At a friend’s the other night, I said, “Hey, have you seen ____ lately? I’m worried about him.”
“You worry about people a lot, don’t you?” my friend asked. “You know the energy of worry doesn’t help anything.”
You know how you can hear the same thing again and again and not HEAR it, and then, one day, you finally do. It gets past all the walls and goes inside. Like that proverbial one snowflake that finally breaks the branch. Like that gust that gets past all the layers of windbreak trees to reach a sleeper’s ears.
Running through the cow pastures the next day, in my head, a litany of recent worries went like this:
For the other night outside the kava bar, our friends’ son looked awfully strung out.
For after those new yoga shoulder stretches, my scar tissue sure was tight.
For that boogie boarder paddling out alone into big waves at 5 pm.
For our friend Ralph not bouncing back from his hernia repair.
For the baby chicks eating the hen’s food; aren’t those grains of cracked corn too big?
For my step-daughter rafting down the Grand Canyon with a group of college friends. For Granite, Horn, Hance, House Rock, Lava Falls, the big rapids.
For 894 emails in my inbox, how many overlooked.
For my incommunicado grad student.
For what if there’s a crab spider trapped in my hair?
(Worry doesn’t follow linear time, goes forward and back, asks equally of future and past, “what if,” and wonders “if only.”)
Today is windy, a sunny afternoon after a spate of unsettled weather here in Hawaii, days of gray scudding clouds, wind, big swells, nights of continuous lightning, rain deluges. When a low-pressure front passes, high pressure builds behind it, and air moves, “filling in after a low,” people say. Big trade winds clear out the cobwebs of the old storm. If only they could do the same for me.
Weather penetrates my skin’s thin hide. I experience weather inside and out. So the trade winds sweeping out the heavy skies feel almost violent to me today. When they blow hard, I often wake in the night, filled with a fritzy energy, as though I’ve been hung out to dry inside-out on an ironwood limb – those ironwoods that grow along the edge of the gulch, planted by the sugar cane companies as wind breaks. The wind hisses through their long needles, rustles and bends low the bamboos, thrashes the milo and ko leaves, then, finally arrives at the house, whistling in the windows, entering my ears, my brain, registering as anxiety. Translating as worry. I get up, wander the house, find the quietest corner, read myself back to sleep. I read to avoid confronting the worry, asking it: “What are you trying to say?” I read because worry sometimes is just too powerful a force for my limited meditation skills.
I’m asking myself these days “What is worry, actually, what does it serve?” And why am I, it seems, its willing servant? When I think about it, I see that if I’m not worrying about this or that ache or wave of tiredness or sore muscle being recurrent breast cancer, I’m worrying about someone else. Take Ralph, our dear friend here, who shares this piece of land with us. He’s having a hell of a time recovering from his hernia operation. He’s been laid up for days; very unlike Ralph. It seems the anesthesia didn’t agree with him. One evening, after visiting Ralph, I got sick to my stomach, had to quit washing dishes and lie down. When Craig told Ralph about it, Ralph said, “She doesn’t have the flu; knowing Eva, she’s got sympathy pains.”
I’ve thought of myself as a sympathetic person, but my friend pointed out that worry is not sympathy, not compassion. Worry is kind of selfish actually; it’s faithlessness, and also a twisted belief that somehow you might have some control. Worrying about my breast lump two years ago did nothing to make it go away. Five days a week of Bikram yoga for five weeks and tumeric and the surgeon’s scalpel – that reduced and then removed the lump. Action. Worry is usually when you can’t do a god damn thing. Maybe that’s why it’s nocturnal. It slips in the door when it’s too early or late to call anyone. When everyone else in the hood is asleep.
It’s no good to be a worrier here on earth. Earth upon which nothing stays still – come to think of it, earth upon which nothing stays – and upon which life changes in the ordinary instant, as Joan Didion writes in her memoir The Year of Magical Thinking, about her husband’s sudden death. This morning I read something about change, how it’s incessant; it’s the only thing we know for sure: everything will change. Still, sometimes change bowls us over. The writer said that change is constant, a big wheel spinning, well-being giving way to angst giving way to joy giving way to sorrow giving way to elation giving way to disappointment on and on, and the best place to go is the center, the hub, where the turning is slowest. Where you won’t get as nauseous. If you cling to the wheel’s rim, worrying about what the next spin will bring, you’ll just get dizzy, then crushed. And don’t ships head for the hurricane’s eye?
Sometimes the wind – change – blows screaming by, and sometimes it tears a limb from the tree, uproots a whole tree from the ground. That happened last night. We found a big ironwood fallen across the path I walk on every morning. Yesterday Craig, describing Hawaii’s weather, and why he loves it, said it’s constantly in flux; it changes fast. That’s what he likes about coastal Alaska too. Weather is always arriving or departing. How is it that something we love in nature we fear in our own lives?
The other night, my friend Nancy and I hiked down into the gulch, despite a wind so strong, it reminded us of the Aleutians, the ocean torn ragged, long streaks of white on gray, fifteen foot waves, an almost cold wind, the sea bashing into the cove below us. Slip-sliding the slope of dirt and ironwood needles, the dog running on ahead, we went, emerging from the trees onto the naupaka-covered flat above the shoreline, we were hit by salt spray. Waves dashed themselves against the boulders, and the wind grabbed fistfuls of water, turned it into foam, and flung it at the headland. A writhing pool of foam a few feet deep had formed under a rock wall. It jiggled and swayed, fascinating, but it made me seasick to watch. Foam flew at our faces like big splats like wet snow. We climbed the spattered rock face up to the lookout on the headland, about twenty feet above the sea, watched truly bitchy-looking waves stalking in, twisting on themselves, pummeling the rocks, which turned them into huge sprays. They reared up before us well above our heads. When I left there, my face was gritty with salt. My hair was caked with that sea-spit.
What’s my worry in the force of that? That’s why mornings, my meditation, my prayers, pleadings that feel sometimes like so much salt spray splattered on a rock, dripping down, one fistful of foam against a huge ocean, everything life can dish out. We never see it coming, that wave. Prayer is running for cover at the wheel’s hub. Maybe it’s even worry transformed. Prayer is what becomes of worry after its toxic energy is removed. And I’m talking prayer of the faithless, prayer of the scared. Or prayer of the unprepared. Last night in the corpse pose, I thought of Ralph, saw him, skinny, weak, and was overcome. Love. I thought, suddenly. Love is at the root of worry, not fear. It gets back to love.
Sometimes I don’t duck or hide. Sometimes I run into the wind, or climb the headland to let the wind try to knock me down. A force that big tears the worry from my throat. A force that big cuts me down to size. I’d like to stop living the litany of worry. I’m not sure how, yet. There’s got to be a way to get into the center, to crouch there, watch change swirl around my head, around the heads of my loved ones. Or to run toward it, into it, through. Maybe prayer is pointless, doesn’t altar any outcome. But right now, I spend a hell of a lot more time worrying than I do praying or running. And if praying is possibly pointless, worry is certainly. Utterly, certainly pointless. Or is it? Is it better to crawl back up a spoke to the wheel’s rim, to the brunt of the world, to feel change whipping by? To turn my ship back into the wind, against all intuition, the root of worry being fear? Turn back into the waves and spray, having faith that there is a calm center to it all? How to get there? Watch the storm while crouched inside its blue eye.