Brave people don’t admit to being scared of ordinary things. Who wants to be seen as weak? We aren’t talking here about major dangers. This is about being irrationally scared of things embraced warmly by people other than ourselves.
Here’s an invitation to toss some of your fears into a new conversation about how to handle being scared. If you’re young or even middle-aged you may not be able to discard reluctance to be judged, but for those of us who are very old, wouldn’t it be fun to talk about how to handle being scared and how we’ve hidden that all our lives? Of course I know that old age is short or that world catastrophe could strike, but that’s not my concern. Let others deal with the big things. Let’s talk about our own small fears.
Oceans. In old family movies from about age 4 to 6, I’m running along Chocomont Beach at Fishers Island turning somersaults in the sand. My grandmother Ruth organized a family picnic there every day and while the grownups sat and ate and chatted in the sun, I ran and ran. Each summer I ventured farther into the ocean, up to my waist finally, when one windy day a wave picked me up and rolled me under water a long way down the beach. When I came up, the adults were gathered, scared, and looking for me and I was sputtering and coughing. The lesson, I kept thinking, was so clear: the ocean was stronger than I was. That went into me, a nail in my sub-conscious.
As I grew up, that lesson never dimmed and whenever I was in a boat on the ocean I thought about the Titanic, submarines, wind, currents, being caught in a wave. It was too big for me. I’d stay away. It creeps me.
And so when I fell in love at 17 with a boy from Chicago, I found a new way to love water. His grandfather had been an engineer when the locks were being built in Sault Ste. Marie, Canada and he bought a small piece of waterfront land in a place thirty miles east called Desbarats where he built a wooden camp that would welcome his family for several generations. Whenever I stepped out on the deck I looked out at peaceful water. Absent roads, all food and hardware buying were done by boat and I quickly became thoroughly comfortable running outboards everywhere on those smooth waters. After a couple of years I knew where the rocks were, could feel the approaching weather and never again felt danger in water. But don’t take me on the ocean.
My love of peace began when I went to Desbarats, and later to the small rock island out in the middle of the water that my in-laws built. Our three small children playing, learning, tucking them in, hearing the silence all evening. No breaking waves. And now where I live near the New Jersey shore, friends call out to “Look! The moon is so bright we can see the horizon where the earth curves!” Or when storms roll in and waves crash and people see beauty and all I feel is that nail in my subconscious.
Planes. When we were married in 1950 when I was 19, we were given a honeymoon trip to Nassau during Christmas vacation from college in the last time before we moved to Washington to start work. We boarded a twin engine Constellation at Newark Airport and at the sight of it my young mind ran a tape: It’s heavier than the air; it will fall down. It has only two engines. What happens if something goes wrong with one when it’s in the air? What if the pilot stayed out late last night and is tired. What if he had a fight with his wife? What if he’s a drinker? The only thing wrong with our wonderful honeymoon was knowing we’d have to go home in that heavy metal cylinder. For me, flying is an unnatural act.
We had wonderful trips to Europe for my husband’s business, and I swallowed my fear of getting there and getting back. But now at 86 and enjoying the absolute peace of not having to please anyone but myself, I can admit that peace and the absence of risk are the things I love. I sink into them with visceral pleasure. And so it’s no accident that I’ve ended up reviewing movies. Sitting for a couple of hours in a theater taking notes, sitting at my desk that looks out at the sky, writing about the movie. Home, writing, movies, deadlines. It’s so peaceful that I wish sometimes that I could have whispered to that little girl on Chocomont Beach, “It’s ok, it will happen; some day you’ll be peaceful.”