A Calming Ritual
As a child, I often sat at a cardboard table across from my mom and put together jigsaw puzzles. She scanned the pieces with her eyes, picked one up and clicked it right into place. I picked up any piece that looked plausible and tried it everywhere. She was slow, steady and observant. I was quick and desperate. But over time, I learned from her how to seek patterns, match shapes, see nuances of color, and work toward a rewarding, smooth, final scene.
These times with my mother passed calmly and quietly, our fingers sometimes brushing as we reached for the same piece or handed the other a piece we thought she might need. If one of my brothers joined us, we endured their presence until they gave up and walked away, which they eventually did.
I still enjoy puzzles. My husband can’t sit still long enough to help. My children, not comprehending my fascination, approach puzzles more like my brothers. So, I often puzzle alone. When I do, I step outside of myself and become the pieces. I become the pine tree, the little red house, the lone cloud in the sky. I shed my identity and drop into other worlds. Without this regular dip into freedom, I am susceptible to becoming attached to the various identities I take on in the world.
An Identity Crisis
Ten years ago, this is what happened. One day, I had an important identity. And the next day I didn’t.
One day, I had work that I enjoyed. I had emails to answer, calls to return, and a to-do list filled with what my ego called very important tasks. My work was my social life, my vocation, my calling, my sacred purpose on this planet. My work provided me with essentialness.
And then the next day, I had none of that.
True, I chose to walk away. But when ordinary business partner conflicts become strikingly unordinary and mature discourse gives way to multi-pronged personal attacks, someone has to leave. It wasn’t going to be my partner, so I decided it would be me.
With my identity gone, I felt as if it took all of me down with it. I disappeared, not just from the business, but from the world. My phone never rang. My email, no matter how many times I hit refresh, delivered nothing valuable. My to-do list was blank, my life was a black void.
And in the blackness appeared an old acquaintance: anxiety.
Any of us who have ever felt anxiety—whether chronically or even occasionally—know that it is a body-hijacking bitch. Anxiety takes our breath away. It hammers at our heart. It pumps up our adrenals until our bodies rush with enough adrenaline to run from a bear or lift a car. But when there is no bear to run from or car to lift, what then?
My body freezes. My voice shakes. My eyes well up. My body temperature fluctuates erratically. I can’t feel my legs. I can’t enjoy. I can’t relax (I know they mean well, but I hate it when people tell me to try and relax).
Anxiety is not only a bodily sensation. It is a rambling, incoherent blabbermouth. It says, “Pace the floor.” “Hide!” “Tap, tap, tap your foot.” It asks, “What if?” “What then?” “But how?”
I tried reasoning with my anxiety:
“It’s going to be all right, Anxiety. Everything will work out, you’ll see,” I said.
“But what if you never find anything else to care about? What if this was your last chance for a life that mattered? What if…? No, stay busy, moving, doing something, anything, something.”
So I picked weeds, paced to the back yard, picked weeds, walked into the house, out the front door and began again.
“You’re going to exhaust me, Anxiety. And look, there are hardly any weeds left. We have to stop this.”
“Fix something broken,” Anxiety muttered inconsolably. “Change lightbulbs. Shop. Cook. Pace. Control. Repeat.”
“Anxiety? What’s happening now? Talk to me.” I sat immobile on the coach. No more weeds, no more pacing, no more energy.
“I can’t move.”
“Anxiety, this isn’t reasonable,” I tried. “Let’s dance, walk, run…anything.”
“Can’t feel anything, Keri. I’m numb.”
I hadn’t yet accepted how incompatible anxiety and reason are.
Piece by Piece
Ironically (and probably karmically) the identity I lost was that of a yoga teacher. Not just a teacher of physical postures, but of self-care, healing, and the search for greater meaning and truth. In my role, I talked about the importance of not becoming attached to our earthly identities. “Labels cannot define us, because we exist beyond definitions,” I would say.
But when I suddenly lost my own identity, I could only chuckle bitterly at my advice. My pain blinded me from seeing anyone’s hand reaching out. It deafened me to any words of compassion. My pain, allowed to grow, would soon begin to define me.
I knew this. I didn’t want to become my pain.
I pulled down a puzzle from a cabinet. I dumped a thousand tiny pieces onto my dining room table. It was a staggering mound of a mess.
Just like my life.
I took a breath and started partnering edge pieces. Partners of pieces soon began to connect with other couples. The couples began to connect to one another until I formed an outline. An outline that reminded me of a boundary.
Yes, that was what I needed! Boundaries! I needed to create a safe space. I needed my husband to do the grocery shopping for a while so I wouldn’t have to run into anyone who would feel more comfortable if I pretended to be fine. I needed to carry a book at all times so I could hide behind it when needed—even though that earned me the label of “bitch” once or twice. Well, I thought, my healthy snark returning, at least I had an identity again.
Next, I collected all the red pieces. Red, to represent my anger. I snapped them together into one ruby red representation of rage. As the pieces of anger connected on the table, I felt pieces of rage connect and build within my body. Inside the safety of my boundaries, I screamed and ranted and stomped until I was spent. Afterwards, I felt a little better. Look Anxiety! The anger cannot now eat us alive.
I turned my attention to orange, the color of my creativity. Without an identity and its associated expected behaviors, I was free to try anything I wanted. I drew pictures. I painted. And I studied astronomy to remind myself how small and insignificant my problems are in the whole of creation. As the orange pieces came together on the table, creativity began coursing through my veins once again. Look here, Anxiety! We may be small in the universe, but we can participate in the very act of creation!
Then, it was yellow’s turn. As I pieced together yellows and golds into rays of sunshine, I began rediscovering my own inner light. See here, Anxiety! This pain cannot last forever.
And it didn’t.
Because as I organized the pieces, I organized my thoughts.
As I made sense of a corner of the puzzle, I made sense of a corner of my life.
As I began to see clarity on the table before me, clarity began to appear in my life.
And I realized that every piece of my life has a place in the final picture. Even the black pieces that, until the very end, don’t seem to fit anywhere at all.