Tag: Bravery


Captain Courage

“We should go out,” Natalie observed this morning once we had finished muddling through breakfast. Oh boy. After twenty-seven deep breaths and a booster shot of Zen, I forced myself to agree. We should go out. It can’t be healthy to cluck around inside our tiny coop alldayeveryday, and maybe the giant-sized world outside would go easy on us — a wee flock of homebound girls with shy feathers.

But first, there were naps and a shower and diaper changes and potty time. Clothes were procured from the laundry line (because one can’t wear a bathrobe forever, you know), hair was brushed, makeup was applied. Sunscreen was dolloped onto wriggling fair-skinned girls, and my industrial-strength corduroy purse was filled: wallet, no wallet (who wants the extra weight?), keys, phone, wallet again (we need to get eggs), lip gloss, tissues, camera, baby food, dirty bib, oops, clean bib, spoons, napkins, water bottle, water to go in the water bottle, sunglasses, did I already get the keys? Natalie got her holey jeans and socks and her cool silvery tennis shoes, plus a polka-dot headband—her latest fashion obsession. Sophie got a hat, until I remembered how she always flings it in the mud, and those great Velcro sandals she loves to remove with her teeth, and I buckled her into the stroller. We were going to do it.

Out the door we traipsed into my Tim Burtonesque imaginationscape. Curly, sunken-eyed trees, purple-tinged sunlight, whimsical hostility at every turn. But I could not in good conscience let myself become a hermit. At least, I could not retreat until we had spent at least as much time outside as we had spent preparing to go out, so I screwed my courage to the sticking place* and marched on.

Natalie skipped and picked pink flowers that “smelled like candy!” while Sophie kicked for joy and occasionally tried to dive-bomb out of her stroller. We bought eggs without any meltdowns or blitzed grocery displays, and my outlook slowly softened. Maybe these great outdoors, buzzing with life and warmth and green, were not so terrifying. Maybe I really could find my way back to my lane in the flow of normalcy and be the kind of mom who breezes her girls to the playground every morning without a hitch. And even if I found it tough to pry myself away from home, I could do it for them. Just seeing Natalie’s palpable excitement about going to play with other children made the trip worth it.

Except that by the time we got to the playground, it was deserted. Every one of the other kids had gone home for lunch. Natalie, ever an optimist, asked me for her pail and shovel (“Sorry, we didn’t bring those”) and then for her soccer ball (“Uh, we didn’t bring that either”) and finally just wandered forlornly around the empty swings and seesaw. I sat down on the winner’s bench for Crappiest Mother of the Year and fed Sophie her puréed blueberries, which she alternately spit out and sneezed out, and my head slowly began closing in on me. The sun was gothic cartoon again, the olive trees dense and grabby. I remembered the piles of dishes and laundry and misplaced toys I had ignored for the sake of this trip, back at home breeding and throwing wild parties like housework tends to do when left to its own devices. And suddenly, I needed to be indoors RIGHT AWAY.

I hate how easily panic hits me these days. There is never a reason or an obvious trigger, though anytime between noon and 7 p.m. is fair game. It just strikes my brain like a lightning bolt, and I can’t catch my breath. I can’t think straight. All I can see is the future billowing in flames around me and some abstract shapes of terror, urgent terror. I wouldn’t be surprised if my eyes turned white during these attacks, like the character from X-Men who summons tornadoes with her thoughts.

There might as well have been tornadoes shrieking over my head as we rushed home today. It had been too much. Simply going out had been too much. Or maybe it was going to all that effort, so much effort, just to reinforce our collective loneliness. I had suddenly acquired a taste for agoraphobia, and it chased me up the elevator, shaking, into our front door. Goodbye world, hello chronic wimp.

Much later in the day, as I was relocating messes and bludgeoning myself over the brain, a quote flashed through my mind: Courage is the willingness to accept fear and act anyway.** Despite my fragile state of mind and irrational fears of the world around me, I made the effort to walk out my front door today. What’s more, I survived. And the more I think about it, the more I realize that hey, this pretty much makes me Captain Courage. With way cuter clothes.

