Tag Archives: fear

I Teach Her What to Fear

Vivi stood at the edge of the sand bar, tugging at her hair and shrieking:

“MAMA! MAMA! PLEEEEEEASE COME BACK! MOMMY! I DON’T WANT TO DIE!” 

I, already knee-deep in the low tide channel between the sand bar and the beach, turned back and watched her hysteria with my mouth hanging open.

“Baby! What are you talking about? This is the same water we walked across to get out there. You’ve been swimming in it all week. Come ON.”

A dad in a red UGA cap waded between us and asked me out the side of his mouth, “Is she alright?” I mouthed back, “D-R-A-M-A.” He chuckled and kept on going.

My daughter was beside herself with fear about stepping into the ocean water. Why? Jellyfish.

She wailed and howled and begged me to come back. She ran towards the King and Prince in hopes that the land bridge was solid. Nope.

I hollered across the 20 yards that separated us: “Honey, it’s the TIDE–I can’t do anything about it. Even if I walk back that way, we’ve got to get back to the beach through this water. There’s no other solution. I hear you, but you’re going to have to get in the water. It’s only going to get deeper the longer you wait.” She stomped and screeched and cried.

Not sure which of those tactics convinced her, but she finally started a shaky walk to me. I took her hand and we made it to the beach together…ALIVE.

What. The. Hell. This kid as grown up on that beach and in that water. Why now?

An hour earlier, we had left our stuff in the sand and waded over to the giant sand bar on East Beach at St Simons Island. We walked to the farthest tip of the sand bar, right out into the Atlantic. She found a hermit crab and named her Crustina. We put her in a shallow tide pool and watched how quickly she could scuttle around. Vivi dug a channel between two pools so Crustina could spread out. We came up with names for her crabby friends. We reminisced about a few years back when Vivi found her friends, Conchy and Nyquisha.

Then I looked down into the clear water of the tide pool and spotted a jellyfish, about 5 inches long. I showed Vivi how to see the clear jellyfish by looking for its shadow on the sand. We found another one in the same pool. As the tide waters rose around the edges of Crustina’s pool, we watched how the jellyfish moved and ate and even shook off some sand that one of us accidentally dropped on them.

Cannonball jellyfish on St Simon's Island sand bar

Cannonball jellyfish on St Simon’s Island sand bar (look for it right above the shadow)

But time and tide wait for no one, so with pink shoulders and wind-tangled hair, we scooted Crustina to the seaward edge of her pools and waved goodbye to the jellies. As we walked along the beach side of the sand bar in search of the easiest crossing point, I saw a REAL jellyfish in the shallows–one about a foot long, pinkish, with feathery tentacles fluttering behind it.

“Now this is the kind you don’t want to touch, even if you see them washed up on the beach. I once fell off of a jet ski in the middle of Chesapeake Bay and got one of these wrapped around my leg.”

“Did you have to go to the hospital???’

“No, Aunt Beth rubbed Adolph’s seasoning salt on it and made some pina coladas. It quit stinging after a while.”

And not two minutes later I started into the water to make my way back to our pile of towels and flip flops on the beach and Vivi started her meltdown.

Because of the jellyfish I had shown her. Not the goofy little cannonball jellyfish in the tide pool, but the menacing tentacled one…in the water that I then ordered her to step into.

Oh look. A very special Parenting Moment.

I teach her what to fear

 

Vivi is at that precarious age where we are beginning to give her more freedom, but that comes along with the responsibility for taking care of yourself. I need to show her the thing to be aware of, the place to be careful, but in doing that, I tipped the balance too far and taught her what to fear. 

While we held hands and made our way back to land, I talked to her about how feelings can get us all worked up and the only thing that will balance them out is facts.

“See all these parents taking their kids out to the sand bar? Do you think we would be doing that if it were dangerous? See that green flag on the lifeguard chair? That means the water’s safe. If there were a bunch of jellyfish around, we would see them washed up all over the beach–we only saw the one. And that’s the first one you’ve seen in TEN YEARS!”

