27 Jan 2015

on crippling fear + living your best life

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Of course Willie noticed it first, I now think: children major in the study of their mothers, and Willie has the elder child’s umbilical awareness of me. But how is it that I didn’t even question a weight loss striking enough for a child to speak up about? I was too happy enjoying this unexpected gift to question it even briefly: the American woman’s yearning for thinness is so deeply a part of me that it never crossed my mind that a weight loss could herald something other than good fortune. –from Marjorie Williams’s “A Matter of Life and Death”

To be honest, it’s been hard coming to this space over the past few days. Every post has been a series of stops and starts because I feel like the person who invited a few friends over for dinner and then opened her door to witness an entire village whispering at her feet. I don’t host parties; crowds give me vertigo, and I usually recede from waves of intensity. There’s the noise and chatter in my offline life–most of which I keep private and sacred–so this space has always served as my refuge. My source of calm and quiet amidst the noise that’s life. Is it strange to say that I write and think better when I think no one is reading or listening? When it’s just me in my home on these keys typing my way out of the dark?

I’ve been thinking about fear a lot. How it can be all-consuming, how it cradles you. How it tells you it’s the one lover who will never leave. At work yesterday, I talk to a colleague who views me as her mentor, and she confides to me about a series of fears that have to do with control. She can’t board a plane; she worries when people don’t immediately text her back–and as she makes her list I see in her face that these fears are real, crippling. Her shoulders cave inward, she becomes slightly undone. I spend an hour with her telling her that it never is as bad as we think it’ll be. Fear is a wall we’ve built to protect us from what’s unseen, from what our imagination conjures, from the unimaginable. But imagine the unimaginable. Play out the scene, and you’ll see that you can weather almost anything. The fear is always worse than what’s just beyond it, the elusive tragedy just beyond our reach. I spent the great deal of my life in fear of bandaids, of ripping the off, so I erected a wall and kept it standing through my excessive drinking.

The two times I quit the drink I ripped off the bandaids and while there was pain (there will always be immediate pain), the intensity of which began to fade over time and I took the days as they lay. I breathed through difficult spots because the ebb and flow of life, that paid which I’d conquered to bear witness to the light on the other side — all of this was greater than having not felt any of it at all. I’d rather endure sorrow and heartbreak rather than elude it, because we tend to forget that what we fear is temporary, and that states alter and transform. How we tether to fear is really a manipulation of time because we don’t want change. We don’t want the things we can’t control or see, so we tend to fear like it’s our private garden because it’s the one emotion whose state we think we can control.

Over the weekend, I read a remarkable essay that put my heart on pause. It was funny, acerbic, valiant, heartbreakingly honest, and downright beautiful. A writer is diagnosed with Stage IV liver cancer and delivered a death sentence of 3-6 months and manages to live out four years. Within that space of borrowed time, she doesn’t have time for fear because she knows what’s on the other side of it, so instead she uses what little time she has to live, love and laugh. She tries to live her best life. She calls out people and their pithy platitudes and breathes through each treatment, doctor visit and precious moments with her family. I read the essay twice and wept both times. It was a deep cry because I was overwhelmed by her strength, vulnerability and beauty. How she starts the story one way and ends in another place. How fear exists (how could it not?) but it’s a door she kicks down, a wall she breaks through, because why should she allow it to take her away from that which she loves?

Immediately after, I read another essay about a young man who traveled to Africa in the 1960s and began his odyssey on collecting oral history. He was told that oral storytelling was a dead art; he was told that traveling through Africa, post-apartheid, wasn’t the wisest idea. He knew that he couldn’t understand and translate the nuances of dialect and how one tells a story, but he did it anyway. He walked thousands of miles, knocked on doors, begged friends for fresh batteries, and came back to the U.S. changed.

I never had a car, I never had an interpreter or a translator, I simply started walking. –Harold Scheub

On the surface the two essays couldn’t be more different. Yet, both remained with me over the weekend and even through the first long day back at work (is it just me or did Monday feel like a month?). Both made me think about fear and the possibilities beyond it. The things I can’t see. It made me think of risk versus reward. It made me quietly reflect on my own fears.

