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Posts Tagged ‘fear’

lip and eye

It starts here.

9pm, heading home from pub trivia at a busy spot near my office. Down on the metro platform, the orange line train pulls in. Only six stops to my station. I’ll be walking the dog by 9:30.

The doors slide open onto a car bubbling with chatter. Summer in DC, the weekend lasts all week. Between nuzzling couples and clusters of young people, a few wilted office drones slouch and sleep. I take one of the few unoccupied seats. Bar hoppers stream out around me.

 

Manspreading.

He takes up a row. Briefcase on its side next to the window, legs splayed, foot halfway into the aisle. As I settle into a corner perpendicular across the car, he catches my eye. I ignore him, pull out my journal and start writing.

The sensation a prickle, a tiny persistent sting against scalp and skin.

He’s still looking.

(more…)

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corn shucking.jpg

He  drops his backpack by the door and heads out. Whether the temperature hovers at freezing or rises to a swelter, he and his friends find each other. Sometimes I block the way and steer him back to his violin for a round of scales. The neighborhood kids bang on the door every three minutes, “Is he done yet?” They loop around the breezeway on bikes and scooters. A few come up barely past my knee. A few are already shaving. When he’s free, they all charge off down the hill, hollering ever-changing rules to an ever-evolving game that winds through this labyrinth of stairwells and parking lots.

I shut the door and head to the kitchen to rinse out the lunch containers.

Divorced at 37 and still single at 43, parenting a surly tween, stuck in the suburbs, jammed into a 5-story development abutting a freeway, and working a desk job for a paycheck that barely covers groceries while a white supremacist and a Russian oligarch run the White House.

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dore dark forest

Someone is pooping in my neighborhood.  On the edge of the path that connects the playground to the AT&T parking lot, a pile of black feces swarms with silver-winged flies.  They are doing the important work.  All around the heap of waste are scattered thick restaurant napkins, crushed, stained with smears.  Someone squatted right here.  Right where our kiddos play.  Not in the brambles, not behind a tree, but right here.  When he (because I assume it’s a he, who else would be so bold?) finished, he left his tissue all over the ground.  The garbage can is 20 paces away, and there is another at each corner of the park.  (more…)

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It is the same path she’s always followed. It’s grown so familiar she can walk it in her sleep. Most days, she does.

Then one December day, slipping into the groove is more of a stumble. Cold seeps under her cuffs. With the sun so far, the chill has no escape, not up or out, so it stays. The fall turns her neck. Looking up now, she sees how deep the trench, how far the sky.

She remembers the open place up there. Unmapped, daunting, the choices had radiated out in all directions. Wearing this furrow into the uneven terrain had seemed the most reasonable way to proceed.

No doubt someone told her then that ambiguity’s promise eclipses certainty’s price. Only now can she grasp what was lost in the exchange.

With damp walls at her hands and back, she presses in. She begins the climb.

It’s a strange thing about the human mind that, despite its capacity and its abundant freedom, its default is to function in a repeating pattern. It watches the moon and the planets, the days and seasons, the cycle of life and death all going around in an endless loop, and unconsciously, believing itself to be nature, the mind echoes these cycles. Its thoughts go in loops, repeating patterns established so long ago we often can’t remember their origin, or why they ever made sense to us. And even when these loops fail over and over again to bring us to a desirable place, even while they entrap us, and make us feel anciently tired of ourselves, and we sense that sticking to their well-worn path means we’ll miss contact with the truth every single time, we still find it nearly impossible to resist them. We call these patterns of thought our “nature” and resign ourselves to being governed by them as if they are the result of a force outside of us, the way that the seas are governed — rather absurdly, when one thinks about it — by a distant and otherwise irrelevant moon.

And yet it is unquestionably within our power to break the loop; to “violate” what presents itself as our nature by choosing to think — and to see, and act — in a different way. It may require enormous effort and focus. And yet for the most part it isn’t laziness that stops us from breaking these loops, it’s fear. In a sense, one could say that fear is the otherwise irrelevant moon that we allow to govern the far larger nature of our minds.


 Novelist Nicole Krauss responding to Vincent van Gogh’s 1884 letter to his brother.

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Soap Bubble

He squeezes his eyes against the suds and grabs for a dry cloth. His hair is long again, melting down his neck and licking at his shoulders. He glows like cherry wood. Cross-legged and bare as he is with his hair slicked back, he is small. Almost like a girl. Like a picture of me gleaming up from an old album.

He rubs his eyes and they redden. His lip trembles now. The soap was patsy. A more formidable foe flicks through the shallows.

