A few years after the 9/11 attacks, the media reported on a government alert that ended with the suggestion that citizens might want to purchase plastic sheeting, duct tape and a week’s supply of drinking water- “just in case.”
I rushed to the Home Depot on Wilton and Sunset, brimming with purpose. On the way home, I thought about all the places I could go if there was some sort of large “event” that made LA uninhabitable. It would be up the 5 to Frazier Park in the short term, across the desert to Las Cruces in the medium, and perhaps Canada after that. I bought an industrial respirator with a fine filter. That would help in case we were dusted with anything except for the most virulent stuff- and in that case, those things tend to kill their handlers more than intended targets. Didn’t I read that Ebola was sensitive to sunlight? Maybe it was smallpox. I compared methods by which to measure my windows for the sheeting.
I tidied my apartment drinking Michelob Ultras and halfway listening to the news. I started smoking again. I planned, replanned, thought about contingencies of every sort. This thinking began to bleed into areas of my life not coded by threat color. For nearly a year, I felt this was a positive change. I was being so productive! Who needs to sleep when there is BIG THINKING to do! I wrote flurries of emails, always had a back up plan, and being my father’s daughter, always compared my efforts and results against an ideal, to be evaluated in real time and again at some distance so as to be a perfect student, to not make more mistakes.
Over a decade later, this “mental productivity” is an unwelcome and frequent visitor. It has brought with it a few benefits, primarily in search of remedies: I am glad to know Pema Chödron’s voice and teachings. I am lucky to have touched a moment of mindfulness now and again. I know, at least in an academic sense, that the anxiety does not insulate me from anything, but the busy mind is seductive and well-practiced. So far, only the intense focus of cello, the delight of travel and immersion in nature are the only things that can stave it off for more than a minute. The occasional restorative yoga pose, too.
After fighting anxiety for years, I’ve come to see it not as something that I will ever be rid of, but rather something that I can use as a teacher. Something to manage. The worst part about imperfections are not the imperfections themselves; it’s what we think of ourselves because of them. It feels like a cheat to practice self-acceptance, because our daily lives are infused with unpleasantness from other people who surely must not hold themselves to any kind of standard at all, right? Look what happens when you accept yourself!
Probably not. I am my least reasonable when the voices are at their loudest. It’s likely the same for others, too. Again, this is theoretical knowledge, but the twinge of discomfort this thought sends through my person tells me it’s true.
Never did end up using that sheeting. A facile metaphor.