In my twenties I proudly displayed a hot-pink sticker on my car that proclaimed in jagged letters that I had NO FEAR. Even then, I knew this wasn’t true. The sticker was more like the St. Mary charm my best friend Mary Jane wore in junior high that kept her from losing anything more after her baby brother died of leukemia. I had plenty of fear, but by announcing it did not exist I was faking it out, driving forward in my life, to work, to the pool, to my therapist’s office, to clubs where I heard singers echo my thoughts aloud late into the night, and home again.
On the other hand, in my seven-year-old son’s world of super-powered heroes and secret-mission spies, there is truly no fear. Plastic men burst with muscles, unfurl their fighting action, and grip complex swords. Of course, as his mom, I protect him from the need to fear. The bamboo jungle ends with a fence. The enemy under surveillance is a neighbor innocently retrieving his paper. Bicycling includes me speed-walking behind, dragging the dog along.
But who holds my fear in check? Recently I sent off a manuscript that I’ve been working on for years to an interested editor who works for a nice publishing house. With two unpublished books on my shelf, the idea of risking rejection still again is breath-taking. Meanwhile, my best friend Angie is marking one year since a vicious and cold man side-swiped her life. She ponders the notion of dating again as if it were a suspected carcinogen. Together we stand on the cliff, holding hands, staring down into the churning sea of our desires. We are counting down toward the jump.
In my pre-NO FEAR sticker days I lived in the country on a hill planted with a row of a dozen houses. They had been moved from the center of town (to make way for ugly condos and apartments I imagined) and placed here as cheap rental housing. Besides the rent, the pluses were a sun that set over an extinct volcano called Pilot Knob and a wind that rose in the darkness and reminded me of the sea. The minuses were no air conditioning, poor heat, and a loneliness that blew in once my boyfriend had moved out. Sitting on the porch, my hair whipping in the breeze, nursing a Tecate with lime, I could have been the only human being left on the planet after a terrible explosion. Occasionally, a car would pass on the ridge behind me, another survivor getting the hell out. Though I lived there for just a year before moving on to grad school, those evenings occupy a vast part of my memory. Sitting on the front stoop—I couldn’t afford porch furniture—I drew comfort from the light in the sea of darkness: the moon, which sometimes hid behind a cloud or grew too thin to admire, and a porch light several houses down. The light belonged to a guy named Jim. He was an artist and bicyclist who was older and with whom I occasionally shared tea or a 20-mile ride. Though I rarely walked down for an unannounced visit, it helped to know someone was there.
Of course, my son does have fears. For nearly a year after he demanded that his training wheels be removed, he would not learn to ride his bike. Then one day he announced: Today I will ride! We went to a nearby school with a padded track just in case. Under a sky that looked like smoke, he threw one leg over, pushed off and rode away. He had overcome his fear and was ready to fly. His greatest fear, though, is every child’s—that one day some part of his world will suddenly break off, throwing everything into question. When I yell at him, I can see this fear in his set lip. “I’m moving out!” he announces. I apologize and allow him to pack his backpack with clean underwear and a tooth brush (secretly taking pride in his priorities), and then ask if it’s time for a hug. Together we put fear in its place, outside our house, outside our yard, far, far away.
It turns out that the man with the porch light and I got married many years later. I found out he is the type of person who never turns out the porch light. If it were up to him, it would burn strong day and night until the bulb was finished. It’s my job to turn it off in the morning and on at dusk. So that light which gave me such comfort was really a sort of mirage. I thought it meant he was there on the other side of the darkness, smoking a cigarette, flipping through an art book, sipping mint tea. But actually, the meaning was entirely in my head.
Fear is like that. Fear is what you’re thinking about something when you should be doing it. The only thing keeping Cope from riding his bike, was his fear. The only thing keeping me from writing the best book I can is fear. The only thing that keeps any of us from the thing we love is our fear of it. Our fear of losing it.
Sometimes Cope and I talk about
fear and courage. His plastic muscle-men
encourage him to believe that you must be special—from outer space or
green—to be brave. I tell him I don’t agree. I tell him that a hero
is afraid. What makes him or her different is the courage to act in the
face of their fear. Mothers, writers, fathers, artists, leaders,
followers, believers, anarchists, housewives, computer programmers—we
all have fear. What keeps us passionate and connected is our courage to
stand up in the face of all there is to fear. What is truly scary is
letting fear take over, leaving nothing but inaction or a schedule too
busy for contemplating the dark water and stepping off the cliff.