The End

*I have a thing for Shakespeare. Don’t tell Dan.

**Not Shakespeare. Not Jesus. Not sure who said this, in fact. Was it you?


Pulitzer by December

Last year, whenever a new acquaintance asked what I did, I would reply, “Oh, nothing right now.” Or, if I felt the need to impress, “I used to teach English; I’m just on a break.” The truth, however, was that I was writing whenever I could–an hour here, two there, an illicit midday rendezvous with Starbucks–but I didn’t want anyone to know. I didn’t feel like I could call myself a writer before getting published. Plus, if people knew I was working on a story, they would expect me to… you know, finish it.

Right after we moved to Italy, however, we were invited to a dinner party where Dan let it slip that I love to write. “Oh, wow!” everyone exclaimed (in Italian, of course). “That’s wonderful! What have you written? Who are you writing for? What kinds of things do you like to write?”

“Uhhhhhhh…” I replied eloquently.

The moral of that charming anecdote is this: If you want to be motivated to finish those stories gathering megabytes of dust in your “Unfinished” folder, tell a group of Italians that you’re a writer. They will 1) cheer you on with infectious enthusiasm, and 2) ask you about your projects so often that you end up finishing if only to feel less like an international loser.

This afternoon, I finally submitted a story for possible publication. Initially, I freaked out a little, but once I calmed down, I was able to FREAK OUT A LOT. Sending that manuscript felt like packing my snackable little Sophie into a basket with a red bow on top and leaving her in the middle of Cannibals ‘R’ Us.

Delicious toes Definitely edible.)

However, I’m completely enthralled by the fact that I took my first step into a world I want to inhabit. My story may not be accepted, but I’m okay with that (stop laughing, Dan); I’ll send it somewhere else. What makes the most difference to me right now is that I, a notorious procrastinator and fraidy-cat, finished something. I didn’t know I had that final “oomph” in me, and now that I do, I’m seeing possibilities pop out of the woodwork on all sides. My next story goes out a week from tomorrow (I finished the rough draft today, ::happy dance::), and then, who knows? A Pulitzer by December?*

I’ll be spending the rest of my day scattered in giddy pieces all over the rug. Please feel free to join me!

* Of 2052?


Bragging Rights

Mr. Freeze was, without question, the most horrible apparatus I had ever seen. 1,450 feet of icy blue track shot out of a dilapidated warehouse, performing grotesque twists and gyrations at breakneck speed, finally careening straight into the sky with only gravity as a harness. And THEN? A backwards free-fall, upside-down corkscrews, 4G forces yanking at the tiny magnetized cars. I involuntarily clutched my stomach. “No. No, no, no. No way, no. I wouldn’t ride that for a million dollars. Have I mentioned the fact that NO?”

As I waited on a bench for my brothers and dad to risk their lives on the deathcoaster, I considered that I probably would ride it for a million dollars. Maybe even fifty–think of all the lip gloss I could buy! But no one was paying, and anyway, twelve-years-old was far too young to die.

But! whispered an unfamiliar voice from a shadowy corner of my brain. You’ll regret it if you don’t try. You know you will.

“Uh huh. And what, exactly, about not committing 70 miles-per-hour suicide will I regret?”

The experience, whispered my brain. The adrenaline rush. The thrill of speed. The wind in your face. The chance to see the world upside-down and sideways.

“Sorry, but no. I just… I just can’t.”

Somewhere, in the back of my brain, a devious smile–Even for bragging rights?

So, for the paltry prize of bragging rights, I rode Mr. Freeze. I trembled through the entire line, sweating and nauseous and imagining my funeral, but I got on the coaster nonetheless. Once buckled into the harness and staring straight into the first tunnel, the tracks underneath me buzzing with barely-leashed energy, I died at the rate of four thousand times a second. My fears spiraled madly. I pictured my head exploding into bloody shards of stupidity or gravity suddenly taking a lunch break. I was spectacularly dramatic.

However, the instant that rollercoaster took off, I became a different person. For the first time in my life, my heart pumped more adrenaline than blood. I felt the wind–really felt it–and the speed and the movement like an enormous daredevil ballet. I felt an entirely new kind of alive, the kind that comes with risk and determination. I loved every second.

