Holy Basil by Debra Levy

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but as I listened to the birdsong

by the window that day, I could feel my droplet

of silence swelling on the faucet

then dropping into the zinc basin of their serenity.

Billy Collins, “Quiet”

holy-basil-flowerDuring the day, my husband crawls under the bellies of aging A-10s, Vietnam-era flying machine guns now gliding into the twilight of warfare weaponry. He pulls these beasts apart, puts them back together. This, by no means, is quiet work. Out on the sun-baked flight line, trembling jammers deliver munitions, and loaders like my husband ratchet ammo into gun-bays and TER-racks, threading dummy rounds into the Gatling-like nose cannon. Under a gorgeous blue canopy, jets rumble down the runway, engines chewing and spitting out air. My husband wears double ear protection: neon-colored plugs of foam stuffed into his eardrums, and a set of hearing protectors clamped against his ears. Still, it’s noisy work. More than anyone else I know, he appreciates silence.

* * *

At home: barking dogs, mewing cats, the plinkity-plink my fingers make running over the keyboard—these are the sounds of my day. Sometimes, sitting at my desk, I hear the wind blowing through the trees, a car passing down the street, cicadas thrumming out the end of summer, and sometimes, just sometimes, the tinny hissing of my own ears.

There is always some noise. Even when the house is still, a frisson of amplified worry becomes white noise in my brain. I yearn for a silence that comes only in sleep, a tranquility that releases me from a day’s battle with a disease as catty as a false friend: OCD, obsessive-compulsive disorder.

* * *

Several years ago, we fell in love with a cottage near Lake Michigan. A beautiful Scandinavian chalet, its “selling” features included an indoor-outdoor fireplace and a massive wooden deck in the trees, with a large birch growing through the middle, so that standing there you had the feeling of being in a tree house. After the realtor had told us to make ourselves at home, we sat on the porch, sunlight streaming through the trees, dune grass and ferns blowing gently in the breeze, a deer nosing the wire fencing that divided the property from the distant neighbor’s. It was perfect, perfect. And then a car zoomed past on the asphalt highway fifty feet away, followed by another, and then another. Even though the road looked far away, the whining tires carried through the trees, penetrating our hoped for serenity. A few miles south was Silver Lake, a premiere location for dune buggies, and it wasn’t long before my husband picked out their gnat-like buzz and said, “That’s it, I can’t stand the noise.” We backed out of the deal.

* * *

Holy basil—Ocimum tenuifloru, or Ocimum sanctum, or tulasi—is an aromatic herb sometimes used in Ayurvedic medicine to calm the mind and elevate the spirit. In other words, it is prescribed for those who worry too much or who suffer from anxiety. An adaptogen—a substance with the ability to balance a physiological process, bringing the organism into homeostasis—holy basil is known to help people cope with stress.

Unlike the herb used in cooking, this particular basil is native throughout the Eastern tropics and grows as an erect, shrub-like plant with delicate green or purple stalks. Called the “elixir of life,” it is sometimes served as an herbal tea, or administered as a dried powder, or mixed with ghee (clarified butter). Sometimes the fresh leaves are served in cuisines or chewed for their medicinal efficacy.

* * *

Every so often my husband must undergo a hearing test as a requirement of his job. The other day he was telling me he had another evaluation coming up, and I couldn’t help it, I had to, I said, “Huh?” as if I were the one who couldn’t hear.

* * *

Obsessive-compulsive disorder is sometimes described as a hiccup, or loop, in the brain. Instead of thoughts moving smoothly one to the next, a person with OCD gets stuck on a “bad,” or threatening thought (the “obsession”) and uses rituals (“compulsions”), like checking to make sure stove knobs are all facing upwards in the “off” position a certain number of times, thus mollifying the fear, the what if?

What if? serves a writer’s imagination, leading her to wonder, and then to wander into the invented world of fiction. But the what if? of the OCD sufferer leads to another type of imagining: nagging thought of the real life hell should the what if? come to fruition. Also called the “doubting disease,” the person with OCD doesn’t trust her own senses, the bedrock of knowing. Because of doubt—because of a lack of trust (in herself)—she continues to check, or wash, or count.

