In Praise of the Anxious Parent

Today I woke up at 5 o’clock and listened as the birds lifted the day. A ceiling of light. A coo from the other room. Ronan drank his bottle (“he’s like a little wild pig!”one of our babysitters observed), and we watched an online episode of The Good Wife, a show I love: Julianna Margulies in a power suit. Chris Noth in a power suit. Josh Charles, the sweet-faced high-schooler of Dead Poets Society fame in, yes, a power suit. Martha Plimpton sporting a sassy, shiny bob haircut. I have no complaints.

I could not sleep because I am anxious. I’ve always been an anxious person, and now I’m an anxious parent of a dying kid. My free-floating anxiety of previous years has found a solid place to land and fester mightily. But I don’t want to freak Ronan out by constantly peering into his face and touching his arms, his legs, asking Are you okay? Everything okay? He can’t answer me, but I can’t help thinking that he will pick up on the Nervous Nelly vibes, so I try to channel them elsewhere.

To the reading of poetry! Poets, the most anxious of our writerly bunch! I love you guys, I love the way you strip away the veil, leave us bare and trembling. I love your obsessions, I love that you know the names of the birds and the flowers (this seems to be a skill particular to poets), and I love that you often refer to yourselves as “walking wounds.” I love your wounds. I love that you show them around and invite commentary. I love your line breaks and your word choices and your personas. I love your tiny traps of language, and I love the way you pick up what you have captured and look at it, touch it, turn it around and around, even if it’s hard to look at and even if it hurts you. I love the way you lift up your findings and implicate your reader in the examination of what is brutal and beautiful and true.

Re-reading my friend Katie Ford’s first book of poetry, Deposition, I read the poem below with a new appreciation. Being anxious is very much like being watched — by another, by your partner, by the world, by yourself. Anxiety is about sprinting ahead, spinning tales and stories and the long, long train of endless possibilities. It’s what storytellers are supposed to do; useful during the act of writing, not so useful in the living of a non-panicked life. Anxious people are in search of a scroll; a scroll that can be rolled out to tell us the meaning of all that has already happened and warn us of what is to come. We are imaginative people who carve something out of nothing and yet we’re still in search of the Oracle. No wonder we’re a little bit unsteady, a little bit on edge.

Spring, a new season. A new arrival. And yet just a few days ago I walked with Ronan on the path and watched stern pellets of snow, hard and round, melt against his face. I had to sweep one out of the corner of his eye as if it were a remnant of sleep. I watched snow catch on the new blossoms along the path, balance briefly, poised, on the tips of cactus needles before rushing on, taken elsewhere by the wind, disappeared.

I open the blinds of the front window to the sunlight. The street is empty and the house is quiet. My son is being destroyed, every minute of every day, by the lack of one stupid little enzyme. What has not yet happened is already happening. The answer to the question the poem poses is yes.

DO YOU LOOK OUT THE WINDOW BECAUSE YOU FEEL WATCHED?

You think summer fires will take all the wheat.

Listen to me: What you are looking for cannot be

found now. It’s winter, look at the snow –

But feel the snow.

It’s dry as dust.

This is how it is with the anxious. What will not happen is

happening all of the time. The glare

off the snow mid-morning a warped station of white,

a land that cannot be mapped because to look at it

changes the eye. If you knew anything about fire

you would know winter hardly matters.

And if you knew winter

you would know it

cannot be undone, only

pressed beneath the fields.

From Deposition (Graywolf Press, 2002)

One response to “In Praise of the Anxious Parent

  1. Genevieve Steidtmann

    “Anxiety is about sprinting ahead, spinning tales and stories and the long, long train of endless possibilities. It’s what storytellers are supposed to do; useful during the act of writing, not so useful in the living of a non-panicked life. Anxious people are in search of a scroll; a scroll that can be rolled out to tell us the meaning of all that has already happened and warn us of what is to come.”

    Wow, that’s a good description of my anxiety. Thank you for that, Emily.

    Love – as always – to all three of you!

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