The whispering stranger in my brain found a voice that day, and I have treated it as a friend ever since. Admittedly, it is the kind of friend that mothers tell their children to stay away from, but that just makes it more enticing. It has talked me into small things like jet skiing and eating grubs, and it has talked me into huge things like traveling the world and taking off down a snowy mountain with both feet strapped onto a flimsy board. My stomach still knots up whenever I face a daring situation–I would hardly call myself fearless–but I’ve learned to embrace what scares me for the sake of a full and vivid life, for experience. And, of course, for the bragging rights.


The Story

This story starts like a mystery.

A long, green-brown river snakes across Texas. Early Spanish explorers named it “Los Brazos de Dios”–the arms of God–but God’s reach only extends into the Great Plains, forgotten. Along its banks, stubby trees twist out of the clay, staking their claim in the eternal flatness of the Southwest. The river is quiet. Lonely. Uninhabited. Except for them. The 510-acre compound is a dense patch of green in the dusty fields north of Waco. Nestling among the shrubbery are a gristmill, a blacksmith shop, a communal farm. Work horses shuffle wearily in their stables. Small green lizards scurry under rows of sunflowers. Her face is dappled by the early morning light filtering through the church windows. She could have been one of the women in their floor-length dresses with each strand of hair obediently pinned out of sight. She could have been one of the close-cropped men sweating submissively in their long sleeves. But she was just a child, and not just a child but an outsider, cowering under a pew while hundreds of plain-dressed men and women simultaneously screamed in tongues.

This story almost ended a mystery as well. My memories flutter in confetti bits like young children’s often do… Chigger bites at the stained-glass shop. Pecan pie made with some healthy alternative to sugar. Six lanky brothers playing bluegrass on homemade banjoes. A gray-haired grandmother’s pregnant belly. Group songs about a man whose limbs were cut off for praising God. Moonlit rides home after the adults’ hushed meetings. The point is that I remember. When I finally got up the courage to ask about this group, several years ago, I was told I was never there. We both knew it was a lie–the forced shrug, the too-casual change of subject, the thin hope my questions would go away. But some questions can’t be shrugged away. I desperately needed to understand the first fourteen years of my life and why they were kept so far from my grasp. I’ve asked questions, I’ve scoured my memory, I’ve Googled every term I could think of. And finally, today, I found the answers. The group has taken a new name and is under investigation, but nothing has really changed. This part of the story is a history text, the factual treatment of shocking information that you expect to culminate in disaster. 

It started with a group of disillusioned New Yorkers and a mishmash of Pentecostal and Anabaptist beliefs, but mostly with a man. He claimed he was the voice of God. He promised to simplify their lives if only they packed up, moved across the country with him, and promised to pool their future resources for “the church.”Most of his followers enjoy the chance to play Little House on the Prairie in isolation from the secular world. They carve their own furniture and bake their own bread. They plow their fields à la Pa Ingalls and sing together instead of watching television in the evenings. But not all their beliefs are so innocuous. Wedding rings are banned for being a “pagan” custom, as are Christmas trees and makeup. Members are discouraged from visiting doctors, treating sickness instead with herbal remedies and prayer. They do not get Social Security numbers or college degrees, trying so hard to disassociate themselves from the outside world that they even cut off family ties. They are advised to use severe physical punishment on their children, including infants. Any member who disagrees with the leadership’s spiritual “revelations” is publicly humiliated and kicked out of the group. People are free to leave, of course, but they are reigned in by the terrible fear of lost salvation. The leader’s interpretation of theology says that no one’s place in heaven is secure, and his followers live a desperate existence of trying to adequately please God. Children who don’t speak “in tongues” (supposedly a special language that God understands though it sounds like gibberish) are told they aren’t saved. Families are told that their relatives living elsewhere in the world are not true Christians. Women are required to home school their children, men are required to work on the compound, and everyone is required to follow strict dress and conduct codes–all to earn their daily salvation at the word of the leader.