She snuffled a bit and asked more questions about THE ONE JELLYFISH that was clearly plotting to take us down. I kept pointing her back to facts so that the feelings would have time to wear themselves down a little. I mean, I was annoyed as hell with all the hysterics, but Parenting Moment.

We made it to shore. Later that afternoon, we came back down to play in the big waves of high tide. She got in that water every day for a week.

I couldn’t quit thinking about it, though, how it was my pointing out the “bad” jellyfish that triggered her fear. Would it have been better not to mention the stinging tentacles? To let her learn about jellyfish the hard way some other day? Because knowing that a thing is possible invites it into her consciousness. That’s the hard balance of parenting for me–wanting her to be equipped with knowledge, but not knowing for sure if she’s ready for knowledge.

This morning, a college sister who is also a reverend, shared a passage from Rilke’s “Letters to a Young Poet” that spoke to my mothering struggle:

“I beg you to have patience with everything unresolved in your heart

and to try to love the questions themselves

as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language.

Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them.

And the point is to live everything.

Live the questions now.

Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.”

She has to live the questions now. We both do. I have to lead her into the water, dark and deep, even though I have been stung before. The world is out there on the other side of our fears.

 

rilke - i beg you to patient

The Pivot

This is the stairwell between the first floor of my hospital and the basement, the route that leads to the cafeteria. In 20 years, I’ve been down these stairs thousands of times. They get repainted every few years and the non-skid safety strips are checked and replaced. This stairwell is mostly used by staff, so it’s not the prettiest–all fluorescent lights and workaday beige.

Maybe it was because I’ve been so contemplative lately, or maybe just that I was walking to lunch alone instead of talking to a friend, but today I had to stop and….stare. Notice anything?

It's OK to stair.

It’s OK to stair.

Every bottom stair has a worn out place. Why is that ONE SPOT worn away when the rest of the stairs are fine?

Couple of reasons:

It’s the lowest point. No matter if you start out at the top of the stairs walking to the left or right, if you’re in a crowd or alone, if you stop to hold the door for others, by the time you get to that lowest step, you’re in single file. Nobody’s swinging wide to go around a blind corner. Like cows in a chute, we arrange ourselves into an orderly pace and space to take that corner. We draw closer to the wall, to make ourselves safe from whatever might be barreling around the blind turn. Or we make ourselves small to keep from barreling around the corner.

It’s the spot where you pivot. Halfway down the stairwell, you have to switchback. One hundred and eighty degree turn in the opposite direction. Our graceful bodies teeter on that narrow bottom step, then without even thinking about it, all our weight shifts onto the ball of the foot and with an elegant little swing of the hips we change direction. But pivoting our entire body weight on about a 1-inch spot in the sole creates a lot of pressure. It’s far more pressure to change the direction in which we’re moving.

Everybody’s doing it. Every foot that takes those stairs hits THAT spot. Over a few weeks, hundreds of thousands of feet use that stairwell and because we are creatures of habit, every foot hits that spot. THAT SPOT. The total surface area of the stairs is irrelevant, because not every square inch is used equally. It’s that ONE SPOT that takes the beating.

And I guess I had to stop myself from crying in the stairwell because that little worn-out spot called to me. We have so much in common right now, that little spot and me. I’ve been at my lowest for the last few months, clinging to the wall and hesitant about going around the corner. Life is forcing me to pivot. I’m going in one direction then BAM…a 180 is required. And it seems that everybody’s doing that. Raise your hand if you’re feeling ground down and a little dizzy from the switching back and forth.

Even with 195 drafts in my folder, I couldn’t bring myself to write for an entire month. And this story right here might be in the bottom 10% of my output over the last four years. Look at that photo…terrible! How am I going to SEO this post about hospital basement linoleum and depression?

I tried to learn more about the idea behind the worn out pivot, but that led me down a rabbit hole of Newtonian mechanics and Pinterest boards for best patterned carpets to hide wear on your stairs.

