As I was dog-sitting for my parents, I found myself contemplating my own mortality. Their house has four bedrooms, an office, a train room, a creepy storage area, a garage, a craft room, and eight closets for potential murderers/robbers/scoundrels of generally evil intent to lurk in…and that doesn’t even account for the four beds available to be hidden under and countless ill-lit corners where small and creative villains could take shelter behind the piles of books, unwrapped Christmas presents, and yarn that make me fear my mother’s potential future as a hoarder. And let’s not even talk about the haunted floorboard of my parents bedroom that has never failed to keep me awake when the house isn’t full of people. Or the freaking garage lights that I keep forgetting are on a timer and therefore make me certain that someone has turned them out the better to sneak up on me.
There’s a memelet circulating on Pinterest that says something to the effect of: “Those of you who check the closets for murderers, if you actually find one, what’s your plan?” My reaction to this is: wouldn’t you like to know? That’s the kind of question that only a serial killer would ask. Sheesh. Obviously, you don’t spend hours thinking about all the places someone could hide in a house without also thinking about how you would deal with the situation if you did find someone. No, I will not tell you my plan (see above re: my paranoia and the nature of people who ask such questions), but I will tell you this: I spend a lot of time thinking about things like this, so why risk the possibility that my plans are actually practical and brilliant?
There’s a peculiar aspect to my anxiety that might possibly border on being diagnosably problematic, which is that I’m irritatingly convinced the nature of my worry (i.e., what I worry about and how I frame that worry) has an actual impact on the karmic balance of the world. I say “irritatingly” because the rational part of my brain does remind me quite often that there’s not really any conclusive evidence to suggest that that’s true…and also that my worrying logic is spiraling and absurdist.
Take death. I remember vividly a dream about being tied to a kitchen chair in my parents’ house, covered in spiders, and frantically trying to convince my parents that we needed to put out the fire that was slowly growing from a little flame into a roaring blaze while my mother made pickle cake for my Girl Scouts troop. I sometimes wonder if dreams like that are in some small way foretelling my own death…improbable as it may seem that my mother will be baking a pickle cake in a burning house while I die of spider bites, I can’t light a candle in my parents’ house without wondering if this is the flame that will make that fear of the burning house come true. (The spiders were a lot less terrifying than the fire, or more to the point, my parents’ utter lack of concern for the fire–that’s another theme with me, worrying that other people aren’t worried enough about things that worry me.)
Here’s how the death logic goes: I think it’s not very likely that I’ll die as predicted by a dream, because there are many, many ways to die. Then I start thinking about all of the ways I might die and start to get a bit loopy from the immensity of ways the universe is willing to help me shuffle off the ol’ mortal coil. It makes me feel like the reason that death is inevitable is because it’s utterly impossible to worry away each and every possible cause of death. Then I get thinking that I’ve already damned myself from ever having a pleasant, peaceful, boring death because there has to be a limit to how many ways there are to die pleasantly and I’ve probably already worried about them. And then I can’t decide whether it’s a good thing or not that my last thought will probably be, “Huh. I actually didn’t see that one coming.”
Then it occurs to me that plenty people die of boring things all the time, and the human race can’t possibly be so universally boring that all of these people failed to worry about dying of old age at some point in their lives early enough to make a difference. Death is everywhere. It’s impossible to get away with. The first day I spent really working in our house, half of what I was doing was clearly out corpses. Tiny, exoskeletal corpses, but dead bodies all the same. In New England, the roads are constantly speckled by the corpses of animals who might have spent more time worrying about death by tire tread. Even my mother has a picture on her wall of three carrion birds circling a white house. She bought it because she likes birds and rather disagrees with my morbid interpretation, but the black wings in their downward spiral are unmistakable, and I can’t look at that picture and see anything but the smallness of this pale human structure surrounded by the harbingers of death as a metaphor for how small and fragile a time we’re given to build something of worth before death snuffs out our candles whether we worried away the possibility of being stabbed while dog-sitting or not. So how could anyone possibly reach a death by old age without having worried at least once about dying in their sleep?
Then it occurs to me that it might be that the death we worry most about is the one that will claim us, and that thought is just awful because it’s like playing The Game. (I lose.) If you tell someone that they must avoid thinking about the way they would least like to die because thinking about it will ensure that as the method of their death, the only way to know what you shouldn’t think about is to think about it first, and like the only bits of Miss American Pie that everyone knows, there’s no getting rid of the thought once it crosses your mental threshold of awareness.
Just to recap the logic here: you’re damned if you try to worry and damned if you don’t. The only solution to this conundrum is to worry about worrying, to which the logical answer is, “Stop worrying, it’s useless.” My brain’s response to this is almost always, “Oh, and I suppose you don’t want me to think about elephants either now.”
All I can say is that it’s a good thing that John and I bought a house with only five closets.