I've been afraid most of my life for some reason or other.
When I was young, I was afraid that my parents would abandon me—that they would fail to pick me up at school one day, and that would be that. I was afraid that the school bus I rode up and down the mountain where I grew up in Tennessee would slide off the road on one of the more treacherous turns. I was afraid of dogs, particularly Max the German Shepherd who lived in our neighborhood and who did eventually kill Charlie the Poodle, the only dog I was not afraid of.
In later years, before I could drive, I was still concerned about my mom not showing up to pick me up, but at this point the fear was not that she wanted to abandon me (she had put up with my shit for years, so it was clear she intended to stick it out with me), but that something horrible would happen to her.
And then, the fears vanished for a long period, because ugly stuff I'd never spent any time fearing began to happen in my life for real, the most dramatic of which was my parents getting divorced and selling the house I'd grown up in. I had to adjust to all sorts of things that were "strange." Moving from a house into an apartment. From a neighborhood to a complex my mother could afford at the time. Trying to connect with and buoy up a father who seemed to be suffering unfathomable pain. Being the kid at school who currently had "a problem." I remember hearing a teacher refer to me as a child from a "broken home." I told her off, as politely as a Southern girl could, and felt much better.
This is small potatoes compared to the tragedy that many people deal with, but they were personal issues, nonetheless, that knocked my fears right out of the arena. Dealing with real life left no space for fear. And as the tectonic plates that had underpinned my childhood began shifting, so did I. I became more adventurous. I tried new things. I climbed mountains in the Rockies with my biology classmates. I befriended people I'd shied away from. I got a job. Bought my first plane ticket, took my first flight alone. I also started drinking, being "wild," testing the boundaries that had so safely and wordlessly delineated my upbringing. Fear was falling out of my lexicon—for better and for worse.
Fast forward through a decade and a half of college, more schooling, frenzied careering right up to what would come to be known later by the people who coin such terms as a "starter marriage." My husband was a terribly handsome, warm, talented young man. We moved to Portland, settled into our careers (I more happily in those days than he), and bought a dear little house complete with, yes, a picket fence. We worked on the house, began work on a luxurious garden. And what do you think happened? I started to be afraid again. Really afraid. Really, truly deeply darkly afraid.
Of what? Well, in hindsight, I'd say many things, mostly internal. Fear of being trapped. Fear of accepting the reality of my choice. Fear of no longer being mobile, free. Fear of not being able to become myself within the confines of a relationship. (I was immature, what can I say?) But, mostly, these fears manifested themselves as one big, giant fear of earthquakes. Or the fear of being targeted by the Uni-bomber who was active in those days. Or the fear of being bombed as I slept in my bed by angry Iraqis. The first Gulf War was going on. I hated it. It was all over the news. 24/7. Seemed like sooner or later I'd have to pay for all that bombing. Wouldn't I? And what better time than when you're not dealing with your marriage like a grown-up?
Portland is situated on a fault, and after the two big earthquakes in California hit, I hammered my husband mercilessly about leaving Oregon. He looked at me like I was crazy. Our life was good. Why would we unsettle ourselves? "Because," I would stammer, feeling the panic zip back and forth between my knees, my hands and my heart. I knew I didn't have a good reason, so I didn't dare offer it. I ran away from this fear (and the actual fears it masked) in a zillion useless, reckless and self-destructive ways while simultaneously having a glorious career. Not surprisingly, after four years of marriage, my husband called it quits. More tectonic plates crashing and sliding. More upheaval.
But what did I do? Did I move away from Oregon, the place where my Personal Big One was waiting to happen? No. I stayed there, and ta-da, the fear vanished again. As another Charlotte-earthquake and its aftershocks required me to react/act/learn with some degree of maturity, the metaphorical earthquake and all the fear it inspired receded into the background.
I'm still afraid of earthquakes, flying and dread diseases, because (hello) what I'm really afraid of is dying. Especially when things are going so beautifully. My life is full. My marriage is good. My children are amazing. I don't want anything to mess with that; I've worked hard to have it. But my fear is not rational. Of course, one day I will die, but letting the fear of it erode the joy of every passing day is simply not an option. So I've been learning to deal with it. To live my life anyway. To keep things in perspective.
Somewhere during the Bush administration, I, like many Americans, had a front-row seat for the demonstration of "How Fear Weakens You, Makes You Vulnerable to Manipulation, and Siphons Off Valuable Energy You Could Otherwise Be Using to Live a Fuller and Better Life in a Healthier World." This was destiny throwing up a billboard that said, "Fight the good fight, Charlotte. You're on the right track. Don't give in to the fear."
Tomorrow, I leave my children and my loving rock/anchor/pillar of a husband, to board a plane and fly to New York (where I have not been since 9/11), while the media rages on about a Killer Flu and birds in airplane engines. I'm a little nervous, but nothing approaching panicky. And I know that my reason for going—to be with my mother for a few short days—is well worth setting aside the ungrounded fears I have about all of it.
Life is calling. And I'm determined not to be too afraid to answer.—Charlotte
p.s. Can't wait to hear from Janet, who will join us again soon from the Ground Zero of Swine Flu, where I'm sure she's had a lovely time.