Review by Melissa Oliveira
When I first picked up Suzanne Farrell Smith’s latest book, Small Off Things: Meditations from an Anxious Mind (Littoral Books, March 2023) I thought it might be a memoir about anxiety, the title seeming to suggest how an anxious mind can leave one fighting a fast-moving barrage of tiny, off-kilter thoughts. The subtitle also sounded a little tongue-in-cheek; in my own decades-long experience managing an anxiety disorder, I’ve often found that “meditations” and “an anxious mind” tend to be locked in a fight to the death. “Meditations” implies the kind of slow, calm, measured thinking that anxiety loves to sabotage with fear and adrenaline. As a practice, meditation itself is always said to be a balm for the anxious mind, which all sounds completely reasonable until you’re in the grip. So, if meditations in writing are long and leisurely, what would meditations from an anxious mind look or sound like?
In Smith’s book, these meditations turn out to be brief personal essays. They run the gamut in terms of subject — life and death, being a daughter and being a mother, love and travel — jumping around in the chronology of Smith’s life. Still, they reveal the quality of deep, sustained reflection you’d expect in much longer essays, but with compression and precision. While each essay is a “small thing” itself — most are no more than a handful of pages long — they also often seem to be concerned with things that are physically small.
The thirty essays comprising Smith’s collection are divided into five sections, starting with “A Constant State of Emergency,” then moving through “Unwanted Thoughts and Repeated Behaviors,” “Unexpected Episodes of Fear” and “Excessive Self-Consciousness” and ending the volume with a section called “Exaggerated Worry and Tension.” These section headings guide the reader through what sounds like a list of symptoms or perhaps indications of an anxious state of mind. But they also invite the reader to think on themes and or larger observations. A very brief, powerful essay called “Nothing Is Different When My Mother Dies,” for example, lands in the section on unwanted thoughts and talks about the endless forward march of household tasks after her mother’s death alongside observations about death in the wider world. “Nothing is different now,” Smith writes. “Cancer cells still multiply in bodies everywhere. Stenosis squeezes spines… Everywhere, always, newborns and grandmothers fail to thrive.” Nothing has changed: life habits continue, the world goes on. Yet everything has changed.
In the section on constant states of emergency, tiny things are the reason for sustained panic. In “The Pearl,” Smith recalls the time she pushed a pearl from a piece of costume jewelry deep into her ear canal as a child. It’s so deep, her mother can’t see it with a flashlight; over the years, Smith herself begins to doubt her own memory and the pearl’s existence. Only years later is the pearl discovered during a checkup. Smith writes, “But inside my ear canal, skin cells welcomed the foreign body, and over time, created a thin protective tissue covering, a cocoon, for the pearl.” It’s the act of cutting it out that results in a variety of painful ear conditions as well as hearing impairment. In the same section, Smith’s twin babies, born prematurely and weighing less than three pounds each, survive their first week of life in the NICU. Elsewhere, teeth are pulled, eardrums are punctured, and baby steps are made by a child who has trouble walking.
The effect of all these small essays is like a mosaic of tiles making up a larger image of a life. As I read Small Off Things, I was so engaged by each short essay on its own terms. Still, I found that it was the longer “States of Permanence and Impermanence” that moved me the most. Many of these essays deal intimately with bodies: prematurely born and elderly bodies, as well as their eardrums and mucus, their teeth, limbs and bones. In this essay, Smith talks about the process of rounding out her child’s flat head, during which he’s fitted for a custom helmet. Observing the foam that will be used, Smith admits, “Aside from high-school chemistry class, I’ve never given foam much thought.” But, as she says earlier in the essay, “Foam isn’t a substance so much as a state of being.” The attention to the porous, impermanent material works beautifully to illustrate both the delicate work of rounding out her son’s still-malleable head before it settles into its permanent shape, and also the impermanence of life.
With this interplay of permanence and impermanence in these essays, there’s always so much to worry about. Still, I was amazed at the lyrical pieces Smith forms out of all the moments of anxiety residing here. Even though they move quickly, they dip into some heavy material, reminding me a little of Beth Ann Fennelly’s book of micro-essays, Heating and Cooling. Still, the small objects and instances in Small Off Things are only small in the most tangible of ways: tiny, lost items or the littlest of children or brief vignettes of travel or domestic life or fleeting feelings. There’s always some aspect of life gone sideways in tough, surprising and often beautiful ways, making Small Off Things: Meditations from an Anxious Mind a pleasure to read.