Featured in Colorado Review
Published Fall 2018
Winner of the 2018 AWP Intro Journals Project
Selected by Michele Filgate
My father’s worry: He used to hike with us to tall places and then, at the top, step in retreat from the big nothing below. Once on a sunny rock spire in Utah, he couldn’t do it. You guys look, he said. I’ll wait here. Later, in the city, he would show caution crossing streets to show us that we should show caution crossing streets. Both ways! he would shout, if I tipped off the sidewalk too soon. I would feel the barb of worry in his voice and then I would see the splat of my body on the ground, just the way he saw it.
A few years ago, my parents spit in two plastic tubes and put them in the mail. Months later, they received two reports detailing proclivities for large toes, light sleep, and, on my mother’s side, some distant connection with Susan Sarandon. Later, comparing their genetic matter like two children with a stack of baseball cards, they discovered they each carried a variation of the gene BDNF, dubbed “the rumination gene” by the Yale scientists who discovered it. BDNF is active in the hippocampus, that chunk of brain involved in thought and memory, and it’s a gene known to inspire chronic, negative stewing. Colloquially, and somewhat controversially, it’s often called “the worry gene.”
My parents were quick to report the discovery to me, and then they were quick to laugh it off. Later, researching online, I realized their reaction seemed right on point. Psychologist Robert L. Leahy from the American Institute for Cognitive Therapy advises genetic carriers of BDNF to reserve twenty minutes a day to worry and then to practice “set[ting] it aside.”
Psychoanalyst Adam Phillips defines worry as “an ironic form of hope.” When we worry, we anticipate a future we cannot know. Worrying, in this way, is a form of preparation. It is a dress rehearsal for misery. It is also a fantasy. Like imagining the kiss of a new lover, it can be an addiction in itself.
Once my little thumb fell against the hot lip of my mother’s cast iron pan, and the heat turned my skin to a hard pink pearl. When I went to touch the bump, my mother said, Stop! and pointed me to the cold drool of the faucet. You shouldn’t worry the burn, she said. As if! I thought. As if those dead cells were concerned. Like hitting the dead key on a piano, I could not stop touching it. So I worried that burn like a bead on a rosary. I did this because I knew the skin would heal. The burn, in other words, did not worry me back.
Some new worries I have about my father: In the last few years, he has started climbing the steep peak of their lanky Victorian to clean leaves from the gutter or to attach new, spiked finials. He knows it worries my mother, so he does it when she is away from home. Also, he now crosses the street the way he crosses his t’s—a quick jab of momentum with barely an eye to what is ahead or who is behind. Sometimes he is whistling when he crosses. Sometimes he has to slap his hand on the hot hood of a just-in-time stopped car. My mother told me that not long ago, it made our sweet British neighbor shout. Jim, she said, you scare me to death when you do that! There is only one slim consonant between scare and care, one slim vowel between scare and scar.
I remember one high school party when my phone was dead and my mother didn’t know when I was coming home. I was fine—one beer and a movie on someone’s basement couch, probably—but her worry called me and called me, and then her worry started calling the parents of my friends. It was after midnight. This was rare for her to do because it was rare for me to do. When they gave me the message, it was humiliating. I called her and told her to chill out. Soon after she went to sleep and I lay awake in a strange room, sick on the worry I had caused her.
I now realize that caring by itself can feel like a sort of passivity. A latent warmth, but quiet as a pet hamster. Worry, on the other hand, is a dog that has to pee. Worry will not shut up. Worry is the first stage of a teenage crush. Worry takes your care and gives it three shots of whiskey and a slap on the cheek. Worry gets too drunk and stays too long. In the wet dawn of morning, worry is often gone.
