Sometimes writing what you know is the last thing you want to do, and the last thing people want to read. I’ll tack on a short story excerpt at the end of this, so feel free to skip to that if you’d like. The story is from an historical anthology coming out later this year, and is about PTSD (or shell-shock as it was called during WWI), which may or may not qualify as angst, but is probably close enough.
First, though, before the story excerpt, here's my write-what-you-know tale of angst, or something like it.
I’m not sure how different angst is from common anxiety—maybe an upscale, existential form. In any case, I have all too much of both for comfort. There are valid reasons for my anxiety, but when it extends into unrelated areas of life, becoming the default setting of one’s mood, I think we’re pretty much in angst territory. Situational angst, if that’s even a thing.
I’m not really that badly off, except when I’m semi-awake and it isn’t really quite morning and my defenses are down and I still need more sleep but worries both genuine and imagined get tangled together in dreams that feel too real. Daytimes, most of the time, I cope with whatever needs coping with, which right now means writing about angst.
In a stroke of serendipitous coincidence, I just came this bit of information in a local newspaper, a welcome aid to putting off getting personal:
“Research suggests that anxiety is at least partly temperamental. A recent study of 592 Rhesus monkeys found that some of them responded more anxiously than others and that as much as 30 per cent of early anxiety may be inherited. Yet what is inherited is the potential for anxiety, not anxiety itself.”
How can they tell that a trait like anxiety is inherited rather than learned unless they separate the youngsters from their parents? And wouldn’t doing so quite naturally cause anxiety? Well, never mind. Let’s not get anxious about those poor baby monkeys.
Back to the hereditary theory. My mother was always on the pessimistic side, apparently in the philosophical belief that it was better to expect the worst so that it wouldn’t take you by surprise. That’s not to say that she was always in a state of anxiety, but especially in her later years she went out of her way to find things to worry about. She’d answer my phone calls, even those she was expecting and knew to be on benign topics, with a lugubrious, “What’s wrong?” (I don’t ever recall telling her anything was wrong over the phone.) In her last several years, when her health was declining and there were real things to worry about, she accepted her own condition fairly calmly, but worried all the more about other family members and various other factors. When I semi-kidded her about some really far–fetched idea, she admitted it, but said with a bit of a laugh that worrying was her hobby. “What else do I have to occupy me?”
I have plenty to occupy me, but lately I find myself getting uptight with far-fetched (but not impossible) worries. If family or friends are traveling I’m on edge until I know they’re safely home. My granddaughter is the light of my life, but as soon as she was born I thought of her as another hostage of fate. I think my mother did, too. Well, if anxiety is hereditary, I hope we haven’t passed it on to that next generation.
I’m not obsessed with worries all the time, or if I am, it’s more of an undercurrent. I don’t have a real claim to angst. I’m sitting beside a swift mountain stream right now, enjoying my surroundings, pleased to have harvested at least two gallons of wild blueberries in the last three days, plus a bountiful crop of wild golden chanterelle mushrooms, one of the kinds you can find in Whole Foods, but mine are much fresher, and free.
Life is, on the whole, good. Even when death has to be taken into account. A week from next Saturday I’ll be taking my ninety-five-year-old father for a PETscan, one more test for what looks right now as probably, but not quite conclusively, lung cancer. He knows this. He’s still quite sharp, just a bit on the forgetful side. He tells doctors that I come with him because of his poor hearing, but we both know it’s just as much so that I can remember and keep track of what’s going on. It’s also because he isn’t driving any more, thank goodness!
I know how lucky I’ve been to be on good terms with my parents, and how remarkably lucky I’ve been for them to live so long. My mother made it to ninety-three. What we’re dealing with now usually happens to people far sooner, and is a natural phase of life. But it’s never easy. Uncertainties, tough decisions to be made, questions that can’t be fully answered. If he does have lung cancer, we have to think in terms of how much arduous treatment would be worth it, and what the prognosis would be with treatment or without it. If it turns out that he doesn’t have cancer, he still has recent and worsening breathing problems, even though his health in most other ways is remarkably good considering his age. He was heroic in taking care of my mother the last while before she had to be in a nursing home for care, and he visited her there every single day. (My brothers and I made sure one of us went with him three or four days a week.) But he has a horror of being in a nursing home situation himself. He has so far resisted living with me, an hour or so away from where he lives now and where I grew up, or at an assisted living place near me, but those options are open to him. He wants to stay in the home he shared with my mother, with friends nearby, his church, his twice-a-week bridge games at the senior center.
I want whatever is best for him. I worry about what is best for him. I’m the one he depends on, and however much I worry in those early morning hours when I need to sleep but can’t, and often in the earlier night hours when I’m first trying to get to sleep, I’ll cope with whatever needs coping with. Anxiety is a natural phase of life, too, a repeating one.