So this drab picture of a scuffed up spot on a basement stairwell is what I’ve got for today. I wrote about it because it made me feel something. If you’ve read this far, please accept my apologies. I’m sorry that I made you read this drivel, and I’m even more sorry that I haven’t trusted you with the stuff that’s clanging around in my head. But here we are at the bottom, so it’s time to pivot.

See you soon.

 

 

 

The Least of These: Refugees and Thanksgiving

I went to bed last night filled to weeping with what I’d seen on social media about the governor of my state, along with many others, declaring that we would not accept any Syrian refugees after the Paris attacks. I thought of my friend Robin and how she once explained Jesus to me: she just shut her mouth and spread her arms open wide.

That’s what love is supposed to look like. You need shelter, come to me. You need safety, come to me. You need to know you are loved, come to me. We’re becoming a frightened nation with our arms clasped tight. What happened to Lady Liberty–a gift from the French, no less–holding her torch high to light the way?

I am proud to be an American because we are the place of refuge. Our population–unless your folks were First Nations or brought over on a slave ship–is made up of people who sought out America for shelter, or safety, or freedom. Many of those new-made Americans were fleeing horrors. Maybe pogroms or the potato blight or poverty.

I remember going to Ellis Island and walking through the process. Through the long line for validating papers. Up the stairs to the medical check. Then summoned before the desk of the final questioner who made the call as to whether you would proceed forward to the door that led to America or whether you would be put on a boat back. What must that have felt like, to come so far then have the door slammed in your face? No room at the inn.

A family on the road.

A family on the road.

Brace yourselves–the atheist is about to start talking about the Bible and we all have Grandmama Eunice to thank for that. I woke up still thinking about refugees and the verse that came to mind was “Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.” (Sorry for the high language. We were raised King James Version, #KJV4Lyf.) Here’s a more modern rendition:

31 “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. 32 All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33 He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.

34 “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36 I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’

37 “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’

40 “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’

Drop the mic, Jesus. That’s some topical stuff, yo.

What if a terrorist gets in among the refugees? A wolf among the lambs? Yes, that could happen. Or a terrorist could fly in on a student visa. Or take a boat and come in through the coast. Or grow up in Iowa. Or Charleston.

If we slam the door on the people fleeing the very extremists we fear, we aren’t shutting out the terrorists. We’re shutting out the next generation of Americans. The ones who ran for shelter and found it. In my lifetime, that’s included Sudanese, Somalis, Serbs, Iranians, Vietnamese…and a whole lot of our great grandparents and grandparents.

The next part of my day really brought home this idea that America has to keep its arms open. There are two little girls in Carlos’ class who speak Arabic at home. I don’t know how they got here, I don’t know what country they are from. They are here now. They are quiet and watchful. They understand far more English than they speak. After many weeks of hugging them and talking to them and making a fuss over their drawings or puzzles, they have just begun to use single words when we talk. One said, “green” and “yellow” and “whhhhhite” last week when I pointed to colored blocks in the tower she had built.

I won’t use their names because I don’t have permission. I looked up the meaning of each girl’s name in Arabic and I swear Grandmama Eunice thumped me on the head again: one name means “mercy” and the other means “angel.” Angel and Mercy, these little souls I have been lucky enough to meet.

(Jesus picked up the mic and dropped it AGAIN.)

My baby and his turkey hat.

My baby and his turkey hat.

This morning was the Thanksgiving sing-a-long at PreK. I watched Angel and Mercy sit with their classmates in a nice straight row on the gymnasium floor. Each child wore a construction paper turkey hat made from their own handprints. Mercy’s eyes sparkled and she waved when I took her picture. Angel sucked on her finger, like she does when she is nervous.

What are they learning about Thanksgiving? What have we taught them about this quintessentially American holiday? When we are grateful for the bounty we appreciate here. When we remember how the native people of America helped our first set of refugees, fleeing home all those centuries ago.

I may not believe in angels, but I sure believe in mercy. And I open my arms and heart to the least of these, because I am an American.

