One, two, three. I count the knots in the wood across the room from where I lie in bed, and I hold them all in my mind at once. Three. Then I divide them out according to the spaces in between. There are four spaces between the knots in the wooden lintel above the closet door in the bedroom at my in-laws’ house. Four spaces plus three knots. Seven. I breathe. Seven always feels good. I make myself look away. If I keep looking, I’ll start counting again, and that will feel agitating after a while, which is not the idea. The idea is to count the knots—or anything—in order to gather my thoughts, and calm down, and fall asleep.
It is Christmas Eve. There are too many people downstairs. The children are loud and no one can pay attention to anyone. My very small daughter, upstairs with me in the room with the lintel with the three knots and four spaces, provides a less compulsive distraction from the frantic tension that has built up inside me throughout the day.
I had thought she was asleep, but her head pops above the rim of her crib. “I see stars!” she claims, and points out the window. It is dark, dark, dark, the crisp, clear dark of a Vermont winter’s night. The electric candle in the window is lit, so she cannot possibly see the stars. But I trust that she did see them in the darkened room before I came upstairs and crawled into my own bed and, thinking she was asleep, twisted the candle’s glass flame for a light by which to read. Or by which to count wooden lintel knots.
The room had not been dark when we first put her to bed hours earlier, nor in the hour following, when we found her repeatedly at the top of the stairs, tearful. Daddy had a go at putting her back in bed, then Grandma, then me, until finally we realized she was seeing shadows, cast by the electric window candles that I had left on with the idea that they would keep her feeling safe and calm. “I see shadows!” We turned off the candle lights.
She sees lots of things, and I feel lots of things. I feel lots of things, and they add up to emotional chaos, and before I can think of another way to call down sanity from the heavens, before my daughter distracts me with her talk about stars, I am collecting my feelings in a net of numbers: one, two, three …
There are three good definitions for worry, as I see it.
- To feel or experience concern or anxiety. To fret. I am anxious that I have an undetected illness, like a pending brain aneurism or the seeds of breast cancer; I am concerned that I will never live in one town long enough for my daughter to get into a good preschool or keep a friend for more than a year or two; I worry that I counted that left knot one time more than I intended, and now I should begin again to make sure I count the rest of the knots twice to make up for the mistake—no. The latter falls better under Definition Two.
- To touch or disturb something repeatedly. To change the position of or adjust by repeated pushing or hauling. To subject to persistent or nagging attention or effort. Worrying the beads on a pair of earrings, like links on a rosary. Tugging and smoothing the bed sheets and adjusting the pillow and shifting minute muscles for twenty minutes or more in search of the perfect position that will finally allow sleep, while my husband waits patiently for sleep’s calm to claim me. This is a tactile way of managing, and a compulsive one. Or,
- To move, proceed, or progress by unceasing or difficult effort. To struggle.
Before I was pregnant with my daughter, but after we had started trying to get pregnant, I met with a counselor several times to discuss social anxieties. I found other concerns to mention during the session, too. “What if I can’t get pregnant?” I asked. Or, “What if I get pregnant, and then we lose the baby?” And then, “What if we lose the baby, and then another one, and it happens over and over again?”
“We’ll cross that bridge if we come to it,” the counselor told me in her calm counseling tones.
“I just want to know.” I reasoned, “It’s been a few months now. I just want to know when we should start to worry about not being able to get pregnant.”
“Oh.” Her tone shifted, and she chided, “You should not worry. Ever.”
I did not tell her that I had not meant Worry in accordance with Definition One; and of course Definition Two was already on the table. What I meant was, if a baby did not come and did not come and did not come, then eventually, how could we think about things so we might make the difficult effort of proceeding to an actual solution? How would we manage that struggle? When would it make sense to move toward getting pregnant in a different sort of way? What I meant was the worry that is a productive kind of work. Doesn’t that sort of worry exist? Or is it merely something that I have made up in my mind, like the patterns in the wood (or in the chain-link fence or on the bathroom floor tiles) that only I perceive in such a particular way?
There have been two times in my life—two separate towns, two different communities—in which I did not need to count on compulsion to get me through, and the connections between those two different times and places are not very apparent; I cannot see beyond the glare of my present anxieties to determine how I might replicate that past peace. Would that I could. Other times in my life have been bad for the compulsions—or good for them, depending on whether or not counting the knots at hand is a productive kind of worry. And so it has been on this trip to Vermont for the holidays, which makes no sense, either. It makes no sense because Vermont and my in-laws’ home is one of my safest places. And yet here I am, seeking silence and wood knots so I can breathe, so I can breathe. Does that make this visit a bad one? Does it mean I somehow haven’t done a good job at doing time with family? No, I say, no.
I have worked hard this week at moving toward meaningful time with family, and there have been successes: cooking a breakfast casserole without growing too weary; sitting with my eight-year-old nephew while he read aloud (worrying through new words in a very productive manner); joining the whole family of ten adults and all the loud children in an advent carol. For a blessed few moments, the melody and harmonies deepened and passed back and forth among us and across the festive lunch spread on the table. Then on to eating and shrieking and scaring the dog and finally scrubbing down the stovetop and escaping to a quiet space where the accumulated stresses could be shifted like beads across a string, making their own progress from overriding to underfoot. All the wood-counting is worth it, I lay here and tell myself, if it makes this week possible, and I hope I’m right.
I do not understand what is over- or under- or misfiring in my brain that counting through sevens helps, and I do not yet (and may never) know at what exact point counting by threes and sevens, but not nines and definitely not evens, no longer helps but hinders: now a helpful habit, eventually a disabling crutch. This concern alone could consume me, but not tonight. At present, I can find other things to worry over. I lie in bed. I count the three knots that run along the grains of the stained strip of wood atop the closet door; I divide them into seven. My emotions settle out and I take a deep breath and the electric candle light in the window seems to grow warmer. Nostalgia steps in to assist, reminding me of Christmases now long past that felt calm and safe, worries held at bay behind the door of an adulthood only slowly approaching.
And then we chat, my daughter in her crib under the knotted door lintel, and I under my blankets. It is 9 o’clock, or 9:30, or maybe closer to 10 on this night before Christmas. The candles are lit, and I begin to worry that strain of worry that wonders if I really should not be encouraging my daughter to stay awake so late, but then I think, “Oh, what the heck?” What better way to not fall asleep than this? With my daughter’s recollection of stars spied beyond the shadows and my own thoughts and emotions pulling away from the dark-rimmed doorframe and honing in on this child, this bedtime, this holiday night, this more than bearable moment.
My daughter lifts her face again above the side of the crib, and she tells me not only about the stars, but also about the moon that she cannot see now, but almost certainly saw earlier. “What does it look like?” I ask. “Smooth,” she tells me, and then, for some reason satisfied, she lies down to sleep.
She has not said it is “white” or “big” or “bright.” In this bedroom, all snug and warm in our separate beds, we have what we need, and what we have is neither bright illumination nor the crisp clearness of understanding, but some tender comfort yet despite the dark of the night and the chaos of our fears.
I think this life, even in its best times, is nearly too much to bear. But at this moment, the burden is neither heavy nor rough; it is not too shadowed or too bright; it is smooth going. Do I count the knots again before I twist the glass flame a final time and darken the room fully and go to sleep? Maybe. Maybe not. It doesn’t matter. Our family is gathered downstairs. The chaos of the good and the bad together may always press in on me. But tonight, I am happy to be here in whatever way I can, to worry through the effort of being present with these people. It is a progression, and it is hard work. But I am happy to be here for this.
Rebecca Martin can be found at Down the Rabbit Hole.