Now for the story excerpt. This will be in Through the Hourglass, one of the three anthologies I’ve been editing lately, and isn’t actually erotica, although I’m tempted to expand on it sometime in the future and include the steamy bits I know are there between the lines later in the piece.
Upstream the river riffled over stony outcroppings, but under the bridge it ran deep and clear. Reggie leaned over the wooden railing and stared down into those amber-green depths, willing herself to see only the great speckled trout balanced in perfect stillness against the current. An ordinary Midlands English stream, all green shadow and shimmering sunlight and blue reflected sky. Just a big fish. Yet she could not block out visions of bodies submerged in other streams flowing ever redder with blood through the ravaged countryside of France, until they reached the Somme. Even the songs of birds in flight, spilling over with rapture, warped in her mind into cries for help, help that could never be enough.
"Shell-shock," the doctors might say, but it scarcely mattered what one called it. Pure, searing grief, not war itself—though war would have been enough—had breached her defenses. Grief for Vic. For herself without Vic.
Reggie's hands tightened to the point of pain on the railing. By what right did England bask in such a May morning, calm and lovely, while over there artillery’s thunder still shook the fields, and men rotted in muddy trenches? How could she bear to stand idle in the midst of such peace when her place was over there, even…even with Vic gone? All the more with Vic gone.
But she must adjust, must let the peace of home heal her—not that anywhere felt like home now. Or ever could again, without Vic. If Reggie could prove herself recovered, not just from her physical injuries but those of the spirit--capable once more, normal, clear-minded--they just might send her back to the war. An experienced ambulance driver, strong as most men, skilled at repairing motorcars and field-dressing wounded men; here in pastoral England she was of no use, but over there she was desperately needed.
Reggie straightened abruptly, trying to focus on the tender green of new leaves, the glint of sunlight on the flitting gold and peacock blue of dragonflies. She shook herself like a retriever emerging from deep water.
The low, terse command froze her in mid shake.
“There’s a nest…” The voice came from below, less peremptory now, but Reggie’s mind raced. A machine gun nest? She fought the impulse to drop to the wooden planks of the bridge. Surely not gunners, not here. A nest of wasps?
“Sorry, I didn’t mean to startle you.” The speaker was almost whispering. “It’s just that swallows are nesting below you on the supports of the bridge, and I’ve been sketching them, but they get uneasy when you move so suddenly and might leave the eggs.”
A flush of fury heated Reggie’s face. Forced to the verge of panic by some silly schoolgirl! She bent over the wooden railing, an angry shout surging into her throat, and saw, first, a head of tousled light brown hair cut short about the ears. A schoolboy, then! All the worse! “WHAT do you bloody mean—“
The artist looked up. The remainder of Reggie’s words halted, burning like mustard gas in her mouth.
Not a boy. Not a child at all, though she might have been taken for one if it weren’t for tiny lines at the corners of mouth and eyes, and a certain look in those eyes that spoke of a share of pain in her life; rather like what Reggie saw in her own when she was careless enough to look in a mirror. Her hair was really no shorter than Vic’s pale curls had been in France, and Reggie’s own dark thatch had been cropped a good deal shorter then, a necessity in the filth and chaos of battlefields. She realized uneasily that it was about time she cut it again. Five months in hospital had left it just long enough to tie back in a straggly knot, which she would have hated if she had cared in the least about appearance these days.
“I really am terribly sorry,” the woman said. “I shouldn’t have startled you like that. I get too engrossed in what I’m working on; it’s my besetting sin. One of them, at any rate.” A flashing smile turned her rather ordinary face into something quite different, almost enchanting, in the elven manner of an illustration from a fairy tale. “You must be Lady Margaret’s cousin, and this is her bridge, so really you’ve much more right here than I. We’d heard you were spending the summer with her. I’m Emma Greening from downstream at Foxbanks.” She stood from her perch on a mossy rock and made as if to extend a hand, then realized that she couldn’t possibly reach up to where Reggie stood and withdrew it in some confusion. “Just a second and I’ll climb out of here with my gear.“
Reggie found her voice, or at least a version of it just barely suitable for the occasion. The hoarseness couldn’t be helped. Vic had claimed to quite like what being a little too slow to get her gas mask on had done to her tone.
“No, you can go on sketching. I was about to move along at any rate.” Emma Greening…what had Margaret said about her? Something, in all that chatter about the local population, something about being an artist, but Reggie had paid no attention to any of it. No one in this dull, placid, countryside mattered to her.
