While on a digital break, I let my mind become an unwieldy toddler, waddling from one idea to another, occasionally drooling on myself. I have a high level of anxiety these days, for no obvious reason except that I’m not ready to die. I know, I know – who among us is? Death anxiety is not a product of my middle age. Many nights throughout my life, I’ve lain in bed, unable to sleep, thinking about the randomness of some kinds of death and how I’ve lived such a tiny, conservative life.
It would likely help if I believed in religious instruction that told me where I’m going and how to get there. Or maybe if I could get on board with the attitude-of-gratitude-don’t-worry-be-happy crowd. I can be quite jolly, but it usually requires a tankard of beer, a pack of smokes and any dish with sour cream and cheese in it. I’ve given up all those things over the years, so that when I do die, I will also be miserable at the time.
There is likely a drug that would tamp down my death anxiety, but I don’t know if that should be a goal. I tend to be pragmatic – if I’m feeling enough anxiety to trigger a fear of my random death, I need to look around and see what’s happening. What’s happening is a period of transition in my life and in the lives of those around me. Each day I watch as dementia/Alzheimer’s tightens it grip on my mother-in-law. My daughter is transitioning from days of dirty knees and silly rhymes to sex ed and mean girls drama. Friends are struggling with health issues, buying homes or getting divorced. I am standing still in the middle of a swirling eddy.
For myself, years of working from home and caregiving have isolated me. I’m becoming unmoored from structure and pop culture references. I used to pride myself at staying tuned in, able to converse on a wide range of topics, able to fake chitchat and laugh at all the right things. No longer. Snip, snip, each rope is being clipped. Until one day, I imagine just floating away. Unless a driver goes through a stop sign and t-bones me. Or one of those random craters opens up under our house and swallows me whole. Or, after years of healthy living, the cancer gets me.
There’s always a spin, though. That is my life skill. I’m able to take a problem and turn it over and over until it becomes something new, something I can live with, some idea that elevates me. The big picture is that I’m trying to find my creative self. What is more endemic to that process than remembering that our time is finite, our brain power has its limitations and that all of this shall pass? My unmooring is moving me closer to my desire, even if it’s taking a roundabout way of getting there.
I’ve always been a late bloomer, which is fine as far as most milestones go. I never worried that I would die without developing breasts or getting married or finishing a marathon. Now that I have a family, I would not want them to go through the grieving process. I want to type up instructions on how to use the washer and what brands of sunscreen to avoid. But that is what I worry about for others. For myself, I worry that I will never feel any measure of satisfaction as a writer.
The problem is, do I even know what satisfaction looks like for me? I’m restless – dissatisfaction drives much of what I do in my life. If I were truly satisfied, would I stay at rest, gathering mothballs and grinning like a fool? It sounds much like some people’s version of heaven. We sit around, perfect and smiling and strumming our harps, as if we had all overdosed on Zoloft.
Perfection is boring. Nobody would create anything if every aspect of life were perfect and we were all satisfied. Some people take that dissatisfaction and destroy themselves trying to attain perfection. Others do anything to numb the pain of feeling less than. Others create, invent, sing, paint – anything that works those kinks out of their system. Some of us manage a dichotomy of destruction and creation and then numb ourselves to the results.
I see that nothing and everything matters. Most of us will not be remembered beyond a generation or two. If we’re lucky enough to be recognized for our creations when we’re alive, it’s tempered by the fact that we will never be as happy as when we were creating, no matter what our Amazon sales. And we will be expected to do it again. Those of us who create tomorrow’s classics, works that are resented by high school students and lit majors everywhere, will never know that we made it.
Is there an object lesson to be found in all this moroseness? I don’t know. Sometimes it feels like I’m paralyzed and a sadistic intern is poking my toes with a needle. Did you feel that? Did you feel that? Sometimes it wakes me up and I feel that and I know I need to get moving.
And death anxiety? It comes and goes. We all die eventually. Smiles, everyone.