Mine Shafts and Dead Canaries

Naturally, I related big-time to this recent cover article on anxiety in The New York Times‘ Sunday magazine.  Some babies are born anxious, the article on a longitudinal study at Harvard points out, and then they kind of proceed to become anxious toddlers, nervous teens, and neurotic adults.

Well, of course, it isn’t nearly that simple.  It depends on the environment you’re brought up in, your parents, your experiences.  Some anxious babies fare just fine, but many of them are marked for life.  Those who function best end up in quieter, more solitary fields — like, say, writing.  They cope pretty well, but they’re still anxious inside.

Oh, lord, the story of my life.  I can never understand why some people crave the adrenaline of jumping out of a plane or forging rapids — when normal life, with its vicissitudes, its drunk and texting drivers, its tsnunamis, its epidemics is plenty for me.  What do I mean, plenty?  Part of the time it’s terrifying.

The article mentions people who always worry when they hear a siren and all I can think is, What kind of nut wouldn’t worry when a siren blares?  The bell’s tolling for somebody, all right.  Why not me or somebody I care about?

When you’re anxious, when you’re a worrier, when you’re basically a nervous wreck, nothing unsettles you as much as good fortune.  Last week, when my novel sold, I was thrilled.  But part of me also expected I’d get immediately flattened by a bus since, after all, life is a grim and relentless equalizer and you invariably have to pay for something good.

Don’t try to make sense of any of this.  I was just born this way — one of those canaries they use in mine shafts that drop dead when dangerous gases are leaking out.  Great system for the miners, but it kind of sucks to be the bird.  In my next life, I’m going to be carefree and insouciant.   I’ll be leaping out of planes, skydiving, devil-may-care.

But probably not.  Truth is, I can’t imagine myself completely free of my trepidations and anxieties.  Without them, who would I be?

Sometimes, I think, you come to terms with the person you are and with your own limitations — and understand what it’s given and taken away from you.  In my own life, I’ve often thought about the woman in a Cheever short story who stands on a street corner in Manhattan, paralyzed by fear, at the very end of the piece.

I often saw myself as that woman and feared standing on that same corner, frozen and immobilized by panic.  Funny to be here in that same city, reasonably confident and enjoying the life.  Maybe, when you’ve feared the very worst, it frees you to relish anything short of disaster.

That’s not the kind of relentlessly upbeat, smiley-faced story that’s so popular in these Think Positive Times.  But it’s mine — and what the hell. I’ve come to appreciate it.  Sometimes, the canary makes it.

(Copyright 2009 by Ruth Pennebaker)

Read about the lonesome roads of West Texas

12 comments… add one
  • I’m with you, Ruth. I know the feeling(s) of worry, anxiety, and restlessness that come from an overactive mind with a wild imagination for the very worst outcomes. Even though these untoward outcomes never come to pass, my mind takes me to all permutations and combinations. My family cannot believe what “stuff” I come up with to worry about next. Close one book, open the next and on we go….
    Great post and thanks for the link to the NY Times article.

  • Ellen Link

    Congratulations!  Now write and tell me the details.

  • I just read that NYT piece yesterday. Next week, I’ll be blogging about it’s relationship to the dog behavior modification work I’ve been doing with my fearful dog, who I kid you not, takes both an antidepressant and an anti-anxiety medicine twice each day.
    Most writers I know are anxious in some form or another. That includes me.
    BUT, the upside of being this way? I’m a ROCK in an emergency because I’m quite accomplished at functioning despite anxiety. Other people flip out because they are not used to working while amped up, but me? I seem and act like my “normal” self.

  • Sheryl Link

    Oh, how I can so relate! Me: born anxious, always a worrier. Me still: anxious and worried. A siren? Definitely someone I know, most likely a close relation.  A phone call after 9:30PM? Uh oh. Something’s wrong. Funny thing is, it’s always the things our minds don’t think about that end up happening and NEVER the things we spend endless hours sweating over. Go figure…

  • I wonder sometimes about normal anxiety and when it becomes toxic and obsessive. Such a fascinating topic.

  • Isn’t it another form of pessimism? I’m so glad to be a pessimist, because I’m never disappointed.
    Just read your “perfect day” post–what a contrast. That post was totally heart warming. This one made me, well, anxious.
    But then I noticed your notice at the top about your book. How beautiful those lines of print look, don’t they!
    Best wishes. Hope nothing falls on your head today. It could, you know. (But it probably won’t).

  • It’s so fantastic that you SOLD your novel but it sounds hard to live with all that anxiety. I think a lot of us have that to some extent or another. I don’t know if this is relevant but I just started reading this amazing book by Cheri Huber (do you know her work?) that addresses this issue. She’s very smart and insightful. The book is called How To Get From Where You Are to Where You Want to Be and after just a few pages I already started to feel less anxiety and more positive awareness (then I lost it on an airplane, leading to a bout of self-flagellation, oy vay)…

  • ruthpennebaker Link

    I’m inclined to think anxiety diminishes with age, which is good news.  I’m not nearly as anxious as I was when I was younger.  But some of us still excel at imagining the worst.

  • I’ve learned it works much better for me to expect the best. as you say, sometimes the canary makes it. that’d be me.

  • I haven’t had a chance to read the NY Times magazine yet but I will.  My second child is one of the anxious ones, no matter what the situation.  
    I loved reading the notice at the top about your novel.  How proud you must be!  
    And, I agree about anxiety diminishing with age, one of the great aspects of getting older!

  • Winston Link

    Alexandra, I don’t believe anxiety really diminishes with age. I believe, from personal experience, that with age a great shift occurs from the Truly Life-threatening Traumatic Experience format to the more mundane, realistic personal format.  Where once I worried about The Bomb or tropical storms forming five thousand miles away, I now worry endlessly about misplacing my cellphone or if I really did turn off the flame beneath the kettle before going into town.   These days those types of worries are enough to placate my anxiety.

  • Winston Link

    Ruth, how wonderful about your novel sale!
    Being thrust out on such a public limb must bring forth some deliciously delirious spikes of anxiety.
    For your next novel how about a thriller entitled, oh, I don’t know, maybe, The Dead Canary Society.

    Possible synopsis:
    Various anxious people of the over-50 ilk become acquainted and decide to join forces and meet within a safe environment to shamelessly worry together.  In the guise of a book club, they meet weekly, rotating the meetings among one another’s homes.  All goes well for a while.  The Society even ventures into the public arena, penning occasional letters of angst to the editor of the newspaper, bringing the World of Worry to new depths.  Enter one Ruth Wainwright who seems so ripe for entry into The Dead Canary Society.  A born leader albeit a proficient nail-biter, Ruth manipulates the others into holding Society meetings in a downtown coffee house, professing industrial strength caffeine magnifies anxiety.   Then bit by bit, in tiny Tinker Bell style, she begins to infuse the group with rays of, dare I say it, optimism.  Too late it is revealed by one suspicious investigative member that Ruth Wainwright is the Supreme Pollyanna Incognito.  Many lives are ruined along the way and The Dead Canary Society collapses under the weight of insouciant  Hope.
    Nope?  Oh, well…

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