Out of the Anxiety Box

A shattered person.

A shattered person. Mark Riechers/Midjourney (TTBOOK)

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Original Air Date: 
March 25, 2023

You're not even out of bed and you're already worrying. So let's talk about it: How anxious we are, how we got that way, and what to do about it.

A man with anxiety

Patricia Pearson, author of of "A Brief History of Anxiety...Yours and Mine," discusses why she thinks Americans are so anxious.

Picking up leaves on a leisurely hike.
Dangerous Ideas

Our lives have never been more optimized to save us time. But is it all time well spent? Maybe it’s time to embrace inefficiency, argues typewriter collector and philosopher Richard Polt.

Digital projector

Eliza Smith is the CEO and cofounder of Cosmic Standard, a podcast company. She also has a new podcast in the works – based on fear. She tells Anne Strainchamps that horror stories help her manage and work through her anxiety.

Natalie Merchant

Singer Natalie Merchant rediscovered poetry in the company of her young daughter. Why does she love the poems by Victorian and early 20th century poets?


Robert Rand was working as a Senior Editor at NPR when he was crippled by panic attacks. He cured himself by taking up zydeco dancing.


Show Details 📻
March 25, 2023
December 30, 2023
Full Transcript 📄

- It's To The Best of Our Knowledge, I'm Anne Strainchamps. If there's one state of mind, everyone in America knows it's anxiety, the highest reported mental health issue in the country. I could quote statistics here before a quick snapshot of our national mood. Just go to Amazon. Search under Anxiety in books, there is an entire universe there. Anxiety workbooks, anxiety journals, anxiety relief, coloring books, books about anxiety for teens, moms, seniors, three year olds, books of anti-anxiety diets, affirmations, prayers, mindfulness practices, shamanic techniques, neuroscience, CBT. Most of us who read these books, including me, are probably also taking some kind of medication, going to therapy, exercising. Sometimes that helps, sometimes it doesn't. Breathe. Sometimes during the day I realize I'm holding my breath. What kind of person has to remember to breathe? Well, evidently there are a lot of us. So anxiety comes in a thousand different shapes and forms. And when you live long enough, you get to know yours and what works or doesn't. And over the years we have done any number of interviews on this show about anxiety, and I've learned a lot from them in this hour with anxiety and numbers rising. I thought maybe we should share a few with you. Beginning with Patricia Pearson, author of a Brief History of Anxiety, years ago, she told me why she thinks Americans in particular are so anxious.

- I think the reason for that has to do with the higher degree of what you might call militant individualism in the United States compared to certain other cultures. So where you have that sort of high level of isolation, that sense that everything rises and falls on your own shoulders, that you have to have material aspirations, those kinds of things will provoke a much higher level of anxiety than even in countries where there are more fear making experiences. So for instance, in Mexico where some of the drug guys are actually sowing their rivals heads onto soccer balls and other frightening things going on around them, Mexicans have a much lower level of anxiety because they're buffered by certain factors. They're buffered by persistence of rituals that they engage in by faith, by the constancy of their faith, by the uniformity and tightness of their community. So those kinds of factors will buffer what anxiety you would be having in those cultures.

- What nations are amongst the least anxious in the world?

- Well, oddly enough, China has one of the lowest levels of anxiety. Nigeria has a really low level of anxiety. So this was all done. The World Health Organization did a cross-cultural investigation into levels of anxiety.

- Boy, you know, we think of both of those countries as having some of the worst living conditions in the world. Why would anxiety levels be less? You'd think they'd be higher.

- Well, for instance, in China there's a somewhat different formulation of selfhood. So you're living in a very collective society. Chinese children are brought up to be less self-monitoring of their emotions. Their parents aren't saying to them all the time, how are you feeling? And there's some interesting research on this actually comparing Chinese and American children. So they're not actually paying as much attention to their personal angst as opposed to perhaps their sort of collective concerns.

- Hmm. I'm also thinking about your definition of anxiety as fear in search of a cause. Do you think that Americans simply have too much time to think we're overthinking our entire lives and this makes us more prone to anxiety?

- I think it's not so much time to think as too many options. There's too many roots you can take. There are too many lovers that you can have. There's an overwhelming amount of possibility and within that freedom you become very anxious because there's no sense of certainty.