In Baltimore, You Hear What You Expect to Hear

file541344101316The events unfolding in Baltimore–whether you call it a riot or an uprising–put me in mind of a lesson I learned in Baltimore eleven years ago on a broiling hot summer day when my heart and mind throbbed with fear.

There wasn’t much left of my rational brain at that point. Richard had been diagnosed with leukemia on June 30. He got blood and platelets the next day at the hospital where I work–just enough to get him healthy enough to fly. He took off that evening for Baltimore, for Johns Hopkins Hospital, where his treatment would begin as soon as possible.

I stayed behind for a couple of days to batten down the hatches and pack us both some clean underwear. I tied up loose ends at work, at home. I explained what was going on to everyone who needed to know, then I rushed north to Baltimore.

While Richard had been teaching at Loyola in Baltimore, I had fallen in love with the city. We rode water taxis across the Inner Harbor, dined along Second Street, walked the paths of Poe. So it wasn’t my first time in Baltimore by any means, but I didn’t know anything about the neighborhoods around Hopkins. Well, I knew one thing–“Don’t go there. It’s not safe.”

Rockwell House. My throat closes up just looking at the door.

Rockwell House. My throat closes up just looking at the door.

But now, in the world of leukemia, Johns Hopkins felt like an island of hope, the one place Richard might be safe again. His parents had booked us a small caregiver apartment at the Joanne Rockwell House, right on the edge of campus. Somewhere around Washington and Jefferson Streets. I tried to find it on a map this morning, but the building isn’t there anymore–replaced by newer digs.

A flight, a ride from BWI, dropping my things at Rockwell House, then hurrying to the hospital with my heart in my throat. Then the first slow hours of waiting in a room with Richard, the first few of the hundreds we would spend like that over the next 10 months. Waiting for a miracle in the worst neighborhood in Baltimore.

file000137091442On his advice, I left before sundown, so I could make it back to Rockwell House. Luckily, Richard’s mom had left some food in the minifridge. The only store visible from my window was a corner liquor store, plastered with booze posters.  A barren parking lot, owned by the hospital, gray buildings shuttered with plywood, and the liquor store. I felt like a traveler in a ship, looking out my porthole at a strange land.

Eight o’clock, nine o’clock. The summer sky grew dark. After so many days of panic and chaos, the time had come to be still. I stretched out on the narrow twin bed under the window and tried to let my brain and body catch up to each other.

Then just under the window, a few feet from my head, I heard several loud cracks. Someone shouted over the sound of POP POP POP POP from the parking lot below me.

This middle class white lady HIT THE FLOOR. With a quickness. I didn’t even watch The Wire at the time, but I knew what happened when you mixed a Baltimore liquor store, summer heat, darkness and shouting. I slithered across the floor then reached up to kill the overhead light. The cracking and shouting continued. I lay panting in fear on the linoleum floor and waited for the sounds of sirens. None came. I watched the window and waited for it to explode from a stray bullet.

Then a strange SCREEEEEEEECH cut the air, followed by more popping, but slower now. A green burst of light filled the window. I remember lying there on the floor and trying to make sense of it. Cop car lights aren’t green in Baltimore, are they?

In all the rushing to get to Richard, I had forgotten that day was the Fourth of July. And Americans shoot fireworks after dark on the Fourth of July. I eventually realized the sounds were firecrackers and bottle rockets and crawled up off the floor to watch out the window.

Those young men in the parking lot across from the liquor store that night were celebrating freedom the old-fashioned way–with some gunpowder and fire and laughter. An American tradition.

My tired brain, filled with fear and confusion, had heard gunfire and threats. That was what I expected to hear in that part of Baltimore.

So I ask you, when you watch the news, don’t just listen for what you expect to hear–look again.

file000323988880

Some Big Gay Advice

It’s been kinda quiet here at Baddest Mother Ever lately. Not quiet in my life. Not quiet in the world. Just quiet in this space because I ran into a wall of fear.

