#38Write—my global writing initiative—is a monthly series of online writing adventure workshops for place-passionate, culturally curious writers around the world. Each workshop focuses on one particular aspect of craft or the writing life, and during each 38-hour adventure, writers connect with me and #38Write writers around the world via a Twitter hashtag (appropriately, #38Write) and a group Pinterest board. Lots of good work is getting done.
The theme of January’s #38Write online writing workshop was I EAT FEAR. Seventeen writers in 9 countries participated: Malta, Japan, Turkey, Australia, U.K., France, U.S., Belgium, and the U.A.E.
Folks were eating fear hither and thither!
Writers first read and/or watched a number of fear-related articles, short stories, and videos. Then, in addition to a number of other assignments, I asked them to write a letter to someone they trust about their greatest fear: “… tell this trusted person,” I said, “everything you can about this fear: how it started, when it started, what it smells like/tastes like/sounds like, how you physically feel when consumed by it, who knows about it, what you dream when you dream about it, whether it’s a public fear or a private fear, and so on.” Finally, I asked writers to lay it on the line (or in this case, on the page).
Here’s what a handful of #38Write writers wrote. Rooooaaaaaarrrrrrr!
Lisa | Belgium
There is no hiding the fact from you. The Edge. I fear falling off the edge. It is no simple fear. It is a terror. A terror that rears its head at expected moments, but more frighteningly at unexpected moments I can not prepare myself to experience.
The edge: you know it, but never tell me why. Merely listing it yesterday caused me to have one my worst nightmares last night. There I was in a car coming to a bend on a thin mountain road and no guard rail. You know those curves, the ones in the high mountains where a bit of road has just been carved out so I can reach the top and maybe the other side? I’ve been up those mountains I love so many times each time a pit in my stomach when in a vehicle. You never did this to me before Turkey, nor before Cameron. I saw the curve—peacefully I was sleeping—and was approaching it slowly when unanswerably the accelerator pedal had a mind of its own and there I was careening off the edge, again! Why? I awoke never seeing down, only the mountain over the ravine in the distance. A flash I grant you and one with no ending as I thankfully woke myself from another night terror. Though in my mind, I viewed it like my other physical experiences often set in a parameter of time that has closure. A pit in my stomach again, sheer terror in my mind, find a podcast quickly. Yes, Laurie Taylor, BBC Radio 4, Thinking Allowed on Changing of Masculinity in Retail will do.
Was it the bus ride from the South of Turkey over the mountains sitting on the front seat beside Alida. Did you plant yourself into the crevices of my brain then? It was spectacular viewing, the kind I always love when in the mountains. Abrupt disruption. We were coming down the other side after a long climb up and the sliding. Gravel. Only on the side of the road, near the edge, not on the tarmac, the road. Having driven a bus at UNH, I knew the swerve, the sway, the jerking motion of a bus in slide. I cried huge crocodile tears. I gripped Alida. The driver, an oh so typical a macho Turk, laughed. Fear, you were ugly. You were wicked. You were sick; maybe even demented.
Or was it giving birth that started this whole fear of the physical. August 1991. It was hot and an ideal day to go to the sea, to walk the Marginal Way in Ogunquit, Maine, with me carrying my newborn boy in my arms. You reared your head like a sea serpent lurching in a mocking way from the calm Atlantic lapping the rock edges. I couldn’t bear the thought of a slip into the sea and a loss. The Marginal Way says it all now, doesn’t it? As a child I would run down it while out with my grandparents and parents. Whatever were they thinking? Didn’t they know about edges? Didn’t they know about the cavernous sea? Didn’t they know what marginal meant? Why didn’t you haunt me then?
Sincerely not yours,
Sandra | Malta
I had a very upsetting dream last night. It is no coincidence. Precisely this weekend I am writing about eating my fears. I dreamt of a dolphin on a stretcher. I was watering her with a hose to keep her alive. The other people who were supposed to help me carry her to the sea had left me Alone. A last desperate look full of gratitude. She passed away. I woke up in tears, scared.
