The papers printed in droves. My tiny printer, slow yet steady, reliably provided the stories of eight other people whom I had yet to meet. Carefully stapling each packet together, I was uncertain as to how I would feel about lots of things: getting through all the reading I had to do, the magical critiques I would have to create (and had no idea how to), understanding the backstories of each person whom I was about to meet in five days.
I am not good meeting new people. My anxiety spikes anytime I find myself somewhere new. When I busied myself with my pre-workshop homework, I found a groove. I could distance myself from the inevitable. I did not have to think about driving two-and-a-half hours to a different state by myself. I did not have to figure out what I would do if my car broke down or if I hit a deer on the rural two-lane highways. I did not have to arrange in my head how my hotel would look, where I would park, what they would serve for breakfast, what noises would haunt the hallways at night, and if I would be able to find my way around. Once I closed the final packet in my stack, my pencil lay still on the desk. Real estate in my mind opened up. My anxiety moved in.
Anxiety takes me to places in which I am required to figure out my future in such detail, there would be no room for error. And when achievement is unattainable (which is always), I panic.
The night before I took off in my 2006 Toyota Matrix, I wept over my popcorn. I begged the Universe to make my car remain as reliable as it had been for the past 12 years. With my reading homework done, I had no recourse in keeping my thoughts from returning to the impossible darkness. Few distractions could bring the peace that I so craved.
As I wept on my husband’s shoulder, I listened to his soft words.
“You should definitely go, Babe”
“I know,” I said. “But I really don’t want to.”
Turns out, I really did. Day after day, minute after minute, I put myself out there in every way possible. I initiated conversations with strangers. I walked around a town with which I was unfamiliar. I ate in restaurants alone–at first–and then found dinner companions for the other nights. I spoke up in nearly every class. I delved deeper into the lives of people who had been little more than words on a page just a couple days previously. I had tough conversations. I listened to others examine my writing. I pulled out an old essay and, even though it took me 24 hours of inward convincing, I read it out loud at a public reading. In a theater. On a stage. Into a microphone. With a spotlight.
There are moments in life that feel so pivotal that my perspective of the world gets shaken. Usually, those moments are preceded by my anxiety. It is my soothsayer. It encourages my angst while it is also plays the most sensitive of intuitions.
As I left the conference, each of the workshop participants took minutes longer than we should have to say goodbye. Sometimes, there were two or three hugs. Lingering in the hall, our circle clung to its shape. Reluctant to leave, the first one to parse off only did so forcing a legit reason. The rest of us toed our way apart until a final break was inevitable.
The papers I carry now have changed. The stack of other peoples’ writings have transitioned into eight copies of my own work. Marked in red, black, and pencil, each one is carefully filled with the different handwritings of those who had once been so foreign. Each one marks my time with them, the time they spent with my work, and the writers’ bond we will hopefully share for a lifetime.
The next time my anxiety pulls my attention, I will ask it why it’s there, what it wants of me, and how I can respond to it best. For all I know, it may be the next best thing.