Bad thoughts may concern death or dying, or causing harm to oneself or to others. (Concerning that last, I have been known to drive around the block once, if not several times, to make sure I haven’t laid a pedestrian flat in the road.) Above all, the person with OCD desires control of one’s thoughts, actions or rituals and by extension, and though utterly impossible, life itself.

A full-blown OCD episode is like a grating white noise in the brain, or a thousand-million cicadas thrumming in the trees, or a thought that’s thought over and over, enough already, with no pause for reflection.

* * *

At work, there are so many things my husband could worry about. Forgetting to put a tool back in the toolbox can cause mass-concern and a collective hunt for said item. And should said item still not be found, an FOD (foreign object damage) walk along the flight-line is mandatory. Errant screws, tools, rocks, even real birds sucked into a jet engine can wreak havoc on the million-dollar “birds.” A round of munitions can accidently fall out in mid-flight, as they have on very rare occasions. An overlooked internal problem can create a panic thousands of feet in the air.

On September 11, 2001, my husband went to work not knowing when he’d be allowed to return home. It was the first time his base had loaded live ammunition, and if asked, as a friend recently did, how that felt, he’ll tell you he wasn’t afraid. The friend wanted to know why.

“I mean, live bombs, right?” she said. “What if you dropped one?”

My husband was nonchalant. “That’s why we continually practice,” he said.

* * *

At home, what’s to fear?

My computer keys might stick; the computer might die; my printer might run out of ink; I might suddenly realize I’ve run out of paper to print on: simple but disturbing circumstances. But these things pale in comparison to dropping a live bomb. Truth is, I am kept company by two dogs and three cats, heat in winter, AC in summer, and the kind of silence my husband desires. Of course, I am also kept company by my OCD. “My worries.” What’s to fear, but fear itself? Fear of death and dying, of cancer, or the week’s disease d’jour. Fear of bringing harm to others. Fear of burning down the house. Fear of germs, mutant organisms, pandemic-causing microbes. Fear of melamine and other noxious additives in pet food; fear of similar pernicious additives in human-grade food and water.

A popular preacher says you draw to you that which you think and, hence, worry about. I worry about my worrying, worry what I’m doing to myself, what harm I might be inflicting. Of course, there are the rituals. I used to knock three times. Now I check and recheck. With OCD, there’s no such thing as checking, which would infer doing it only once. With OCD you recheck; and then recheck the recheck.

I am a rechecker.

And a hand-washer, which is actually beneficial considering the Center for Disease Control suggests washing one’s hands to help prevent communicable diseases. Although my hands are dry—I can scratch a line across my skin with a sharp fingernail—they’re not cracked. I wash often, but the intruding “bad thought” about uncleanliness (leading to thoughts of disease and, ultimately, death) vanishes after a few scrubs. In that way, I suppose, I’m lucky. Still, because the plastic bottles of soap in my bathroom drain down faster than my husband’s, I am now adding water.

Dilution extends, conceals.

* * *

In 2007, my husband spent six weeks in Balad, Iraq. The base was well protected. Like those Russian dolls that fit one inside the other, the compound was secured by a guarded perimeter, which was fortified by a smaller protected area, which was further protected by a concrete-reinforced and sandbagged bunker, which was where my husband worked. That bunker was miles from the perimeter. Nevertheless, when an Iraqi insurgent parked a car bomb at the front gate, the blast was strong enough to rattle my husband and his coworkers. One young soldier who was sitting in his chair, tilted back on two legs, was knocked to the floor.

Sometimes, when my husband and I are out in public, we’ll both hear a loud noise: an errant cup dropped and shattered, someone pulling out a chair that scratches a tile floor, a motorcycle streaking past. To me, these noises are nothing. Yet they get to my husband. I can see how his face is transfigured, his features twisting and contorting as if the sound itself were drilling into his brain.

* * *

If it worked, I would buy a shitload of holy basil. If it calmed my mind and elevated my spirit, I’d soak in a claw-footed tub filled with it, sip a strong tea brewed of its leaves, munch handfuls like wild oats.

* * *

My husband had one specification: the new vacation home had to be away from other houses. No neighbors, no screaming kids, no old clunker sitting in the neighbor’s driveway signaling a weekend tinkering project, no skateboards (he loathes the scratching sound of skateboard wheels on cement), no tire-screeching vehicles, no guns/ammo/fireworks shot off in the vicinity.