2013 - 1the world needsMy fairy stepmother, Big Gay, called this weekend. We’re gearing up for Big Gay Christmas, so there’s lots to be done. After she got the list of suggestions for presents for the kids, and reviewed the menu for standing rib roast, she said, “Ayshley (you have to say it with the extra vowel and a little touch of cigarette smoke to get the full effect), your Daddy and I adore your blog. You have such a gift.” I thanked her quickly but she was not to be deterred.

“We used to get something new to read every day–lately we’re lucky to get a story once a week. What’s up with that?” I know she was teasing me, but she was making a point too. That woman knows me. And she knows when something is up.

“I’m in a rut. I feel like I talk about the same stuff over and over and I figure people are getting bored with that. It just seems like blah blah blah blah nobody cares. I’m afraid to mess it up and I’m afraid to not write. I’m just stuck.”

And that’s when she doled out some Big Gay Advice.

“You’re going to need to get the fuck over that.”

Big Gay does not find Bunny's perching trick funny.

Big Gay does not find Bunny’s perching trick funny.

She collects antique English porcelain and has a little Italian Greyhound named Bunny. She grows antique roses and peonies as big as a dinner plate. She’s in the garden club and the book club. She’s elegant and smart and lovely.

And right.

Sometimes you just need to get the fuck over yourself.

I’m in such an over-analyzing mode lately that now I’m wondering if I’ll lose readers just because I said fuck. Several times. Or if I talk too much about my goofy brain.

Whatever. I’m going to choose to get the fuck over that.

Big Gay and I talked a while longer but I had to get off the phone to see who was yelling at whom back in the house. I took a shower and when I checked my phone a half hour later, I saw a missed call from Big Gay.

“Hey, did you need something else?”

“I did, sweetheart. I had another thought. Your writing HELPS people. It makes us think, ‘Well, I guess I’m not so weird after all.'”

“Thank you for saying that. That’s what I want to do.”

“But, Ayshley–what I realized is this. It can do the same thing for you. When you write, you’re not alone either.”

So here I am–telling another story about how sometimes I forget that telling stories is important–even if your parents are the only ones reading. Even if the story has been told again and again, like the one about the Christmas when Daddy gave Big Gay an industrial meat slicer. Or the story about the time we were picking on Little Gay about being  a bad driver and she stormed out of the house and ran over the cat. That time when Brett got pulled over by the cops for stealing her own car. Or when Daddy got emotional asking the blessing and toddler Grant whispered loudly, “Pop Pop’s cryin’ like a baby!”

Yeah, I think I’m over it. Thanks, Big Gay. I got you that heavy duty garden hose you asked for for Christmas. You are so good at making things grow.

Here There Be Dragons

Abraham Ortelius, Tehatrum Orbis Terrarum, 1570

Abraham Ortelius, Tehatrum Orbis Terrarum, 1570

Legend holds that, centuries ago, mapmakers marked uncharted areas on their maps with the Latin phrase: HC SVNT DRACONES.

“Here are dragons.”

There are only two maps still in existence that actually have these words on them, but the dragon or sea serpent was often used in map decoration to represent perilous waters, dangerous leviathans, or geographically murky coastlines. I think the expression is so beautiful–“Here there be dragons”–that the idea behind the phrase has stayed with us even if it isn’t on that many maps.

It’s a useful way of saying, “We are leaving the part of the world that we know and hell if I know what is out there but it’s probably scary.”

It’s the Latin form of “Get in. Sit down. Shut up. Hold on.”

I’ve been feeling that way the last few days. Since November started, to be exact. I’ve set myself a goal of writing 1000+ words every day and they are words in addition to what I post here. Words that, if assembled in the right order and around a central theme, might be called a…well, you know.

But I don’t want to jinx it.

In the proud tradition of procrastinators everywhere, I usually end up squeezing in my writing goal between 11 p.m. and midnight. I get my fingers moving across the keyboard. I slog through the warm up, force myself through the sticky bits, finally manage to sail my word ship in the general direction of The Point…and that leaves me in a soggy mess of tears.

I’ve cried myself to sleep every night in November (sounds like a country song). And it feels great.