“I don’t want to go to sleepaway camp,” he murmurs. And with that, his whole body collapses into sobs.

What ensues is a conversation, gentle questions, analogies about basketball, acknowledgment of feelings. Words, words and more words. I perch on my knees, a thin bathmat meager protection from the sturdiness of the tile. I lean in and let the easy expression settle across my features. A smile, beaming almost. A gaze, open as petals. I remember very little from The Art of Listening, but this stays with me: Approval, Delight, Respect. A hypnotist’s voice in a bedtime cadence carries the blood-deep lyrics of reassurance across the foam. Yes, and Yes.

He cries some more then talks. Pouting, furrowed, but he talks.

My hand inside the sage green cloth weaves between and under the words. I dip it into the water, stroke it along his shoulder. Dip it into the water, trace his ear. Dip it into the water, outline his cheek.

After he has dried off and brushed teeth, he climbs onto the bed and worms up under my shoulder. His sunburned cheeks are an electric pulse under the damp straw and silk. He giggles and crawls on top of me. Laughing now throaty and wild, his need gives way to a different sort of crying: “Cuddle, cuddle, cuddle!” He whoops and burrows into my ribs. He has grown to twice his size, unfolding like a sponge drunk in the surf.

 

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Follow the The Things I Can Adventure

Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can,
And the wisdom to know the difference.

I was at a Dead show the first time I heard it. 16 years old. A circle formed at the edge of the stadium’s corridor during the drums-and-space jam. Undeterred by the revved-up traffic and whirling skirts, that circle was a solid, swaying knot. All twenty or so human links weaved in and around each other. I heard the voices in unison and asked a woman dancing nearby what they were saying. “Serenity Prayer,” she said. She repeated it for me.

Was it an invocation? Some kind of magic spell? It must have been if it managed to help a bunch of folks in recovery navigate the rainbow pharmacopeia that trailed the band in its transcontinental wanderings. Somewhere along the way, I memorized that prayer without intending to. It is now such a part of my cultural vocabulary that it’s as firmly planted as the opening of the Gettysburg Address and the entirety of Frost’s “Two Roads Diverged.” In fact, it barely registers anymore.

How deep do these lines run? Do they stay safely entombed or do they erode? It has to be a matter of practice.

Sometimes, it’s a matter of the right trigger.

I am standing in front of the mirror in a bathroom at work putting away my toothbrush, and I catch a glimpse of myself. The image is strange, raw, and dimensional in a way that a reflection should never be. I wonder if anyone else passes through these disorienting moments. One stays with me from when I was 10 years old. In the restroom at school in a dark rectangle of glass, I saw — really saw — the pre-teen girl who inhabits my story. Never had I encountered anyone so eerily familiar and unfamiliar at the same time. Even through the haze of 3 decades, the memory is so clear, it’s like looking at a photograph.

Today, I blink at the middle-aged woman there and I’m floored by how striking she is. The year is still fresh, and her life is as big and messy as ever. On this bitter January day, the kid is home with Grandma. The dog is curled up in a patch of sun. Outside her office door, students wait with nerves jangling and questions firing. The day has been tough — it always is — and she’s been striding the corridors of her building, hopping in and out of meetings, sorting out projects. She stumbles and reaches. She risks. She chokes. She learns.

I know with startling certainty that she is powerful beyond measure.

Of course, she is a trick of angles and light. She seems solid there because she is standing right here.

This is when the Serenity Prayer comes roaring into my ears.

The things I cannot change. The things I can.

The difference.

The words roll through me. On their heels come unfixed wishes, urgent questions. Of the many needs that motivate me — finances, fitness, art, relationships, my son’s well-being — what is within my control? What isn’t?

All day, situations I can’t anticipate spring up from the earth or tumble down from the branches above. It’s a surprise every time. A jumble of thoughts and feelings determine my response, and I’m usually at the reaction point — avoidance or recoil — before I even register what got me there. Fear can feel like an actual physical lash, tightening around my chest, constricting breath and vision and eventually freedom of movement. When I slow the tape down enough to identify the frames, they say something like This is too big for me, or I don’t have what it takes, or I don’t have time. The crushing sense of despair intensifies. I feel overwhelmed, tight, tired, frightened. I call the task a “challenge” or an “opportunity,” and try to will myself to face it. The fact is, I’m half a mile past the point where I judged it to be large and unwieldy, and shouldered it anyway. I experience it as a burden without stopping to catalog the contents.

It can seem like 100 of these chores strap themselves to me every day, and inside each, 100 obstacles. I am Grimm’s Drummer at the lake, and the thimble is rusting in my hands. Meanwhile, the woman in the mirror blinks back at me. She’s got something figured out:

Every moment contains the things I can’t change and the things I can.