- Hmm. You also write very movingly about your own personal experiences of anxiety. Let's talk some about your own history. What are some of your very earliest memories of experiencing extreme levels of anxiety?

- I had lived in New Delhi, India during the, the war that broke out briefly between India and Pakistan. And we were subjected to nightly blackouts because the Pakistani air force might bomb Delhi. And that began for me an intense fear of the darkness. A fear that I had to somehow be vigilant and try to control the night and keep my family safe. And then that displaced because when I moved back to Canada, I actually forgot where the source of that anxiety had come from and just became fearful that there were serial killers outside my house. And I see this with my daughter now. She does the same thing. These levels of fear that embed in you in childhood shift and shape shift as you get older and you, you can't remember any more of the origins. And then I think I was pretty much fine for many years. I had very structured childhood and a very structured adolescence and I think that helped a lot. I was in boarding school, we had to wear uniforms, there was a lot of ritual. We went to church every Sunday. So it really wasn't actually until I was in college that I had my first full-blown experience of really coming to a halt where I was basically paralyzed with anxiety.

- Now you had a second kind of breakdown years later while you were working as a field producer for a TV show about true crime. Did that breakdown have anything to do with the subject you were immersed in?

- Yeah, but I was quite careless of the impact on me. And so I would go to prisons, I would talk to murderers, I would cover a very, very difficult trials. And I think there was a cumulative toxic effect. I think this happens quite often to police officers and certainly to juries where I wouldn't call it post traumatic stress disorder because I'm not convinced that that is a viable diagnosis, but it was more almost like a kind of cumulative intoxication of my psyche so that I became quite suspicious of people around me and began to find it difficult to discern who was good and who was evil. And again, that sort of brought me to a bit of a halt.

- And again, did you cure yourself?

- That time? I think I briefly, for about two weeks went on something called Luvox, but then I discovered I was pregnant with my daughter. And so all of that period of despair and dismay and apprehensiveness resolved into the creation of this new life and became very positive.

- By now, we've created a kind of culture in which many people simply to get by, need to take antidepressants. You've been there, done that and decided that you didn't wanna live the rest of your life on antidepressants, but found that it was actually quite hard to get off them.

- It can be very difficult to get off them. I think any of your listeners will agree with me on that point, it depends on the one, but there's a couple that are particularly difficult to get off of, really. I'd known people who had to go down to trying to withdraw one granule at a time from these capsules. And often it's just not worth it, I mean, it just becomes so complicated and time consuming and emotionally difficult that people will put it off because they can still afford, you know, the monthly prescription. There's not quite enough of an incentive to do it. So you'll find that people are on on them for 10 years, 15 years. What I decided that was bothersome to me was that I had lost some capacity for joy. So not only had I lost my sorrow, but I'd also lost my joy and I wanted it back.

- Hmm. Was a bargain you were not willing to make the flattening effect wasn't something you wanted to live with?

- Yeah, that's right. And I think that there are factors that can buffer us so that even though I'm wired to be an anxious person, there's ways in which I can keep that in check that don't require medication. And so that's what I've been really trying to do.

- What non-medical ways have you found that do work for diminishing anxiety?

- Some of them are really obvious and practical, like exercise, I'm a bit lazy, but I know that it makes a difference, particularly for me swimming. So I don't know whether it's the sensuality of the water as well as the exercise, but that helps a great deal. Probably the most profound factor I think is in actually surrendering to the idea of a higher narrative that if you can reconstruct the meaning of your life according to ideas of fate and of God and of faith, even though to me that's still somewhat alien because I'm from such a secular childhood and background, but I am beginning to recognize that understanding myself in terms of things being meant to happen the way they happen or not helps me, it helps me a lot.

- Of course, we live in such a secular age, that kind of faith is perhaps harder for people to come by today than it used to be.

- There's so much research on the positive mental health effects of faith on the positive physical health effects of faith. So to just attack it purely on the grounds that we have problems with doctrine and fundamentalist ideology is, is a shame in a way because I think many of us could benefit from it.

- You have a lovely and kind of intriguing passage near the end of the book when you write a bit about a church you go to, actually I was gonna ask if you could read a bit from that section.

