Once upon a time, back when there were bars and we still went to them, back when I was still young enough that having intense conversations in bars at midnight+ was sort of my jam, back when the bars were still smoky, back when we were wearing boot cut jeans and The Strokes were a new thing and we were pretty sure that the combination of George W. Bush and 9/11 was the absolute worst thing that could ever happen to the United States, you know, back when the bar in question was still called Henry’s, I sat at a table on a winter night and tried to provide framework so two of my best friends could start a conversation and (hopefully) become friends.
“You’re both from picturesque New England. You’ve both relocated to the South. You’re both from Italian families. You’re both avid readers. You like similar bands.” I listed off a few of each and smiled expectantly as my friends just stared stonily back at me. I think I’d made it to, “You both like pizza,” when the older of the two friends sort of held a hand up and stopped me.
“Do you always draw all these boxes around people?”
I think I probably ruffled at that. I might have even looked offended. Because they weren’t boxes. Never boxes. “They’re webs.”
I liked webs. I always had. I liked the little electric charge I’d find when I’d follow one name into the labyrinth and come out the other side at another, unexpected one. So I kept doing it, getting myself a little most lost every time. After a while, I stopped helping whatever hypothetical Theseus find the minotaur at the center (or even the exit on the other side) , and got sort of obsessed with the web itself, the bonds that held things together, the paths that diverged and branched off and circled back around and the dead ends (but they’re almost never really dead ends).
Because it was the connections themselves that were the most interesting part. Not just the boring DNA stuff, but the likes and dislikes, the neighborhoods and communities that bring people together. This is useful for dinner parties. As a southerner bred on Edith Hamilton’s Mythology and Emily Post, I’m aware that the first obligation is being hospitable and the second is suss out what your guests would like without them having to tell you (or at least tell you more than once) about their dietary restrictions and triggers and hot button political issues. I’ve devoted a whole wing of the string house memory palace to remember who likes jam bands and who hates banjos and who is most likely to get their feelings hurt because people make fun of their favorite band and who is most likely to make the fun. Who hates superheroes. Who loves Disney. Who has a problem with cilantro, with spice, with mayonnaise, with gluten. Who likes sports. Who likes God. Who will be too ashamed to ask to spend the night in the guest bedroom if she’s overserved. Who will be too polite to mention that they’re cold over the vent. Who will demand the moon. Who is allergic to your cat. Who will bring their dog. Who will bring their kid. Who doesn’t really like dogs and/or kids. Who will probably end up crying in a back bedroom and, even though you didn’t do anything, you’ll feel awful about it, because whatever was said, was said at your house. “And if I’d just remembered, if I’d just anticipated, maybe I could have hit it off at the pass.”
That strand leads to the worry web, by the way. And while I haven’t been able to put my hostess brain to work for about 145 days, the anxiety wing of the string house memory palace has been jumping like a joint in a Destiny’s Child song and I’m pretty much stuck there all the time. All those awesome webs that used to tie together friends and foes and famous people and historical anecdotes? Abandoned to worry. I worry about the big stuff—the world, the economy, the government, the pandemic, the structural racism, the people protesting, the hurricanes, the natural distasters. I worry the way the big stuff affects me—will I lose my job? My house? My family? My friends? My liberty to do or say what I want? My ability to continue in some semblance of a normal life? Am I doing enough? But I don’t mind saying where I mostly get trapped is on the personal, the material, the immediately physical, the profoundly selfish? This phone call from a family member? Will it be bad news? This decision I make? Will I hurt people? Will I regret making it? Will I regret not making it? Will the hurricane blow all of my new porch furniture into the pond? Should I open every single email alerting me to changes in my credit rating (they never say positive or negative until you log in)? These aches and pains I feel? What horrors to do they presage? Is it Covid? Is it creeping middle age? Is it one of the dozens of things I worried about before Covid after last fall left me with a profound and seemingly unshakable case of medical PTSD after being repeatedly told there was nothing wrong with me until it plainly obvious there was something wrong and then I was misdiagnosed and infected with something worse in the hospital?
Science and medicine have always been foundations for me. I mostly trust doctors. I like smart people. I have no patience for woo woo and conspiracy and yet, and yet . . . I worry about ending up back there again. I worry that someone will not believe me when I say it hurts. Or I worry they’ll see something that’s not there and my life will once again be altered permanently for the negative.. And I’m mad about it and bitter and scared, because even when it wasn’t a pandemic, I felt like and inconvenience and an afterthought. And now? I worry I wouldn’t be essential enough to help. Then I worry that someone would try to help and get sick themselves. I worry that I would end up back at the hospital and they would take piece after piece until I would be nothing left but a brain in a box full of exploded webs, unable to connect to anything at all. I worry until I make everything worse. And I worry I’m making everything worse. I worry that I’m slowly, steadily losing my sense of humor. I worry that I’ve lost my mind.
“You need to stop worrying about the things you can’t control,” a best friend tells me. “Don’t worry about them until you have to.”
But how do you do that and how do you know? I feel like we’ve been staring at the gathering storm now for so long that I don’t remember what it’s like to see a blue sky. The thunderheads don’t always bring the cyclone, but the bad storms come just often enough that my inner pessimist know-it-all just swaggers around all the time like ,”See? I told you so.”
My webs are no longer fun or pretty or intricate. They’re gross and unsanitary and probably full of dust bunnies. I need to clean out the whole space, strip it down to the studs and start fresh with a new spool of thread that can stretch out to a life beyond Covid, beyond Trump and beyond all this ceaseless worry. That’s really hard to do, by the way, and I’m quite sure I don’t have all the right tools yet.
But at risk of torturing several mixed metaphors to death, let me say that I’m trying to figure it out because there is still part of me that hopes that all the things I worry about maybe won’t come true, maybe not right now, maybe not the way I imagine, and that maybe I’ll look back and think, “That thing I was so worried about. It ended up being not a big deal at all. Just a cobweb in the corner. Just a strand of silk stuck to a jacket collar. Nothing worth writing home about.”
Sometimes I even believe it too.
Picture today is of a Louise Bourgeois spider in at the end of a labyrinth, so to speak, at Dia: Beacon about exactly two years ago today.