I knew a girl who sucked her thumb. It was oddly charming at first, this twentysomething, collegiate Library Dweller plopping a thumb in her mouth as she tapped a busy pencil against the table with her free hand. If you passed by her quickly you’d think she was eating a lollipop. It wasn’t until I sat across from her one afternoon, giving my eyes a break from the miniscule font of a massive Literature Bible, that I realized the hilarity of her: a pseudo adult mindlessly soothing herself with a toddler’s time-tested trick.
Later, I befriended a boy who had a strange way of easing his nerves. Within a few days of meeting we met for coffee. As I settled into my chair, he flattened his palms against the shiny tabletop and (without warning or reasonable explanation) began stretching. Not a quick pop of the neck or a roll of the ankle, his moves were elaborate and grunt-inducing. He was prim and reserved in a trendy, European-cut suit. He was arching and hiking each knee towards his chest like a runner preparing for the biggest race. After three movie nights, two lunch dates, and a trip to the zoo, I couldn’t tolerate his warm-up routine one minute longer. “Why? Why? and WHY?!?, ” I begged for an answer. He was puzzled until I provided him a sturdy comparison. “Starbucks. Me. Turning cartwheels across the countertop. You’d wonder.”
He braided his fingers, reaching his intertwined hands toward the ceiling. Realizing (maybe for the first time in his life) the absurdity in his behavior, he sheepishly lowered his arms and chewed on his lip to help him think. ” I guess. I don’t know. I guess, it calms me down?,” he was as puzzled as the rest of the coffee shop crowd. Oddly enough, I felt his answer was sufficient. Different stretches for different folks. We are still friends; he still has the most flexible elbows I’ve ever seen.
So when I found myself sputtering, broken down by last week’s end, I searched for comfort. Relatives in hospitals, heart stints, pop-up storms of infant fury, writer’s block, and a dog who’s moved from chewing doors to chewing fences left me anxious and searching for a control in this experiment on madness.
From TV and college libraries and therapy sessions and words on the street, I know the list of Ways People Chill Out is never-ending. There are the well-documented stories of girls eating toilet paper and chalk for relief. I ate a cracker. I heard of a man found peace through running. I did crunches as Baby climbed my belly like a sweaty Kilimanjaro. I wondered if there wasn’t something to the thumb-sucking legend of libraries past, so I gave it a go. I felt such tension inside of me, such a whirl of frustration and exhaustion that I spit my thumb out with the worry that I could gnaw it to the bone.
By Friday I had depleted every Stress Relief Reserve. I suppose it was then, when I stopped thinking, that I naturally found a personal security blanket.
And I cleaned.
I rushed through tables and floors, couch cushions and window panes. My house sparkled. The normally overwhelming stink of boy odor gave way to citrus-spiked polish. The baby’s clothes were laundered and folded, washed again to remove the most resilient poop stains. The house was crisp and folded in perfect angles, fluffed and smoothed, washed and wiped.
It wasn’t enough.
I drove to Nashville, failing to pack a toothbrush but piling bags of disinfectant and a Swiffer WetJet in the car for good measure. With a focus that I’ve never witnessed, I cleaned across counties and city limits. My sister joined me. Without stopping for many words we fell into the comfortable act of fixing something. We cleaned a home that didn’t belong to either one of us because it was an act of good in a current state of bad. The scrubbing became a Mission Statement of sorts: To dust for malnourished orphans. To sweep for victims of criminals. To scrub for those poor dolphins in China. To iron for the fussy child. To alphabetize the freezer for dogs addicted to fences. To lint-roll the couch for family.
I realized halfway through our deep clean that I felt a satisfaction I hadn’t been able to find the whole week through. As I tried to sleep that night, I awoke several times with the urge to give the shower stall another good swipe or the stubborn dishes another good sponge. I’ve found myself a peculiarly calming habit. This comes from the girl who scoffs at the pearl-wearing housewives who “bake with faith”. It turns out she cleans with it.
At three o’clock I sat in bed with the unshakeable image of a baby kicking up in the middle of the night. He doesn’t want to stretch. Sometimes his thumb won’t do the trick. He is just searching for a little soul-easing reminder that the night is dark but safe, and he can rest.
What calms your nerves, thumb-suckers?