Painting by Katie Merz

There are many things I’m lousy at – knitting has never been my thing – and plenty I’m good at – I’m proud of my chocolate cake. But I’m exceptionally talented at worrying. What I’ve been trying for years to be better at is being aware of my worries, to see them for what they are – pervasive, large and scary but also insubstantial.

What just hit me today – one of those silly aha! realizations that once you say it aloud makes total sense but was nonetheless a breakthrough – is that worrying is a distraction. It’s like a crash on the Interstate that you should just pass by, eyes straight ahead, sending out a prayer but not getting sidetracked with the “what ifs” and the play by play. It’s like that email you get from the organic food group telling me of some new terror that resides in your next bite and then causes you to read every label on your next visit to the grocery store. Worry is even like that awkward dancer at a party, the one you can’t take your eyes off even though whatever she’s doing is somewhat painful to observe.

WHAT, I wonder, while driving, while swimming laps, while even trying to actively participate in therapy, will I tell my son about porn? 

This distraction keep you from the real work – from driving confidently, or eating with pleasure, or getting on the dance floor yourself. It posits something that is often impossible to address in the moment and fumigates it into waking moments so that your brain becomes foggy to the work at hand. An example:  I read a book review earlier this week, and these lines from the review have stayed with me ever since – not loudly but pervasively:  “Internet pornography is reshaping our moral sense of what sex is. His stories impart an icky feeling that limitless pornography is changing young American men in ways that we may be only beginning to understand.”  WHAT, I wonder, while driving, while swimming laps, while even trying to actively participate in therapy, will I tell my son about porn? How can I help him to negotiate something so big? I start counting how many years I might have left to address this issue with him. I make mental notes to remind myself to search out a good book on the topic. I catalogue my friends, searching for those with older sons, wondering how they dealt with this.

But then I see this ghastly cloud of worry for what it is. I wake up to the fact that figuring out my son’s nascent sexual life while also trying to “solve” a huge contemporary issue will not help me while choosing plums at the market. It will only make the plums less sweet.

I come by this worrying naturally. It’s in the water of our culture, but it’s also something my family does well. I remember my father grinding his teeth and his inability to switch gears; it took at least two days on vacation to “arrive.” He once called me from some wonderful destination to request that I go throw away the milk in his and my mother’s refrigerator lest it go bad.

Last March I visited my 94-year old grandmother and was struck by how though she is healthy and relatively happy for someone who is at the stage of life where she regularly loses friends, what is perhaps most debilitating her is her worry. We almost didn’t go to dinner one night because she was overwhelmed fretting about traffic and parking. And she can hardly talk about my children without growing concerned about their future. Politics, money, the environment; it’s all a mess, she declares with a look of such sadness. Though I agree to some extent, I also totally felt how this worry drains her energy and consumes her vitality.

There’s not a switch you can turn off to get rid of worry.  If I could, I would. But I can usually feel it in my body and hear its straing in my voice. These are my reminders to ask myself, “Is this how you want to spend the next five minutes? the next half hour” The next time some insurmountable problem lands on my shoulder and pecks at me for attention, I hope to take a deep breath in and exhale out that cloud, rotate my hips a few times and get back in the dance.