I’d gone outside to get some air. A telling phrase, isn’t it, get some air? As I write these words I am reminded of a teacher I had during my first year of acting school who, whenever we were up in front of the class performing our rehearsed scenes, if we had started to become evasive in what we were doing, would shout at us from her chair, “Say what you mean! Mean what you say!” I hear her shouting at me now, so I will tell you, what I really mean in this instance is that I’d gone outdoors to ease my restlessness, that familiar “itch” behind the wall of my chest, which can sometimes be, as it was on this day, debilitating.
I might also tell you that on this day I couldn’t get anything done, which is true, but this might imply that I was having trouble thinking straight, which is only partially true. The itch, when it comes, is really a matter of not being able to put down a thought, of clinging to it, turning it over and over in my mind with such intensity that the rest of life recedes into the background. I literally am not capable of focusing on anything else. For those of you who have never experienced what I am talking about, there is a very physical sense of having been reeled in by a thought and unable to let go of the line. Of having gotten hooked. On several occasions, after having gotten hooked, I have actually had to command myself to get up and walk out of a room otherwise I would have spent the next several hours sitting right where I was, alone and “thinking.”
Having lived with this for a good portion of my life I have become fairly clear about two things: that the itch itself is fear, and that the resulting action, scratching the itch, is based on the false belief that by ruminating on something long enough and hard enough I can somehow control or change its outcome. I believe the appropriate word for this is obsession. Anyhow, I’ve been through this itch-scratch cycle enough times by now that it seems only logical I’d have figured out that no amount of scratching can ever actually assuage the itch. Unfortunately it doesn’t work this way. Fear doesn’t work this way.
Getting back to where I was. I’d gone outside to get some air, or rather, to scratch the itch. I began pacing the backyard. My breath was vaporous, my eyes watery from the cold air. It had in fact been so cold that day, and in the days preceding, that the snow on the ground had frozen solid. A heartbeat in my head, the early afternoon sun on my boot, frozen snow cracking beneath me every few steps. These are the only details that I remember.
Do you see how there is no substance to this story? The reason I haven’t provided any substance is because it’s simply not there. I can’t tell you exactly what I feared. I can’t tell you the various strategies I had devised that day, if there were any, to get around whatever I had feared. I can’t even tell you the moment that the fear began to dissipate. That point when the lens shifted and the fear and my life began their well-practiced act of switching places, the former receding and the latter emerging, until finally I felt like myself again. I can’t tell you because I don’t remember and I don’t remember because it is no longer relevant. The nature of the itch is such that when it is present, which could be a matter of hours or it could be a matter of days, I tremble along, only halfway inhabiting my life. But once the clouds pass over, once the fear is behind me, whatever I was concerned about seems insignificant, occasionally to the point of humor.
You will always see light after darkness. This is the message I received in a fortune cookie on the night I discovered that my daughter had lice and we ordered Chinese takeout. It is also the message that I stuck under a strip of tape to the cover of my Moleskin notebook. I stuck this there, where I can see it regularly, not because I need convincing, but because I frequently need reminding.
And I frequently get reminded.
Just the other morning, while making his bed, I buried my face in my youngest son’s blanket. It was the white crocheted blanket that I received as a baby shower gift when I was pregnant with his older brother. The blanket was never used by his older brother and has always been my youngest son’s. He has slept with it every night since he was a baby. Just the other morning I buried my face in my youngest son’s blanket and breathed him in, and I remember how my entire body relaxed, as if it had been submerged in warm water, and the whole world, everything around me, was suddenly clear and beautiful, and I thought to myself, “You know, it’s really all right.”
My three constant reminders.