Maybe this story is really a John Grisham thriller and I’m the witness that escaped… names lodged in the recesses of my memory, faces peeking out like magazine scraps. However, I feel much more like a character in a psychological tragedy. Emotions broadside me in quick succession, each hit heavier than the last–shock, repugnance, comprehension, affirmation, pain. I’ve heard of support groups for cult survivors; what about those of us who were never officially part of the cult, but didn’t escape either? This kind of thing is only supposed to happen between book pages, snapped shut on a shelf in quiet disregard… Not in the real stories, the ones that are still being written and rewritten and survived.


The Graveyard Shift

“People who get nostalgic about childhood were obviously never children.” ~ Calvin, to Hobbes

An idea has been rattling around in my mind for a while now. It sounds simple enough and maybe even fun: write down some happy childhood memories to share with my family, past, present, and future. But it’s not so simple. Every time I think about it, seriously consider starting, I find myself waist-deep in an emotional briar patch.

I’m sure everyone has things that he or she doesn’t like to think about, but I’ve made repression a way of life. It’s a twisted art form, learning to cope with trauma by shoveling six feet of dirt onto memories. Unfortunately, the good often gets buried along with bad, so I find myself in my twenties barely remembering my teens, much less earlier times.

I stare at this photograph

Young Bethany - Hudson Taylor

and remember my cat–his name (Hudson Taylor), his affiliations (Mimi the PMS-y wifecat), and his hobbies (poetry, cross stitch, world travel)–but I can’t remember my interaction with him. I can’t remember rocking him or wearing yellow overalls or being six years old.

I find this photo

Young Bethany - Ballet

and can’t remember my first ballet class, my first year of ballet classes even. I don’t know if I enjoyed it or if I liked my teacher or if I was any good. I wonder how long it took for my knobby-kneed legs to learn French. (And plié, and up, and pas de bourrée, jeté battu…)

I come across this one (I’m the third from the left)

Young Bethany - Smoking birthday candles

and remember the way the girls laughed, my first batch of genuine friends since first grade. I remember the pranks we pulled and the atrocious poetry we wrote and the boys we used to giggle about, but I don’t recall who I was in junior high. I’m told I was the one who suggested we smoke birthday candles, but was I really that silly? When did I start pulling my hair up? What was my life like at home, away from my friends?

The answer to that last question is the reason I used to cry and shake and write “fuck” in my journal and think about the afterlife in very near terms. Then I went the therapeutic route, talking to close friends, writing everything down, turning my brain inside-out so the pain could float away on the breeze. At least, I hoped it would float away, and when it didn’t, I started shoveling.

I’m now realizing that I’ll have to dig around in the graveyard for even the happiest memories, and let me tell you, it’s a mess. Fragments of memory are scattered like misplaced bones. Unmarked graves hold mental snapshots, many of them moldy and disintegrating. The dirt clings to me for hours afterward, even when I don’t manage to find anything.

I’m so, so reluctant to dig deeper, down to where the whole memories and undiluted hurt lie intertwined. At the same time, I know how much the happy moments of my childhood will matter to my daughters, to my parents, and probably to me. I haven’t found the necessary strength yet; I’m still clinging pretty tightly to the idea that my childhood was 100% bad. But I know there were times of laughter and imagination and closeness, and I owe it to many to rediscover those moments. I owe it to myself.

If at first you don’t succeed…


Mondo Beyondo

Note: I didn’t intend to post this, the results of a therapeutic journaling session, for a few reasons:
~ I feel like I’ve already bored my readers to death by writing about this last crazy year.
~ Speaking of readers, I have readers. Readers who will read this.
~ I’m still new to this full honesty concept, and it’s terrifying. (See above.)
However, reading other people’s “Mondo Beyondos” has made me feel so affirmed in this harrowing business of being human, and I want to share that feeling–that we’re all real, with jagged edges and soft, spongey hopes, and that these twelve-month blocks we order our lives around matter more than we might ever realize. So:

“What do you want to acknowledge yourself for in regard to 2007?”

I’m proud of myself for jumping off the deep end into dream-chasing mode, for letting go of control and the need for stability. I found my secret stores of flexibility during a summer of three moves–the last, a one-week dash to another continent–and I found my secret stores of bravery during an autumn of jarringly new surroundings.