Now she wondered just how much Margaret had told the local population about her. Or how much Margaret herself understood.
“I should be going myself,” Emma said. “I can sketch swallows in my sleep—it was the bridge itself I wanted to catch in a certain light, and I think I have enough now to be going on with.” She packed her sketchbook and paint box into a satchel slung over her shoulder, and stepped from the rock onto the steep riverbank.
“Here, I’ll give you a hand with that.” Reggie heard the brusqueness in her own voice, and couldn’t quite erase the remnants of her angry frown, but found herself reaching down from the top of the riverbank without remembering how she’d got there. Emma’s sun-browned hand met hers in a firm grip, and she was up the slope so quickly and easily that it was clear she hadn’t needed any help at all.
“Thanks. I’ll be getting along now, and I do apologize for disturbing you.” Her smile now was merely polite.
This would be as good a time as ever to practice behaving normally, Reggie thought. Best to scotch any gossip about her being a bit odd. “Don’t leave on my account, Miss…Greening, is it? I’m Regina Lennox. Make that Reggie. Sketch here all you like. I’m the one who should apologize for being such a troll when you startled me.”
Emma’s smile flashed brilliantly again. “A troll? How funny that you’d say that! This is indeed a perfect troll bridge, which is why I was sketching it, for a book I’m illustrating. A children’s story, the one with the three goats.”
“Trip, trap, trip, trap over the bridge?”
“That’s the one,” Emma confirmed. “For now I wanted to get the bridge itself, rustic and charming, with the swallows, and that wren darting in and out of the bittersweet vines on the other side—she must have a nest there—and the clump of purple orchis just where the bridge meets the bank. All lovely and peaceful before the goats or troll appear. A lull before the storm sort of thing.”
“So the troll got here prematurely.” There was something comfortably familiar about the conversation.
Emma tilted her head, surveying Reggie with mock seriousness. “No, I wouldn’t cast you as the troll, exactly. In any case, I was the one below the bridge, or nearly so, so I’m a better candidate for trolldom.” She leaned her head the other way with a frown of concentration belied by a twitching at the corners of her mouth. “I see you more as the biggest Billy Goat Gruff, stern, shaggy, putting up with no nonsense from any troll.”
“Certainly shaggy…” Reggie stopped short. Memory hit her like an icy blast. Vic used to tease her, rumpling her hair when it got shaggy and needed cutting, calling her a troll—often followed by, ‘Well, get on with it, you slouch, kiss me if you’re going to!’ She felt her face freeze into grim stillness, bracing against the familiar onslaught of grief.
Emma stepped back. “Sorry again,” she said, sounding embarrassed. “I have such a bad habit of blurting outrageous things without thinking.”
“It’s not you,” Reggie got out, but no more words would come.
“I really should be going now, anyhow.” Emma said quickly. “I’ll just leave you in peace. I expect we’ll run across each other in the village from time to time.”
Reggie watched in silence as Emma picked up the bicycle lying beside the lane, settled her art supplies in the canvas panniers at the back, mounted it, and rode away. Her divided skirt revealed a brief glimpse of quite nice lisle-stockinged calves above sturdy boots—and a smudge of moss stain where she’d been sitting on the rock.
So much for behaving normally! Reggie’s spasm of grief was subsiding, and she wished she could call Emma back, but the bicycle had disappeared around a bend edged with dense shrubbery. And what could she have said? “I froze up because you reminded me of someone.” Which wasn’t even true. Emma didn’t particularly resemble Vic. It was more the light, pleasant conversation, the brief exchange of banter…
Ah. That was it. Just as the rehabilitation counselor had said, but Reggie had resisted. Guilt. Survivor’s guilt, they called it. Why should she be the one to survive? How could she deserve, or accept, even the least bit of pleasure?
Well, she had enjoyed herself, if only for a few minutes. Maybe that was a sign of healing. She rubbed her hands across her eyes, then turned back to the bridge. A swallow darted under the arch, and a second bird took flight from the nest on the wooden underpinnings while the first took over hatching duty. On the far side a wren darted in and out between clusters of tiny white flowers on a trailing tangle of vines—bittersweet, Emma had called it. A small butterfly speckled like polished tortoiseshell flitted between masses of ferns on the upper bank. Emma would probably know what it was called.
It occurred to Reggie that this side of the bridge was the farthest she’d been from Margaret’s house since she’d come here, and also that it must be close to time for lunch. A quick sound in the water and a spreading ring of ripples showed that the trout concurred, and had snatched a mayfly from the surface.
She went back across the bridge, pausing to look down into the water. Only when she was well along the lane did she realize that her mind had played no tricks this time, and she’d seen only the river, and the fish, and reflections of a swallow in flight.