It’s been a doozy of a week, dear friends, full top-to-bottom and wall-to-wall with obligations, responsibilities, and a to-do list spilling out of my hands, through the doorway, tumbling down the stairs, and stretching into the kitchen, coming to a final unfurling before a bundle of rare, precious, fresh sprigs of rosemary I’ve been meaning to cook with but haven’t found the time. Not one to lament busy days, I generally enjoy the action. The trouble lately is the undercurrent of anxiety that shreds a bountiful picture into fragments, and renders each task excruciating, a stab in the gut.
Anxiety is maddening for its evident absurdity: everything appears to be fine. There’s a difference between strain caused by Manifest Troubles, and the accumulation of stress and worry over Latent Troubles–things that could go wrong, have a potential for disaster, but could also turn out alright. I struggle tremendously with the latter, with the pressure of problematic possibilities, even when there’s little rational basis. For me, the most difficult aspect of anxiety is its physical manifestations: blood rushing, stomach in knots, jaw clenched, afternoon headaches. This week, trying to summarize to my partner what this feels like, I remembered an anecdote from my youth.
While the late summers of my childhood were spent in Canada with my father’s family, the earlier weeks included trips to the South Carolina coast, day camps run by local schools, weekends planting tomato seedlings, and ghost baseball games with the neighbors. Around ten or so years of age, I went to sleep-away camp for the first time, somehow convinced that I, a yet-unclassified introvert, only child, and perpetual preferrer of adults over children, would have the time of my life. In the days before my departure into the rustic unknown, I started to panic: what had I gotten myself into? How do I make friends? What do kids do? Why do kids do what they do?
Set on an outcropping above a lake in rural Ohio, the camp was a gem of Americana: wooden cabins with bunk beds, bug juice in the dining hall, archery and art classes, songs around the fire at night, and young twenty-something counselors that had the self-control and freedom of adults, plus the unattainable cool of someone more relatable. The days were full of activity, the nights full of mystery, the staff jovial. I was miserable.
The first few days into my two-week stay, I tried to make friends with my cabin mates. Perhaps “tried” is generous; I weakly responded to bids for interaction, aghast at the confidence and certitude these young girls had about, well, everything, from snacks to music (the Spice Girls!) to the opposite sex, and embarrassed by my own timidity. Among strangers, and especially among children, I’ve never been competitive, never in a rush to assert myself, preferring to observe and ruminate. Don’t conflate this with maturity; I could be a real brat. But my approach to life was always one of hesitation before diving in. I was also a believer in rules and regularities; the first one in my bunk bed at the designated hour, and the first to rouse at the bell in the morning. One of two counselors responsible for my cabin had somehow arrived to the mid-west from the U.K. and, tucking me in one night, whispered in my ear that I was “really much more like an English child.” I was thrilled that somewhere out there, beyond oceans, there were slightly fussy, order-loving children like myself.
Among the sampling of activities for campers, there were afternoons reserved for water sports: swimming, canoeing, and sailing. Already a strong swimmer, and mortified to be in a bathing suit in front of my peers, I decided against that option. In Canada, my family kept a canoe that I steered alone out onto the St. Mary’s River, so I was familiar with and not especially interested by that activity, though my cabin-mates took to it immediately, rushing down the hill towards the canoe mount on the shore in a giggling swirl of brightly-colored towels and flip-flops, somehow fast friends before I had a chance to properly introduce myself.
I shuffled down to the sailing docks in a bathing suit underneath long shorts and a t-shirt, water shoes on feet and towel in hand. Half a dozen sunfish in every color of the rainbow hovered on the water’s surface in their slips, tied to metal grips with complicated knots. The sailboats were charming and small enough to seem friendly; I took a liking right away. I was joined by a handful of boys, and we listened attentively as the sailing instructor, another camp counselor, took us through the basics: hull, mast, rudder, boom, etc.