I’m proud of myself for saying goodbye to handwritten journals and a new hello to online publishing–exactly what I needed to kick start my writing again. Beginning with this impulse blog project in June, I’ve found satisfaction and resolution and incredible enjoyment through writing again. These increasing pages of text have helped me explore my voice and find clarity. Even more importantly, they have convinced me that writing is my love, my dream career, and thus my aspiration.

I’m proud of myself for learning how to care for two little girls at the same time. Despite all my previous assumptions to the contrary, I found the courage to leave the house… then to drive (stick shift, on hills, with Italian drivers, oh my)… then to run errands with both of my daughters in tow. I have been a good mother, as evidenced by the perpetual smiles on my girls’ faces, and I think they will love remembering these times through photos and wisps of memory and the letters I recently started writing them.

I’m proud of myself for digging far past my comfort zone to unearth new layers of honesty this past year. I’m also incredibly proud of my decision to stop regretting my past, my present, and everything about myself. It has certainly been a challenge for someone so accustomed to self-deprecation, but it has been freeing. I’ve found myself in the shower, mulling over blunders I think I’ve made, then pulling up short–No, this isn’t me anymore; I no longer regret myself. And perhaps this will turn out to be 2007’s greatest gift to me.

“What is there to grieve about 2007?”
I grieve that my relationship with God traveled beyond doubt and anger and simply dissipated. I need to forgive myself for leaving my Bible unopened on the shelf and my questions unasked simply because I didn’t want to face the pain.

I grieve that my relationship with Natalie moved into such rough territory. I need to forgive myself for yelling at her during bouts of frustration and for not giving her enough of my undivided attention.

I grieve that I spent so many days of the year battling depression… or not even finding the strength to battle it anymore. I need to forgive myself for being chronically tired, needy, human. I also need to forgive myself for letting the “shoulds” conquer my mind and saturate me with frustration. And I need to forgive those around me for not magically making me better or knowing the solutions that I can’t seem to find.

I grieve that I accomplished so, so little throughout the year–that I didn’t learn Italian fluently or finish my book or complete art projects or practice my instruments or cook new foods or exercise regularly (or at all) or make progress on reading lists or teach Natalie more or do volunteer work. I need to forgive myself for being one person, for being unable to multitask, and for needing so much sleep.

“What else do you need to say about the year to declare it complete?”
2007 was deep and raw and intense, dark chocolate with pepperoncino eaten from the blade of a knife. It hurtled between welcome adventures and terrifying ones; it pulled us far into the joy of close friendships and then slung us away. It taught us about generosity and flexibility and courage and communication, about how we face fears and changes and the future. And even though I know it’s okay to reel in 2007’s dizzying wake for a while, I’m ready to move on.

I declare 2007 complete.


The Slightly-Less-Cowardly Lion Emerges

So far, Sundays have been the lines on the ruler measuring my adjustment to Italian life. During the week, I run errands and take walks, and we’ll have dinner with friends at least one night, but I stay relatively cocooned in our little apartment… especially now, with Daughter #2’s gravity pulling me in to a constant center of fatigue. Sundays, however, combine church, lunch, and occasional game nights into what feels like Italian inundation, and I get plenty of opportunity to find out just how well I’m functioning in our new life.

I’m grateful for the steady measurement. I’m often tempted to feel like nothing has changed in the past seven weeks… But then I remember our first Sunday here when I sat in church trying not to 1) cry, or 2) make eye contact with anyone who might speak to me in Italian (which would be… well, anyone). And then I measure it against today, when I plunged into a 5-1/2 hour marathon of church and lunch without a husband to translate or help carry my conversations. I feel like I climbed a mountain.

In reality, the mountain was not so much talking with people as it was finding the courage to venture out. Once I surmounted my introvert tendencies, my perpetual worries, and that stubborn little fear of making mistakes, communicating in a foreign language was a breeze. I know I will still struggle to find my bravery, but maybe next time I can remember this glow, like a bear hug enveloping my self esteem, and maybe resolve will start to feel a little more like a friend.

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