Thursday, July 5, 2018

Facing My Fear

I was in the library the other day for tutoring, when a book jumped out at me from a display. The clever self-populating display -- Someone Just Returned This! -- had everything from books about pre-diabetic diets to beachy romance reads to a Jon Ronson book, So You've Been Publicly Shamed. And on the second tier of the display a pink and blue book caught my eye.

Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear by Elizabeth Gilbert

Image result for big magic elizabeth gilbert
Published by Riverhead Books,
an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC

What caught my eye was the "BEYOND FEAR" part -- it grabbed me and whispered, you need this book. I love Elizabeth Gilbert, but I did not love Eat, Pray, Love. In fact, I never finished it and it just didn't speak to me, at all. Maybe it was where I was in my life when I started reading it, but I let it go. And then discovered through essays and posts on social media that while I did not like Eat, Pray, Love, I LOVED Elizabeth Gilbert herself.

And I absolutely love this book. I devoured it in about two days. I flagged things. I am thinking about buying a copy to mark up and keep near me.

What I love about it is that it's not about CONQUERING fear, it's about LIVING WITH it. It acknowledges that fear is a part of life and any time you go to try something new, most people have that voice in the back of your consciousness that whispers vile things and shuts you down, and you have to work through that inner naysaying voice to do the things that bring you joy.

And I loved that it reminded me of Mel, and several posts that she wrote (but I can't seem to find to link to specifically, despite searching over a year of posts which was very enjoyable but fruitless for my purpose) where she talked about writing for the sake of writing -- because it brings you joy, because it is important to you, because you want to CREATE something -- and NOT because you want to necessarily become the next J.K. Rowling. That being authentic and feeding your creative self is important, because when you lose that in order to try to get published or picked up or whatever, you often don't get published or picked up or whatever. (But that authentic writing, writing that you do because you love it and it's meaningful to you and you did it for YOU above anyone else, that can surely be successful, but it can also be a side effect of the greater purpose, which is to write passionately, and well).

Elizabeth Gilbert wants you to greet your fear, make friends with it, acknowledge that it's there and probably always will be, and then tell it "okay, I'm going to ignore you now and be creative and do what brings me joy." There is no magical fix for being afraid of criticism, or failure, or not being good enough -- the answer she sees is to meet that fear and then walk on past it, even as it stares daggers at your back. It's going to be there. But you don't have to listen to it.

One of my favorite quotes from the book is this one:

"And you have treasures hidden within you -- extraordinary treasures, and so do I, and so does everyone around us. And bringing those treasures to light takes work and faith and focus and courage and hours of devotion, and the clock is ticking, and the world is spinning, and we don't have time anymore to think so small." 

And this one:

"You can live a long life, making and doing really cool things the entire time. You might earn a living with your pursuits or you might not, but you can recognize that this is not really the point. And at the end of your days, you can thank creativity for having blessed you with a charmed, interesting, passionate existence."

The book is all about harnessing ideas and nurturing them before they decide to leave and visit someone else who will do something with the material, and pursuing creative endeavors like writing despite the fear that might otherwise stop you from uncovering those treasures inside you.

It sent me further down a path I've been traveling recently, thinking about patterns in my life and just how much of it has been formed by fear. I love my life, and where I have ended up despite heartbreaks and bad circumstances, but there are a lot of twists and turns that were almost entirely made up of decisions based on fear, and I don't want to continue in that way.

One goes back to college, and the moment where I decided that I did not want to continue in the secondary education program attached to my English degree. It's true that when I watched my video in a mock lesson where I taught my peers analysis of "Tintinnabulation" by Edgar Allen Poe with my professor and he asked me "What kind of a teacher does this make you want to be?" that I started crying and quietly wailed, "I don't WANT to be a teacher, actually!" It's true that I said that I didn't feel as excited about it as everyone else seemed to be, and I was having a hard time envisioning myself as a teacher, and it just didn't seem right to me. But that wasn't the whole truth. The whole truth was that I was afraid. I was afraid my lessons weren't good enough, I was afraid I lacked the authority to convincingly employ classroom management, I was afraid no one would take me seriously, I was afraid that everyone would see right through me and see the failure that I was sure to become, and I was afraid that I'd somehow have to get my driver's license before field experience (and DEFINITELY student teaching) started and that would mean having a car, too, and I had no idea how to get the money for that as I really didn't have much saved at all. And so I quit. Honestly, I thought very poorly of myself, lacked all kinds of confidence, and was fearful of independence -- which led to my decision more than anything else.

