May 27, 2018

the post where i get honest about fear

Blogger's Note: I wrote this post a couple weeks ago. I wrote it for myself. I wasn't sure if I could, would, or should share it. But alas, as I explain later, I decided the brave (or maybe just self-indulgent) thing to do would be to hit "publish." Here we go . . . 

Everyone keeps asking me about France. It's only natural to ask someone about a trip abroad in the first weeks after their return. "It looks like you had fun," they say, probably because they've seen the smattering of photos I've shared on Facebook and Instagram. They ask me what I did, what I ate, what it was like.

I'm quick to give my answer, the same almost rehearsed piece of dialogue. "It was a lot of fun. It was very busy and full. But it was fun. I'm so lucky I had time to explore." Then I might share an anecdote about finding the macarons Rick Steves wrote about in the backpacking travel guide I bought in 2012. When I still thought I might one day take off for eight weeks to see Europe with little more than a few pairs of jeans and T-shirts. Or I'll tell them how I was stung by a bee on my cheek for the first time ever. How I was trying to find the closest metro station to Place de la Concorde even while I worried I might discover a deadly allergy to bees. Or about being among the first people in the room to see the Mona Lisa after the Louvre opened on a Monday morning.

On and on.

I don't give these canned answers because I'm insincere. My trip was fun. Between balancing my work schedule and the long list of touristy to-do items in a limited amount of time, it was busy and full. I do feel lucky. Truly I do. I have new memories to cherish. Memories I'm grateful to have and wouldn't replace.

But I haven't told many the full truth. About how I really felt while I was in a place I've always wanted to visit.

I don't tell them I was scared. Terrified. The whole time. Not about the protests or strikes I knew to expect. Not even the possibility of a terrorist attack. I don't let myself be afraid of that. Refuse it. No, I was scared of the one, small part of my trip that came at the end. I was scared of climbing aboard subways and trains before dawn and traveling across a city I don't know, and where I don't speak the language, clad with multiple bags of luggage. Alone for the first time on this trip.

I'll be a sitting target, I thought to myself. I'll stick out as a woman traveling alone. More because I'll have suitcases and a purse that will undoubtedly carry my credit cards and American passport. People get mugged. Women get abducted. And worse. I've heard the stories. Unlike any apprehension about terrorism, I'm unable to steel myself against the fear. To tell myself it will be okay. From a week before I left for France, and until the moment I made it to the airport to return home, I was scared I'd let down my guard and become a victim. I covered for this by telling people I was afraid to miss my flight home, because it would suck, but really the fear was more raw and struck me at my core.

When it was over, it hadn't been so bad. It took me a few more days to think it had been silly of me to worry. It took another week still of off-and-on reflection to realize that it was sad, even. For a couple of reasons. It's sad because I let fear be my constant companion and taint what was truly a wonderful opportunity. And sad because, in reality, it's a fear so many of us live with, because the world we live in can be hard and cruel.

I talked about this a little with my parents. My mother nodded knowingly. She understood. My father launched into a few stories about his own European adventures and how he'd spent them alone. It was in the middle of this I interrupted and told him it wasn't a fear of being alone. It was a fear of feeling weak and like a target. It's the same fear I feel walking to my car late at night. While going on a bike trail. Or the when I hear fluttering in the attic, and it takes me a few moments to remember it's probably a mouse or a squirrel. As much as I've come to appreciate my alone time, it also becomes what I'm most afraid of when things go bump in the night.

No matter how much I rationalize the odds or tell myself it will be okay, I can't shake the fear. Even in my twenties, when I traveled for work alone, I was scared. I was probably better at managing it then. That's not true. I might walk into a motel room that didn't feel great. I'd push a chair against the door and set my alarm for an earlier hour so I'd spend as little time there as possible. But perhaps the fear didn't feel so strong, because it was so constant and I was in better practice of how to deal with it.

And it's a shame. It's a shame we teach our daughters and sisters and friends how to carry their car keys in a defensive manner. It's a shame we have to talk about carrying ourselves with a certain air. It's a shame our world isn't kinder. It's a shame fear plays such a strong role in so much of our society. Because we're all afraid of something. Of someone. I wonder if there will ever come a time when that isn't true. A utopia of sorts.