- Sure. "There is a church down the street from my house, a pretty little church with a diminutive congregation struggling to stay afloat in our culturally mixed downtown neighborhood. The priest wafts too much incense about and makes too many baffling references to the parable of job in the fig tree. I come home and practice the language announcing to my husband Ambrose and Lo, I checked the phone messages that you have not checked since Friday. And behold you have a message from the marketing director at A&P groceries that you must have returned for they are on deadline and you have not completed your cheese label task. I relish the idiocy and I'm fully prepared to get used to it for I have been idiotic all my life, an utter fool believing that the man I loved and lived with would honor me, expecting my employers to cherish my work, hoping that highlighting violence would make it comprehensible rather than toxic, fearing cows and bills. How is any of that, any of our present secular experience in this time of profound social transition, less intrinsically foolish than praying ritually as one does in the church or the temple or mosque, for the health of one's family and friends for the community and the nation and the planet? I offer a modern update on Pascal's wager in the late 17th century. The French scientist Blaise Pascal lamenting that greater faith could be placed in reason if reason were only reasonable, encouraged his colleagues and friends to make a bet, wager he said that there is a God for what if you got to lose if there isn't. My version is somewhat different, dare to be irrational because guess what? You already are and wager that your life has a purpose, a meaning, an overarching story. And imagine within yourself a light or spark or Lord that will show you the way."

- Patricia Pearson's brief history of anxiety first came out in 2008. It was the basis for an award-winning TV documentary called Age of Anxiety, and a new audiobook version came out in 2021. One thing I learned from her is that a good anti-anxiety medicine could be whatever brings you joy. For me, that's biking, a handful of favorite children's books and the sound of Natalie Merchant's voice. ♪ The man in the wilderness. ♪ ♪ He asked of me. ♪

- We'll hear my interview with her later, but coming up treating anxiety with scary movies, I know counterintuitive, right? but for some people a jump scare can be kind of soothing. I'm Anne Strainchamps. And this is To The Best of Our Knowledge from Wisconsin Public Radio and PRX. Welcome to America where you can have meal kits delivered pre chopped. Listen to your podcast on double speed and learn a language while walking your dog. But now that we've optimized ourselves into a state of quivering anxiety, maybe it's finally time to embrace inefficiency. Here's typewriter collector and philosopher Richard Polt.

- It seems to me that our whole culture is about maximizing efficiency.

- Hello there. This is your conversa phone instructor who will teach you the essentials of touch typing quickly and efficiently.

- Let's get to the end by the fastest and most effective means. We certainly need that. I mean, we need fuel efficient cars, we need to generate energy efficiency and so on. But if this becomes the dominant paradigm in your life, I think that meaning will actually be drained out of your life.

- Ready? F B M. Space.

- So as a typewriter collector, I know that Remington typewriters motto was to save time is to lengthen life. And in the 19th century, typewriters were a means to do that. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that actually that motto is wrong. Because the more time you save, the more time you waste because you're doing things that are only a means to an end. You're rushing faster and faster, but you're not taking the time to savor things. So consider the difference between buying some fast food and as the slow food movement recommends cooking a meal from scratch, maybe with ingredients that you've grown yourself or taking the interstate by the fastest route versus riding a bike and maybe taking an hour to get to your destination. There's downloading a song and enjoying it or there's actually learning to play an instrument and learning to play a song. There's pointing your smartphone at a scene and snapping a picture or there's dwelling there and sketching the scene, taking an hour to actually make a drawing of it. Or there's writing by word processor versus typing by typewriter. Of course, in many situations you wanna do the efficient thing, but it's the inefficient thing that's actually more enjoyable. And when you dig deeper, I think it's more than just inefficient. It's what I like to call self-sufficient. It's an end in itself. It's not something that you're doing simply to get to something else. And the best things in life are the things that are inefficient and self-sufficient, like playing ball with your friends or savoring a glass of wine or kissing somebody. The faster you do it, the worse it is.

- Learning touch typing is really quite easy.

- To waste Time is to deepen life, that's my motto.

- And it's story time.

- So I'm about six years old and I really want to tell a story, I have a story in my head.

- This is Eliza Smith and here's a story she told her mother.

