Back to Today
‘Nothing,’ I said. ‘Why?'
‘You look worried.’
‘Well, you’re frowning.’
I had no idea.
A few years later I was looking out at a small audience. I could see every face. Half of them were frowning. I had to process those frowns every time I looked up and manage somehow to keep going. I tried to imagine their interest and the occasional warm smile, or to keep my eyes only on the non-frowning people. Later the frowners were the most complimentary. Navigating their frowns had worked. But it was hard.
Ever since, I have determined to be conscious of my face when I’m in an audience.
And everywhere, actually. Especially one to one, because there is no alternate listener for the speaker to escape to. All the signals are coming from me.
I remember a conversation with my mother when I was sixteen. I thought it was going wonderfully. Suddenly she said, ‘Can you stop frowning?’ I instantly pulled the centre of my forehead out of a crease, relaxed my whole face and warmed it right up. We both giggled. But I never forgot that painful discovery of my out-of-control face.
Then I began to notice how often, almost all of the time in fact, people’s faces are frowning, and how distracting, unsettling, undermining that is. And when I ask them if anything is wrong, they snap out of it and say absolutely not. They even claim to be interested and delighted.
There are also the non-conversations that populate our lives – passing each other in the hall, entering a room, saying hello. Frowns everywhere. And the frowners shockingly unaware.
So I’m wondering what might happen if we all right now woke up to our faces’ unsolicited frowns, and replaced them with interest and the occasional appropriate smile. Smiles (genuine ones, warm ones, not ridiculing ones) can speed up not only the rate of a person’s thinking, but the increase in the quality and elegance of it as well. Smiles also can produce safety so we become more adventurous, more real, more interesting, actually, as we speak. Try it.
Smile. Notice the impact. It won’t be nothing.
I write in books. I underline. I write in the margins and, when really excited, put an exclamation point. I also circle words I want to learn.
At least according to some of the people I love most in the world. They do not write in books. As in DO NOT!!!!. This is literally a hands-off issue. I don’t ever discuss it with them for fear of lunging into and ricocheting off some exotic morality.
I am inevitably the desecrator here. Books are, after all, sacred. But I think so, too. In the way I think humans are sacred. And like humans, books are for conversation not observation. Certainly not for worship. As I see it, to write in books is to honour authors. To think with them. To talk with them. I love it when someone hands me their book to sign and I see that they have written in it and even highlighted it. I feel we’ve been together somehow.
But I appreciate that writing in a book is also a selfish thing. You can’t really offer a friend a book you have just read and loved if you have left a trail of distracting non-author thoughts inside that they will have either to ignore, or to read and involuntarily digest. I get that. So I never offer friends the books I’ve written in. I buy fresh ones for them. I argue that that is a second way to honour the author: a teensy increase in sales.
Regardless, there is no arguing with personal – deeply personal – preferences in life. Especially when the deeply part verges on: ‘There should be eleven Commandments: the eleventh should be: "Thou shalt not write in books”. No, actually, it should be the 1st. Then the one about God.’
Hands off works for me.
So much is going on out here. I hadn’t seen it. I had seen it. But seeing is a slippery, mind-of-its-own thing. Truly to see you have to stop. And stay. You have to stretch. Something. Anything. You have to stop scanning and start landing. You have to do what I guess is all those Buddhist things of being fully in the present. Ho hum. No.
Nothing of ritual, not even of breathing. Nothing organised. Nothing already figured out and published and passed down. Nothing. In fact, nothing is it. Of course there is no nothing. There is only everything all at once all of the time all together.
Go out there. Sit. See. See no thing; see the sequence, the connectors, the transitions. See the invisible wildness willing the seeable song or hop or bath or pecking or burrowing or scampering. It seems like only this and that. But it is world after world after world of somethings.
Would It Help?
‘Do you never worry?’ he asked the spy whom he was beginning to love and who could be sentenced to death.
‘Would it help?’, the spy answered.
That is my all time favourite movie moment. And maybe my all time favourite insight.
Rudolph Abel (or rather brilliant author Giles Whittell) knew a thing or two about life. Worry doesn’t help.
You know that, too, right? So do I. We all know that. All of us. Everyone. But. We all do it. This puzzles me. Actually, it disturbs me. In fact, I worry about it.
I grew up in a worry-is-a-noble-act family. My father said often and with great affection, even admiration, not to mention abdication, ‘My wife worries enough for both of us.’ But there was jest in that, and everyone knew it. He worried plenty. It drove him. And he did good things with it, as did she. But if you ask me, they both died of it one way and another.
For my part I’d like truly once and for all to achieve a worry-free life, or even a half-day. Not just because in the end worry is a killer, but because it is 100% stupid. We do it to achieve something that cannot, cannot, be achieved. But each time we do it, a hulking part of us assumes it can.
The most popular version of this insanity is that worry will help, that it will prevent disaster. In fact, it goes further. It even says that confidence or trust or ease or being in the present moment or (what is the opposite of worry???) will actively make the dreaded thing happen. In other words, not worrying causes disasters. Worrying prevents them. Because? Because if we don’t worry, we will take our eyes off the ball, and the ball will ricochet while were not looking and knock us out. Cold. Forever. (Worry is a studied hyperbolist.)
So we do it. And I have not quite, well at all actually, found my way around that. Equally I don’t want to follow parental suit and die of it. So here’s what I’ve figured out that I am holding onto: 1) worry is a single untrue assumption about the future, 2) that assumption, lying comatose at the bottom of all the ‘me, me, choose me’ possibly-true assumptions like: ‘it will be terrible, they will hate me, I will fail, we’ll all die, nothing will ever be the same again, he/she/they will abandon me, et cetera ad nauseam’, is this: ‘I cannot cope well with whatever happens.’
And that one is not true. We can all find a way to cope well with what happens, even people’s deaths, including our own. Victor Frankel said it better than I ever could.
So, here’s my only way out of this involuntary prostrated obeisance to worry: ask myself the following question the very second worry starts up (or before that if I can detect its stealthy little twinkle toes coming up the drive): ‘If I knew that whatever happens I can cope well with it, how would I feel?’ Rinse, repeat. Repeat. Repeat.
Can you even imagine not worrying again? And not because you are a metallic narcissist whose feelers go out only as far as their nose, but because you care about being as smart about this as you are about everything else. Or even more so. Try. It helps to imagine it. Because it seems such a big unimaginable thing.
Imagine it and then try that question: 'If I knew that I can cope well with whatever happens, how would I feel?’
And if that elegant (if I do say so myself) incisive question eludes us in the moment of threat, we can always summon Abel’s work of art.
Would it help?
 Film: Bridge of Spies, 2015, Giles Whittell