When my sister was in kindergarten, she read an issue of Highlights about dust mites. At the time, the two of us shared not only a bedroom, but a double bed. And after she read that stuff about dust mites living in your sheets, she refused to get between them. I remember her curling up on the rag rug between the mattress and the window, and I almost remember my dad picking her up and depositing her into her side of the bed once she’d fallen asleep and could no longer protest.
I also remember being secretly terrified of the dust mites article myself, but refusing to admit it. Once Amy had made such a scene, I couldn’t tell anyone that I, too, couldn’t fall asleep because I was imagining little insects crawling over my skin, munching on sloughed off scales. My sister curled up on the rug. I lay prone in the bed, tracing prickles across my skin.
Around this same time, I started having nightmares about heaven.
Not nightmares, exactly. I never actually fell asleep. I just lay there thinking. I knew heaven was supposed to be great, and I would go there because Jesus loved me, but I also knew that if there were no evil, there would be no conflict to advance the plot of books, and therefore there might not be any books, and if there were no books in heaven, I was not entirely confident that I wanted to go there at all, not for an eternity with no books (though I also suspected that my disinclination was a Sin). So I lay on my side of the bed and tried to imagine a less specific glory: something more like an overwhelming light. If I shut my eyes tight enough, I could picture a ribbon of gold shooting through the Milky Way, a little like the Rainbow Road in Mario Kart—only it went on and on in one direction.
The trouble was, though, that when I tried to imagine the stream of gold going on forever, my head would begin to thrum. Everything between my ears felt simultaneously liquid and empty, and my heart started pounding. Sometimes, if I imagined time as a giant oval—a track we went round and round—I could calm myself a bit, but the thought of staying forever in that disembodied nowhere made me a little sick. I think my dad came in to sit with me some of those nights, so I must have been scared enough to say something. But the fear never went away—I just started thinking about the dust mites instead.
This turned out to be a lifelong strategy for dealing with existential anxieties. Just think about something else. Just immerse yourself in whatever is most immediate. Identify a smaller fear on which to fixate all your mental energies. Last week, I spontaneously woke up at 4:37 a.m. to check my email for the time slot I’d signed up to teach in the winter semester, because somewhere in REM I realized I might have a conflict with a graduate course I want to take. Most nights I toss and turn while half-baking lesson plan ideas. A lot of nights, I lay there repeating I’m so tired, I’m so tired, and testing my to-do list against a generalized foreboding: I have identified many, many smaller fears.
I have wondered if this is just a fact of getting older, that I have set aside questions of transcendence and terror for the more pressing questions about scheduling and laundry management. I have wondered if getting older is just my excuse. I have wondered if my attention to what is holds greater value to my attention to what might be, on the other side of the sun. I have wondered if there is any use in returning to that half-dream, shutting my eyes tight and imagining the golden stream of light.
I have wondered why it still unsettles me so.
I have wondered, too, why I mostly just lay there, silent, imagining dust mites prickling across my skin, while my sister wrapped her nightgown around her knees on the floor. I gritted my teeth and waited for her to fall asleep and be returned to the bed, for me to likewise lose consciousness and forget I was afraid. It seems I have always tried to muscle through what scares me—even, or especially, that incomprehensible eternal glory to which we hope all things tend.
Katie is a doctoral student in English and education at the University of Michigan. She loves the New York Times crossword puzzle, advice columns, oceans, and dogs of all kinds.