I could turn this into a boast, I suppose, but I’m not here to write about compliments. It does seem interesting to write about what it feels like, to me, to be calm while under stress.
It feels like surrender.
And that is the short, true answer.
But that makes surrender sound easy. And it’s not. The kind of surrender I want to describe (my kind) — to stress, chaos, noise, demands, surprise, discomfort — takes energy. It’s not like falling onto a couch and flicking on the tv.
It’s funny: I intended to write this freely, kind of stream of images and words, but I am aware, suddenly, of deliberateness encroaching. I reread a sentence; I ask myself, “Where should I go next? How will I end it?” I don’t want to write an essay; I just want to say how my thoughts feel to me when chaos blooms. I guess deliberateness kicks in. Down, deliberateness, down!
So, yesterday I had what’s called a pelvic ultrasound. I don’t intend to describe that sensory experience. All that’s important to know is that it’s both external and internal. And I made the appointment a week ago, so it was no surprise. (Incidentally, for anyone who knows me personally and is wondering if I’m okay, the answer is this: Yes, I’m okay. Status quo.)
The technician was matter-of-fact, friendly, but not too friendly. We talked about the warm gel on my side (let’s take a picture of the kidneys) as a nice antidote to cold. This tech travels from hospital to hospital — I had no idea there were itinerant radiology techs, and wouldn’t that be an unusual although perhaps strategic occupation for a character in a short story, say one who wanted to make lasting connections with people yet at the same time didn’t want to? — and she lives, or at least she is from, Kansas. Where it is colder. Where it snows less. She likes Boston.
She apologized in advance for bumping into my feet. “I just want to warn you…,” she said in a nice way, and “I’m sorry.” Hmm, how funny, I thought. Why would I care if she bumped into my feet? Maybe some people don’t like having their feet touched, and she deals with bodies all the time, and so she knows that. I know people who don’t like certain parts of their body touched: nose, neck, thumb, lips, etc. I went to college with a woman who hated mouth kissing, all kinds: friendly, romantic, and everything in between. How strange! but valid to her. Do I have an off-limits part of my body? Knees, no. Shoulders, no. Neck, no. Etc. So, perhaps these other patients have ticklish feet? That’s possible. Lydia has ticklish feet, so ticklish in fact that she doesn’t want to get a pedicure because she doesn’t think she can stand it. That must be it.
Meanwhile, the technician bumped into my right foot and said “sorry.” So, I asked her, “Do people mind, because their feet are ticklish?”
She took my question very seriously, which I appreciated. It bothers me sometimes when I ask a serious question and someone smiles or laughs, as if it’s a cute question. “Oh, that’s not it,” she replied. “Most people are stressed out by procedures, you know. They’re not laid-back, like you.” She paused. She looked at the screen and thought for a minute and then typed something on the machine’s keypad. The wand moved inside me. “So, when I bump into their feet, they’re already on edge. They just don’t want that contact.”
“It’s okay,” I said. “It’s not uncomfortable, just… um… awkward.”
“Awkward,” she said firmly, as though she had been waiting for me to introduce the word, and it was something she had always thought, and now we could both say it.
We went back to our silence. The machine hummed. There were no other sounds in the room. I thought about the new feeling of the wand, and how you can prepare for a feeling, but not really experience it, until the physical moment. Becoming a parent is like that: the concreteness of the baby and your life with it is different from the fantasy of the baby and your life with it. Not worse, just actual.
The procedure ended. I said, “Thank you.” And she left the room and a minute later I left the room and that was it.
Later, I was wondering why an experience that only felt awkward to me — not uncomfortable, not painful, and actually it was a little interesting although not enough that I would relish another — might cause stress for a different person.
It isn’t that I was relaxed. Or, let me say this: I was relaxed, in an active way.
And, indeed, I had mentally rehearsed, in the week between making the appointment and having the appointment, how I would remain calm during something that might be unpleasant and even painful. Many, many times over the past week, I said to myself, “Jane, you will lie there, you will keep your hands relaxed, you will realize that this is only a brief moment in your day, you will think I am a mere body to the technician, and no cause for modesty, you will know that it will last not that long.”
So I practiced. And I also had decided that I wouldn’t get worked up about it. And then I kept my word to myself.
Yes, I kept my word to myself: I will not be rattled by this.
When I wrote, at the beginning of this post, that “I surrender” to stress, discomfort, chaos, etc., what I meant, and what I mean, is that I am not only calm, but I continually renew my commitment to myself to be calm. It’s possible that I am how I am because of my genetic makeup. It’s also true that I practice being myself, or being the way I want to be.
Does it always work? No. For chrissakes, I am no machine. What can unhinge me are the surprises for happenings I have never experienced or, in my fantasy life, rehearsed. For example, if someone showed up at my door tomorrow and blurted, “You have won a deluxe Norwegian cruise, all expenses paid, and you depart from the port of New York on Monday!” I would have to say “No!” and bolt my door against this prize-bearer, because I have never fantasized about taking a cruise or winning a cruise or absenting myself from work with no advance planning. And I wouldn’t know what to do, or even, for that matter, how to feel.
I felt my heart rate, just now, increase as I was terrifyingly imagining this “prize.”
On the other hand, I have an active daydream life — filled with both pleasure and dread — and there may be some surprises that I have already rehearsed, even though they have never occurred.
When I get on a plane, I want to sit near an exit, because I would trust me to respond, according to directions, in an emergency. As the flight attendant or overhead video explains what to do in case of an emergency landing, I watch attentively and plan what I will do in case of an emergency landing.
And, yet, I do not, when I fly, worry that there will be an emergency. I have already talked myself out of the likelihood of that occurring. When I’m at the airport, before boarding, I sit by the window in the waiting area and watch all the planes taxi off, and land, taxi off, and land, taxi off, and land. I imagine, all over the world, the airways filled with planes, like mosquitoes in July, and I tell myself that, statistically speaking, the chances of an accident are truly micro.
But, I don’t fly that often, and my everyday life and its little stresses are way more urgent and immediate than the big stresses of travel.
What happens when someone yells? cries? bleeds? drops a glass? insults me? gives me a compliment? is late? doesn’t arrive? toots a car horn? swerves? smiles big? catches my eye? freaks out?
For better, in most cases, and worse, in a few, I feel the inner Jane pausing for a moment, giving myself over to the moment (not gearing up to fight), collecting herself, in a millisecond searching all those rehearsals for a response, and then… responding.
And when the response and the moment match up? That, to me, is rightness. Peace.
Image: “White Flag (James Cook),” by Stephen Eastaugh. At the William Mora Galleries.