As a kid, I wore my snake phobia the way my third-grade friend Becca wore her pony T-shirts: relentlessly, year-round, as a bridge for conversation. And because I hated them, snakes became stitched to my identity. I write in past tense, but those verbs are wishful thinking. Even in my twenties, the phobia has dictated where I will or will not travel, and what I will or will not do when I arrive. Say the word snake and I am hard-pressed to avoid folding my legs into my lap. Because I am an adult, and because I have spent much of my life in cold, snakeless urban America, I realize this is the pinnacle of irrationality. I have read what science and religion and Freud say about the matter, and still—still!—when I walk the damp fields around my grandfather’s Oregon house, I indulge my internal alarm. His farm has no poisonous snakes and no fat snakes, just thumb-thick garters hued like Granny Smiths. So what I am waiting for? Say I find a snake, and say we leap away from each other in mutual darting. Our flimsy lives collide and slide apart. What then?
In my best worst-snake story, I did not even see a reptile. Because I had gone to college in Maine, which is the only state in the continental US without poisonous snakes, I did not even worry about them. One year I spent an idyllic summer living in a white Victorian with two porches, hardwood floors, and wallpaper blotched with amorphous, vomit-colored flowers. It wasn’t until I had moved out that I learned that the man on the floor above us had been illegally breeding pythons. The new tenants did not find out until winter, when they turned on the heat and the crackling whisper of a molted snakeskin gusted through a vent. When they confronted the man, he denied it. His ten-year-old son finally confessed that they had held, at any one time, up to thirty young snakes awaiting sale—all writhing above me.
The story was, as an old friend said, a bizarre and cruel anomaly—complete what-the-fuckery. And yet. Do I look a little longer at my neighbors now? Can you blame me?
“There were many terrible things in my life,” wrote Michel de Montaigne. “Most of them never happened.”
As a word, worry has its roots in the Old English wyrgan, “to kill.” The verb’s first definition in the Oxford English Dictionary is to kill (a person or animal) by compressing the throat; to strangle. And later, more specifically: To seize by the throat with the teeth and tear or lacerate; to kill or injure by biting and shaking. Said e.g. of dogs or wolves attacking sheep. With this usage, I wonder who the “worrier” would be—the wolf or the lamb.
“Such a dog am I / To worry, and not to flee,” wrote Tennyson in 1872. Both my wordy mind and my scaredy mind find thrill in those words. To worry, with Tennyson’s usage, is not an act of cowardice but an act of aggression. You bare your teeth when you worry. Someone bleeds.
When I was ten, my parents let me accompany a friend to a week of sleep-away camp in the San Juan Islands. I had begged them to let me go. Even then I understood this was a precious camp for precious children. My friend had been the year before, and I had heard that on our first full day of camp, we would be outfitted in blue bloomers, blue sailor shirts, and red ties. We would sail and do archery and turn yarn into felt and learn something called “gypsy gunkholing” at the dock. We would be friends forever. Or I would be miserable.
The night before we left, my gut was a pulp of worry. My mother called this “butterflies,” but my insides felt more like the steaming spin cycle of an industrial washer than the limping flight of a papery insect. Lying in bed, I sucked my dread like a lozenge. As a third grader—all teeth and limbs, short bangs, always squinting in the sun—I worried like a new mother. Would I like my bed? Would I get enough food? Would the counselor be nice? Would I get sick? Would I have friends? Would my bloomers fit? The next morning, my friend’s family would pick me up to drive up the coast. Her dad had been my basketball coach, a sharp critic of my limp free-throw, and I felt a mounting dread for that journey too: the radio Top 40 that I wouldn’t recognize, the squeezed politeness in his voice that I would. Then they would drop us off, and we’d board a camp bus that would board a car ferry to the island. God save me from the rest.
Eventually, I soothed myself to sleep. I buried my worry under the extended fantasy of something bigger, something worse. Curling my body into a comma beneath the yellow gingham comforter, I consoled myself by imagining the car ferry sinking. A shipwreck was not just something I could anticipate, but something I could act on. I would not be able to control whether my counselor picked favorites. But if the deck pitched, flipping some kid and his Nikon overboard, I could move swiftly to the lifeboat. I could toss out the orange line of the buoy. I could grab my backpack, blow the whistle attached to the shoulder strap. I could rally my newfound friends. I could, if necessary, swim.