- So it's this group of people at this manor house in the middle of the English countryside and it's totally dark at night, it's storming, they're having a great time, the fire's roaring, they're warm, they're cozy, and someone knocks at the door and interrupts their conversation and their laughter and everything gets really quiet because who could be coming to the door at this time of night? The host goes to the door and he opens it and there's no one on the porch. The drive is totally empty, there's no carriage there, there's nothing. And he's about to shut the door. And he looks down at the ground and at his feet there's this small drawstring bag and it's velvety purple with gold drawstrings. And he picks it up and he opens it and inside the bag is totally dark. And it's not just dark, it's like he's looking into a hole in the ground that goes on forever. It's like he's been locked inside of a bunker and there's no light and he can't see his hand in front of his face. It's a darkness that has infinite depth. And as he's staring into this bag, Two eyes appear glowing in the darkness and then a set of glowing sharp teeth also appears in this bag. And that's where the story ends.

- That's where it ends?

- That's where it ends, I as a kid, I didn't really know how to like figure out, okay, rising tension, climax of the story we need for it to end. But I remember my mom kind of looking at me like, Hey, this is a cool scene. And she said, let's call it The Pouch. And so we called it The Pouch together.

- Okay, The Pouch was Eliza Smith's first horror story, but definitely not the last. She's a big fan of slow footsteps, creaky doors, and curdling screams, it's hard to find a scary book she hasn't read or movie she hasn't watched. So you might say horror consumes her life. Eliza would say horror saves it and a word of caution. Some content in this interview may be difficult for some listeners who struggle with mental illness.

- I just felt this like insatiable need for fear and it didn't really start making sense to me until I started having symptoms of anxiety after a really big trauma happened in my life, when I was 16, something clicked into place and it felt like I had created a therapeutic device for myself. Something, a therapist of mine once said, you're adding tools to your toolkit to help you when you have a panic attack. It was almost like I'd been stockpiling all of these tools so that when it happened I'd be ready to face it and I'd have the tools to face it.

- Wow, okay. I wanna roll back just a little bit 'cause first of all that's hard for me to understand, but yeah, let's go back. When was your first serious mental health episode?

- So I know I had a panic attack or you know, a handful of panic attacks in high school. But my first really bad one episode, I was in my sophomore year of university and I stopped sleeping, I couldn't get to sleep, I'd hit the pillow and my mind would just go a thousand miles per hour. And then I started having what I didn't understand what they were, but every day I would feel like there was fire coursing through my veins all the time and my heart was going a million miles a minute and I felt like I was constantly in a cold sweat and I was terrified all the time.

- So what does your fear feel like for you and are there patterns to when and how it hits?

- A panic attack usually starts with a thought. For me, my breath starts to speed up. Then over the last few, I'd say in the last 10 years, I've started having what are called dissociative episodes. And so if my anxiety gets to a really bad place and I can't catch it and I can't go to the gym for example, or do a meditation or pet my cat or hold my husband's hand, I will go into a dissociative state, which means that all of a sudden I don't know where I am, I don't know who I am, I don't know who's in the room with me and I don't know if I'll ever be okay again. It's kind of like you're at the end of a long hallway, a really, really, really, really, really dark hallway and you're on one end and you can see reality on the other end. It's like a little pin prick of light, but there's this huge space of darkness in between you and reality.

- Thinking back to that story you wrote as a six year old, the pouch filled with endless darkness and the monster in there. Do you think that's your illness?

- Yeah, I do. And I think that when I was a kid I didn't know what it was, but I do remember as a child having days where I remember one day where I started crying and I couldn't stop. And I remember as a kid just having these extreme swells of emotion and not being able to really handle them and my parents not necessarily knowing what to do with them and they only got worse as I got older. And so yeah, I think my little brain was able to intuit somehow what was gonna come.

- So one of the items in that toolkit you've developed is horror movies, which just seems totally counterintuitive. Tell me how horror movies helped you actually watch them when you're having a panic attack?

- Yes, a hundred percent. So whenever I'm having a dissociative episode, one of the first things that Jacob is my husband, one of the first things that Jacob will do is say, okay, let's turn on the TV. We have this voice activated thing on our remote and he says, show me free horror movies and we'll pick one and then we'll just put it on and I'll watch. And then basically what happens is I'll watch a horror movie and I'll be afraid. I do get really scared of horror movies and that's really important.

- Why is that important?

- Because The horror movie helps me simulate the fear that I'm feeling during my panic attack in a controlled environment. And the controlled environment is completely make believe, right? The controlled environment is the plot of the movie and the supernatural entity that's attacking everybody. I only watch horror movies when I'm freaking out. I'll only watch horror movies that have a supernatural element so that it feels even more controlled because then it can't possibly be real. So basically I go through and I experience these extreme swells of emotion while I'm watching the movie and they match the feelings of anxiety that I'm having.

