You Cannot Improve It

I experienced a moment of not worrying about anything last night. My sister and I had just finished video chatting about our backpacking trip. I was reading a friend’s post on Facebook and listening to my sister and my dad, who is visiting, catch up.

Nothing was more in order than it usually is. It was after 9:00; I hadn’t begun this blog post; the dinner plates were still on the table. But for unknown reasons, none of this particularly concerned me

Maybe because it is summer, and in summer, unless you are a farmer, it is a little easier to let things slide, to revel in the earth’s bounty, to believe that everything is going to work out. Or maybe we simply don’t care so much if it doesn’t because after all it is warm and sunny outside and the jacaranda trees are blooming.

Or maybe the Facebook post  gave me piece of mind. It showed a post in the xkcd forums that consisted of an entertaining series of historical quotes, beginning in 1871, about how we’ve always thought that life is speeding up, that people are too distracted to think deeply, that the new form of communication is ruining our use of language.

I wonder if this larger tendency of the human race is reflected inside my head, if the endless hamster wheel of how I and the world could be better “if only” is really no more worrisome than the fear that reading newspapers in the train car kills the art of conversation and makes people antisocial.

Chapter 29 of the Tao Te Ching says, “Do you think you can take over the universe and improve it? I do not believe it can be done. The universe is sacred. You cannot improve it.”

Bird song is floating in through my window. Just for today, I might try believing Lao Tzu.

Note: The blog and I will be on vacation in the high Sierras next week. Here’s wishing you all a few breaths of alpine air.

The Fretting Gene

Someday, they will isolate the gene for worrying. At that time, a great quandary will face the human race: should it be genetically engineered in or out?

Arguments against the gene:

  1. The medical community seems to believe that stress is not good for you, and I have yet to encounter worry without stress.
  2. Worrying is not particularly enjoyable.
  3. The Visit wrapped up last Thursday morning. It was, by all measures, a stunning success (she said humbly). On Saturday, I dreamt that I’d failed to plan a way for our visitors—who you will remember had gone home two days earlier—to get to Easter mass. Apparently my ability to produce anxiety can overcome both the separation of church and state and the space-time continuum.

Arguments for the gene:

  1. One non-worrying friend claims that only worriers can write novels because writers have to imagine horrible things happening to their characters. When I caught myself thinking that some student research posters might get stolen out of the back seat of my car at Office Max, I decided there might be something to this theory. I had to tell myself sternly that no one nearby wanted to know about albino quail enough to break into my car.
  2. Another friend who doesn’t worry told me multiple times over the last month, “Don’t fret.” What American would even remember such a fine word as “fret” if she didn’t have someone telling her not to do it? This argument is only applicable if you know someone British.

Calm and peaceful friend number one also contends that whether or not you think up every possible calamity, you end up in approximately the same place. That is the problem with non-worriers—they lack the imagination to recognize that the rest of us are holding the world together. So those of you who think things just work out should thank the rest of us for saving you from the hordes of giant, rabid, albino quail.

Spectacular Fail

I’m pretty sure you’re not supposed to swear at the cat and the computer the day after returning from a retreat, whether or not they both deserve it. Luckily I discovered a mantra over the weekend that accounts for such moments: “spectacular fail.”

I spent the last three days at a Camaldolese hermitage on the Big Sur coast. At the hermitage you get your own room with a small garden overlooking the ocean. They feed you well—the best spanakopita I’ve ever had—and all you have to do is sit and walk and be quiet and go to services if you want to. It is fabulous.

Now, of course, in the Great Holiness Competition, one must strive to use every moment at a place such as this to its maximum holiness potential. I believe there’s an equation that will calculate that potential for you. Unfortunately, during the entire drive up, my brain insisted on thinking about work, which as we all know has an enlightenment quotient of zero. (All of us except the monks. It is actually in the monk directions—otherwise known as the Rule of St. Benedict—that working will help them get to know God.)

After arriving I looked out my window at the hills dropping into the ocean, one of the most dramatic scenes nature offers, and commenced worrying about my mental obsession with my job. It is particularly useful to worry about obsessing. At this moment, “spectacular fail” came to me. I thought, what’s the worst thing that could happen if I did that? Rock bottom would be spending three days surrounded by peace, eating good food, and listening to Gregorian chant. That’s it. That’s as bad as it could possibly get.

Then I went to vespers, or evening prayer. There are a lot of things to do wrong at monastery services. If you’re a non-Catholic and have found all the kneeling, sitting, and standing at a Catholic mass clearly designed to make you feel more in touch with your inner idiot than with God, multiply that by at least a power of ten. I have been to New Camaldoli four or five times now, and I still have visions of singing the wrong psalm, forgetting to bow, or in some other stupendous way making it clear to the monks that they should put an asterisk next to my name to remind them to say, “Sorry, we’re full.” next time I call for a reservation.

When these thoughts came rolling in, I stopped and said to myself, “spectacular fail.” After giving myself permission to mess up in a big way, I realized the monks might have witnessed a mistake or two in their time.

My mind did quiet down. The peace, silence, and beauty of the hermitage seeped in. I didn’t do anything irretrievably stupid, or if I did, the monks were much too kind to notice. And next time the likelihood of my doing something world-ending feels overwhelming, I have this handy phrase to help me out.