During all this contemplation, I reached for The Handmaid's Tale.

My copy of Margaret Atwood's book has moved with me to the dorms, my first apartment, my last apartment, and everywhere in between. I had to read it for AP English my senior year of high school. At the time it was one of only two required books I'd had in high school written by a woman. Already a self-described feminist, my seventeen-year-old self clung to the book and immediately named it my all-time favorite required read. I felt terribly mature and wise reading the book, picking up on the allegories and symbolism. When I read it again in college, I still carried that same air, seemingly telling people that I was "woke" before it was cool. I've always been a little pretentious like that.

I meant to read the book a few years ago. When I turned twenty-nine, I set a goal of re-reading my thirty all-time favorite books before I turned thirty. I didn't make it very far down the list, and I abandoned the idea a few months into the year. I decided to try again the year I turned thirty, but again, the plan never came to fruition. In fall 2016, when I heard about the Hulu series, I told myself I'd re-read it again, for certain this time. I always try to re-read a book before I watch a film or TV adaptation. But then I couldn't bring myself to do it or to watch the show. It's amazing, I've heard. The critics and awards love it. Still I didn't watch. I was too raw or fragile to open myself to a dystopian story that had opened my eyes when I was still basically a child.

Whatever the reason--the constant advertisements or a basic need to feel brave--I grabbed the book. I only meant to re-read a scene that had popped into my head. I wondered if I remembered it correctly. One scene turned into two, then into three. Before long, I was back to page one and reading every word, sometimes several times. In some ways, it was like reconnecting with an old friend--or mentor perhaps. Yet it was like reading it for the first time. I suppose it was a first reading of sorts. The first time reading it as a woman who has lived more of life. I was halfway through the book before I realized I'm now the same age as the heroine. The full weight of that reality rocked me. As a teenager, the idea seemed so distant. This happened in another time to people much older than me. But this time, I was reading the horror story of someone who'd lived as long as I had. That connection somehow made it seem more real.

I saw the story differently. I didn't just read the book and contemplate the horror of the society. For the first time, I read the book more in Offred's shoes, understanding the fear mingled with bouts of resignation. I don't know if I truly understood fear or apathy back in my teens as I do now.

I still don't understand how a lot of life works. The older I get, the more I realize I don't know. Will never know. That's so different than it was when I was a punk seventeen-year-old who thought she knew everything, or would soon.

That's possibly the heart of it; the fear. The knowing I'll never know or understand everything completely. That no one will. That we'll never be able to truly predict an outcome for ourselves or our world at home. It's disappointing. It's terrifying.

Yet we have to push on. Don't we? Isn't that the meaning behind stiff upper lip and playing hurt? If we don't move forward, we get stuck. I find myself getting stuck a lot. Whether it's with writing, working, or living. I get scared, and it paralyzes me. It keeps me from moving on.

That's why I'm writing this post, I think. Like somehow acknowledging my fear, and that it may be my constant companion forever, will make it easier to keep going. Maybe someone will read this and acknowledge she's fearful of the unknown and the imagined too. It might make us feel less alone. Because we're not alone. Not in our fear and not in our world. We can only do our best to not let that fear completely take over. To let it guide us for worse. Some fear might be good, even. It's a fear of pain that keeps us from touching stoves or running with scissors. But that's little fear, Manageable. It's okay as as it doesn't become our master; as long as it doesn't keep us from living.

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  1. How brave and honest and powerful this post is. Thank you, Laura, for sharing it.
    When I was newly married (and 36), I remember my husband looked at me with bemusement because I was so diligent about locks. It was my habit to lock the car doors as soon as I got in, and I always turned the deadbolt when I shut the front door. He didn’t really get it, but having lived in apartments, not always in the best parts of town, for twelve years, taught me to be careful.
    I’m sorry you had these fears while you were abroad, and I’m sorry that they detracted from your enjoyment. And we both know that some people DO let it take over, DO let it keep them from truly living. My heart aches for them, but also for you.
    I don’t have the answers, Laura. But your last paragraph seems to be working it out. And we are not alone. Love to you. ����

    1. Thank you, Martha. Locks! That's another thing I'm semi obsessive about (and have to actively tell myself "you've already checked--you don't have to again"). I appreciate your kind words. :*