- And why does that help?

- Because it's cathartic. One of the things that I've learned from my therapist is that anxiety is basically a blanket that you throw over an emotion that you don't wanna have. And so generally if I start to have a panic attack, it's because there's an emotion that my body is kind of protecting me from. So I'll have a panic attack that will give me sort of like a huge distraction or the numbness that I need to take me away from feeling the actual emotion. Let's say it's sadness. But my therapist has always told me that the most important thing you can do is to feel a feeling instead of feel the anxiety and really very, very, very, very intensely. So if I watch a horror film, I'm able to feel those feelings like fear, which is the pure anxiety. Once I feel the pure anxiety and I'm okay with it, then I can start to feel whatever emotion is underneath. And because I'm doing it in the context of a film, it feels a lot more manageable. It's this sort of safe space where I can feel the fear and keep going.

- Wow. Can you give me an example? I mean like walk me through, was there a recent episode and what was the film you saw and then what was the, what was the process as the film went along?

- Recently we went down to Los Angeles to do some work and to see family. And I always get a little anxious around big family trips. I think everybody does, even though I have a really great, awesome relationship with my dad and my stepmom, it was just gonna be a really busy weekend and I could feel my anxiety start to creep up. So on our first night we decided that instead of staying home we would go out and we would see IT: Chapter Two. And what I love about the current IT franchise is that it's like a rollercoaster ride through every disgusting image you could ever possibly want all rolled into one. It's not super scary, but it's really fast paced and it's really, really gross and it's really, really visceral. So we went to the arc light in Culver City and we were just sitting there, you know, front row having so much fun. It was like you went up the lift hill and then it dropped you and we were going through and by the end of it I was able to say, "Hey, I feel so much better. I'm totally ready to tackle this week, let's do it." It was like going to a yoga class but 10 times better 'cause I had this sort of endorphin high afterwards.

- Wow.

- Yeah, I just, I like things that that make my heart race 'cause my heart's always racing.

- Eliza Smith is the CEO and co-founder of Cosmic Standard, a podcast company. She also has a new podcast in the works based on fear. Coming up. What do you think? Could you dance your way out of anxiety? How an overworked overstressed journalist two stepped away his panic attacks? I'm Anne Strainchamps. And this is To The Best of Our Knowledge from Wisconsin Public Radio and PRX, there are a few voices in the world that can shift my mood from anxious to happy and the time it takes to change a chord, Natalie Merchants is one of them. Our time in Eden. The last CD she recorded with 10,000 maniacs is in my top five musical antidepressants. ♪ Maggie and Milly and Molly and May ♪ ♪ Went down to the beach one day. ♪

- Music is medicine. Whether we think about it that way or not. For instance, when I'm feeling burned out on stress, Natalie Merchant's solo album Leave Your Sleep is one of my favorite restoratives, partly because of her voice and partly I think because it's based on classic Victorian children's poetry, verses by Edward Leer, Christina Rossi. Robert Lewis Stevenson. I was lucky enough to talk with her in studio when the album came out back in 2010. She had her young daughter with her. And if you listen carefully, you just might hear the sound of crayons in the background.

- You wanna draw in the studio in that desk right there?

- Yes.

- Okay, okay. As long as you're quiet. We're practicing whispering.

- How old is she now?

- She's seven, but she had, she had her little paper and her crayons right underneath my microphone. So now she's moved onto the floor.

- Well she's been part of this project from the beginning, hasn't she? You write in the introduction that these songs are part of a long conversation you've had with her during the whole first six years of her life.

- Well, throughout the research period for the making of this project, I would read poetry or recite poetry or nursery rhymes and lullabies, whatever to my daughter. And then as the songs were developing, as I was adapting them to music, she was always in the room. So they became part of her childhood and part of her upbringing, her introduction to language and to poetry and to culture history. ♪ For whatever we lose. ♪ ♪ like a you or a me ♪ ♪ It's always ourselves we find in the sea ♪

- It's maybe a kind of motley, eclectic poetry collection you've put together here. And yet there's something that holds it all together. How would you describe the kind of through line of the poems?

