Fear and Better Things

BookI know not to compare my writing to anyone else’s writing. I have my voice. They have theirs, and when a writer finds her voice it’s all good. But when a writer is finding her voice or adding a new dimension to their craft, it’s hard not to make comparisons, and it’s even harder not to feel like you’re coming up short.

Trying to make the jump from blog posts to short fiction prompted me to go back to my library of short stories. I spent the summer reading old favorites and discovering new ones. Reading feeds my inspirations and aspirations. Some of my favorite writers started with short stories, and more than a few have defined their careers as short story artists.

Now, after a summer of reading and journaling and drafting and scrapping ideas, the aspiration to make a life writing a lot of short somethings is still strong. But there has also been a nagging knowledge that my short somethings will never be the same caliber as the ones that inspire me.

I know not to make comparisons, but I still do. Now, as the end of another year approaches, I am at a crossroads. There is the option to use my voice – even if it means singing off key. Or there is the option to let fear keep it silent another year and then another.

Six-year-old Thing2 will be seven this month. He’s at the age when the world begins imposing it’s hangups, and his fearless refusal to accept the imposition inspires in a different way. He found his voice the minute he first felt a drum beat move through his body, and he will not be silenced.

We’re having a haunted birthday party very soon, but I’ll be celebrating his life and his inspiration again at the end of the month. I’ve been working on a few stories for the last few months. I’ll be putting five of them into an ebook on my site by the end of the month. It more than a deadline. It’s a moratorium on fear.

In the Beginning

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Everyday is a beginning, and in the beginning, it’s always murky – sometimes even dark.  Beginnings still take determination and fight – whether it’s a new run or another day toward a new life.  It’s not until the first bead of sweat breaks that the rhythm of the trail or the day takes over.  It’s self-sustaining until the exhaustion that must come does, but when it passes, what is left behind is the fight and determination to begin again tomorrow.

Un-Tunnel Vision

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I hadn’t been on a bike in 20 years and was more than a little nervous about the prospect of spending 3 hours riding on mountain trails – however flat they were.  The last time I was on a bike a motorist had literally run me off the road into a ditch, and, after limping my bike home, I stuck to walking.  But this has been a summer of redemption for me, and it would continue to be from the first 10 minutes of our journey.

Fortunately, you really don’t forget how to ride a bike, and my summer fitness plan – intended to make sitting in a standard-size train seat more comfortable – paid off once again.  The mechanics were in place, and we would be riding in a converted railroad bed, ensuring there would be no maniacal motorists.  Faking the absence of fear was getting easier as we got closer to the starting gate, and then the trail guide began giving us the rundown of the road we were about to travel.  

We were to start with a 1 1/2 mile ride through a tunnel with no light save for our headlights.  There would be several tunnels throughout the ride, and several of them had trenches running alongside them.  I listened and smiled, taking courage from the relaxed faces of my family, but my stomach was already beginning to churn.  

The safety warnings noted, we mounted our bikes and headed for the first tunnel.  Thirteen-year-old Jack and his eighteen-year-old cousin, already thick as thieves despite having only met a few days earlier, charged ahead.  Fearless but not reckless, Jack sped towards the tunnel.  I was still getting my bike lets and was happy to pedal more slowly.  The Big Guy was trailing our youngest son, and went between us.

The darkness closed in around us quickly.  Behind me I heard one of my nieces struggling with her own fears, and the mom in me slowed to try and comfort her.  Her father, however, was just behind us and, falling back on his twenty years of military-instilled discipline, barked at her to get moving.  It worked for both of us.  I began peddling and calling back encouragement to my niece. 

Jack and his cousin got to the end of the tunnel first and were waiting for the adults.  One by one, we emerged, blinking at the summer sun.  I was shaking a bit, but when I looked at my oldest son, there was only excitement and happiness with the day and the mountains around him.  There was no fear, and I could see there hadn’t been any.  Part of me pondered how he got so brave with a mother who constantly lets fear govern her life – and his sometimes.  The other part of me was absorbing his excitement.  

We snapped a few shots of cousins and then pedaled further.  Every mile featured breathtaking views and, often, equally breathtaking drops that seemed incredibly close to the road.  The further we traveled, however, the less I even felt the fears that would normally have me thinking about the size of the drops and what it would be like to fall from them.

