Thursday, February 9, 2012

Anxiety, A Long Shower, and Acceptance


A few minutes ago I was reading Ryokan, a Japanese poet who knocks me right out. As I was reading, I worried a little about it. My worries interrupted the reading. They said, "Am I smart enough to be reading this? Do I really even get it?" I had the feeling that has so often overwhelmed me since childhood, that I am a fraud and should just give up all these pretensions. I re-read the poem but my anxiety interrupted me again, again, and again. I put the book down and took a warm shower.

There, in the steam, I did something that seems to help. I admitted that I was feeling anxious. I said it out loud. "I am feeling anxious." I repeated it a few times. There was nothing I could do to solve this problem in the shower. I couldn't take a graduate class in 19th-century Japanese poetry. I couldn't get the Cliff's Notes and check my progress. I had no one there to whom I could compare myself. I was alone in a warm shower with my anxiety and my own voice saying that I was feeling anxious. There were really only two choices I could make. One, I could fight it and stuff that feeling of anxiety down the drain. This has long been my default move. It's what I have trained in my whole life. But I chose the other way which was to accept the feeling of anxiety and rub shampoo into my scalp.

Right about then the worst thing of the night happened. I got that damn song from "South Pacific" stuck in my head, complete with new lyrics. "I'm gonna wash that panic right out of my hair..." Ugh. But other than that, I felt better just saying it, feeling it and moving on.

It got me to thinking how I've really been liking some of Steve Reich's music lately even though I don't yet understand what he's building. That got me thinking about Brad Mehldau and how I think I get a lot of what he is doing and how it mesmerizes me. Which got me to thinking about Mark Strand's poetry which dazzles me and about which I'm no longer baffled. I can actually see the shape of what's going on in his work. I wasn't sure I would ever be able to claim such a thing.

Anxiety has long kept me from belief in myself and trust in my instincts. I'm working to set that aside and to be open to the things I know as well as the things I don't. Part of that is realizing what I have done already and seeing how much is available to me ahead.

The other day my good friend said that she couldn't possibly run a half-marathon this month. I said, "Of course you can," because I feel sure that she could. She said, no, and when she did I heard something different than the "no" I would have said in her place a few years ago. I would have been trying to get the other person to tell me that I could, to push me, so that I could decline but still feel that someone believed in me. I wouldn't have to test myself, but I'd get an attaboy nonetheless. She wasn't saying it that way. She wasn't troubled by the fact of what she knew about herself which is that she can run a half-marathon but that she has to train herself up to it.

She didn't even have to stand under a warm shower for ten minutes to come to the conclusion. Go figure.

The other part of this that I'm liking is this: I'm absolutely sure I could run a half-marathon tomorrow. I wouldn't do it very fast and I'd be pretty sore afterward, but I have no doubt that I could do it and enjoy myself in the process. I don't feel over my head in that. I know myself well enough to not only make the claim, but to do so calmly and without boasting. It's not anything spectacular that I could run 13.1 tomorrow. Having the awareness of myself is what's spectacular.

I'm moments away from finishing this essay. I'll post it online. I'll shut down the computer. And before bed, I'll read a couple more of Ryokan's poems without the distractions of my anxiety. It turns out that accepting the anxiety and not trying to do anything else about it is just enough to get through. I'll sleep well tonight, I think. And tomorrow, who knows how far I'll run. Anything is possible.

Write on.