In the late summer of 1961, a thirty-eight-square-mile volcanic island in the most remote archipelago of the world began to shake.
Tristan da Cunha is some fifteen hundred miles southwest of South Africa. Planes rarely fly overhead, and cannot land there. It is a land of fish and potatoes, more rock-hopper penguins than people. The people who live there are the descendants of its nineteenth-century British colonists and those who came to join them.
First the tremors were sporadic. Boulders fell in the night, and houses shook on their foundations. By the last week of September, doorposts had become so misaligned that residents found it hard to close their doors.
Then, on October 8, a bubble cone began to rise from the earth at one corner of the village. Cracks appeared in fields. The resident administrator to the United Kingdom watched as a cluster of grazing sheep fell into the earth, and, a minute later, the earth seamed itself together, eating the sheep. This, he believed, was the start of a new volcano. He radioed the Royal Navy for help, and a ship set off from Cape Town to help evacuate the islanders. That night, residents camped in tents, as far from the volcanic activity as they could go on the small island. The air was wet with drizzle. Just before four a.m. on October 10, the cone burst. Burning rock flecked the night. One man who watched it said it sounded like the beating of a drum. Later, someone noticed that the main stream on the island had begun to resemble hot milk.
All 264 islanders were safely evacuated by boat, landing in Cape Town and then, finally, Surrey. Many of them had never left the island before, and now they were in England, in the neon flash of the 1960s. The islanders were housed, fed, given jobs, and offered permanent residency. A few got married. And then, eighteen months later, word came that Tristan da Cunha was safe again. Within a year, 94 percent of the evacuees had packed their bags and returned home. The world balked.
“Tristan is obviously an underdeveloped nation, one badly in need of civilizing,” wrote a New York Times journalist. “But the natives don’t seem to realize it. They have a negative outlook.” Though England had just suffered one of the worst winters in history, Tristan da Cunha’s spokesperson told the journalist that his people were not leaving because of the weather. “In England,” he said, “it’s money, money, money, worry, worry, worry, all the time.”
The journalist was unsatisfied. “They don’t want to worry, worry, worry. . . . In their ignorance they think they’re happy on their secluded island. But how can they succeed in happiness without really trying?” he wrote. “They’ll never move upward and forward that way.”
Tristanian Conrad Glass is the author of the first book by an islander about Tristan da Cunha’s local history. His grandparents were among the many who elected to return, and in his book, he suggests that their choice was not a hard one. “They could not come to grips with having to lock their doors 24 hours a day,” he wrote. “With women and children having to be careful where they walked; living in fear that someone could be molested or even, murdered or raped.”
The islanders had, it seems, been willing to sacrifice many amenities of modern life: velvet-seated cinemas, the wet glow of supermarket produce, smooth two-lane highways. They had exchanged these things for a life without worry.
A few years ago, I found my roommate choking on a piece of apple. She had been recounting a bad date, explaining the smug spirituality of a boy who wore his hair like a wet cat, when she suddenly stepped out of the kitchen. Maybe she had left to get a sweater, maybe to turn up the heat. All I knew was that her singsong voice was there and then it was not. I was at the sink and I did not call out to her immediately. But then I did, and there was no answer. It was as if the room had swallowed her whole.
I do not know if I felt the hot swell of worried panic then or if that came a second later, after I walked out to find her bent in half, clutching her throat in a dagger of sunlight. Our eyes met—all four watery with awe, hers round as two bing cherries—and then the room dulled, my mind a shriek of fear and a kaleidoscope of future outcomes. Worry, verb, definition 2, from the Oxford English Dictionary: To choke (a person or animal) with a mouthful of food. Also, to devour greedily.
Somehow, she helped my hands to her sternum, and somehow I did the motions a long-ago lifeguard had trained me to do. A hunk of pale fruit slapped the hardwood floor. She smiled sheepishly. We both began to cry.