A few lessons in, the group had waned until I was the only student remaining. The boys quickly realized that the girls had taken a liking to canoeing, and miraculously took a liking to it as well. By then, I’d memorized the various knots and could take the sunfish out on the lake myself, the instructor on board to guide me. I relished the summer breeze, away from shore and the stress of social interactions with people I didn’t understand. I had taken a liking to the instructor and his bright red hair, and I think he enjoyed the relative calm of dealing with a single, eager student. He surely loved being on the water, and was kind and relaxed even through awkward moments, like when I asked aloud on a warm afternoon why two dragonflies were flying through the air on top of one another, and he plainly explained that they were mating. It wasn’t the sunshine that reddened my face that day.
I’d learned the basics, how to guide the boat up and down the lake, and how to get out of irons. The instructor announced that our next lesson would be the climax of the series: how to right a capsized boat. I had come to adore sailing, but I thought he was crazy–we would capsize the boat on purpose? Create a catastrophe in the middle of the lake just to (try to) fix it? Was this some kind of Navy drill? Had I been drafted? Was this necessary? He assured me that it was not only possible, but that I’d be the one to right the boat myself, after he had the fun of capsizing it. I was pretty sure this had to be against camp policy or, you know, the law or something, and I wandered back to my cabin, nervous for the following lesson.
As we glided away from the dock the next day, my stomach was in knots. I had no confidence that this would end well, and even less confidence in my upper body strength. Stopping closer to shore than we normally would, the instructor asked if I was ready. Obviously not, I nodded yes. One hand gripping the mast, he leaned to one side, a huge smile across his face, delighting in my terror. As the boat started to tip, I fought the urge to rush to the other side to balance it, and embraced the cold water beneath us. We both splashed into the lake, and the sail collapsed on the surface. While I treaded water, he used the weight of his body to push the mast further down, until the boat was completely capsized, hull to sky. This was a fine mess we’d gotten into.
He directed me to swim over to the hull, reach up, and grab the rudder that protruded vertically upwards through it. I did, and as I latched on to pull it towards me, the boat started to rotate with surprising ease. I pulled harder, trying to climb atop the hull as it came towards me, and heard a loud rush as the mast and sail emerged from the water on the other side. We were nearly there! Reaching up again I grabbed the edge of the boat and pulled down, watching the wet mast rise upward, steel glistening in the sun, triumphant. With the instructor’s help, I scrambled onto the boat, amazed at how agile and light it was, and empowered by the feat. A bit out of breath, I looked over at the instructor, still grinning, as he asked if I was ready to do it again.
We practiced many times over the next week, and I relished every second. I’d never felt as physically capable, or as connected to the physicality of a process: the sturdy ropes, the sweeping boom, the silky sail, the physics of the wind, sharing it with someone I had come to trust, in all my pre-teen angst and self-conscious turmoil. At the end of those two weeks the camp held an award ceremony, and I had reached the top tier for sailing skills, the only one to have made it that far. I was tremendously proud, and the instructor beamed as he handed me a certificate with my name scrawled in script.
At my desk this week, hands shaking uncontrollably above my keyboard, I likened my state to a capsized sailboat; I’d tipped over a bit too far, it seemed, and now found myself somehow upside down under water, trying to figure out how to right myself again. From underneath the surface, without oxygen, light filtered through brown muck, every normal thing is pressurized, every mundane task, every movement a thousand times heavier, a thousand times more difficult. Everything is scary, and the accumulation of fears starts to hurt, and starts to wear, and takes its toll.
I know that above the surface, the view changes. Fresh air fills the lungs, sunlight washes over dark corners, things become more do-able. The challenge is: How to get there? How to reach up, grasp the rudder, and heave downward? How to right the boat, how to hoist the sails again? How to climb atop and take control? Suggestions welcome, as always. I’m still working out the path, working out the answers, coming back around to this question one more time, less convinced that I have any real control. It may be a matter of waiting it out, allowing the boat to right itself in due course, and simply treading water in the meantime.