Good Morning, Fear

I don’t know if it’s some twisted application of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s famous words or if it’s simply human nature, but I spend a lot of time in fear of fear itself. Unless I encounter something like a snake on a trail or a swerving car hurtling toward me, I don’t really interact much with my own fear, even though I have lots of it. My practice is to treat it as an unwelcome houseguest I hope will go away if I just close my eyes long enough. And yet fear exerts a huge influence on my psyche; it’s almost as if it gains power the more I pretend it’s not there.

I experienced this phenomenon over the weekend. Rio and a kid he knows had a run-in, and for some reason, this incident triggered a lot of painful feelings in me, most of which were faces of fear. Are Annie and I parenting right? Will Rio be rejected? Will I be rejected? Why are there so many loose, imperfect ends in my life? Why am I doing only A through G on my list of improvements for self, family, and house instead of A to Z? And why the fuck do we have so many things in storage?

I say this now, but on Saturday, I couldn’t have listed these fears because I was too busy shielding my eyes from them. I’m very good at knowing what I feel, but not so good at knowing what I fear. It’s as if I recoil the moment fear makes its presence known, retreating to my insulated chamber where I wait for the world to go away. I didn’t reach out to anyone most of the weekend and instead played a favorite game of mine called Numb It.

The problem is that fear is hungry and doesn’t take kindly to being ignored. It came back with a dagger, striking at 4 a.m. when I bolted awake with a morbid sense of rupture between me and Rio, between Rio and that kid, between our house and theirs. It’s as if fear hired a horror-film director and cast a montage of worst-case scenarios on my mind’s wall. In short, spurned fear returned as anxiety, which afflicted me all weekend long.

The other form unmet fear takes for me is anger. Recently Annie and I had a disagreement. I had been building resentment, which I’d been hiding so expertly I didn’t even see it myself. But then Annie committed some small infraction that triggered the “I’ve got her” response, and I pointed a long finger in her direction and made sweeping generalizations that hurt. I raised my voice so loud my vocal chords felt strained the whole day; I even threw my jacket to the kitchen floor with a flourish, an act so silly I wish I’d caught it on camera so I could get some kicks later watching my own folly.

Finally I settled down, and as we kept talking we reached a tender place. And then I admitted, “I’m scared.” I listed everything I was afraid of, in terms of our marriage, our family, our future, and she said, “I wish you had just started there. I can meet you there. We can work from there.”

I don’t have a magic bullet for interacting with fear; I just know avoiding it causes me more harm than good.  I want to see fear as an opening to walk through, not a steel-jawed trap to run from.

My friend Jason told me a story years ago that I like to keep in mind. A man is sitting in his house and he hears a scary monster outside. It (whatever it is we don’t want to face) is walking around the house, trying all the doors and windows, trying to get in. The man imagines a ghoulish monster with long claws dripping in blood. He retreats to a back room. The monster starts to knock. When no one comes, the monster knocks louder and says, “I know you’re in there!” The man finally musters up the courage to answer the door, and he looks out to find a tiny smiling creature standing on the mat. “What took you so long?” the creature asks, and walks in.

Hung Out to Dry

Photo by Anna Blackshaw

I was awed during my recent trip to New Orleans by the sheer number of people expressing themselves artistically in public. Damn, it was good to see all those guts turned outward.

Lots of images stay with me: the dreadlocked teenager in a suit sitting atop a traffic-light box strumming a banjo as his buddies played an upright bass and washboard on the sidewalk beneath him; a tattooed young woman belting out the blues on the corner like some punk-rock Bessie Smith; the beautiful couple dressed in old-fashioned clothes dancing the Charleston as an old-time band jammed behind them; the big trombone player with pillows for cheeks who beamed between thrusts of his bent piece of brass.

Driving home from the airport back in North Carolina, I looked out over the well-maintained streets and said to Annie, “I miss me some funk.”

Not to say that the place where we live isn’t the home of some vibrant art; it just seems well tucked-away. People do their funk in private, it seems, and I miss the places I’ve lived and visited where people pin their souls to their lapels and scream.

I say this as someone who himself is fairly guarded in public; I’ve never been an airplane-talker or bus-chatter or look-at-me-over here kind of guy. But I do share my inner struggles and epiphanies, as long as it feels right. To me the idea of “wearing one’s heart on their sleeve” has been misinterpreted and maligned; I’m not advocating the laying bare of all one’s angst in bouts of self-serving sensationalism, but I do think too few people answer basic questions like “how are you today” with real answers. I say, give me some goods, and I’ll give you some of mine.

But such exchanges aren’t for everybody. Some prefer a life where struggles stay safely beneath the surface. I’ve always loved that scene in Annie Hall when a worrisome Alvy Singer (Woody Allen) stops a couple on the street and asks, “You seem like a happy couple; how do you account for it?” And the woman says with a smile, “Uh, I’m very shallow and empty and I have no ideas and nothing interesting to say.” And her partner pipes in, “And I’m exactly the same way!”

I can understand the instinct to play it safe — it’s a little scary on the ledge. I recently wrote a note to a friend in which I was daring with some feelings I was having; I didn’t hear back from him for a few days, and during that lull (in which I checked email way too often), I fretted over how much of my laundry I’d put out on the line. I read and reread my note, scrutinizing each word to see if it said too much. I was dying for some validation that what I’d exposed was in safe hands, but the silence continued. I ended up regretting that I sent the note, wishing I had not opened the door in my chest where truth comes and goes. Am I a fool to leave it ajar?

The key, it seems, is to know one’s audience. There are some people who like nothing more than to roll up their sleeves and play a good hand of what’s really going on with you. There are others who might like a peek but not a full disclosure. And there are some who would rather not play at all, for a variety of reasons, big and small. I try to be discriminating, but I’m not always going to get it right. There will be times I say too much. It’s in these moments, I think, that integrity truly gets tested. I once told a mentor about a moment when I had revealed too much. “Aha. So they’ve seen you with your pants down!” he said. “Now the question is what will you do in the glare of those lights?”

The answer is: I will continue to be bold, because doing so has freed me from years of shyness as a child and decades of swallowing my truths instead of sharing them. When I pull my own curtains back, whether on the page or in voice, I shed the layers distancing me from life’s messy splendor; when this is reciprocated, the resulting intimacy is an antidote to loneliness. So I will press on, knowing I’ll sometimes get caught on the corner with my broken self fluttering in the wind. I’ll reel it in, give it a squeeze, and unfurl it again. There are people on sidewalks everywhere trusting the world with their mottled beauty, and I will always be one of them. And damn, what a tribe.

Photo by Dion Nissenbaum