As you know many positive changes have happened in my life for the last three months. Finally, I am feeling at peace with myself. Finally, my life is taking the shape of my dreams and aspirations.
Yet, there are days that I fear that all this overwhelming happiness is going to be shattered. Like the dolphin, despite all my efforts, I will not make it to the Big Ocean. I fear being abandoned, betrayed by those I trusted. Left alone, impotent and helpless. Having to start over again, just like Sisyphus endlessly pushing the boulder up the hill.
This fear is like a thick fog that just gets into my head and blurs my vision. I feel a huge weight on my chest and I can barely breathe. My throat closes, my eyes start burning, I am paralyzed, numb. Swallowed by the monster.
I have retraced this feeling back to an event of my childhood. The summer before my first year at primary school, I was sent for a month to a summer camp. It was the first time I was going to be separated from my family for so long. I did not get asked if I wanted to go to summer camp. I was going, full stop.
I remember waking up at night in the dark dorm, feeling alone, “parked” in that place. The other children would cry, call the supervisor. I would not. I had dealt with this episode of my childhood from a place of anger. But never approached it from a place of fear. Not until today. Not until that dream. And truth must be told, when you are four and a shy bird, it is pretty scary to be sent to an unknown place with people you do not know for an entire month.
This fear has been crystallized for probably too long, certainly feeding itself on my self-esteem. Its days are counted. I. Am. Eating. It.
Liz | U.S.
I am pretty sure you know that nowadays, I fear exploring Istanbul on my own. I’m pretty sure you feel guilty about that, as you, in part, set this in motion. Do you remember when I suggested a solo afternoon on Istiklal Caddesi? Your voice melded with your elder brother’s Turkish protestations into a resounding “no.” You drew me close, kissed me. Narrating your promise to my father (who wasn’t your fan), you repeated, verbatim “I will take care of her, nothing will happen to her.” “How could I explain it if you got taken? You don’t know this city, what people can do.” To avoid an argument in front of my potential brother-in-law, I acquiesced. “I’ll watch, learn,” I decided, “and do it next time.” Slowly, however, over the years, your fear turned into mine, not only for my father, but for you, and for me as well.
How odd, the emergence of this fear, after decades of my often-risky travel around the world. Odd indeed, after navigating new transportation systems, languages and terrains unfazed by the usual glitches. Particularly odd, this fear, as you kiddingly call me the “Navigatrix”—able to conjure a mental map comprised of little more than sun rays and spatial memory. Indeed quite odd, given your bragging about my superior capabilities in circumnavigating the Kapalı Çarşı as compared to you. Especially odd, as I come from a line of intrepid female trekkers, bravely venturing to unknown places for a taste of sights unexpected, the smell of the as-yet unconsidered. And hypocritically odd, as I study “the dignity of everyday risk” for community-based people with disabilities.
Yet, here I am in Ayşe’s apartment, our Istanbul home away from our island home, fearful of leaving alone. Eyeing what’s beyond the window, glints of mythic horror reflect back. As my lips touch the leaded glass, I taste grey-blue tension, fear thickening in my throat. Fingertips on the window, I feel my blood coursing phobic, hypertense with images of the trafficked women I worked with. Toe tips to the glass now, my heels are flat on the marble. I’m frozen, a choppy Brancusi sculpture. My fear is as complete, as perfect, as sterile vacuum tunnel with no aroma. Intertwined now with all these male fears, my fear is a patriarchy-infused oddity I never expected. Canım benim, how can we change this?
NOTES: Istiklal Caddesi is a famous shopping boulevard in central Istanbul. Canım benim means “my dear” or “my darling.”