Grow up a woman and you will, likely, be taught to worry with a healthy gusto. You will be taught that worry keeps you safe. You will be taught that there are different walls a body can build against the big bad world. There are mental walls—dwell on the positive, fake it until you make it—and then there are physical ones: don’t walk alone at night, don’t listen to headphones when you walk, don’t text when you walk, don’t walk like you are lost. There is also the ethos that by knowing how to make your body into a weapon, you can help your mind too. You are told to carry pepper spray for “peace of mind.” Weapons, in other words, are sold as a solution for your worry.
So I was surprised, recently, when a friend and former marine told me that carrying mace—or worse: a knife or gun—was, in her view, a grave mistake. The attacker will still be stronger than you, she said. And then they’ll just take your weapon and use it against you. She paused when she saw my face: revelation, skepticism. Yeah, she said, shaking her head with apology. It definitely makes it worse. I asked her what to do instead. Aim for the eyes and the crotch, she said. After a second of pause: Or just hope for good luck.
I used to wear a whistle in the woods because I worried I would get lost. Now, when I hike alone, I wear a whistle because I worry the wrong kind of person will find me.
My first months of college, I didn’t know who to be friends with, so I was friends with a girl two doors down who was exceptionally good at taking shots of vodka. We would enter parties together, arm in arm into the bowels of whatever whitewashed basement had a free keg, and then we would lose each other in the slosh of mouths and music. Hours later, I would find her: eyes flat with tequila, teeth bile-green under the black lights, her torso parallel with the floor as she ground hips with some glistening lacrosse player. Sometimes we would embrace and she would kiss my cheek. Sometimes she would barely recognize me. When that happened, I would look into the eyes of the man she was with and search for a crumb of kindness. Sometimes he would stare back, twisting his lips into a smile. Sometimes he too was a blur. During these nights, I would also be floating. You did not want to be kissed by some of those guys, but mostly you did not want to be alone on a dance floor with sweating walls and a dark, sludgy floor. Mostly, you wanted to feel like you belonged. That was easier with someone’s arms around you.
In the morning, when our bodies were not blunted with alcohol, the dizzying worry of what the fuck are we doing and when will it stop would come back. I worried about my friend and I worried I would never find friends who wanted their nights to look like anything else. All around us, women seemed to be doing the same things we were doing with our weekend nights. They looked happy. I worried I was missing something. So the next night, we poured more shots. We pinned on our smiles and our bedsheet togas. We drank until we did not feel like worrying about anything much at all.
But now, when I look back on one of those nights—a night I tell myself was a last, though I am sure that it was not—I think of another sort of “worry.” Verb, definition 3c: To kiss or hug vehemently. As in: He came up behind me and danced for a minute, and then he spun me backward, pinned me against a wall, and started to worry me. His hands worried the fabric on my skirt, and then his fingers worried away my tights, and still he worried my mouth and worried my neck.
The dictionary definition continues: To utter (one’s word’s) with the teeth nearly closed, as if biting or champing them. As in: By virtue of speaking, I might worry him back.
Riding a train across America in early June, I began to worry when a tall, pale man took the aisle seat beside me. It was late at night, and there were other free seats, and when the conductor asked for our tickets, I realized we would both be on the train until Portland, Oregon: thirty-six hours. I worried more when he said he was on the run from an ex-girlfriend who had tried to kill him. Also drugs. He lifted his sleeve to show me a map of track marks across his forearm. I was uncomfortable, but I also suspected that my worry was rude. Maybe this man was trying to start fresh. Maybe he just wanted to eat his Tupperware of chocolate cake beside another warm body. Besides, I had judged him for the metal briefcase he clutched in his lap, but then, on the industrial outskirts of Minneapolis, he had opened it to show me a backgammon board. I worried I had been too judgmental. But after an hour of staggered conversation—as I tried to read and he tried to speak—I explained that I was going to find a seat to sprawl across for the night. He nodded, and as I squeezed past his legs, I worried I had made him mad. I also worried I was a narcissist: Why would he care either way?