That same quality led me to the next decision based on fear. After graduating college, I was with my boyfriend (who would become my ex-husband), and things weren't as terrible as they would get but they weren't great, either. I thought about breaking up with him, briefly, but I was afraid to be alone. Afraid no one else would want me. And I really, REALLY wanted to get out of my parents' house and be on my own, to begin my adult life, and I didn't see how my $24,000 editorial assistant salary in the NYC area was going to allow me to do that unless I moved in with my boyfriend. I was scared to try to do it on my own. And I waffled back and forth between "Things are good and so what there are bumps, everyone has bumps" and "What am I doing, I deserve someone who is going to treat me well and be nicer." And I went with, let's move in together -- we both wanted out of our parents' houses, we both wanted a more adult life, and it seemed like a good move.

It wasn't.

This was followed by the decision to continue on and marry a person who was capable of amazing cruelty and scared me to the point of running out of the apartment to sit in the courtyard (not super relaxing, as it was Yonkers right on the border of the Bronx, and while I didn't feel unsafe it was disconcerting to get woken up in the middle of the night to police chasing a car thief up our fire escape yelling "Freeze motherfucker, FREEZE RIGHT THERE!" so being outside was sort of iffy, but felt safer than staying inside on many occasions). I married someone who frequently told me I was fat and stupid. I married someone who yelled at me a lot and punched me in the arm and shook me by the shoulders and threw things at my head, because even when three different people tearfully begged me not to marry this man, my answer was "But we've already booked everything for the wedding." "I've got my dress already." "It's too late." I was afraid. I was afraid of disappointing people, of being alone, of needing to find a roommate and an apartment, of the awfulness that would probably ensue if I called off the wedding, and I didn't want to even entertain it.

So I didn't.

And then I stayed far longer than I should have because I was afraid again of leaving -- would people think being treated shittily was enough? Was Nicole Kidman's smeared face transferred onto the ivory living room wall paint above the couch because my Glamour magazine had been thrown forcefully at my head (he missed), enough? I wasn't afraid because of a stereotypical "If I can't have you, no one can" type thing, or being told that if I left I'd have the shit beaten out of me, because I never had the shit beaten out of me. I was afraid to strike out on my own. I was afraid to have people be disappointed in me for having made a bad decision. I had no confidence in myself, none whatsoever. The only good decision I made was to go back to school for teaching, because it was either that or have a baby and he said he wasn't ready and wasn't sure he wanted kids at the time, and I wasn't willing to put both off. So I went back to school, in a weekend program where I could continue working full time and freelancing because I paid for the whole thing out of my own personal money with no support whatsoever other than student loans for the second year because it was no longer possible to freelance and complete a Master's Degree and work full time.

And then I could start my new life, because I was given the gift of infidelity, and that meant to me a "socially acceptable" way to leave the situation. No one could blame me for not doing enough if I left because I was rampantly cheated on, right? And if anyone tried to say that it was my fault, that somehow I had "let this happen" through my inadequacies as a wife, and that I should give it another go, well those people would clearly be assholes and I shouldn't listen to them.

I was afraid of all the uncertainty wrapped up in leaving, but I had a LOT of support from friends and family and a lot of things slid into place so that I didn't have to be homeless or quit my teaching program because I had nowhere to go and no savings because all the savings were in his account and the divorce took nearly 2 years to come to settlement. Many wonderful people made those rough couple of years possible.

And this is where I learned to live with fear, at least in my personal life, and to go for what I wanted and to choose my life partner better. It turns out I deserve to have confidence in myself. I see my life now and it is AMAZING how sheerly different it is from my life 15 years ago. It's also amazing how different I am. I am thriving in my teaching career, I am married to an incredible man who is supportive. Our life is so full, despite not having the children we so wanted, and we have a cozy, inviting home and colorful gardens and just a tremendously wonderful existence.

I do feel like I slid back into the fear with infertility, and I felt like once again I was in an emotionally and physically abusive relationship. I was afraid to leave it. I didn't want to let people down, or have regrets myself that I didn't do enough before moving forward to something else. I became far more anxious again and afraid to take risks, to branch out, to do different things.

And then I broke up with infertility and the dream of parenthood, even though it was probably the hardest thing I've ever had to do, and I've been focusing on living beyond fear. Again.

I've taken up tap dancing again, and Buti Yoga for the first time, and I said yes to chaperoning the 8th grade D.C. trip. I pursued National Board Certification as I was in the death throes of chasing parenthood, which in retrospect looks very, very similar to pursuing a Master's Degree in teaching as my marriage imploded the first time around. I was feeling out, "what can my life be about when this doesn't work out?" in a very similar way. I also had the courage to attend a literary conference in my city, alone and feeling very deficient and mildly unprepared, but I did it and it was good for me.

