We’re balancing on a fallen tree, inching our way across the stream — the children up ahead, being held by Amy, and I’m worried about falling. “Don’t go any farther,” I call to Mara, who’s nearly six and has just seen a boy about her age go across. “Why?” she demands. “It’s too scary,” I call. She glares at me. “I’m not afraid,” she says. “You’re afraid. Don’t tell me it’s scary just because you’re afraid.”
I’m nailed to the cross of my boyhood fears — a sissy afraid of hurting himself, a scaredycat, a fag — and the steam of the locker room, the dark Brooklyn street, the face and the elbow of insult rise in me. The wounds are scabbed over, but not healed. Life pries with a dirty fingernail; it’s how we grow. Later, I hug her, tell her I’m glad she’s so smart.
The next day, on the Tweetsie Railroad, she and Sara, nearly four, are terrified. I tell them not to worry — it’s a real train, winding through real mountains, but everything else is pretend: the Indian raid, the gunfire, the screams. The racism is real, I think, the violence to history, the money we paid, the trauma — but they’ve stopped crying; the exaggerated theatricality is unconvincing and, finally, boring.
Maybe all our fears go that way, in the end. Sometimes it takes work; sometimes we just get bored — tired of being jostled, ears pierced by shrill whistles and squealing brakes, eyes wide with terror or self-absorbed in the dark glass. “It’s a dummy ride,” Mara concludes, getting off the train.
Sometimes the fear loops in and around itself — a knot we pull tighter and tighter, then hack at as if life depended upon it. I’ve stopped seeing my fears as problems — problems require solutions which create new problems — and if there’s a knot, I might learn to live with it, or undo it in a dream. I can twist pain into a hanging rope, make a noose of fear — or I can send the rope down into myself, a bucket at the end, come up with something clear.
I laughed at Amy’s teddy bears when we met; I bought her bear cards and made up bear jokes; so this is how she feeds the little girl in her, I thought. On our night with Mara and Sara by the stream — her first time camping — she lies awake worrying about bear claws and bear breath, feeding herself to an ancient fear. In just a few minutes, she says the next morning, this body you find so beautiful could be torn to pieces, “too disgusting to look at. All you and the girls would have left of me is the love in your hearts.”
“Which is all we have now,” I answer, a little too quickly. Maybe I don’t want to dwell on what’s disgusting, and deal out spiritual homilies to keep the game going. A few nights later, leaving a dinner party, I’m amazed at how clever I’ve been, and how unnourished I feel. How much easier to be clever than vulnerable — our smart talk, of lofty ideas and complex philosophies, as complex as the recipes in front of us. But whom does it serve? Not the place in each of us that hungers for real communion, the bread of silence and the waters of feeling — even for the awkwardness of feeling separate, because that’s where we begin to reach out.