The sun in the cloudless sky that framed the majestic peaks that surrounded us drenched the day’s palette in intense blues and greens.  It also brought everything into sharp focus.

Jack and his cousin remained in the lead the rest of the ride.  And, while he was busy growing the part of me that had absorbed his excitement and joy realized that I was busy being reborn. 

Pictures of Us

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My sister-in-law’s been going through her attic and stumbling on ancient family photos along the way.  She’s scanned them and emailed them to us in groups.  Most of the photos are of individuals or groups posed carefully and solemnly for a camera that required the subject to stay still for several minutes.

The clothes and the hair are different, but the stories they tell are very familiar.   There’s a great-grandmother who once wrote and published short stories.  There’s a great-grandfather who owned a music store.  I’m hoping to see a photo of a great-grandmother who was a Mohawk and the story of whose union with the family I hope to discern someday.

I’ve always been a history buff, and especially a family history buff.

It started one summer when my aunt and uncle were visiting and my uncle was relating the story of how they had met and married despite strong objections from my aunt’s mother (my grandmother).  He was German, and she was American, and my grandmother was very unhappy at the idea of my aunt moving so far away in an era when long-distance phone calls were still extremely rare.  My uncle was not so easily deterred and, after having received a reluctant refusal, had flown from Germany to Chicago and then driven 6 hours to find my aunt and make his case.  As he told the story, remembering how their 50+ year marriage had almost not happened, a tear ran down his face.  I, like all the other females at the table, decided this was the most romantic story that had ever been told in our family.

The next day, I began to wonder if there were other stories that had simply not been told.  Subsequent trips to our annual family vacation spot became research opportunities, and when a knowledgable aunt was visiting, I began tape recording them as they related the family stories.

In that time I’ve learned about another pair of star-crossed lovers whose parents, a generation ago, had objected to their marriage on the grounds that they were different races and from different countries.  That couple is still married.   I learned how my grandparents, despite Grandmother’s summers spent near Grandfather’s home town never met until they were adults because they lived in completely different worlds.  And I’ve learned that I love the stories of how people come together.

We live in a world where the stories that make the headlines are about people being driven apart.  They’re about lives being blown apart.  Often, the even the storytelling becomes a wedge, breathing distrust into every disagreement until the participants hardly recognize each other as members of the same species.  Over the past year, I’ve made more of an effort to look for the other stories – the ones that bring people together.  I used to be embarrassed about my love of romantic stories of people overcoming odds to be together, but now I think they’re an expression of faith that people can actually do that.

I’m looking through the photos and stories of my husband’s family, one photo stands out.  It is a picture of a husband and wife, the husband staring at the camera while the wife leans her head on his shoulder.  They both have wistful smiles on their faces.  It’s from the late 1800s, and their clothes date the picture more than the aged sepia.  I know their world was a million miles away from mine.  When I look at the serenely happy and casual pose, however, I realize that they look a lot like us.  It’s a story worth pursuing.

Hungry

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The same storm systems that spawned numerous twisters out west few weeks ago, brought unusually violent spring weather to southwestern Vermont last week. Six-year-old- Thing2 and I were just pulling out of the supermarket parking lot last Sunday when one of them hit. I’ve had enough near-death experiences to know that this was not one, but it was life-changing it its own way.

I should be too old to be nervous during storms. However, having spent 20 minutes two years ago waiting out a waterspout-turned-tornado while all the adults in the family leaned against a set of massive sliding glass doors to keep the wind from popping them off their tracks and flinging them into the room at my parents’ house in Michigan and then watching funnel clouds form to the north of I80/90 in Indiana last year, I will admit that I am afraid of thunderstorms. And last Sunday’s was a big one.

Just as we were turning out of the parking lot, we were surrounded by pink light and a deafening boom. My arm hair was standing straight up, and I decided to look for someplace to wait out the storm with my youngest child. We drove a few blocks, looking for a substantial building with a parking spot near a door. The lightning was frequent and spectacular, and bye the time we pulled into a fast-food place, my nerves had all but killed my latest diet.