Paige | Japan
You know how we’ve talked about that pattern I have? That thing where I’ll spend months or years seemingly awake to my life, listening and paying attention, following what needs to happen and letting go of my own need to control? And then all of a sudden I’ll enter that dormant phase, that sleepwalking state, where I’m unable to wake up no matter what?
I know you know, because we’ve talked about it so many times before. You’ve always been so compassionate about it, telling me you know I’m still there even when I’ve “gone underground.”
What do you suppose that’s all about? Because it turns out I’m really afraid of it. Right now I’m in this spiraling out phase—exploring, discovering, moving outward, learning all the time. Growing. And I know there does need to be a dormant phase following that. Partly because we can’t always be expanding all the time, right? We can’t always be moving toward the sun. At some point in our lives we need to enter that dark pause where we drop, pull inward, hunker down for the winter. Let it all rest, so that when the time comes to reach out again we’ll be ready.
But it’s hard to follow these cycles sometimes, at least for me. (Does everyone follow these cycles? Am I falling into the trap of thinking myself special somehow? From where I sit it seems so many other people are prolific all the time, all their lives, without ever falling fallow.)
Anyway, I’m afraid of it. I want to keep stretching upward, outward, growing, harvesting. The idea of needing time to rest, rejuvenate, revive feels frightening. What if I miss something? What if all that time is wasted? Shouldn’t I be working hard all the time, every minute, doing, going, accomplishing?
Even as I write that the image of depleted fields comes to me. Of plants and animals—people too—pushed so far past the point of what we’re really capable of so that we lose something essential of ourselves. The thing that made it worth being alive to begin with.
If it’s just how I’m made, I suppose there’s nothing to do but ride it out. Accept that to every cycle there’s a downward fall. A little dip. And then, inevitably, a rise upward again. Because that’s what cycles do, when we trust them.
Thanks for always being there.
Lillian | U.S.
I haven’t expressed this to you before, but I have this fear that life is meaningless. More specifically, I fear that my life is meaningless. Why am I on this earth? Why was I born? Will my life even matter? Do I have significance? I have spent hours in the middle of the night contemplating these questions for years and I still have so few answers. Certainly, my life will have some value to you and to our daughter, but eventually, we will all die. What then?
I sometimes have moments during the day where anxiety grips me and I feel powerless and trapped by my own inability to find importance in my daily actions. I wash the dishes and fold the laundry. I wonder, often, does this even matter? I write stories and paint pictures. I plaster them all over the Internet screaming, “I am here world. Look at me.” I am like a teenage girl writing her name on the wall of her second floor, high school bathroom stall. I make people laugh and smile and think, but does it really matter? We are all going to die anyway. Does my silly story about potty training or the time I accidentally wore unmatched shoes to work have the kind of long lasting impact that stays with a person’s soul for eternity? Will my love for people stay with them through eternity? Do we have souls that can be stamped to carry memories and laughter through eternity? Is there an eternity?
On other days I am convinced that life does have meaning. On these days I become paralyzed with indecision. On these days the weight and burden of meaning rests upon my shoulders weighing me down with rumination. Decisions and meaning outgrow my mind and I sit still and feel my fear. It is beating in my chest. It is fiery like acid. It is a bowling ball I have swallowed that is now residing in my stomach. It is angry. It keeps me from flying free. Worry, worry, worry: What if I choose the wrong thing? When life has so much meaning I am afraid to make decisions.
I cannot escape the extremes of mattering too much or too little. I dance in circles with myself. Fear is eating me and I feel powerless to stop it. I am paralyzed. Meanwhile, death is coming for me.
Michelle | France
Hello, daughter of mine, how are you?
I had to write this to you. I’ve been asked to write about my greatest fear to someone I know and trust, and well, it had to be you didn’t it? After all I experienced it with you and now fear it even more with the boys.
My greatest fear is the fear of losing a child.
