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Anxiety in the Time of Corona

As a child I was prone to anxiety. In first grade, during a unit on fire safety, my teacher told us we should go home and plan emergency escape routes with our families. I ran home that day and told my parents, who offered a few thoughts on the matter, and then moved on to other things. For weeks afterward, however, I lay in bed at night imagining my role in the escape: How I would run from my room to my brother’s bed, fling open the window, push out the screen, then help him through it before jumping after him into the darkness.

For better or for worse, this is my personality type, and I’ve come to accept that being in a state of high alert is how I naturally operate. It has its assets. Rarely one to stray from the prescribed path for fear of calamity, during high school I made lots of good, responsible choices which led to acceptance at an excellent college. As a result, when I graduated, I had plenty of job prospects. But, of course, I was also a wreck -- unmoored, exhausted, and in desperate need of a vacation from myself.

During the intervening decade I found healthier ways to handle my penchant for anxious thoughts, or ‘catastrophizing’ as I now describe it. Spending time outside, getting plenty of physical activity, having routines that draw me out of the spiral of worry are all helpful, and no doubt the reason ranch life suits me so well. I’ve often wished that all those who suffer from anxiety or depression had the opportunity to try living rurally. I don’t know if it would help everyone, but I know it has helped me.

Perhaps the best antidote for my fears, however, has simply been getting older. I’ve learned life does not present itself as endless progress, but endless possibility. There is always more to discover; every crossroad contains a gift destined to unfurl in its own time. And, I’ve learned not to put too much stock in my very active imagination when it comes to risk assessment -- it’s a great attribute for my writing practice, not as helpful for making decisions.

Until two weeks ago that is, when a phone call from a dear friend who was supposed to come visit us from Italy left us reeling. His report of what was happening in his country, as well as an admonishment to “STAY HOME” was terrifying. For the first time in a long time I felt my senses ramping up to high alert, and each day since, as reports of fresh recommendations clamor ceaselessly, has felt like a mini-marathon of stress escalation .

At the time of this writing, the news continues to be bleak. For our part, social distancing on a ranch during calving and lambing season is effortless. Stemming the tide of worry over far-flung friends and family, is not as easy. So, I turn again to what has worked in the past. I listen for the meadowlark’s trilled greeting. I look to the pasture, ripe to awaken with the first blush of green splendor. I watch while newborn calves, wet as dew, lift themselves on wobbling legs to catch sips of their mother’s sweet milk. I tell myself to keep moving -- to chase the children and the baby goats, to catch them and cradle them, then release them to run, once more, laughing across the yard.

To discover again and again how little control we humans actually have of outcomes, but how much control we have over cultivating wellsprings of joy, well, that’s the work of a lifetime. The work does not cease, but flows onward, catching us in its current, offering us up as guardians of our own sense of wonder, until, even in the deepest dark we discover the firmament of stars twinkling high above our heads, a blessing and a benediction.

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