My cell phone heralded our entrance into the restaurant by suddenly emitting a loud warning signal and severe, immediate weather alert. A few other phones began emitting the same alert (the company’s support rep would later tell me that this was part of their service). The warnings seemed superfluous and late at first, but as I read the company’s alert text, it became clear the storm was getting worse.

Thing2 usually carries his superhero persona (SuperDude) with him – costumed or not. As the wind whipped harder, however, the adults around us discussed the ferocity of the storm. The restaurant staff momentarily forgot their ‘posts’ and began chattering loudly with each other and the customers, and, noticing the nervous faces, SuperDude became a six-year-old for the moment.

I actually dread these moments. There are plenty of times when my job description entails soothing his fears – big and small, real or imagined. Usually, I enjoy the cuddling and the bonding. When I’m also scared, keeping Thing2 from feeling the fear is tough. It’s hard because I’m hoping he doesn’t figur out I’m telling him to not do what I’m doing (shaking in my boots), but it’s also hard because it’s the reminder that I’m the one for both of us to lean on and to show him the way.

At that moment the only thing to do was listen for more warnings and keep occupied. I ordered us some food, hoping carbs and a cheap, plastic toy would distract us both. The restaurant managers were wrangling the staff back to their posts now, and we sat down to eat.

Another alert sounded a flash-flood warning. Outside I suddenly noticed cars negotiating bumper-deep water and wondered if we should have found refuge elsewhere. The manager confirmed my doubts a few minutes later in an unexpected way.

The wind was subsiding. The lightning was not, however, and I was a little surprised to see two young employees heading for the door. I thought they were headed home, but the manager called out to them to leave their radios on the table with her. They complied and, rolling up their pants, went outside to clear the parking lot drains, jumping occasionally as lightning cracked nearby.

Had my twelve-year-old been with me, the sight of a manager prioritizing the safety of electronics over her more-easily replaced employees to ensure that a foot of water wouldn’t impede the sale of french fries for five minutes would have been an opportunity for (yet another) object lesson about the importance of studying. Instead it was an object lesson for me. My momentary appall at the complete disregard two human beings’ safety quickly shrank into shame, turning bitter the french fry I was eating.

Any comfort derived from the salt-and-carb salve was gone. I knew I financed this sort of thing everyday. I just don’t see it up close and personal. I waited for Thing2 to finish his meal. When the storm subsided enough we left, and, even though I’d eaten a full day’s calories, I felt empty. I knew, however, that I would only find whant I needed at home. I also knew that I could not keep coming back to that place on the GPS or in my own heart that helps my own apathy flourish.

Of Beanstalks and Boys

I had planned on re-dubbing Thing1, my twelve-going-on-twenty-year-old 'Goliath'. At the time, I was just getting used to reprimanding and rewarding my first born while looking up at him, and the name seemed to fit him. But despite his occasional flashes of teenaged angst and backtalk, my giant is a gentle one.

 

I've used pseudonyms for my boys, not so much out of fear of stalkers, but because I want them to have as much control over their identities online as I would want over mine. The stories I tell about them and the Big Guy are my vision of them, and someday they will want the chance to define themselves. But now, as Thing1 is evolving and daily declaring his independence, the nickname that fit him just a year ago, doesn't seem to do him justice.

 

I love the name we gave him. It's different. I wanted the nickname I gave him online to evoke the same feeling I have when I hear his given name. So I began running through a list of names, finding things that rhymed until I hit 'Jack'. Initially, I discarded it, continuously rattling off names as I shut the door to my office to let him Skype with his friends. I went across the hall to throw another load in the machine and while I continued the end-of-school project of sorting through hand-me-downs. As I was grumbling to myself about how much more expensive it was about to be to buy men's pants for my firstborn, I came back to the name Jack.

 

It's not particularly different, but suddenly it fit him. He has been growing like a proverbial string bean, but lately he's a bit more like Jack than the beanstalk. He's headed to overnight computer camp this summer. It's his first time away from family, but it's also the first time he's made his own choices about his education. He wanted to go to learn. He chose which course seemed most interesting. He's the one making decisions about how he'll finance and build a new computer.

 

This boy who has begun to thrive on challenge is so much more than a mischievous imp (although he's still that quite often). He's ready to make his own adventures. He's Jack.

