Living inside anxiety, I can’t help but think I may actually be the worst person to explain it. I’m certain that it looks entirely different from the inside, and would be unrecognizable to people on the outside.
I feel this is best expressed through a peyote-inspired scene from “I dream of Jeannie”:
Me: “Okay, it’s a round room, about twenty feet across, with jewels on the wall, and cushions that fit together, and pillows all around. And kinda pink and purple. Mostly purple. Weird ceiling. Do you see it?”
Some human: “Dude… you’re high. All I see a shiny bottle about as long as my arm.”
Me: “Open it!”
Anxious person emerges, blinking.
From this side, it feels like anxiety is connected to time somehow–like everything is coming in too fast, and nothing I do can slow it down. It feels like stress, but in more dimensions than emotions are supposed to have. (Apparently, that feeling is a real thing and much discussed at one time, in certain circles.)
Alvin Toffler definition of future shock: “Too much change in too short a period of time.” Published 1970.
Part of my brain keeps saying, “Hurry up! You’re not making it. If you fall behind…!!” (Not sure what happens if I fall behind. Something bad.)
Without meaning to, I’m aware of every responsibility, every job I’ve got to do in the next ten minutes, hour, rest of the morning, day, week, semester, year, all at once… as well as the time crunch I have trying to accomplish each one while doing all of the others, facing the scrutiny and scorn of the (imagined?) authorities looming over my shoulder.
And all the time, all the time, all the time, I keep thinking about the years–how many I’ve passed, how many since this movie came out or that album was released, how many years I’ve taught, how many I still need to work, how many years since Mom and Dad passed away, and how many more I can hope to see, like an old man counting down to zero.
So it’s simultaneously time by the fraction of a second, and time by the year and decade, with me trapped between.
And with the thinking is the feeling of anxiety–a true, physical feeling–like a fever that gives you chills all over; or like razor-blade poison traveling through your veins; or like frost on your skin, a quarter inch deep; or like molten lead in your gut, sending its metallic tendrils every direction.
It makes me grit my teeth until I have a headache. And jiggle my knees. And crack my knuckles over and over.
See? I can’t describe it properly. Maybe that’s close enough.
But I know what I want instead.
I crave slow time. Maybe no time. Sitting on the porch, reading books by natural sunlight, hearing the sound of the wind and the flutter of the curtains, with the dogs puttering around and the leaves rustling. Nothing much happening. Nothing needing to be done. No critic at my shoulder. No deadline. No existential angst.
The deepest calm I feel is when a scent, like cut grass, or a combination of clouds and sun, or some chance word, or crickets outside at night, or some other perfect accident of life conjures up not just the memory of my youth but an actual moment, a time when I didn’t inhabit this strange space, this bizarro version of my inner life. Then, for a blissful instant, I step out of the bottle, out of time, out of the fever-poison-frost, and feel…
But only for, like, you know, a second. A good second.
That’s not how I feel at work. I don’t know many people who do. But sometimes, once in a while, there’s a tiny spark of it.
Normally (though it shouldn’t be normal) work is where everything is coming in so fast–for real, for everybody, not just in my imagination–that an actual happy, healthy human can barely keep up. Teaching is like managing a party for eight-year-olds at McDonald’s, except it’s with 30 or more kids at a time, all day, every day, and they’ve all been eating bowls full of red frosting for the last 24 hours, and your party games are super stupid, like essays and multiple choice quizzes.
Teaching is a job for masochists and martyrs and people who didn’t read the job description very well, though it is sometimes kinda fun. Not very peaceful, though. Unless you’re a paperclip.
Not a metaphor. An actual paperclip.
About a year ago, when I entered work feeling feverish-poisoned-frozen every day, I started to notice a paperclip on the sidewalk a few doors down from my classroom. A simple aluminum paperclip, dropped by a passerby, and probably never missed. Unassuming little tool. Modestly useful. Fragile, typically–even a child can destroy it, if it comes into their hands.
What do you make of this?
It was there every day. Day after day. In perfect condition. The students would walk on it, and the leaf blower would blow around it, and the rain would wash over it, and nothing troubled it. It wasn’t worth picking up, and it wasn’t worth worrying about, and it wasn’t important enough to bother destroying in a fit of “Take that!” And for months that paperclip lay there. Tenacious. Resilient. An outrageously unlikely survivor. I noticed it, and left it there, silently rooting for it to outlast the school, the way crocodiles out-survived the dinosaurs.
Okay: picture one of those Notting Hill-type season montages, where it’s fall then winter then spring–and watch the paperclip, still there, unchanged, through it all.
Every day when I saw it, I felt a little lift. Though conditions shifted every minute at school, the paperclip stayed the same. It went unnoticed, unmoved, untroubled. Just enduring, an unlikely hero to me in my anxiety-drenched days. I would show up–another day–and it would be there–another day–and I would remind myself:
Be the paperclip. Just be the fucking paperclip.