The trick is finding the difference. When I pause to sort situations into their appropriate piles, I only need to pick back up the work that falls to me. The rest I can leave. This is more radical than it sounds. Accepting it means stepping out of the vortex of complaints and self-doubt, and actually taking small, significant steps forward. Courage is required. Any “thing” I dare claim as mine to change contains discrete, manageable tasks. The skills to complete each of those tasks are within reach. It is up to me to do the reaching and the completing.

Serenity, Courage, Wisdom

Accept, Change, Know

For this fleeting moment in the office ladies’ room, my mind is awake the way it is when I pause at a break in the trees on a Shenandoah ridge. One option is to kvetch, “None of the wildflowers are blooming, and my pack is chafing, and man are those cicadas ever going to shut up?” Instead, the high-altitude approach calls for noticing one brilliant slice of earth and sky. For a moment today, my gaze lands where my heart must have known all along it could: On me, a bright woman at the start of a new year, in sync with a vibrant, changeable planet.

In the spirit of the Happy 100 Days Project, I begin 2015 with a commitment to seek out small, enriching habits. The aim is to name choices that are in my power to make, choices that will allow me to walk in the skin of the woman I glimpse today.  Instead of 100 chores and 100 obstacles, this project is to notice 100 Things I Can.

Here I will gather up powerful crumbs and write about them. Like that circle of dancers, this will be a chance to step out of oncoming traffic and call upon strong, simple truths. I’ll begin here to sort out the things I can change.

Maybe, too, other Things I Can will emerge. Things I can cultivate. Appreciate. Learn. Things I can shed. Things I can nurture.

Things I can inhabit.

Things I can live.

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Just like all great stories, our fears focus our attention on a question that is as important in life as it is in literature: What will happen next? So if we think of our fears as more than just fears but as stories, we should think of ourselves as the authors of those stories. But just as importantly, we need to think of ourselves as the readers of our fears. And how we choose to read our fears can have a profound effect on our lives. – Karen Thompson Walker in her TED talk, “What Fear Can Teach Us”

I ought to be thy Adam; but I am rather the fallen angel. . . Frankenstein by Mary Shelly

The reader can’t put down the book. It’s well past midnight and her bloodshot eyes stagger across the lines. She turns another page. This is better than Stephen King, not even in his league, clipping along against a minor chord shuddering in the shadow of the action. Every door opens on a freefall into hell, each descent rank with its own unique boil and famine.

She does not look up. She is ready for anything without being the least bit prepared.

The crack across the ceiling spiderwebs without a sound while her pinhole focus contains only one character marooned on one desert island where melting icecaps have designs on the shore. Fingers, each alone as huge as her thigh, push through. A gaze presses close, taking in the whole of the room. Still she hasn’t noticed. Those fingers wedge wider an entry, those fingers give way to hands.

The pages of her fear are a shield. They fasten her yet again into the cockpit’s choking chemical burn, strap down her arms and freeze the throttle. The churning sea races to greet her. The certain but predictable disaster is comfort of a sort. If any of this came true — which it surely will, because something enough like it already has (how do you think this became her personalized Choose-Your-Own Adventure?) — what would happen if she closed the book? What if, halfway through her final descent, she yanked the cord, severed the word, and cast the whole thing onto the nightstand?

What if she looked up?

Giant eyes, each the size of her own skull, take the measure of the room. Of her shape. Her scars, her tics, her threadbare sheets.

Of her.

What if she looked right at (it) and watched the pulp of those hands jarring loose chunks of drywall, ripping back the illusion of structure? What if the impenetrable box containing her artless version of Dante’s fifth circle — forged, as it was, in infancy, no doubt — is penetrated after all?

She will not be able to unsee.

She’s already had her shot at that.

Those unbreathing, rolling, unmoored eyes are glass buttons made real by some inverted pinocchio magic. (He) is the golem she moulded from the debris of punishment and silence, the same one that slipped eventually down the side of the bed and fed on skin cells and broken sleep for three lifetimes.

Until now.

She never reached down to tend him but neither did she root him out. Such concentrated matter does not fade or decay, certainly not without its turn in the light.

He comes trailing the stink of hunger. And something else.

He crawls in beside her, filling the not-forgotten space between her and her dogeared book, spilling into corners. This is where he began. She watches him peel back a crusted mouth that is a funhouse image of her own. She has no choice but to let him show her what she stuffed down his throat when she was not ready to bear what she couldn’t name.
 

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