As many of you know, I’m embarking on a trip out west this year. A year-long journey where I plan to live in four different cities, places antithetical to New York–all in pursuit of my return to wonder. I’m starting my journey in New Mexico and ending it in Seattle, and who knows what will happen during the year or the hours after. And while this is SO EXCITING, and all of my friends want to hear every detail and plan, I’m terrified. I’m afraid that I won’t secure enough freelance work to keep me afloat because so much of my life is bound to New York. I’m afraid of losing my apartment even though I realize how innane that sounds. I’m afraid of feeling lonely even though I mostly like to spend my time with very few people or alone. I’m afraid that I’ll fail in a way I can’t quite identify. I’m afraid that I won’t have enough money to keep paying off my mountain of debt. I’m afraid of the people I might lose even though I know in my heart that people can’t be lost. I’m afraid of getting into a car and driving it. I’m afraid of being in places unknown to me even though I travel extensively and, at turns, thrilled with the idea of living in the unfamiliar. I’m afraid of getting on a plane (always). I’m afraid of lots of things I’d rather not share on this space.

But then I re-read these essays, get inspired by people who lived bravely and valiantly. People who broke ranks by moving past fear. I think about that. A lot. And then I think about my trip and all that’s waiting for me on the other side.

0 Comments

  1. Leaving everything one knows behind is terrifying and yet at the end of the day you will grow because the journey is so important. I don’t know you personally but what you wrote resonates with me because my husband and I decided a few months ago to sell everything and move to France with not even a job in the future and nothing in the rearview mirror. It was – and still is – terrifying.
    But it’s about seeing the possibilities beyond that door instead of the fear it holds. And keeping faith that at the end of the journey, you will be a better person than at the start; not necessarily because of some major change but rather because you will have learned new things about the world, about yourself.
    I wish you a wonderful journey and may it bring you joy. If nothing else, that is already so important. Safe travel and “bon vent” as we say in French 😉 .

    Posted on 1.27.15 · Reply to comment
    • Wow! That’s so brave and awesome. I’m so excited for your adventure and what will invariably unfold. I have to remind myself, daily, about the perils of fear and how to keep faith, so your comment was another wonderful reminder. Thanks!

      Posted on 1.27.15 · Reply to comment
  2. Rachel wrote:

    Wow – just wonderful. I can’t tell you how much I relate. I just recently left everything to move to Seattle. The fear still wakes me up on occassion! I wish you all the best & know your travels will be successful. Thanks for sharing!

    Posted on 1.27.15 · Reply to comment
    • Rachel! I’ll be in Seattle at one point. I’ve a few friends who have remade their lives there and they are the happier for it. Wishing you so much luck and light in your journey!!

      Posted on 1.27.15 · Reply to comment
  3. Kduf wrote:

    Do not credit fear with the nervousness of excitement. You’re body and mind have been preparing to jump- so enjoy the leap, and flap wisely until the blood flows through your strengthening wings managing the courses along the flowing winds.

    Onward and Upward,
    Kevin Dufresne

    Posted on 1.27.15 · Reply to comment
  4. I wish I had read this heartfelt, intelligent post years ago! I was brought up on fear, and, as a result, have missed out on much. I am only now learning, at this late age in life, that fear is the enemy – not the things we think we fear. I loved your explanation of fear as a “door to kick down.” The best line: “How we tether to fear is really a manipulation of time because we don’t want change. We don’t want the things we can’t control or see, so we tend to fear like it’s our private garden because it’s the one emotion whose state we think we can control.” Brilliant! I’m putting that quote on the wall in my office. THANK YOU for an intelligent compassionate piece. Best of luck to you and please keep writing. I look forward to your posts.

    Posted on 1.27.15 · Reply to comment
    • Christine –And thank YOU for leaving the kindest comment. I had the longest day ever so coming home to such warm, supportive words is the greatest salve.