- I tried to choose poems that had strong archetypes in them, especially archetypes of childhood, whether it was the circus or giants or witches or the man in the wilderness representing the boogeyman. And then in addition to that I had to address different sort of classic themes of childhood. And I think abandonment is one fear of not being loved, desire to be loved. Loss of innocence was another theme that I wanted to cover because these were stages my daughter was going through in her own childhood.

- Yeah, it's interesting how many poems that are ostensibly written for children have these dark under notes. And for example, the very first song in the collection, Nursery Rhyme of Innocence and Experience.

- By Charles Cosley.

- Tell us something about that one that's, that's such a beautiful song.

- Well, it, although it was written by Charles Cosley who didn't die until 2003, so pretty contemporary, it reads like a ballad from another period and it discuss a, a sea journey of a sailor and a little boy who asked him to bring him back gifts, treasures from the sea. ♪ I had a silver penny ♪ ♪ And an apricot tree ♪ ♪ And I said to the sailor ♪ ♪ On the white quay ♪ ♪ Sailor O sailor ♪ ♪ Will you bring me ♪ ♪ If I give you my penny ♪ ♪ And my apricot tree ♪ ♪ 'A fez from Algeria ♪ ♪ An Arab drum to beat ♪ ♪ A little gilt sword ♪

- Sailor becomes caught up in a war of some sort, some sort of battle and is killed and never returns.

- The end of that song is sort of chilling, you know, the boy keeps waiting for the sailor and the last line's "where the other girls and boys and why have you brought me children's toys."

- With the things that the child desired three years later, he has no use for 'cause he's passed through his childhood. ♪ O where are the other ♪ ♪ Girls and boys? ♪ ♪ And why have you brought me ♪ ♪ Children's toys?' ♪ ♪ Brought me Children's toys. ♪

- And before long he'll be old enough to go to war himself.

- True.

- But don't you think that's true of a lot of these poems that they can seem innocent and childlike on the surface, but there are these minor notes or discordant images lurking underneath.

- That's why I chose many of them because I think childhood is like that. I think there's great fear and trepidation and deep concerns that children have that lie under the surface. And we sometimes don't acknowledge or we try to jolly them out of, and people warn me, when you have a child, you're going to re-experience many of the things from your own childhood. And that's happening now.

- For instance,

- I mean, just for instance, I remember my first trip to Washington DC where we are right now, I was in third grade and I had an intense affection for Thomas Jefferson and I remember my heart swelling when I stood at the base of his statue in the memorial. And yesterday we went because my daughter has the same kind of feelings for Abraham Lincoln because he's, she's in first grade, there's a large exhibition with the American History Museum about him. And we went to see a stove top cap and they had the actual wedge that he used when he was a log splitter. And it was going along really well until we reached the hoods from the hangings of the conspirators and the surgical tools used to remove the bullets and, and I've really kept that part of the story out. And then we had to have a long conversation about, about things I didn't really want to talk about, but that's, their landmines and it was painful, really painful.

- So speaking of some of the other kind of dark themes, there's another, one of my favorite songs in this collection is The Man in the Wilderness. ♪ The Man in the Wilderness. ♪ ♪ He asked of me ♪

- You mentioned that's a kind of archetypal figure.

- Definitely the boogeyman. ♪ How many? ♪

- He's a pretty mild one. All he he's doing is asking riddles. But to me that was really confounding and frightening as a.

- Really. Why is that?

- There would be a man who would ask me questions that there really were no answers to. And I think the lack of detail about him, he's nothing but the man in the wilderness.

- Just a voice.

- So I would always just see the shadowy figure in the trees, which I grew up in the forest, so I didn't need any extra ammunition. ♪ The man in the wilderness ♪ ♪ ask me to tell ♪ ♪ all the sand in the sea and count and I counted them well. ♪ ♪ He said he with a grin, "And not one more?" ♪ ♪ I answered him, "Now you go make sure." ♪

- In the intro you write that setting some of these problems to music, kind of let you get inside them, let you uncover some of their deeper meanings or maybe figure out some of the secrets of their construction.

- Yeah, because of repetition, you know, it's not that often that I choose a poem and then repeat it over and over and over and then try to really understand it's rhythmic scheme.

- Is there an example that comes to mind of a poem that you really thought about differently once you went through that process?

