As a girl, I loved climbing trees. I would climb until there wasn’t anywhere else to place my bare feet and it was just me and leaves rustling in the breeze. I would imagine different worlds and a different life. At some point, during such a climb, I slipped and in doing so, scratched up my bare knees and elbows, hands and the soles of my feet. This did not prevent me from climbing again. I climbed higher the next time…higher than I had ever climbed before. Only this time, I could not climb down. I was stuck. I remained there for some time…a couple of hours I think, until my dad who refused to climb up and retrieve me threatened to take his belt to my backside if I did not climb down. With tears welling up in my eyes and with absolute fear, I slowly made my way down the big oak that stood in the back yard of Maggie’s house. Maggie was one of my parent’s hippy friends who lived in South Austin at the base of the railroad tracks. She had creamy white skin and shoulder length wavy, brown locks. Her real name was Margaret and she planted Marigolds. This fact always made me chuckle. I thought she was beautiful even though she had the brattiest son I could ever imagine- Simon. All he ever talked about was Star Wars. Even so, he was my buddy but we constantly fought like brother and sister. Stuck in Maggie’s tree that day, as the sun was beginning to fade and a train tooting somewhere in the distance, I could hear that turd- Simon, laughing and no doubt pointing his finger up at me. With caution in the placement of my feet on each rung of limbs, I very slowly made my way down the tree. I still received a spanking for causing a ruckus and climbing so high that I became stuck in the first place. That was the last time I ever climbed a tree.
In fact, it was not long after this that I stopped doing all sorts of things I once did. I used to twirl around and sing. I often borrowed Maggie’s red cowgirl boots which were far bigger than my feet and clomped around with my long hair brushed straight, parted down the center singing “Don’t it make my brown eyes bluuuuue,” before proudly proclaiming how I wanted to be just like Crystal Gayle. At some point, I stopped singing in front of other people. Sure I still sang quietly to myself, but at the moment someone else would walk in, my throat would tighten up and cease to make the same sounds. I’ve been afraid of the dark for as long as I could remember. I became afraid to ride a bike or skateboard for fear of getting hurt. In my teen years, I was afraid to talk to boys. I was afraid to sneak out of school functions to go to a party with my sister. I was afraid to be home alone. I was afraid to do many of the things my friends did such as drink, take off in cars to drive the drag in town, tepee houses and skip school. I was most afraid of getting in trouble at home. My dad, who while always strict, had become a completely different person. He became violent and cruel with his words. He often would look at me and say, “Don’t think about it…your face is like glass. You will never get away with whatever it is that you and your sister are planning.” Hand to my heart, I swear that we rarely planned anything. As with most teenagers, the few shenanigans we managed to get into were completely spur of the moment and often prompted me begging my sister to just go home instead. I was afraid of getting hit…afraid of having to explain away new bruises. Somehow at the age of 15, I found an internal strength that declared, enough! I was not going to be treated that way any longer and I ran away from home. The day I left, my stomach was sick with fear…fear of being caught while leaving…fear of being found after leaving…fear of my friends who picked me up in their car getting in trouble for their role.
Living on my own, working as a live-in nanny for different families while attending school, the fear did not completely dissipate. One would envision a girl of fifteen, living without her parents to go off and party or get wild. Not me. I was too afraid of being taken advantage of, getting pregnant or something worse happening. In time, I began to open myself up to experiences. In writing a story for the school paper on the campus ROTC group, I was invited to rappel the tallest building on campus. Although it was only three stories high, to me it looked like the Empire State Building. Standing on top of the building, too afraid to even look down, the ROTC members busied themselves with strapping the harness across my chest and between my legs while a team on the ground secured the ropes. I watched several members escape off the edge of the roof and heard the cheers below. It took nearly twenty minutes for me to make the first move of swinging my leg over the ledge and it seemed like another twenty before I would release my grip from the place my hands instantly clung upon doing so. My friend, Jimmy stood above me speaking calm words of encouragement. Then I simply let go and somehow remembered the procedure that we practiced of squatting against the building and pushing out with my legs. In seconds I had reached the ground. Although the ordeal was over in far less time than it took me to start, the feeling of my body, tethered to ropes but swaying freely and at the same time still in complete control stayed with me to this day. It was exhilarating! I felt powerful and like I could accomplish anything.
