Back in the day, when I had a certifiable anxiety disorder and I was getting free therapy for it, there was this exercise I was supposed to do where I tensed up my muscles, first in groups (legs! stomach! and so on) and then my whole entire body, for ten seconds at a time before letting go of everything at once. I discovered quickly that this makes you look really silly, but also that done correctly, at the moment of release a warmth and calmness flows through you that is the physical manifestation of forced relaxation, like a full-body "ahhhhhhh". Eventually, you're supposed to begin to hold a word in your mind as you do the tensing and relaxing, repeating it to yourself as you clench and grow red in the face and tremble; the idea is that, given enough practice, you can just think the word you've chosen and your body will react with the same wave of comfort, which means that you can forcibly relax yourself in public during moments of anxiety without looking like you're passing a kidney stone.
I wasn't a very vigilant practitioner of the clenching-muscle aspect of things, but it turned out that my brain was powerfully susceptible to the word-association concept; after only a few repetitions, I was able to whisper my word inside my head and whoa, my head would roll back on my neck and I would nearly collapse in my chair. It was impressive, and I started doing it at any opportunity because I was just so intrigued by the strength of my response. My word ended up being "safe", a relatively benign word but one that surprised me slightly when I came up with it because I'd never realized that I felt unsafe, but apparently I had, because when I was asked for a comforting word that was the thing I ended up settling on. However, the point--if there is one--of this story is that, when my therapist first posed the question of my word choice to me I burst out laughing because the word that popped into my head, full-blown and related to absolutely nothing I'd been thinking about before that, was "panda." Panda? My concept of personal comfort and positivity was summed up by a panda? Well, whatever. Apparently pandas are kind of assholes, but they are still somehow the international symbol for cuteness, and maybe that's what my mind was striving for, a completely meaningless and superficial stand-in for nothing much.
But anyway, it's been a panda week, where I'm feeling anxious for no reason I've been able to discern but which I could use a temporary reprieve from, even if it is mostly symbolic. Really, the best word to describe this week would be moody. Today, for instance, I had a wonderful morning full of coffee and baking and reading and good things, a frustrating afternoon of thwarted thrifting and too much walking, an anxious evening that made me feel like I had a vise on my temples, and now I'm feeling sort of... I'm not sure. Not bad, but not amazing. What do you do with a day like that? You sure as hell don't write anything that makes any sort of continuous sense; instead you blabber on about pandas and god only knows what else.
Well actually, tulips. I decided to try and salvage my afternoon by reading Sylvia Plath (Ariel, her poetry) for the first time ever, and eating ice cream, which maybe seems like an odd choice but worked well on the irritation part of the day. This poem doesn't really have anything much to do with my day or myself in general, but the tulips in it kind of scared the hell out of me and I love that. I swear, I'll never look at them the same way again, and I'm definitely somebody who spends a lot more time pondering red tulips than your average person on the street. So actually I'm not sure that's a good thing. But anyway.
By Sylvia Plath
The tulips are too excitable, it is winter here.
Look how white everything is, how quiet, how snowed-in.
I am learning peacefulness, lying by myself quietly
As the light lies on these white walls, this bed, these hands.
I am nobody; I have nothing to do with explosions.
I have given my name and my day-clothes up to the nurses
And my history to the anesthetist and my body to surgeons.
They have propped my head between the pillow and the sheet-cuff
Like an eye between two white lids that will not shut.
Stupid pupil, it has to take everything in.
The nurses pass and pass, they are no trouble,
They pass the way gulls pass inland in their white caps,
Doing things with their hands, one just the same as another,
So it is impossible to tell how many there are.
My body is a pebble to them, they tend it as water
Tends to the pebbles it must run over, smoothing them gently.
They bring me numbness in their bright needles, they bring me sleep.
Now I have lost myself I am sick of baggage——
My patent leather overnight case like a black pillbox,
My husband and child smiling out of the family photo;
Their smiles catch onto my skin, little smiling hooks.
I have let things slip, a thirty-year-old cargo boat
stubbornly hanging on to my name and address.
They have swabbed me clear of my loving associations.
Scared and bare on the green plastic-pillowed trolley
I watched my teaset, my bureaus of linen, my books
Sink out of sight, and the water went over my head.
I am a nun now, I have never been so pure.
I didn’t want any flowers, I only wanted
To lie with my hands turned up and be utterly empty.
How free it is, you have no idea how free——
The peacefulness is so big it dazes you,
And it asks nothing, a name tag, a few trinkets.
It is what the dead close on, finally; I imagine them
Shutting their mouths on it, like a Communion tablet.
The tulips are too red in the first place, they hurt me.
Even through the gift paper I could hear them breathe
Lightly, through their white swaddlings, like an awful baby.
Their redness talks to my wound, it corresponds.
They are subtle : they seem to float, though they weigh me down,
Upsetting me with their sudden tongues and their color,
A dozen red lead sinkers round my neck.
Nobody watched me before, now I am watched.
The tulips turn to me, and the window behind me
Where once a day the light slowly widens and slowly thins,
And I see myself, flat, ridiculous, a cut-paper shadow
Between the eye of the sun and the eyes of the tulips,
And I have no face, I have wanted to efface myself.
The vivid tulips eat my oxygen.
Before they came the air was calm enough,
Coming and going, breath by breath, without any fuss.
Then the tulips filled it up like a loud noise.
Now the air snags and eddies round them the way a river
Snags and eddies round a sunken rust-red engine.
They concentrate my attention, that was happy
Playing and resting without committing itself.
The walls, also, seem to be warming themselves.
The tulips should be behind bars like dangerous animals;
They are opening like the mouth of some great African cat,
And I am aware of my heart: it opens and closes
Its bowl of red blooms out of sheer love of me.
The water I taste is warm and salt, like the sea,
And comes from a country far away as health.