- Well I, I like to use the example of If No One Ever Marries Me, which is the Alma-Tadema poem. You know, if no one ever marries me, I chant mine very much. I'll buy a squirrel and a cage and a little rabbit hutch. And if no one ever marries me, what's the last line about the I'll buy myself a little orphan girl and bring her up as mine. ♪ If no one ever marries me, ♪ ♪ And I don't see why they should, ♪ ♪ Nurse says I'm not pretty, ♪ ♪ And you know I'm seldom good ♪ ♪ Seldom good ♪

- I liked it, especially because it was written by an 18 year old Victorian girl from England, I ended up at first writing a, a melody and a tune that was very lighthearted. And I realized that wasn't exactly what I wanted the poem to reflect because I felt there was a melancholy in it and a sense of resignation and regret. And it became a mournful country ballot. ♪ If no one marries me ♪ ♪ Well if no one marries me ♪

- And then when you investigated, you discovered, in fact she did never marry?

- No, she didn't marry. She lived in the company of her books and her dear friends and her sister and, and maybe it was a bit revolutionary for her to choose not to marry, I don't know though. It's not enough information. ♪ When I'm really getting older ♪ ♪ At twenty-eight or nine ♪ ♪ Buy myself a little orphan girl ♪ ♪ And bring her up as mine ♪ ♪ If no one marries me ♪

- We've talked about a lot of the, the songs with the darker sort of underbellies, but there are also an equal number of songs that are just pure fun and especially just such verbal fun. What is it you love so much about nonsense verse?

- I love the free association and the surreal imagery and just the joy of the language. Sometimes I feel these poets weren't writing with any meaning in mind. They were just enjoying the sheer delight of the sounds of these words coming out of their mouths. You know, capital ship for an ocean trip. Its a walloping window blind. You can just see this rollicking motion happening through the language. ♪ Composed of sand was that favored land, ♪ ♪ And trimmed with cinnamon straws, ♪ ♪ And pink and blue was the pleasing hue ♪ ♪ Of the Tickletoeteaser's claws. ♪ ♪ And we sat on the edge of a sandy ledge ♪ ♪ And shot at the whistling bee, ♪ ♪ And the Binnacle-bats wore water-proof hats ♪ ♪ As they danced in the sounding sea. ♪

- I wanted to ask you about the title, Leave Your Sleep. And I know it comes from a mother goose rhyme. It's one I used to read to my children, but I was thinking that Leave Your Sleep can have, well there's so many different kinds of sleep, aren't there?

- I felt that it could apply to the poets who have been slumbering in libraries and archives and books. It could be about the poetry that they wrote that has been sort of relegated to silent shelving. It could be encouraging the people who listen to the record to awaken their senses and awaken their sensibilities to the poetry and the music. One of the disc is called Leave Your Sleep. And the other one is called Leave Your Supper. And so that there might be more things about life that are more valuable at times than sustenance, which is kind of the way that I operate when I'm in my creative process. There's not a lot of sleeping or eating going on. So it has so many different meanings.

- Well, I hope it's not the end of the project.

- No, I'm about to go on tour. It's really interesting 'cause now I'm taking the songs to a new place. I'm learning how to move to them and we project images of the poets and I talk about them and people have really been enjoying it. I've had people tell me if this is the way poetry had been introduced to me as a kid, I would've probably read it.

- Wow, a one woman campaign for the pleasures of reading poetry. Poetry, sales are gonna go through the roof.

- I don't think so, but it seems like a worthy pursuit to just try to awaken people to something that I've been awoken to. I think that's the best you can do. ♪ The sun has gone from the shining skies, ♪ ♪ The dandelions have closed their eyes, ♪

- I would put Natalie Merchant right at the top of any anti-anxiety Spotify playlist, especially the music from Leave Your Sleep. ♪ The bees, they nest in a hive instead ♪ ♪ But my baby's nest is her little bed ♪

- Sometimes anxiety just starts and feels like it's not gonna leave. Take for example, the story of Robert Rand. He was a senior editor at NPRs All Things Considered when one day just out of the blue, in the middle of an editorial meeting, he had a panic attack. It turned out to be the first of many. He developed a crippling anxiety disorder. And then one day a psychiatrist in Washington DC asked him a simple question.

- "When was the last time you had fun?" And the question shook me. And I realized that the last time I had fun, real fun was when I was living in Russia and I went to a party and I danced. So I realized I had to insert fun into my life. And one of the ways, probably the most efficient way for me to have fun was to go back onto the dance floor.