 

Fear and Unknowing

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It was just about eight o’clock on Saturday night (Feb 16) when the house – buried on three sides and constructed mostly of concrete – was rocked by a loud, dull bang.  Our first response to it made me realize how far removed from the dangers of the ‘real world’ our lifestyle has made us feel.  Less than twenty-four hours later, knowledge would make me realize how easily that illusion can be shattered.  The bang and the shattering are still putting all of my theories about fear and life to the test, as I suspect they will for days to come.

When the bang first interrupted our movie night, the Big Guy and I looked at each other, puzzled and wondering if we had heard the same thing or imagined something.  Thing1 quickly confirmed that we weren’t suffering from some form of group auditory senility when he poked his head out of his room and asked, “Did you hear that?!?  It sounded like a bomb!”

“it was not a bomb!”  We answered our twelve-year-old in unison.

“The old tree behind the house must have fallen,” I shouted, momentarily forgetting that there was no wind.

“There must have been a chimney fire,” suggested the Big Guy, and we both got up, got flashlights and went outside to investigate our theories.  Twenty minutes later, we were colder but no wiser and we headed back inside.  Fruitless phone calls were made to our nearest neighbors, and we soon settled back into movie night, assuming there was a reasonable explanation we just hadn’t considered.

I had almost forgotten the bang by the time my own little noise makers drove me to the relative peace of our local wifi hot spot, deli, and general store this afternoon.  I sat down with my computer and snack with the idea I would work.  I didn’t get my earbuds in fast enough, however, to avoid hearing a neighbor (anyone in a town of ~300 is considered a neighbor) mention the big bang from the night before.  

The owner of the establishment wisely chose not to join in any gossip or speculation, but our new companion was more than willing to share what he knew and thought he knew.  None of what he shared was comforting.  Still, the initial explanation – that a firearm had caused an explosion (how we didn’t know quite for sure) was half speculation and half fact, and I left a while later feeling concerned but not overly worried.

My concern turned to real worry very soon, however, when the Big Guy got a call and more information from a neighbor with reliable source.  To our horror we learned that someone across the way had managed to build a fertilizer bomb.  We learned that an investigation was and is underway, but little other information was available. 

The absence of information turned my worry to palpable fear. Even now as I write, thoughts of other bomb builders and their targets run through my mind.  My first thought was to keep my children home from school or any public activity until we hear more.  But, even as I struggle to find the line between common sense safety measures and parental paranoia, I am confronted by my own words and desire for progress.

Over the last few months and years I have struggled not to let my own encounter with a pair of armed robbers years ago control my or my family’s lives.  Countless times I have choked down my fear and forced myself to let my kids live their lives.  But tonight, wondering what the bomb builder was thinking or even planning, the line between lives half-lived in fear and those carefully guarded is pretty blurred.

The New Normal

Twenty years ago I was on the receiving end of an armed home invasion at the home of an acquaintance I never should have made.  It ended with a group of us lying on the floor, our noses in a smelly mustard and gold shag carpet as we wondered if our assailants were about to leave us or leave us dead.  When they were gone, we began cycling through all of the stages of grief until the police came and an emergency locksmith could make new keys for our cars, allowing us to escape back to our old lives.  What I didn’t realize in that first hour was that my old life was over forever.

It wasn’t a great life before the robbery, but it was not a life lived in fear (or caution, but that’s another story).  I had lived in ‘bad’ neighborhoods before the incident and no part of the city really frightened me.  After the incident I was afraid to go anywhere, and when I had to be in public places or unsecured locations, I made every effort to be invisible.  I watched doors.  I sized up people.  Fear embalmed me.

It took years and a lot of love from the Big Guy to crack that sarcophagus.  However, even now, when an incident like the one in Newtown, CT is reported, I realize, part of my soul will always be wrapped in those bandages (as I suspect the survivors of this and other senseless massacres will be).  I felt it yesterday as we sat at our son’s basketball practice and every opening of the door knotted my stomach a bit more.  I know this sensation – it’s part of the new old normal that began twenty years ago.

We had already planned a weekend of holiday activities with just the four of us, and, wanting to avoid the glare of the malls, we opted for a visit to the Vermont Country Store in Weston.  We did our weekly breakfast at Bob’s Diner in Manchester and headed up the Bromley mountain on the way to Weston.  For the two of us, the gloriously cold and sunny day seemed out of joint with what has been in our hearts since Friday morning.