You know it was my worst nightmare. One minute everything was fine and you were born; beautiful, solid, noisy. And then gradually, cruelly, our hopes were erased, as you didn’t get stronger, as you started to fit, as you couldn’t feed, as you didn’t move. And then, the final blow, the terminal prognosis for a baby; hit with a rare genetic disease that we, your parents, had given you. Your innocence worsening our pain. We did this to you. We loved you. And we had to learn to love our dying child.
I remember looking into a schooner of wine that evening after diagnosis, staring through watery eyes as it swilled round and round…thinking that this was ‘My worst nightmare’. It didn’t get much worse than this. My first child- much wanted, much cherished, doomed from the start. Future punctured by the cruelty of mortality, the failure of medical science, the impossible. I had no idea how to go on. What to do.
As you know, we loved and lived with you for your 99 days, and did all we could to ‘normalise’ you and ourselves. We surrounded you with your toys, your clothes, lived with you in the hospital, even got to take you to the park. Shared you with our friends and our family, learnt all about you and your condition—cuddled you for days and days and days. The weight of you cradled in my arms. And we shared a smile, didn’t we, Izzy? It blew all the crap out of the water.
And then the day, when you died, how hard, how brutal, but how inevitable. And the funeral, where we cried and celebrated, and ate cake and watched the dragonflies. And how I missed and miss you—the ache inside me days afterwards, as my milk dried up and the outward signs of my motherhood faded. Such love and such loss.
You know how the story went on. You now have two boisterous brothers, the oldest conceived only two weeks after you passed. Biological compunction overriding the risks of testing, miscarriage, abortion—we would do whatever we could so you could have a healthy brother or a sister. A pure biological strength, borne from the intensity of our love for you.
And now I have two little boys with me that I love more than I thought possible, and whose existence is the most miraculous gift we could ever have wished for. We know through you how lucky we are, these biological miracles. My greatest fear is their loss, worse now I have felt it once before—impossible to survive again—that blow to the core, that never-ending blackness, the shock of change, brutality of despair, loss of control. I imagine never having those hot, sticky hands to hold, bodies to dress, tempers to placate, hair to stroke, tears to wipe away….I begin to break again, and then I look at them. I know how fragile life is and it scares me.
My heart races, my eyes fill with tears, I can’t look at the boys without revealing myself. We know, don’t we, darling girl, how fragile and deceptively strong that life force of ours is…
Loving you and missing you, as ever.
Your loving mother x
Catherine | Turkey
I’m very old-fashioned writing a letter but every time I sat at the computer I couldn’t think of anything to write. I saw your play opened the other night, the newspaper had special mention for the set design so that’s great praise. I still remember you applying to that design course, it must be nearly thirty years ago now. You had the kids in stitches telling them you’d design anything they wanted.
I just wanted to thank you for the wonderful flowers you sent Jim when he was in the hospital. He got such a lift out of seeing the arrangement; he said it was his ‘personal sunshine’. Marie called the ambulance. She was on the phone to Jim and was worried by the way he was talking, when he dropped the phone she hung up and called an ambulance. It seems crazy that she called an ambulance for Cork from Dublin. Where was I? Around the corner at the hairdressers, for my monthly cut. I missed Marie’s call. I missed Jim’s attack of whatever it was. I missed it.
He looked so pale on the bed when I finally found him. Why are all hospitals laid out like labyrinths? I’d left him that morning looking normal, I’ve gone over it in my head but there was nothing out of the ordinary that morning. There he was looking so old in the bed. I’d never thought of him as 66 before, but he looked more like 80 in that bed.
The doctors don’t really know what’s wrong. That’s the truth they’ve been skirting around. Jim’s had so many tests; he says he’s like a pincushion. He was so relieved to get home, but he’s a shadow of himself. At times I catch a glimpse of him and he looks like a ghost. I get so scared. He was tired the other day and bending over to tie his shoes was making him light-headed and I just wanted to shake him. To shake him and tell him to try harder, not to give up. Instead I tied his shoes with tears streaming down my face. Poor man, he was worried about me then.