      Posted on 1.27.15 · Reply to comment
      • Christine, those are the same sentences that resonated with me strongly, like a thunderbolt clap! I know that I will be thinking about this piece all day, Felicia. Thank you from a grateful villager. 🙂

        Posted on 1.29.15 · Reply to comment
  5. Wow, just wonderful

    Posted on 1.27.15 · Reply to comment
  6. glenda1203 wrote:

    I believe life is a journey that changes as we evolve and change is good. Fear can cripple you if you let it. One day at a time. Enjoy your journey. You will come out that much stronger.

    Posted on 1.27.15 · Reply to comment
  7. Tiefsa wrote:

    I always say that the world belongs to the creators, and you just created something beautiful with this article! Keep taking risks and living life.

    Posted on 1.27.15 · Reply to comment
  8. salcoady wrote:

    I love this – thank you for sharing and thank you for introducing me to the two essays in your story – amazing.

    Posted on 1.27.15 · Reply to comment
    • You’re so welcome. The first essay was just so beautiful and prolific, it’s worth reading several times and holding your beloveds close.

      Posted on 1.27.15 · Reply to comment
      • salcoady wrote:

        Absolutely – I just finished it – have added it to favourites and about to share it with others – heart wrenching yet heart warming – thanks again for leading me to it. I look forward to more of your writing.

        Posted on 1.27.15 · Reply to comment
  9. sarah wrote:

    this is such a powerful statement about issues that so many of us face. good luck on your journey out west. only by taking risks will you be able to live an authentic life. it’s freeing. best of luck!

    Posted on 1.28.15 · Reply to comment

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Characters are delicious. When I was small, I didn’t have many friends, so I surrounded myself with books and my imagination. It’s a strange, magical thing to live your life inside your head, but this is what I did. Long, sultry summers formed a backdrop for one of the many worlds I’d created, complete with a cast of characters who felt so real you could touch them. This was more than inventing an imaginary friend or anthropomorphizing a stuffed bear; my characters were fully-formed people who had their own personalities, a particular way of talk, and facial features I’d cobbled together from television shows and magazines. They clasped pearls around their thin necks and wore sweaters and shoes made of silk and dyed blue. They were carriers of credit cards, plastic rectangular shapes I’d only seen on TV — a far cry from the crumpled bills and pennies we hoarded. My characters were breathing Frankensteins, only far less frightening. What made them real was they refused to follow a script — they rarely behaved the way I wanted them to.
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Denis Johnson once said that dialogue isn’t about what characters are saying, but what’s left unsaid. The leaner the dialogue, the bigger the bite. Darkness fell. The summer in 2005 was unseasonably chilly, and we wrapped ourselves in light jackets and thin cotton sweaters, watching the author of Jesus’ Sonchain-smoke and dole out advice with humor and humility. We were at a writer’s conference where we workshopped our stories during the day and mingled with boldfaced names in the evening. This would be the summer before I sold my first book and I was floored that my teacher at the time, Nick Flynn, found something honest and worthy in my essays that would become my memoir, The Sky Isn’t Visible From Here. Back then, I was painfully shy and prone to giving violently awkward first impressions, so instead of the cocktails and conversation, I chose to sit on the wet grass and listen to writers whom I admired. One evening, Denis Johnson gave a talk on dialogue.
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Dialogue is difficult. I often think of it as the power-lifter of novel writing because it has to operate successfully on several different levels. Not only does it have to move the story forward, convey information quickly, and grant narrative breathing space (because who wants to plow through pages without an exhale), but it also has to reveal core character truths. Dialogue delivers what narrative can’t — a voyeuristic, in-depth look into the minds of characters through what they say, and more importantly, what they chose not to disclose. Characters come to life when they speak. We visualize them as living, breathing people who have a particular way of talk, a specific view of the world and their place in it. While the author has dominion over the narrative, serving as your tour guide through the story, the dialogue serves as the wild card, the wrench that could usurp everything you’ve just read and what you’re about to read.
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These podcasts invite guests who look and sound just like them. They regurgitate the same bullshit business advice that Seth Godin wrote a decade ago, and pithy platitudes because it got that influencer turned entrepreneur rich on Instagram, and now she sells courses for $600 a pop when she’s never done the thing she teaches for anyone other than herself. These people are so obsessed with building their brand that they forgot to be human.
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