* * *

From the website You Have OCD’s article “50 Ways to Reduce OCD Symptoms”: “When a thought enters your mind think of it this way: your thought is like a bird in the sky, you can’t stop it from flying over your head but you can make sure it does not make a nest in your hair.” Lately, I like to imagine OCD clay pigeons. I see myself hefting a rifle, holding it steady, squinting one eye to focus, then picking my worries off, one by one.

* * *

He likes mountains, he says.

If he could live anywhere, it would be near the mountains. When I ask why mountains, he says because they’re there to be hiked. When I ask what’s so great about hiking, he says, “Silence.”

He says, “It’s just you and the mountain.”

* * *

If silence is serenity, at least for my husband, the kind of silence I live with when I’m alone is a private hell. Intrusive thoughts highjack an otherwise normal day and I’m hard-pressed to “get by” (whatever that means).

The other day, I walked out to the back of property to water the plants, dragging a hose along. I used my thumb to spray miniature sunflowers, dying flags, morning glories. And then I affixed the hose to the chain-link fence so a thick stream of cool water poured down on my one tomato plant. And then I walked away.

When I turned around, I saw that robins and wrens had gathered on the lawn, inching close to the water, to the wet earth. The temperatures of late had been stifling; the day before my neighbor had found a dead wren in her backyard, which we decided must have died from the heat. Now, with water pouring forth, the birds had their day, bathing in what was for them a kind of silence.

It was, shall I say, a comforting silence.

A few moments later, the birds took flight. I turned off the water and removed the hose from the fence, and it was then I looked down and saw I’d given the tomato plant too much water. I’d washed away the soil, laid bare the intricate root system, once again proving that too much of anything is too much, just as too much time alone, spent in silence, can easily wash away layers of sanity.

* * *

When we finally bought a cabin in the woods, the first night I yearned for sleep. We had worked all day moving in, unpacking, getting furniture exactly where we wanted it, hanging paintings on the walls. I was exhausted. I waited for sleep to slip in like some specter and draw me to the other side, but the room felt heavy, the silence oppressive. I had never experienced such stillness. The lyrics to that Herman’s Hermits song kept looping in my mind: There’s a kind of hush, all over the world tonight. Except the hush nagged at me. This, I thought, is surely the absence of noise my husband had wanted for so long.

But the more silence settled into me, the more I began to worry: What if? What if we’d forgotten to lock the door, what if the propane gas tank out back accidentally exploded, what if snakes were coiled under the window, or wedging themselves into crevices in the foundation? What if some malfeasant was out there lurking in the woods (earlier that evening when I’d swept dead moths off the front porch, their dusty wings streaking the teak wood, I was certain I’d smelled someone’s cigarette smoke)? I tossed and I turned. What if the mattress—which was not ours, the sellers had left it behind—was covered with tiny, invincible germs or bed bugs? What if my tumbling back and forth caused the mattress to squeak, waking my husband?

But the mattress didn’t make a sound. Beside me, my husband slumbered as one whose mind and body had been set free, and I envied him his serenity. On the floor, our old black lab snored. Between my husband and me, our little dog was stretched out, chasing rabbits in his doggie dreams. I held my third of the mattress and thought about holy basil and bombs, and death and dying, and tomatoes and robins and wrens, and mountains, and flying machine guns, and finally, finally, I was able to sight those familiar clay pigeons, all of them mocking me in their quietude, and this time when I took aim I shattered each and every one, dust unto dust—at least, until the sun came up.


debra-levyDebra Levy, who lives in the Midwest, writes essays and fiction, and has had both published in  journals and magazines. An animal-lover, she has a blog, C-Dog & Company. You can also follow her on Twitter: @122cats.



IMAGE CREDIT: Flickr Creative Commons/Thangaraj Kumaravel



  4 comments for “Holy Basil by Debra Levy

    • Thank you, Laura. What a great honor coming from a terrific poet and friend. (Laura has a new collection, CASTRATA, A CONVERSATION, soon to be published by Finishing Line Press.)

  1. So insightful of an essay! I love the weaving of the husband’s story in with the OCD story. Well done Debra! Thank you for teaching us all about a most difficult disease in such beautiful prose! And the dog in your photo is adorable!

    • Thank you so much, Cathy! And thanks, too, for commenting on my dog, Charlie, who is, I’m afraid, too familiar with the subject of OCD.

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