With all this new territory, something new struck me about “Here There Be Dragons.” The cartographers didn’t put that on there to say “DON’T GO! PADDLE THE OTHER WAY!” Maybe they put the dragons on there as a landmark, a way to know that you’re steering in the RIGHT direction.  If you’re looking to explore the uncharted lands, you are right on course.

The one thing I remember from those sailing lessons that Richard and I took in Maine just before he was diagnosed with leukemia was “Point the tiller toward the trouble.” In the weird physics of steering by wind, if you want to go around an obstacle, you have to point the tiller directly at it in order to maneuver the rudder and the boat around it. (I think I got the terms right. My sister will correct me if not.)

So some of these feelings that I’m stirring up? I hope my face burns from the dragon’s breath and this strange quivering around my heart is stirred by the dragon’s wings. And I hope I don’t fall off the edge of the world.

HC SVNT DRACONES.

 

A Rising Tide

rising tide

I had an ugly mental moment this morning.  I’ve been cultivating a sense of abundance this week.  Trying to focus on all that I have.  Chanting, “I am enough, I am enough.”  Rowing my little boat and keeping it low in the water, right in the middle of the channel.

This Voice of the Year thing on Friday is a big deal for me.  I’m claiming that.  Some days, I numb myself from the excitement so that I don’t confess that I am thrilled to have wanted something and gone out and gotten it. I’ve been trying to stay in a positive, happy place with it instead of moving straight into “I hope I don’t screw this up” territory.

This is not a left-handed plea for y’all to say, “You’re going to be fine!”  I’m just telling you where my head went because I learned something from it.  I learned that it’s really hard for me to accept attention for doing something well.  I crave that kind of attention.  I seek it out.  But when it comes, I am afraid that the rug will be pulled out from under me.  I am afraid that someone else will come along and take what I wanted so much just because I admitted that I wanted it.  I am afraid that the “You’re OK!” store will be empty by the time I get there.

I am afraid.

That’s the gist of it.  At the heart of perfectionism is fear.  At the heart of my anxiety is fear.  At the heart of my depression is fear.  It’s always fear that I won’t be enough.

I am enough.

And here’s where the ugly mental thing came in.  I saw that another blogger, who’s very creative and clever and funny, will be doing an event the same time I will.  My immediate reaction, instead of, “Oh, wonderful!  I can’t wait to spend some time with her!” was “Seek and destroy.  If you get near her, you will be less.”  Suddenly, I wanted her to fail so that she wouldn’t take any of my success.

What the hell????  I’ve never even met her.

Luckily, I’ve been reading Brene Brown’s book, “The Gift of Imperfection.”  I recognized a shame reaction as I was having it.  And even luckier, I had a therapy appointment already scheduled for today!

I made myself sit with the fear.  I checked my evidence and it proved that I have a right to be there, regardless of who else is around me.  I talked it through and realized that this once-in-a-lifetime event is also a big package of every inadequacy trigger I have, all rolled up into one.  People will see that I am old and overweight.  I might cry.  I might get short of breath and look like I’m panicking.  I might not be that good.  I might be good, but not the best.  I might ask for too much.  Maybe it’s arrogant of me to walk out on stage.

I’m reading a story about Richard and it might not be good enough to honor his memory.

These are my triggers.  Maybe they will make me sing and I’ll just black out altogether.

Part of going to therapy is letting these feelings come up.  Sitting with them.  Saying hello, then moving ON.  Even when they are scurrying to catch up to me.

I did my work with my therapist and I came back to the knowledge that there is enough of enough for everyone.  I don’t have to scrap with other writers for a limited number of readers.  I can be good.  She can be good.  You can be good.  We can all be wonderful together.

The creative life is not a competition; it’s a tide.  A rising tide lifts all boats.  When I occupy a space of abundance in my own heart, I can share it with others.  When I’m stuck in fear, I have nothing to give.  I am going to loosen my grasp, let the tide take me.  A rising tide, lifting all boats.

I’m not even going to reread this because I might chicken out on publishing it.  Just remember this:  fear doesn’t have to stop you.  It won’t stop me.