The next morning, the man came and found me at the front of the car. “Remember me?” he asked. He sat down in the aisle seat. This time, he was carrying a spiral notebook. His eyes protruded so far from his head I was surprised there was no blood. He told me the book was full of letters he had written to his emotions. He wanted me to read the letters and, walking away, said he would be back in a bit to check on me. The man did not know I was a writer or a teacher, so when he said this, my worry grew louder. After a few seconds with my heartbeat in my ears, I decided to crack the cover and flipped to the most recent entries. Bits of his words still stick to me like sap:
I want to tell the girl that I sat next to the one thing that would complete her world but I scared her off. . . . She’s young. Maybe she won’t meet Devils like me. Fear? I miss you where are you. You and Alive aren’t here. . . . Maybe she is a evil person, maybe she can help. Even if she does not want to. . . . I think she will be the only other human to read these. It’s worth a try. . . . Ooh, fear hi!
A strange thing happened as I scanned the pages. Adrenaline hit me so fast I thought I would be sick. Meanwhile, my worry began to gloat, flexing like a long-idle muscle. My worry had been right.
As I began to photograph a few of the pages—evidence for others or, really, myself—my hands and vision began to wobble. Behind me, ten or twelve rows, I could sense the man’s presence. I hoped he couldn’t see me. Closing his notebook back on the seat, I grabbed my phone and walked out of the car as if leaving for the bathroom. What happened next—I told the conductor; he dropped me temporarily in a curtained sleeping car and radioed for the police to meet the train at a station just past the dusty town of Wolf Point, Montana; the man was escorted from the train, shouting about meth—matters in as much as it “resolved” the immediate situation. I do not know what happened to the man. When I think of him, I feel tossed between two teams of worry: On the one hand, I worry he has not gotten the help he needs. On the other, I worry I will see his eyes, one day, in Portland.
Trust your gut, they say.
My gut is always worry, I want to say. My gut checks the closets with a butcher knife when I enter my apartment. My gut keeps mace on the bedside table. My gut has crouched to the floor in movie theaters under the guise of picking up a dropped lip balm. My gut thinks fireworks are gunshots. Sometimes my gut cries wolf when there is not a wolf, and sometimes my gut is just crying. Sometimes—inexplicably—my gut is right.
A hypothesis: Worriers have given us earthquake-proof architecture. Worriers have given us parachutes. Worriers have given us spare pearl buttons with our newly purchased cardigans.
We started smoking the way I can only imagine many people do. High school parties were strange and awkward, and we didn’t know what else to do with our faces and our hands. We knew cigarettes were a sort of robbery in themselves, stealing smooth skin and years off our life, but hell when you were eighteen seventeen sixteen fifteen—anyway, we were economical with the habit. One pack in someone’s purse could last a few of us for a few months. I’ve heard good things about American Spirits, said a would-be valedictorian and varsity captain. The package says “non-addictive.” We believed her and smoked them, but at some point we read the blue cardboard and realized her optimistic mind had added a “c” to “additive.” We all wanted so badly to believe we were in control.
Nobody said “anxiety” then, but that’s what I remember those rare cigarettes were for: the equivalent of a cough drop, but for a sudden fit of social dread. I told myself I only smoked “socially,” but really the cigarette was the ticket to escape the social life. All you had to do was wave your little stick and gesture vaguely toward a door. Be right back. You could take three minutes. You could take thirty minutes. You could kiss someone in the bushes. You could leave and get a milkshake and never come back. You could inhale or you could not inhale. You could be alone and have a reason for it, or you could ask someone cute for a light and have a reason for opening your mouth. The two of you could stand on the deck, talking or not talking, holding two distant, glowing stars. This game continued for me on and off through college. And then, when I was twenty-three, I found myself living in Italy, where everyone smoked and everyone asked me if I smoked. After one particular sleepless night—dizzy and awake at three a.m. with a rattling tobacco heart—I realized my balance of anxiety had tipped. However worried I was about what to do with my nervous hands or quiet mouth or awkward night, I was suddenly more worried about death. An odd cigarette, I knew, would not make that particular worry go away. It would make it worse.