In the back seat Thing1 and Thing2 were already beginning their road trip antics that I swear are designed to grow grey hair on my head.  The Big Guy reprimanded them as the volume reached earthquake level, but as we switched on the radio and all of us marveled at the passing mountainous landscape we’ve seen a hundred times before, I reminded myself that this, too, is part of my New Normal.  Right now, it is enough.

Fear

I let Katie out for her last potty break before bed.  I don’t walk her at night – one too many close calls with Yogi, the bear who visits my composter regularly, scared me off of late night strolls.  Katie’s a country dog.  She knows these woods better than the boys do.  But tonight her bravado outpaced her brains, and we both learned a powerful lesson about life in the woods.

Katie’s nightly runs are shorter now that the weather is colder, but they usually include a last minute visit to bark goodnight to the neighbor’s dogs.  She normally comes right back and barks at the window to come in.  Tonight, however, the bark at the window was short and sharp.

I turned to the Big Guy, happily snoring on the recliner we lovingly call our Venus Flytrap, to see if he had heard Katie’s agitated yelp.  He snored his reply, and I went to the door, hoping to get her in before anything more interesting pulled her attention back outside.  But I was too late.

I opened the front door and looked left toward our wood shed.  I knew instantly that something was wrong – both cats were crouched nervously on the top of the highest row of firewood.  As soon as the door opened, they glanced in Katie’s direction before darting into the mudroom and then the living room.  Katie was nowhere to be seen, but her barks had devolved into low growls.

Now I was nervous.  I stepped out and called out to her and heard only more growling and now scurrying sounds from the brush behind the woodshed.  Suddenly I saw something furry and low moving toward me.  Now I yelped.

Hoping my shriek had roused the Big Guy, I skedaddled back to the door, calling for Katie as I retreated.  Katie, however, was braver (or dumber) than I and came around the other side of the shed, zeroing in on her quarry.  At first I thought it was a raccoon and considered rousing the Big Guy to get his gun, but, worried that it would be too late and risk hitting Katie, I instead grabbed my umbrella and charged outside.

I knew tangling with a raccoon was stupid.  They’re not necessarily rabid here in the woods, but they can be ornery, and I was a little relieved when I got close enough to see that Katie’s prey was a porcupine.  As far as the dog was concerned, however, the porcupine wasn’t much better.

Our last dog had a couple (very expensive) run-ins with a porcupine or two, and I knew I had to get between Katie and the terrified critter.  Doing my best lion-tamer imitation, I kept the open umbrella between me and the fanned-out quills and tried to get Katie to leave off the chase.

There were a few shrieks (me) and lots of barking, and I kept hoping the Big Guy would come to my rescue.  But the pull of the Venus Fly-Trap was way too strong (and our house way too sound proof), and for those few tense minutes while I soothed and disciplined Katie, I was on my own.

Katie came into the house with a few quills in her mouth and, what I’m sure will be a short-lived but painful lesson about picking her prey.  My lesson will stay with me, however.  It is part of a long education that has already seen a few scary tests.

Largely due to our spotty and often abysmal health insurance situation a few years ago, the Big Guy went through a series of health care issues that became crises, two of them life-threatening.  One event led to a week in Intensive Care, and the second sent him to the ER with an infection that nearly cost him his leg and even his life.  While he fought so did I.  Once he was in recovery, however, and my adrenalin receded, I remained in crisis management mode.

I spent the next few years trying to anticipate and plan for any disaster that would leave me as the sole caretaker of two kids, and that planning often had me wondering how I would get on without my partner in crime.  I now know that the constant attention to that safety net took away a lot of the joy of being with my husband, but when it became less panicked, being prepared was – and is – a source of confidence.

Now, I may be temporarily terrified when wielding my umbrella against the creatures of the forest, but I know that somewhere in there I have the mettle to overcome the fear.  The fight is over, and I’m not obsessing about the next porcupine – or the next crisis.  I know whatever comes – crisis or critter – I can handle it.   And the foremost part of handling any of it is not to live in fear of what may come.