- The dancing you went onto the dance floor to learn how to do was Cajun dancing. What's Cajun dancing like?

- Cajun dancing is a joyous, joyful kind of dance. The music itself I found to be liberating. It just enthralled me when I heard the strains of a Cajun jitterbug, which is a fast kind of Cajun dance tomb. It just took me away.

- Take me back to the first Cajun dance you learned. What was that like?

- The first Cajun dance that I learned is probably the simplest of Cajun dances. It's called the Two Step. It consists of two steps to the left and two steps to the right. And as you do those two steps to the left and those two steps to the right, you do it in sort of a step together, step, touch, step together, step touch motion. And as you're step together, step touching, you bend at the knees so that there's a gyrating up and down, a subtle up and down movement to the dance.

- So it doesn't sound that complicated.

- Well, it doesn't sound that complicated as I explain it to you now, but I tell you that when I learned it as a novice to the dance floor, it was really difficult. It was a process of learning how to think and dance at the same time, and this simple step together, step touch choreography, I found my brain really kind of didn't want to deal with it after a while. Like anything else, the more you practice, the better you get at it, the more confidence you have and the more fun you have. My dance teacher, a woman named Coco Glass, told me that you really know that you've become a good dancer when something called Muscle memory kicks in, where those step together step touch movements aren't being generated from your brain, they're being generated automatically by your body. And your body doesn't worry about which way it's gonna move. It just moves. And it moves because it's under the influence of that wonderful, wonderful music.

- Do you remember a moment when dancing just suddenly clicked for you? When it all came together and suddenly you weren't thinking about it, you were just having fun and doing it?

- There were several moments, but one that I can recall in particular was when I went to Zydeco dance. Zydeco music is even more energetic and mind freeing than Cajun music. And I was, I was at a Zydeco dance at a club in Washington DC and I was dancing with Courtney Glass, with Coco Glass, my dance teacher. And we were in the middle of a dance and we started to whirl around. We were spinning to the music and we spun and we spun and we spun, and all of a sudden outta nowhere, I let out a huge Yelp, a huge woo, something like that. And for me to do that, for me to do that was a revolutionary development. 'Cause I was raised to be a very serious and modest, quiet individual. And this thing called Cajun and this thing called Zydeco dancing absolutely transformed me. It put me onto a different planet.

- What is it about Cajun dancing and Zydeco dancing in particular do you think that can give people that feeling of joyousness?

- I think it's a combination of three things. And I've thought a lot about this because after I began to feel a lot better as a result of my dancing, I wondered what was it about Cajun and Zydeco dance and music that beat back my panic disorder. And I actually did a little bit of research about it. And I think it's a combination of three elements. It's the music itself, which is happy and fast paced and exhilarating. Add to that, the movement, scientists have found that people who are suffering from depression, for instance, can feel better if they exercise. While Zydeco dancing is certainly exercise a night of Zydeco dancing has been described to me as if you're running a 10K race. And then the third element is socialization. Scientists again have found that people suffering from cancer will do much better if they're part of a social network. And when I took to the dance floor, I made dozens and dozens of new friends, which is also a revolutionary development for me because I'd been fairly isolated in the way I lived my life.

- You know, there's a fourth element you could add love because you write in the book that you just fell in love with zydeco music.

- I think I fell in love with Zydeco music because it saved me. Cajun music and Cajun dance helped to make me feel better. Zydeco music and Zydeco dance absolutely cured me. It put me over the edge. The music is exhilarating. It's exciting. It's driven by an accordion, it's driven by a rub board. It's mesmerizing. Often musical phrases repeat themselves over and over again. It's a musical mantra and it totally takes over your mind. And because it made me feel so much better and on its face, it was so joyous, I fell in love with it. And I also met my wife's Zydeco dancing, which was an extra reason to love the music. And dance.

- That's former NPR editor Robert Rand. To the best of our knowledge is made each week by a tiny team of audio producers, Charles Monroe Kane, Shannon Henry Cliber, Angelo Bautista, Mark Rickers, Joe Harkey, Sarah Hopeful, Steve Paulson and me, Anne Strainchamps. Thanks to all our guests today and to you for listening. Be well and come back on.

Last modified: 
December 21, 2023