A few years later, I had the strength and courage to leave all I had known, pack up my belongings into the trunk of my first car and drive cross-country to start a new life in Boston. I made a some tentative connections online, had a couple interviews lined up for jobs and submitted an application to enroll at a small college. Driving through small town after big city, I felt free. Alanis Morissette’s Jagged Little Pill had been released a few months before my road trip and it was the soundtrack for the duration of my drive with its snide, angry lyrics and nasally but defiant voice. I sang my way through state lines arriving in Boston with complete faith in myself and without fear. I began to experience life…entered into my first relationship only to be completely crushed, did well in school and was nominated for a position with a U.S. Congressman’s office. I made friends and did things like run into the ice cold ocean without any concern just to feel the waves against my skin or dance until dawn, laughing and enjoying living.
Through the years, fear began to lurk around me once again. Now married and a young mother, I opened the doors and invited fear for a visit. It was told to me on an almost daily basis that I was not good…I was not smart. I was many things, all of which were said with a hiss and sometimes with fists. Eventually I fell back into the same trap of fear, accepted the same lies fear provided…I was not enough. Although it took ten years, once again I found the courage to let go of the ledge, swing my foot over and push away. This time it was without any tethers. I was scared but determined to have a better life. It was tenuous but I manged to start over for myself and my daughter. I made new friends in a new environment and started smiling and volunteering my time again. However I still listened to fear and did not allow myself to do many things…things I wanted to experience and enjoy in life.
On an evening two Octobers ago, of what had been any ordinary Monday and having just arrived home from work, I sat while sorting the mail. The phone rang and it was my mother. Although now close, my mother and I do not speak much by telephone due to busy schedules. She started the call by asking, “How are you?” Her voice seemed calm and nothing out of the ordinary. After pleasantries were passed, she told me that my younger sister’s body had been found off a small dirt road in East Texas. My younger sister, the sister I used to have nightmares about while living on my own…the sister who I had returned home to rescue and protect, was murdered. It is hard to write about her in the past tense. It is hard to type the word murdered when thinking of her. The horror she went through in her final moments broke a piece of my heart. It also frightened me more than I had ever been frightened before. I no longer went out with friends at night. I stopped going to the grocery store or shopping mall beyond a certain time of day. I triple checked my front door to ensure it was locked before sleeping. I began to look in my back seat before getting in the car. I stopped accepting offers for dinner or coffee with men I met. I had been hurt emotionally in relationships…even physically in relationships, but this was different. I wanted to protect myself in a new way that I had not imagined before.
This past Summer marked my 40th birthday. In the months leading up to it, I began evaluating my life and goals, dreams and experiences. I realized that there was still so much that I wanted to experience and that the fear that had begun moving in slowly at first, had eventually dictated my every move. Fear prevented me from truly living. Upon this realization, I began to break through the wall that I allowed fear to build. I made drastic changes, did ridiculous things like join dating sites and even entered into new waters, investigating a lifestyle that from a distance seemed appealing. I believed I wanted that way of life due to parts of myself that I had not yet unearthed but more so out of a desire for passion…a desire to experience deeply…a desire to feel…a desire to be wanted and loved…a need to release fear. So I dove in, head first. I crossed the street without looking in both directions. In so doing, I had exposed myself in a way that had never yet been exposed. I opened myself to a potential for harm that I would never have imagined myself allowing. I had become afraid of being afraid to the point that I was behaving in a way that was not me. I was trying to force fear out. To some degree, the experiment worked, however I lost a little self respect in the process and had to work on regaining some dignity.
Fortunately, this foolish behavior was brief. Logic and reason won and due to writing about my experiences and thoroughly examining my feelings, I regained some balance and once again found my center. I’ve taken stock of fear, carefully chipped away at the majority of what I held and reserved a small portion to preserve my sensibility. While I am still afraid of the dark and also super afraid of heights, I no longer live with fear. It may take a couple cocktails for me to loosen up enough to sing at karaoke with friends, but fear left in search of a new swain. I took back the drawers that I had designated for fear, reclaimed my key and kicked fear to the curb.
Through these experiences, starting over, falling back, being taken advantage of and treated in a way I should never accept, the sorrow of losing my sister and in breaking through fear, I learned a good deal about myself. Funny thing is that what I learned were beliefs I already claimed all those years ago at the age of 15 yet somehow allowed to be taken from me. I have always known myself quite well but had allowed fear to create doubt. I am wiser now than then and although still kind, probably not as honey sweet as at 15. Yet I know that whether it is climbing on top of a ledge or living life alone, singing at the top of my lungs to my steering wheel or traveling across the world, I am enough. I am capable. I am smart. The whole world is at my grasp waiting to be experienced. Through each new experience, I breath in strength and release a little more fear. ❤