Last Saturday at Keystone College in upstate Pennsylvania, I sat down with Buddhist author Whitney Stewart and Muslim NPR commentator Arsalan Iftikhar to discuss our respective spiritual beliefs and how those beliefs impact our writing.
I'd been invited to participate in the panel back in March and had accepted because my friend, Suzanne Fisher Staples, had issued it. I also accepted because it was a great opportunity, and because July seemed a long time away.
I celebrated the invitation by going to TJ Maxx and buying a pair of linen slacks that seemed to represent the new, strange land of scholarly public appearances I was preparing to enter.
And then I embarked on a four-month landslide into terror.
Every night since March, I have awakened between 2 and 4 a.m. to a ribbon of anxiety snaking up through my body like a spiral staircase. This is because I have had a lifetime of social and public speaking phobias that have, in years past, prohibited me from doing simple things like walking through a shopping mall alone, eating meals in public, asking a question in class, and speaking my name in a group setting. Thankfully, I no longer live with that kind of day-to-day anxiety. And also thankfully, beta blockers taken just before I go onstage cool the wildfire of my panic.
Even so, my terror grew stronger as the event drew closer, until it seemed there was a dividing line between the pre-panel portion of my summer that would be spent in agonized anticipation, and the post-panel rest of my life that would be spent in exhausted relief.
I did everything I could to prepare. I wrote short essays in response to the questions we were going to be asked. I rehearsed my answers to my husband, to the dogs and to the air. I got a pedicure. I bought two new pairs of shoes. After one pair gave me blisters, I spent 30 agonizing minutes at CVS deciding on the most scholarly-looking Band-Aids, sifting through the seemingly endless choices of clear, fabric, waterproof, multicolored, tapered, rectangular, round and nude. (I went with waterproof, rectangular, nude).
I remembered that when my 16-year-old dog, Keithan, was dying, I kept taking her to the vet to have her toenails trimmed, as if this would prevent the inevitable. It seemed that managing my emotions through the obsessive tending of feet was not new.
The panel was Saturday, July 21. It lasted exactly one hour. I took one and-a-half beta blockers, the fewest I have ever taken for any speaking event, and I think I answered five questions. I have no idea what my panel-mates said and only a vague idea of what I said. One day, not soon, I will listen to the recording my husband made.
And now, four months of terror, excitement and pre-dawn awakenings behind me, here is what I am left with: a hole in my life the exact size of a panel discussion. It is like the hole that is left behind when a loose tooth finally throws off its shackles, making room for something stronger, bigger, more permanent. Like the way your tongue goes again and again to the open space to worry the absent tooth, I still awaken in the wee hours to anxiety spiraling through me. There is a brief moment when my uneasy brain, searching for the upcoming panel and finding it behind me, actually feels bereft. I can feel it then, casting about for some new thing to fret. Eventually, it will find something. But for now, relief and gratitude fill the space.
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