It was the final question I put to the Wise Man before he retired. What do I do if/when anxiety comes back? How do I know I can cope?
What if? That same question I always walked in holding in my tight fist, was the same question that sat perched with me on the edge of the couch in that last conversation.
It was the question I’d been asking him and the Wise Woman for near a decade in various guises, as they steered me through the chaotic aftermath of my brother’s death, working alongside me to counsel the currents of anxiety. What if? What then? How?
His answer was firm, clear and simple, as his response has always been. Realistic, but filled with hope. Remember your anchor points. When the waves return, hold fast. Let them bob on by. You will be okay.
My parents are in the process of selling their house. Their home. Their little corner of embrace in a big, often cold, world. The real estate agent didn’t need any fancy sales pitches to enamour them to it all those years ago. The first time she opened its blue and white door wide and let them enter, she said all she needed to say: I think you might like this one, it’s a ‘hug’ home.
A hug home. A place of ensconcement. She was right. It was love at first meeting. They bought that hug home in 2001 and lived and loved and embraced in it for sixteen years. It suited them. Not overly large but spacious, low to the ground, white, ‘American colonial’ (my mum’s happiest years growing up were spent in the seaport town of Mystic, Connecticut, while her dad studied at Yale). It even came complete with a charming open fireplace the previous residents had scattered with pine cones.
In the last few years my father has lovingly cared for its ageing surfaces, climbing ladders, scraping and rolling, becoming self-taught painter and refurbisher, a job of courage and perseverance and sheer Dutch stubbornness.
Now they are moving on. But not without many and mixed feelings. ‘It was the place we started to heal,’ my mum tells me over the phone.
My parents came to that house just four years after losing my brother, when life was unbound and unravelled. They settled in and made it their own, tied a few knots that tethered and then some more. I think of dad at his office computer surrounded by tall bookshelves, many of the books bought by Greg and I at uni; I picture mum fervently creating in the kitchen, and later, our kids swimming in the pool, spurting shouts of glee into the hot summer air. I think of overseas guests in the spare rooms, drinking in the hospitality, and of myself taking refuge from Sydney surgery on the couch when we lived in Melbourne, mum passing me perfectly shaped ham sandwiches on white plates; I think of dad recovering from his heart surgery, and of mum’s red armchair, when she finally took the time for herself to sit down. I see their colourful cottage garden, ablaze with blooms.
The flowers have been cut to meet safety standards, and the house has been re-styled for the sale. The inhabitants of the hug house need some extra TLC.
* * *
We’ve found ourselves narrating our story a lot lately. It’s a common point of conversation at college at this point of the year: Have you got plans for 2018?
And so, like many others I’ve talked to recently, I launch in —hesitant, or bold, circuitous, or sparse, depending on my current mood and the person I’m talking to. We are in the process of exploring it.
Sound vague? Sorry. Hopefully, I’ll be able to share more in detail in this space soon.
But the reality is, there is a lot of uncertainty. Yes, I feel like clarity is close, but, to use novelistic terminology, this story hasn’t yet reached closure. But will it ever? Fully I mean? Talking to W and E’s lovely pre-school overseer a while back she noted the precariousness of our stage of life. There’s a lot of change for you right now, she said. But, come to think of it, the older I get I start to realise life is always changing.
If so, then what do we— what do I—- find I can hold onto, hour by hour, day by day?
I’m not quite sure how to process it, this almost-move, this leaving the college community we have held close and that have held us close, through good times and bad. Like mum and dad, I’m not sure yet quite where we will land. I’m excited and nervous, hopeful and overwhelmed. We are all a little adrift. So many changes come lapping, harassing, and my little life boat is feeling a little rock-rock-rocky.
And then, ‘hello, there you are again, anxiety.’ In some ways I’m far from surprised my old friend has jumped in the boat to pay a visit, but as always it seems to catch me a little weary, a little unprepared.
Which is, I guess, why I’m thinking so much lately about anchor points.
Tears and Tangles
Back in the days I regularly went out in the evenings, I took night classes in Creative Writing for my MA. I’d roll in on a Tuesday night a tad tired, a little hungry, and a bit buzzed, to the intimate, somewhat intimidating workshop atmosphere. There were only about eight of us wanna-bee writers, varying nationalities (the MA drew lots of international students), various backgrounds. In Christian circles I was used to being that little bit artsy, in this circle of plastic chairs I was solidly the conservative one. But I loved those classes as each week we opened up the process of writing like I imagine a Med class opens up the human body. We learnt to dissect sentences, characters, and each other’s work.
One week our teacher, who later became my doctoral supervisor and friend, announced to the class that she had a special treat for us. Today, while we were working on our writing, she would circulate a series of small pieces of paper around the room. We were to take the one with our name on it. Like a new version of pass the parcel, the papers each had a special message inside them. But the content was only for the eyes of the one who it was created for. Our teacher had been observing our writing now for some time, she’d read drafts, marked assignments. While we had a rough idea of her opinion on our work, this was her opportunity to tell us each one thing she wanted to tell us, the advice she thought we most needed to hear. (Her own teacher at Johns Hopkins, in the States, had done this for her). To this day, though I’m curious, I still don’t know what was in anyone else’s paper. But I remember the message of mine clearly.
