Anxiety and the Post Apocalyptic

When I list my favorite books, many follow a common theme: Anne of Green Gables, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Gilead, Persuasion — fairly light, fairly sweet. But there’s a thread that runs against this theme because, since I was about 12 and first read Alas, BabylonI also have a deep and abiding love for post apocalyptic  and dystopian stories.

I’ve read so many over the years, especially while I was a teen librarian and The Hunger Games reigned supreme, that my dreams are often combinations of survival scenarios and, depressingly, packing. But it’s hard to tell, chicken or egg, whether I dream of conflagration because I’ve read so much of it, or I read so many stories of utter destruction because these images have always haunted my dreams.

What I do suspect is that for me, post apocalyptic stories—the good ones—satisfy something deep inside. I am not, it’s perhaps worth noting, the kind of person with a bug-out bag and survivalist dreams — however, I am an anxious person, always worried about small impending catastrophes. For me, to read Alas, Babylon is to enter a world where my fear is confirmed, the worst occurs, and, in the books I especially love, the worst is overcome.

Because I’m not a fangirl of depths-of-despair forebodings like On the Beachwhere literally everyone dies, slowly and inexorably. The stories I find myself drawn to have their darkness, but also their hope. Sure, most of the world is obliterated by nuclear war in Alas, Babylon, but the surviving citizens of a small central Florida town rebuild a better world. Some of these novels are darker than others: salvation is sparing in The Road and The Dog Starsand life is hardscrabble in Station Eleven, though beauty and art endure. In  A Canticle for Leibowitz and The Children of Men, the margin of hope is a downright sliver.

Maybe that’s why, then, readers are flocking to George Orwell’s 1984 these days. Maybe these dystopian worlds, these after-the-disaster premises, allow us to feel safer: Sure, it’s bad now, but it could be much, much worse. Or maybe, when you’re scared, living out the worst-case scenario between the pages of a book can feel like an escape — or even preparation.

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Rethinking Running

“It doesn’t have to be running,” the midwife reminded me cheerfully. “It can be any kind of exercise you like.”

But that’s the point. There is no kind of exercise I like. It turned out my resting pulse was a little high, and anyway, I’d been fighting the conviction for awhile. And so running it is.

Running, at least, has the nontrivial advantages of frugality and efficiency. I don’t have to drive anywhere or buy a membership. I just barrel out the back door, wheeze a ways, and wheeze back.

I had done this all once, maybe twice, before: once during a busy semester in college when the doctor listened to my pulse, sent me to the cardiologist, and put me on a stationery bike; once when I was working part-time before kids and trying to keep the crazy at bay. (I’m not counting the three weeks I ran in preparation for the Dales Way, newly pregnant with Pippin, until the time I threw up in my hair and gave up on exercise for the duration.)

A turning point this time was coming to grips with the idea that for me, running is not ever probably going to be “me time.” I get up while it’s still dark, when I don’t have to, and I put on clothes that are hard to put on with sleep-clumsy hands, and maybe sometimes the sun rises beautifully over reddening trees, and maybe sometimes I see a deer, and maybe sometimes I enjoy my audiobook, but mostly, I grit my teeth and do my 10 minutes out and 10 minutes back.

I was slipping into the vocal registers that are not OK, especially with my most threesome three-year-old, and I had done all the self-care measures I actually like, the carving out time for reading and getting extra sleep. I know running helps me to be less anxious, and anxiety and impatience were ruling my day, at least at high-friction times of the day like getting out the door, and the lead-up to nap time. I had apologized to my son enough, and it was time to try something else.

And so I run, and I don’t think of it as me time, or self-care, or all the other things exercise is supposed to be for women like me. I think of it as medicine. I think of it as penance. It is what I am doing to be a better mother, a better wife, a happier human. On those mornings, I am letting go of all the times I’ve failed to be those things, forgiving myself, having already asked forgiveness of those I’ve hurt. And I’m running toward a kinder, gentler future, one grudging run at a time.

At confession, recently, I shared my theory of running as penance with my confessor, who to my surprised relief didn’t immediately dismiss it. “Well, I mean, historically penance has been physical. It’s been bodily. It’s only lately that it’s all prayers.”

Huh. Fair enough. Maybe my Nikes are my hair shirt, my morning jogs a modern-day pilgrimage. A prayer with my body, for calm, for peace.

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The Good Stretch

Have we talked about how I’m a little afraid of everything? I haven’t done that Pottermore test to find out my Patronus, but I suspect it would be a mouse. Or, at the very least, something small and sleepy and cautious. A mole, perhaps.

While Pippin’s been stretching this month to adjust to preschool away from Mama (i.e., HIS WORLD), I’ve been stretching to teach art at a local homeschool co-op. (We are taking this year to decide how we want to proceed, education-wise, which is why things are so bonkers around here.)

Because here is my dark not-so-secret: other people’s children make me nervous. (Even my own children make me nervous when they’re new and squishy.) I am afraid I’ll do the wrong thing, or that they can sense how awkward I feel. I’ve never wanted to handle classroom management, which is why I opted to be a librarian and not a school teacher. Also, you saw my cat/mouse. What business do I have in teaching art?

If I’m being honest, dread is my greatest motivator, and just jumping in usually helps a lot. So despite my nerves, I’ve been coming back from co-op energized and filled with new creativity. It turns out I like working with homeschool kids (not a total surprise after a stint as a teen librarian), and that classroom management isn’t as terrifying as I thought — not all that different than managing the chaos of a rousing night of laser tag at the library, in fact.

It all makes me think about the good stretch and the bad stretch, about getting a little outside your comfort zone and growing tougher and braver in the process. So, like, teaching art to eager, well-mannered kids at an age I totally get? Good stretch. Teaching, I don’t know, geometry to surly teens who don’t want to be there? Bad stretch. Too far. Good for you, not for me. (And when my friend at the co-op asked for a middle school PE teacher? Baaaaaaaaaad stretch, dear readers.)

I can’t always tell when I make the leap if the chasm is too far, but if I left the decision up to my gut, I’d be mousing around in cautious obscurity indefinitely. On the whole, I’d rather be collapsing at home on Friday afternoons, paint inexplicably crisping in my hair, damp marbled paper from a dozen eager fourth graders fanned out on every available surface. It’s chaotic and exhausting and scary, sure, but much more fun.

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Work by my talented fourth graders