Still Life With Robin

It's time to give stillness another chance

I’m thinking about what stillness might be like if I gave it a shot.

Not stillness as part of a spiritual practice or meditating or a scheduled break from gadgets, but a way to get my head back to what it was in my 20s and 30s — a productively uncluttered, not-anxious brain, not given to worry, even though I lived in one of the most populated cities in the world and walked among its throngs for a good part of every day, and worked and went to college (as an undergraduate at 35) and had two little children.

Granted this was before the ubiquity of high tech devices, when people made eye contact, window-shopped and got bored, but I don’t think the solution to finding stillness is as simple as limiting gadget use.

And really, there’s no use lamenting a world before devices since we’re not going back there. We’ll adapt. Humanity might develop a kind of sensor over time, a sixth sense, like a blind rat that lets them know — without looking — the proximity of objects such as other people and other cars, so they are free to text and explore the Internet instead of looking where they’re going. But that’s another story.

I am a worrier. My kids know me as a worrier, not the industrious free spirit of their early childhoods. For instance, my son, when he was about 11, left me a note about staying over at a friend’s house that started, “Dear Worry Wart …”

Let me amend all this by saying that I am not a humorless worrier. I can step back and take an outsider’s perspective, make a joke about it, and it cracks me up when my kids or friends imitate my more performative worrying moments like grasping the dashboard, applying the “passenger brake” and yelling “SLOW DOWN!”

This chronic worrying condition started when I turned 40. Almost overnight I went from Mel Brooks to Woody Allen — that is, from someone with an optimist’s view on even the most grim of situations to overwrought hand-wringing concern about everything.

My anxiety reached a peak at age 45, as I was returning home from a shopping mall 10 minutes away. My heart starting racing, then my ears rang, I was dizzy and my legs felt numb. Pulling off the road, sure I was having a heart attack, I called my partner (soon to be my ex) who was a nurse. She listened to my symptoms and told me that I was having a panic attack. She calmed me by reading the first paragraph of every article on the front page of the New York Times and I slowly reentered the road and drove home.

I wouldn’t leave my house for days. Even walking the dog, I felt the panic rising. I went to the doctor, thinking maybe I had a problem with my inner ear. She listened to my symptoms and asked me what was going on “at home.” I leveled with her.

“My partner drinks too much. We’re breaking up. I’m interested in someone else who is pressuring me to end things more quickly. I’m not sure if I could be a single parent. I stopped writing my dissertation forever. I’m dealing with everyone’s emotions but my own. I’m shut down. I’m not happy. I can’t afford the house on my own. I’m the only one who takes care of the dog. All my friends are in NYC and California. My mother and I aren’t speaking —”

She held up a hand. I stopped. She pulled out a prescription pad. “What are you prescribing for me?” I asked. She tore off the page, looked at me sternly and said, “This is what you need to do.” The paper read, HAVE FUN.

That was 11 years ago. The panic attack never returned but hints of it remained for a couple years, so that when my legs tingled or I felt dizzy I’d tell myself, like a mantra, “This is anxiety. Nothing is really happening.”

Now I am on my own. My children are grown, happy, self-reliant; I sold the house; I live in a small apartment with two poodles; I never wrote the dissertation; I've been close to broke but get by; I work as a freelance writer and editor. I’m writing a book. I still worry. It’s not as bad. I remind myself that all the worrying in the past didn’t give me special powers to change the outcome of things and still nothing went terribly wrong.

Last week I read an article by Ariel Levy in the New Yorker about how she gave birth prematurely on a hotel room floor in Mongolia on assignment and the baby died. I thought immediately of my dear friend Jenny who carried twins almost to term and one died in utero and she had to deliver that dead baby girl after her living daughter. I told Jenny the Ariel Levy story would make her cry. She read it and wrote back, “I didn’t cry. I have a still place in me from losing my baby.”

A “still place.” I thought about that. Later that day, I was Skyping with my friend Janice in L.A. and she said, “You have to be still in your mind.” Twice in one day. Stillness.

It’s been a long time since I stood at a window lost in thought looking out for a period of time without a ticker tape going in my head about what I should be doing. I’m in New England and outside my window on the day that two friends said “still” was a snowstorm. And it was still. Beyond the silence and snow drifts and frozen air were Christmas shoppers, a noisy café, snow plows. It reminded me of my earlier life in New York City, being still on the inside — the uncluttered, not-anxious brain — amidst the mayhem of everyday life.