alchemy of anxiety

Jagged Altar

1:13 PM

I don’t travel alone much, and I can count on one hand the number of times I have taken a road trip alone. Too many contingencies.

Yesterday, I drove from my home town, Ft Collins, CO, about two and a half hours to Colorado Springs for a restaurant opening. Aaron and I were calling it a getaway, a road trip combining business with a fun hotel night, great food, and breathtaking mountain vistas. The plans changed when Keller, our sweet-but-ill 13 year old Golden, took a turn for the worse; we regretfully decided that one of us should go to the Springs, and one of us should stay home.\

I didn’t hesitate when Aaron suggested I go alone. I have driven to the Denver airport dozens of times, and Colorado Springs is an hour south from there. Nothing to worry about. I packed the car and headed out early, creating space for those possible contingencies.

I indulged in a lovely conversation with my sister, Lindy, between Denver and Colorado Springs, but when my GPS started to send me urgent messaging to take an alternate route just south of Denver, still 45 minutes from my destination, I was a little concerned that I had plugged in the wrong information. As it turns out, the oracle in the GPS just…knows.

There was a terrible storm ahead. I could see it, and I had already begun to experience enough anxiety to whisper a prayer for safe passage, but it seemed as if the dark cloud structure was clinging to the foothills just west of the highway, a black ominous wall of churning energy that I hoped I would be able to avoid.

I could see I was being directed to take the frontage road to the outskirts of the Springs, avoiding some slowing traffic on I 25 as my faithful GPS attempted to help me skate the outer edges of the black wall.

But no such luck. My fellow travelers have their own direct access to the GPS oracle, too, and as the frontage road slowed down to the traffic that had begun to build up within the alternate route, we were all, highway and frontage vehicles, slowly surrounded in lightening and thunder and hard, pounding rain. I looked for off ramps. Any kind of coverage. Nothing.

And then the hail started. First, it was a few pings, like big loud raindrops. When I hit the windshield wipers to get full power out of them, between swipes of the wipers, I could see the pounding hail everywhere, popping on the hood of my car, bouncing all around me on the road. The volume of the noise was intimidating all by itself, and I find that when one of my senses is being maxed, like hearing, I seem to lose the efficacy of others, like sight. I was struggling to keep the car in the lanes, and there wasn’t anywhere to go.

Here I was, terrified and feeling isolated, ironically surrounded by hundreds of other people, driving alongside. Weirdly comforting. We couldn’t talk, or help each other at the time. Still, I could feel them all around me, and I trusted that if I had to abandon my vehicle someone would be there.

My mind started to search through its storage system for information on driving through weather, imaginatively building a story to frame the moment in a context, to define it. Unfortunately, my mind tends to imagine in the negative as a first course of action, so it drew from news stories of obscure tornadoes and flash floods. Disasters. As the movie screen in my mind articulated the current story with gripping nightmare imagery, I felt the racing chemistry of fear: rapid heartbeat, sweaty palms, tightening gut, and a wretched headache I had invoked. This, for me, is familiar chemistry…the alchemy of anxiety.

With nowhere to go but forward, I hit “pause” on the mental processing, and pooled all of my focus in one direction: drive the car. Within 15 minutes, my fellow travelers and I had broken through the southern edge of the storm leaving the black wall in the rear-view mirror. I checked in with my body, and clearly, my adrenals were maxed, my stomach, tight, and my head was throbbing with pulsing tension. I took a few deep breaths, and whispered my gratitude to God while sending some prayers behind me to those still in the storm. I’m safe. I had made it through. I noticed a subtle energy left in the wake of the storm; it was my smoldering anxiety that more storms would follow, I could be alone, and things could come out differently. The story lived on for a few minutes longer, bolstered by my body's chemical reaction..

Later, I arrived at the restaurant in clear weather, had a lovely evening, and returned to my hotel safely.

I did, however, decide to use this little story as an inaugural piece of writing to begin my adventure as a blogger. It is perfect that this offering is both simple and current as I am writing from my peaceful hotel room in Colorado Springs, the original destination for my road trip.

Meditation this morning brought me back, as it usually does, to the work of my life-so-far, the practice of trading fear for acceptance. Surrender. For me, this experience isn’t just “a lesson.” This has been an ongoing intensive internship that has taken most of my 58 years as a human to call myself  a novice. As I return to it again this morning, looking out the 5th floor window to the foothills sheltering this city, I am reflecting on my purpose as a writer.

In 2012, I wrote “Jagged Altar,” at a crossroads moment in my personal life history. My higher power, my own personal GPS oracle, has been present throughout the Road Trip, presenting alternate routes with a breadcrumb trail, a current and organic road map of where-I-am with more information than I personally can access. Poetry, for me, has been a mystical exchange, not unlike stumbling into directional post-its you find in your own handwriting that you don’t remember writing.

Four years ago, while the ink was still drying on the page, I reflected on the words from “Jagged Altar,” seeing for the first time my habit of tuning in to the frequency of fear and danger, when I could just as simply, although not without practice, tune in to an alternate frequency. The frequency of fullness.

Jagged Altar
Laury Browning,  Fall 2012
I come to the cleft of the rock
and it is sometimes craggy
a jagged altar
where I kneel, tender and contrite
passive and panicked
…and I wait
like the doe who disregards our 5 foot fence
as if she were stepping over a crack in the sidewalk…
who tentatively, fearfully
strains her sharply tuned ears to the frequency of danger
and I wonder when the time is right
to hop, skip and jump,
to steal treats, to fill my pockets
like that doe who steals our wild roses
to scale the 5 foot gate*
my mother mounted
to restrain me from reckless plunder and
defend the vast stockpile of supply
we couldn’t touch
only 20 steps from inaccessible fullness
I tiptoe to the cleft of the rock
to the jagged edge
to the center
with ears tuned to the frequency of fullness
where my restraint takes rest,
and then takes flight … and I jump.
There’s still so much room for happy

Copyright © 2016 Laury Boone Browning

*After this poem was written, I asked my mother the purpose of the locked gate just outside of my childhood room that had (mostly) deterred me from climbing down the stairs at night after bed. She reflected, "It just came with the house...?" My perception of that gate had always been that it was there to stop me from raiding the cookie jar or snack drawers, which after all, may have been more about me than the gate.

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