before Christmas, six before our 15thanniversary, my husband had a colonoscopy. Family history had brought him there, more than a decade before the average person needs to undergo the procedure, and we were, by a long shot, the youngest people in the outpatient waiting room. I had read the preparatory documentation decreeing that, if there were no responsible person to wheel him out and drive him home, groggy and half drugged, his procedure would be canceled. I would need to declare myself at the outset and be there at the end to receive him. He was property to be released to me. There was no provision for unclaimed baggage.

In the week or so leading up to the day, as the phases of his preparation progressed (beige bland diet, clear liquids) I thought about carting him out in a wheelchair. They said that would probably be necessary and I did not like it. In my whole life, I’ve only ever been hospitalized for childbirth, and he never at all since I’ve known him. His doctor says that, since he is a male who survived his twenties without dying of stupidity or risk-taking, he really doesn’t even need checkups until his heart attack risk climbs when he hits his 50s. Our bodies are healthy, fit, do what we ask them to without complaint. I know this will not be so forever, but I only know it intellectually. I don’t really know it in ligament and muscle. We take our physical abilities for granted, and our intellectual ones, the skills by which we make our livings, broaden with time and maturity. The thought that they may also decline and be lost one day fills me with black dread when I think of it. Most of the time though, I coast along in a disbelieving state of gratitude for the life I have, the two people I made, the one I married. Once in a while, I wonder if this coasting is the same one the coyote felt every time he careened off the cliff, but didn’t realize it right away. The note about the wheelchair was a glimpse down at the thin air below us.

When we got married, the shortest day of the year, the longest night, I had put little thought into what I would wear, and much into what would be read at the wedding. We chose Robert Frost’s The Master Speedand have its final stanza framed in our bedroom with drawings I did of two wrens, two oak leaves, two hiking boots. Every morning I look at it, and sometimes its cadence bounds through my head too, for no particular reason. It accompanies me all the time.

Two such as you with such a master speed

Cannot be parted nor be swept away

From one another once you are agreed

That life is only life forevermore

Together wing to wing and oar to oar.

 

One night, in a rare moment of being fully still, I lay in bed looking at a picture hanging on my wall. It’s Japanese, I think, and I know next to nothing about art, so I don’t know what medium it is—some kind of paint, or some kind of woodblock print. It’s of two ducks in flight against a blue sky—a winter type sky like now, when the sun comes up only high enough to scrape the sides of the bowl of the day and then go down again. The perspective of the picture flattens the ducks, so the wing of the one in the foreground seems to lay across the neck of the one flying behind. They look like they are interfering with each other. Not like “wing to wing” I thought. And then, “oar to oar,” I thought, and I realized I had, all these years, missed the point. When I chose that poem, when I was twenty one, straight off a Bachelor’s degree in English, pleased with my literariness, I was smitten by its being addressed to us. “Two such as you,” it said, and I answered, “Yes, tell us more about us. Tell us how we’re joining together, tell us about two making one, tell us about union, tell us how there’s no space between us at all, we’re so well matched.” The poem flattered my idea of love, and marriage, it told of defying the laws of thermodynamics even, of climbing, like metaphysical salmon, “back up a stream of radiance to the sky/ and back through history up the stream of time.” I heard, “two such as you,” and “together” and I preened and strutted and listened not very well to the last bit that defined it all. Lying in bed, “oar to oar,” I thought, and the obviousness of the image now slapped me broadside. I had, I realized, retained only a vague idea of what that phrase meant. Blame my years of prep school and my awe of the tall, lanky sorts who rowed crew for my image of the oars in series, one behind the next, each person pulling in synchrony with the rest of the eight, or however many those sleek, expensive boats carry. How had I failed to notice that that wasn’t right at all? I was too taken with the idea of marriage as a fusion, of a joining, of two-become-one that I had not noticed that the poem actually set us away from each other, that we were, quite literally, not in the same boat. And if we each row our own boats, then there has to be more than two oars-lengths between us even, there has to be space between the oar tips too, to allow each of us free movement, to keep the eddying turbulence from pulling each others’ blades underwater, to stay the course.

I thought about the impending procedure, and the wheelchair, and the space opening up between us. However transiently, he was going into the country of the sick, the sedated, the passive, the patient. I was to remain in the waiting room in the land of the able bodied, alert, free-moving, and would receive him when the ferryman anesthesiologist brought him back from his dim, Versed dream. It was not the idea of the wheelchair that bothered me. It was the oars. If we were to keep rowing up the stream with our master speed, we’d need both sets of hands on our own oars. We’d need to not interfere with each other’s progress, and we could neither of us carry the other one. I remembered that from years before, when I’d been in labor with each of our children. He and I were in the room together, he was beside me, doing anything I asked, tiring himself out pressing on the sides of my hips for hours, when I told him I felt like my pelvis was coming apart. But after twenty, thirty hours of it all, he would be falling asleep in the chair by the window while I labored and rode contraction after contraction. I wondered how he could drift off to sleep in those conditions. But those conditions were entirely my own. My own internal geography, altering landscape, changeable weather, and tectonic shift. He could not know what it felt like in my body. We were not in the same boat.

Now, eight years after our second son’s birth, in a different hospital, in a different city, I waited in a pre-procedure room with him until it was time for them to take him away. He’d had an IV dose of Benadryl and was mostly sleeping, and rousing periodically to tell me it was fine if I left. He was just sleeping, after all. A nurse documented any jewelry he was wearing: only his wedding ring. Then they came for him and wheeled his stretcher away and I went the other way to go wait. As I walked down the hallway, I looked left to see a set of doors open to a parallel hallway. A patient was being pushed along, supine, sleepy, toward the procedure room, and after a moment, I startled and saw it was him. They were going the same speed I was, down the parallel hallway, the nurses, also able-bodied, striding, my gait matching theirs. But they were bearing him away and they disappeared past the doorway as I went to read and watch people waiting.