I found Big Magic right at a time where I am working at writing more, not long after that conference. This summer is about exploring different avenues. It's about branching out and facing rejection (which is inevitable) so that I can have the possibility of getting out there in the world in new ways. I love this space, this space is at the heart of me, but I want to explore more ways to write and have it read, of course in addition to this precious slice of the internet. That voice always comes back to me when I want to write more: You suck. Who do you think you are, submitting something for publication? You aren't a good writer. You shouldn't even try. But recently I've been telling that voice to shut the fuck up. It can live there, crouched in the darkest, dankest spaces of my subconscious, but I'm going to ignore it and shine my light on other parts of my mind. This book helped me to see how much of my life I've sacrificed to fear over the years, and how much I'd like to move beyond that small, shrunken existence and live that transcendent creative life.

Image result for big magic elizabeth gilbert
Image courtesy of PopSugar

This makes Bryce very happy, as he's been encouraging me to do more since, oh, forever. It's so frustrating for him when I read a book or a blog post and go, "Yes! I should do something exciting! I should push myself and expand what I write! I feel so encouraged!" and he is like, "I'VE BEEN SAYING THAT TO YOU FOR YEARS, BUT OKAY, GIVE ELIZABETH GILBERT ALL THE CREDIT."

I want to work hard and devote time and see what happens. I want to answer a resounding yes to Elizabeth Gilbert's question, "Do you have the courage to bring forth the treasures that are hidden within you?" 


  1. What an exciting post! I feel awful for all the horrid things you experienced. But this moment does feel like the right one to do some soulful alchemy with that life experience. And it is perfectly marvellous when you find the right book at the right time.

    I want to do some things that scare me this coming year too. I already know what one or two of them are, I think, and some others are slowly coming into focus.

    1. Thank you -- it was a real rough time of life. And I LOVE the phrase, "soul alchemy!" Here's to trying new things, stretching those boundaries, and facing fear. And that book WAS Big Magic!

  2. I think we all are prone to live in fear. It’s a natural defense as too much instability is stressful and dangerous to an individual in a population (sorry, it’s the biologist in speaking). But I agree that fear can drive us to make decisions that ultimately are bad for us. It’s a particularly tough thing for those of us that are planners and like predictability.

    Reading about your past decisions and the regrets you have, I want to hug you. It’s clear there was a lot of pain there. But I also see those moments as touchstones for you. Because you now have evidence of how fear-based decision making can harm, helping bolster your decision making for future choices. I guess what I’m saying is I wouldn’t be so hard on yourself if you are being hard, because despite the suck, there were some valuable things that came from those experiences. You ARE an amazing teacher. And though Bryce is awesome, you also know you deserve one another and deserve to be happy and loved.

    In short, I agree with you and I love this philosophy (especially as I feel like I’m living it too). Just advocating for no regrets too.

    1. Thank you for the hug, and for the biologist-speak about fear (I totally believe you!). It's interesting to look back on things through a different lens, and learn from it, and move forward differently. Thank you for your kind words about my teaching, and Bryce, and our deserving of happiness (I honestly feel like I won the lottery with that one). I try for no regrets, just reflections... if that makes sense? Thank you for your thoughts!

  3. I love how self-aware you are about your 20s (and I can relate). I love how you broke up with infertility. And I love how Bryce is so supportive of you.

    I hope you do submit far and wide. I believe in you.

    1. Man, the 20s are brutal. Some people have a good experience in that decade, but I feel that it can be the Lost Decade for so many. Thanks for the love, and for the belief! :) This summer, I'm going to get out of that comfort zone!

  4. That is one thing I have to say...while I may have been brazen in my late teens/early 20’’s nothing on the confidence I feel now. I think as we get older we just learn naturally to stop giving any fucks about what others think and can really start to live with so much less fear to do what we want. It might be the ultimate gift of aging.
    Anyway...I say go for it-whatever you want to try! What’s the worst that can happen? You end up just writing for yourself? You will still got all the joy. But I suspect you will be successful because you have a way with your writing that captures and conveys and resonates and connects. This saying I love is “If it doesn’t challenge you, it doesn’t change you”.
    I, too, have a few new things I am going to try my hand at. No idea if I can pull it off, but I won’t ever know unless I try!

  5. This book is in my giant TBR pile (I did read & enjoy "Eat Pray Love," lol). I can definitely relate to having fear rule my life. I've been trying to be a little more courageous and say "yes" to things a little more often... because heck, I'm getting close to 60, and if not now, when? I love the confidence & optimism I sense in this post... go Jess go!! :)