Every now and then, the old itch still strikes. Standing in a glowing room and soon the desire to escape. Standing outside at a concert and soon the desire to do something instead of dancing. Still, I am not sure I miss the smoking as much as the version of self who would do it. The very young wear life like a new scarf. We dragged it fast and loose. Nowadays, I listen to the new creak of body logic. Would you rather, asks my worry. Would you rather. So instead, I’ll look around the party and tap my fingernails against the lip of my glass. I’ll run to the bathroom. I’ll search for more ice. I’ll peek at my phone. Meanwhile: the vying patter of my heart.
In July of 2015, New Yorker writer Kathryn Shulz published “The Really Big One,” her Pulitzer-winning piece about the earthquake and “seven-hundred-mile liquid wall” forecast to decimate my Pacific Northwest homeland and bring “the worst natural disaster in the history of North America.” The night the article was published, I sat with my parents on the deck above their steep street and worried about what could be done. Should they move? Would their friends think they were crazy? Where would they go? In every direction, sea levels thrashed toward new shorelines as icebergs dripped into brine. We scraped our ice cream bowls dry.
A few weeks later, my mother attached double-stick tape to the bottoms of every vase and candle on the mantle. By Christmas they had paid someone to strap the house to the foundation. In the basement, they began to stockpile jugs of water.
Researchers at the University of Southampton and University of Edinburgh recently published a study from the self-reported health data of some half a million British citizens taken over five-plus years. The researchers found that people with higher levels of neuroticism tended to rate their own health poorly. Those same people, however, had a lower likelihood of premature death. Lead researcher Catharine Gale told a New York magazine journalist that her leading theory was that these worriers called on health experts more often. “The only thing we could think of was whether people were more vigilant about their health,” she said. “Perhaps they saw their doctor more regularly when they had symptoms they were worried about, and that might lead to earlier diagnoses of serious illnesses, particularly in the case of cancer.” Worry, in other words, didn’t make you healthy—the biggest worriers smoked more, drank more, exercised less—but in some small way, perhaps this kept you safe.
Worrier. A hell of a lot like warrior.
One summer I guided teenage girls in the Montana wilderness. I was the only guide who was not old enough to drink at the end-of-staff-training party. I was the only one who was, also, a teenager. I had imagined it would be the perfect job for me: I loved to be outdoors; I loved to hang with kids. Now I would get paid for both.
But while I already knew what I worried about in the outdoors—grizzlies, lightning, rattlesnakes, rockfall, creeps, getting lost—I had not anticipated what my responsibility would do to this worry. It was the cold eye of a magnifying glass in the yellow sun. My worry blazed. My worry was porous. I worried about the world for the girls and with the girls. I worried I would not be able to protect them: I would string a bear bag in a too-dead tree and a branch would fall and smash them; I would sneeze while driving and the shell of our van and gear trailer would drift off the highway and roll into a ditch; I would cook in a white-walled cowboy tent and the mouse shit would make everyone sick. I worried, too, about the shame that would follow. Their parents would hate me. The camp would fire me. I would have to move off-grid. I would have to become an alcoholic.
The irony, of course, was that my job required me to hide it all. I never looked braver. I never looked more fun. Years later, I told a friend that those weeks were the scariest of my life. That I had not known my body could hold so much worry. Of course you worried, he said, with a spit of mean, obvious laughter. That was your job. That’s why things went well.
The recipient of a 2018 Minnesota State Arts Board grant, Erica Berry is a Minneapolis-based writer with essays in True Story, Literary Hub, the Southeast Review, Guernica, Pacific Standard, and the Atlantic, among other publications. www.ericaberry.com