I’m a worrier. Always have been. After years of practice, I’ve elevated it to an art. I shape my worries the way a woodworker shapes the spindles of a chair. I buff and polish them, smooth as river teeth.
There are the little worries, the daily stresses we all deal with that niggle at that little OCD part of the soul: did I remember to turn off the iron? Is there enough gas in the car to get home? How many more years can we squeeze out of this beater van before it completely breaks down? Add a dash of hypochondria: is that a suspicious mole? Why can’t I lose these stubborn pounds? If I’m this stiff at age 56, how will I ever make it to 86?
And then there are the big anxieties, too hideous to name, the ones that build webs in your brain. These are shoved deep in my subconscious, like the flotsam and jetsam jettisoned to the dark corners of the basement: what if the suspicious mole turns out to be malignant; what if The Big One really hits Portland; what if something terrible happens to one of my children?
Like those tucked-away items in my basement, I’m afraid to let go of these fears. My strange calculus: tucking them away is my insurance to keep them from happening. I know it’s not logical, but what worry is? And though I’ve shoved them to the back of my mind, I know they’re there. Sitting in the darkest corner, just like a spider.
Every few years throughout my childhood, my family visited my grandparents and aunt in Plant City, Florida. I loved the way the gnarled, ancient live oaks, dripping with Spanish moss, leaned over the dirt road, holding us close as we drove the last half mile to my grandparents’ house. I loved the earthy, musty smell of the dirt near the henhouses in the back yard. As soon as we piled out of the car, my brothers, sister and I would run out to the chicken yard and poke blades of sharp crabgrass through the chicken-wire, each of us hoping a chicken would come along and peck our special blade of grass. I loved the mornings and afternoons when Aunt Barb would open the aluminum sideboard in the dining room (I can still hear the tinny sound the doors made), take out the red plastic, cowboy boot-shaped cup and pour “just a little Pepsi,” as she loved to say. A treat we’d never get at home, but when Barb was around, I’d get my boot cup full of Pepsi.
But there were some things about my grandparents’ house that weren’t so magical. For one thing, the place was so hot and humid, I had to prepare myself for our arrival there. It wasn’t like slowly acclimating yourself to a cold swimming pool, or even being thrown into one. They had no air conditioning. In 90-plus degree heat, with equal, or higher, levels of humidity. And the bugs were bigger — much bigger. Spiders, two and three times the size of any in the Pacific Northwest. Ants: fire ants, the kind that could make you sick, really sick, if enough of them stung you. Ticks, big ones, that my mother and aunt would pick off the dog as they sat in the porch swing, lazy with the oppressive heat. There were dirt daubers: large, wasp-like insects that built nests stuck to the ceiling of that porch. Their nests resembled upside-down, miniature versions of sculpted pottery, beautiful in a rustic, ancient sort of way if you didn’t focus on what was inside: nature’s cornucopia of tiny dirt-daubers, just waiting to hatch and menace.
But the worst, the absolute worst, were the cockroaches. Huge. Some, half-cigar size. The threat: their invisibility. You knew they were in the house, somewhere, but you didn’t know where. You’d almost never see them by day. You might, rarely, hear them if you rummaged around in the kitchen, looking for the lid to a pan. Scritching, scratching, deep in the darkest part of the cupboard. But if you listened, you might hear them at night, scuttling around in the dark, the sound of their feet tapping on the floor just like the muted clicking of keys on a laptop keyboard.
Weeks before our trip, my mother would have spent hours reassuring me: Cockroaches are everywhere in the South, no matter how clean the house; cockroaches don’t bite; you spend most of your time outside, anyway – but that never helped. Just knowing there could be a few, I imagined hoardes of them. I remember lying in bed, listening, relieved to be in the top bunk, far away from those insects with their scrabbling feet.
And as I listened, I’d make a kind of cosmic deal. One cockroach, one huge spider, one dirt dauber, for each one of the magical things I loved about my grandparents’ house. One spider was worth feeding the chickens with my grandmother, marveling as she snatched eggs from nests, her scab-pocked hands evidence of the hens’ territorial pecking. Another spider was a fair exchange for a trip to the egg-house to help my grandma weigh those eggs on the delicate, antique scale. Oh, I’d even risk another spider now just to take in one breath of the air in that egg-house again: a smell of burlap, corn, heat and love. I’d trade one cockroach for the morning Pepsi with Aunt Barb. Two cockroaches for my afternoon Pepsi with her, sipped in the La-Z-Boy as we watched Days of our Lives. The dirt dauber nest and my fear of what would fly out of it: I’d exchange it all for just a little more time to read Charlie Brown comic books with Barb – books stacked four feet high, towers of them scattered around the TV room.
At that young age I’d figured out how to focus, somehow, on what I loved about the place instead of the things I feared. Whatever mental remodeling I did, it worked for me. It was my secret deal with myself: pretend the bugs aren’t there; don’t focus on them, and you won’t see them. And as I made that deal so many years ago, I morphed into another, better version of myself—unworried, carefree, focused on the moment.
They say that 95% of our worries are just wasted energy, that people who worry should embrace their capacity for anxiety and see it instead as the strange gift of a rich imagination. If that’s true, if I could shape-shift back into my younger self, for even just a moment, I’d collect all my worries, small and large, like lightning bugs in a jar. I’d peer at them safely inside, then make my exchange, bug by bug: a story for each one.