Why were we married on the solstice? People ask me that, or, if we were looking for celestial or solar significance, why not the summer solstice, the longest day? Or an equinox, the balance points of the year? The truth is, it was an accident that it fell on a solstice day. We just wanted a winter wedding, we liked December for it, and the church would already be decorated for Christmas, saving us money on flowers. But now that I think about it, it suits. The pagans all knew about this time of the year, the long descent into darkness, the hold-your-breath-and-hope-the-sun-comes-back rituals, the stop, and the turning point when the pendulum starts its swing back. The unmoving sun shining the same whether we turn our faces toward it or away, and we are finished turning away. Though the winter will get colder, it will get no darker.

When his exam was all over, and he’d been given a mostly clean bill of health but for a follow up in six months just to be sure, they summoned me, calling out for “The Courchesne Family” and I went to claim him. It turned out he didn’t need a wheelchair after all. He was fairly steady, though slower than usual, with a little tendency to drift left as he walked. I walked alongside him, watchful, bracing a little, gauging the right distance to keep, the right balance, the right speed.  And then I brought us home.

 

 

Plenty of writing brewing in the brain, but for now, please enjoy this view of our year on the trails. With gratitude for public lands, and their stewards.

 

Better part of valor

IMG_0053.jpgThe plan, for this overnight backpacking trip, was to hike in to a backcountry camp site in the shadow of Mt. Jefferson, camp out, get up in the morning and hike to the summit, and return out the way we came. Malcolm, my elder son, was my companion, his younger brother having opted to stay home with his father. Malcolm, for some reason, has taken to backpacking the way I did, when, out of the blue at the age of 16, I announced my wish to begin sleeping in the woods from time to time. No one in my family had ever done, nor desired to do, such a thing. We did not even camp at campgrounds. Every summer, we rented a cabin on Lake Ossipee and that was the extent of things. But I had some splinter in my soul that would not work out until I’d ventured into the woods.

My parents bought me a pack and a few other items that year for Christmas, and away I went from there, doing occasional trips into the White Mountains, with no particular goal in mind but to walk in, sleep, walk out.

Since then, I have found out about peakbaggers, and redliners, and sectionhikers–all outdoors people working on particular lists of achievements: all the summits in New Hampshire above 4,000 feet, or every trail in the White Mountains, or the whole Appalachian Trail in fits and starts. It’s hard not to get swept up by goals like that, and I do keep a list of which 4000 footers I have climbed, though I am not in any rush. Still, it’s hard not to feel an urge to climb all the way up a mountain when you’re halfway up anyway, and that’s where Malcolm and I found ourselves when we camped five miles in on the Great Gulf Trail, at 3,000 or so feet of elevation.

We set up camp there Sunday evening, with no one else anywhere around. We ate, and as the temperature declined into the 40s, retreated to the tent to read. He ran out of books and asked me to read to him from what I had, so he listened to a magazine article about the sodium levels in frozen pizza, and one about the search for a natural-origin  blue dye for candy. Eventually, he fell asleep.

img_0059In the night, the forecast winds picked up. Tucked up by the headwall in the ravine below Jefferson, we could hear the wind tearing down the Presidential ridge from the north over and over. The force of it bore down across the exposed reaches a thousand feet and more above our heads. Hardly any wind reached us down where we were, but my stomach tensed all the same for the biggest gusts. We were like mice crouched under the floorboards as a great cat swept its frustrated paw across the knothole where we hid.

I slept fitfully as I always do the first night out, and in the morning, Jefferson was rimed in ice and the winds had not diminished. It took me a few moments to understand that snow was falling already at our elevation. It was not a day to venture above treeline with what gear we had. I told Malcolm, telling him why it was unwise to go up, though I was trying to convince myself as much as him.

We headed back down Great Gulf Trail; the temperatures moderated with the elevation loss and the sun’s progress. I had to look back at Jefferson again and again to see its ashy gray and white complexion, and be reminded of the wisdom of my choice.

img_0078We drove home, with no additional peak to record on the form that shows my slow progress on the list since I first climbed Mt. Washington in 1997. Malcolm is closer to the age I was then than I am now. I have a picture of me sitting in a log shelter in the wilderness that since fell into disrepair and was dismantled. Malcolm is fascinated by how long ago that was. He’s fascinated by how long it is taking me to get around to all 48 4000 foot peaks. He’s fascinated by how very, very old I am.

In my turn, I am fascinated by him too. He is like me in certain ways, small, and so bony we can’t ever seem to get our packs cinched tight enough around our hips. Diffident. He talked at length as we walked about BMX bike tricks, a subject about which I know nothing. He’s on the brink of not being a little kid anymore. He can hike about as fast as I want to go. There are few things on Earth I love to watch more than his beautiful stride at a full sprint.

I was disappointed at having failed to reach Jefferson’s summit. I can console myself with the usual saw about the journey being what matters, but I do crave those mountaintops, and it’s clear that he does too. But I had one more day of the numbered days when he will still curl up with me in the tent, and ask me to read to him. He will no longer hold my hand, but he will be my ballast when the morning comes and the wind finds us there finally, hiding in our hole, thinking better of it, scurrying down in the spindrift.