I feel we’re on the edge of a cliff. I’m not sure what to do, what plans to make, what the protocol is. In the meantime I just try to keep things normal, tea on the table, the house clean. We’ll be back into the hospital on Tuesday and I hope we get some answers. I hope I can cope with those answers. No matter how positive I try to be, I feel there are dark times ahead for us.
There’s me gone all melodramatic. I can’t help it, I do my best to keep it from Jim and the children, but it seems to have all spilled out here.
Thank you again for those flowers. I hope you’ll have no need to send more.
Your loving sister,
Sean | U.S.
I’m sure you sensed this on some level; I’ve come to realize that animals sometimes know more about us than we know ourselves; but as a child I was deathly afraid of thunderstorms. Do you remember the night in Indiana? We were about 5 years old at the time. The night when the tornado came? Mom and Dad woke me up along with Maura and Richard putting us all in one room; under the bed. Dennis was still a baby was sleeping in their room. I remember lying there closing my eyes so tight trying to fall asleep and feeling the house shake with each crack of thunder along with the wind as it snapped the antenna off the roof sending it crashing against the house again and again.
From then on, the slightest rumble of thunder, no matter how distant would wake me from my deepest slumber. My heart racing, I’d go from bed to bed pleading with each of my siblings to let me climb in bed and sleep with them. The answer was more often than not, no. When all else failed, I’d quietly slip downstairs, feeling my way along the banister, eyes closed to avoid seeing the lightning and the house illuminated electric blue. Scamper across the living room and down the hall racing the beat the next crash of thunder into mom and dad’s bedroom and quickly under the bed with you. There, laying next to you, I’d breath in the smell of dust, carpet and dog hair and reach out my hand to you. The rhythm of your breathing and the exhale of your warm breath on my face, the anesthesia that I’d needed to calm down, relax and fall back to sleep.
I eventually got over my fear of the storms, overcoming my nemesis with knowledge. Weather became one of my hobbies as a teenager. Now I’m grateful to have the chance sit back and watch the majesty of a good storm. But it was you alone who got me through those childhood nights when nature raged in fits of light and noise, and I don’t think I ever properly thanked you.
Silvana | U.S.
I want to confess an inner most feeling. I know it seems unlike me but I want you to know. It is about fear. I can, for instance idle away hours thinking about things that might or might not happen. I become almost ritual in my habits when I am going through the sturm und drang of doubt about myself, so much so that I berate myself, call myself stupid and am in all manner horrible to the me that you love so much. One of my worst nightmares is that I will not be able to speak up for myself. When for instance I am supposed to give credible information about myself like in a job interview or when writing a bio for a show, I suddenly become a mute. The whole process of verification bores me and frightens me at the same time. I become impatient and downright stubborn. I have seen this dread literally take over my senses. Asked my stance on something, I can only respond haphazardly. ‘Enthusiastic banter’ masquerades as a fight and is anything but fun for me. I am too afraid of being ridiculed, pushed down and made to look foolish. It erodes me especially while I’m looking for employment which I have had to do of late. I am amputated as soon as someone says, ‘what do you mean?’ All facts that I knew until the very moment of questioning, fall straight to the bottom of an abyss, somewhere where they are inaccessible to me.
How should I feel about this besides ashamed, frightened, stupid, less than normal, cowardly.
I falter to miserable quibbling in the brain, my heartbeat racing out of control, eyes darting for the door, a window, hand wanting to reach for a cigarette. I am expert at covering this up and it mostly goes unnoticed but is my constant. Often, even daily interaction with people makes me queasy. They ask ‘What do you do?’ I avoid them altogether when I can.
What indeed do I do? I write, I paint, I take pictures, I inspire, I create, I cook, I manage, I raise children, I travel, I speak, I help, I look for work and meaning. In this culture of the almighty resume there is no room for my type of hesitation. One gets eaten up.