Don’t be so neat all the time Nikki. Write rougher.
I wasn’t quite sure what to think at first, but as I turned the words over in my head and heart in the following days —and years—the message began to sink in and resonate. She was asking me to let the reigns loose a little, to not always worry about getting everything right, but sometimes just to be. My writing, perhaps, betrayed a bit of my inner legalist, my pernicious perfectionist. I needed, as my friend H would say to me, to let things ‘dangle.’
All that to say that this piece of writing advice rings true as life advice, to me, and other prone to perfectionistic, over anxious individuals.
Unlike the advertisement on my kids’ shampoo bottle, life is not ‘tear and tangle’ free. Life is messy. So my first anchor point is just that. Don’t think because everything isn’t perfect you are somehow failing. Or that you are irreversibly lost —never to find shore again.
Life is more like a messy first draft than a fully edited masterpiece. But that doesn’t mean we aren’t growing and learning in the process. Nor that we won’t ultimately be led home.
Dr M and I have drawn a line. At 10pm, for the last two nights at least, we have stopped what we are doing (dishes, essays, school prep, college prep, passport forms, bills, email, did I say dishes?!) and made a point of turning on the television. What was once a vice before I was married with kids (too much screen time before there was such a term ‘screen time’), has now become, if not a virtue, at least a way to it….
That’s right, Dr M and I are making ourselves watch tv. Comedy to be precise. Because when you are as serious and intense as the two of us, and when your life is full of conversations and decisions, and kids x 3, sometimes the best thing to do is spill out a little bit of crazy laughter, and draw in a little air.
I’ve found in times of stress I can withdraw rather than reach out. I can lack the confidence to confide in others, imagining somehow they won’t want to talk to me. The best way I’ve found to approach this feeling is to start, one relationship at a time. The curious thing about the world is how interconnected we all are. As soon as we take up a telephone or a cup of tea and open up, we may just find that the person we are talking to says ‘hey me too.’ And before you know it you are floating in a blissful pond of togetherness, sharing burdens and biscuits.
Some form of sporty footwear and sweat
I am no expert on exercise. That last statement should be in caps, but that would require extra manual effort from my fingers! It takes all my husbands persuasion to get me on a bike (and that’s an indoor one). But happy hormones and all that. It works. We should all do it. And healthy food too. Less sugar. More protein. Regular meals. Lots of water. Herbal tea. The body and mind and soul are all linked. We need to take care of them all. And eat less chocolate.
Sleep. Our bodies need rest. Particularly in times of stress. This can be hard for night owls like Dr M and I. Especially when the kids FINALLY put their gorgeous little crazy curly heads down and the house is FINALLY quiet. I am the least qualified to preach on this point, but a very high scorer on the need to do it scale.
Again, why are so many of the things that are best for us so hard to do? Or rather, why do we resist? I never, ever regret prayer, and yet, sometimes I take way, way too long to get there. My turbulent cogitations sound better as supplications.Turning everything over to the God who cares . Who forgives and fuels. Who supplies all our needs. Who knows us.
I was in the dentist surgery just today and I had to sit in the waiting room for quite some time as the lady before me was discussing an upcoming procedure with the Dr of Teeth.
She was clearly nervous and needed to go over and over the procedure, to understand what was going to happen, and no doubt to hear the kind specialist’s reassurance.
At the end I heard her say (she had a very loud voice and the surgery was small). ‘I’m sorry for all that Dr *, but I guess you know me by now.”
“Yes. I know how you are,” he replied gently. (As an aside, finding a gentle person to stick their fingers and various foreign, sharp objects in your mouth is always a good idea).
He knew her as his patient, and he had patience with her.
I think in prayer I/we can often think we need to be some better version of ourselves before we can turn up on God’s doorstep.
But he knows us, every last inward detail. And he loves us. We don’t need to brush our teeth and check for any imperfections before seeking his face.
You are not your own anchor
This is not some sanctimonious saying to neatly round up this post on a high note. Nor is it an abstract, theory detached from the day-to-day. This is it. Jesus came in flesh, feeling weakness, bearing burden, to earn for us a blessed redemption. While in times of anxiety I can feel far away from God, like a herbal tea sipping hypocrite hiding in the corner, He is ever near. Objective fact becomes deep comfort in the middle of a personal upheaval. If I need some extra help visualising my Saviour’s nearness, I sometimes turn my mind to Jesus in the boat with the disciples in an actual, real life maritime storm. The waves lashing, disciples freaking out, until they think to wake their leader. Jesus stands unflurried, unhurried, and tells the waves and wind to just shut up and be still. And they listen. The calmer of storms, I’ve heard it said elsewhere, is in our boat too. This is the anchor point that holds all other anchor points together.
A soul anchor.
Even when I’m more pallid and life-sick than the disciples, when my boat seems like nothing less than a storm-beacon, I can Know my Saviour is there.
To borrow the words of Robert Frost, and that has made all the difference.
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