When I first went down to study in London (which was a Big Thing for me: Northern working class girl in the Big Smoke and all), I was simultaneously elated and terrified (elatified, as it were). Elated for obvious reasons. Terrified because, well, it was London and I was but a very inexperienced – and highly naive – slip of a girl.
I buried myself even further in books during this time, books I carried everywhere with me. They could become a shield against too big a wall of people. They were entertainment on tap. Distraction when the world got too much. The knowledge acquired from them was almost incidental during this part of my life’s relationship with books.
One particular book struck a chord, Eleanor Roosevelt’s You Learn by Living. In it, she talks about how, when she first married FDR, how elatified she was because she knew she had a myriad of opportunities but she didn’t quite know how to make the most of them, how to operationalise the little she did know to offer herself fully to these big callings. She held herself back because she felt she was ugly, out of place, and didn’t know everything she needed to know about the things she had to do. Things we’ve all felt at some point in our lives, on varying levels of scale.
One phrase from this wonderful book stuck out to me more than others: “Do one thing every day that scares you”. I, like Eleanor, also made it my motto. I wrote it on a tiny slip of paper and stuck it in my purse*, ready to whip out when I needed a little pep talk. In the spirit of Eleanor’s instructions, I started out with seemingly small tasks: going to eat in the Hall restaurant (as an introvert this was actually major for me), joining different clubs to get to know more people etc. After a few months of this, I’d built up my bravery muscle and realised I wasn’t scared of these “small” things anymore. It was time for bigger endeavours, bigger adventures.
A solo trip to NYC in Summer 1993: the first time I’d been back there since I’d lived there for a while as a child. It was as wild as you expect a newly unleashed 19 year old’s summer in NYC would be (quite possibly more). A trip to Egypt, down the Nile, Cairo by bike (madness!), somehow helping on a dig near the Giza Pyramids. Trekking in the Greek Islands. Istanbul. Europe, a great deal of Europe. Regular overnight bike rides from London to Brighton. The slightest whisper of someone planning a trip, I was there. Travel: deinstalling my sense of fear and self-limitation through exposure to the beautiful otherness of the world. Reprogramming my orientation with that sense of just needing to get over myself because “you’re so fucking small, Helen, in the scheme of things”, or so my mind anti-lullabied me when I started to want to get small again.
Remembering also – always remembering – the lacewings I used to see as a child: achingly beautiful, the fragility of their transparent, neon-edged, wings, held up, seemingly, as a challenge to the brutality of their environment. They’d die within a day. Of course: something so beautiful can only be fleeting. Lessons in that again, about getting over oneself because that forced smallness limits the beauty you can experience. Limits the opportunities for wonder.
Then, fast forward a lot, skipping over the domestic violence which, tsunami-like, destroyed my everything, buried my me someplace beyond rescue (in which post-DV period my “one thing” was simply not killing myself on any given day and then again on any given next day). The pandemic. My work giving me previews of what could be expected which, it turns out, were usually too cautious.
18 months bunkered down: single Mum, one business, two virtual school courses, one writing dream and two frightened littles to navigate. Plus five sets of dishes, 35 different meals to cook in a week (ffs!) and, somehow, in tiny slots of time locked in the bathroom intensive self-coaching in how not to go fucking bonkers. On repeat. Every fucking day. For 18 months.
We got through it, not unscathed, because several people we love dearly lost their battle with covid, and not well, because it’s natural we’d all drop some balls in that high-expectation juggling game, but together. Facing, very often, several things that scared us, often even before breakfast (to paraphrase, yes, you know who).
Together, like this, the motto became “lets face the one thing every day that scares us”. No need to seek opportunities to be brave during that time when the world around us was (still is) terrifying. We’d find the things, instead, that brought us joy. Those little obviously-not-so-little things. That (this ongoing) period has instilled something deep in my littles: the fundamentality of appreciation, of giving things the attention and depth of attention they deserve. Listening to every one of every loved one’s words because their voice, their choice of words, their delivery of these words is but a fleeting miracle. Tasting food afresh every mouthful etc etc. (You know the drill, and whatever floats your boat: the trick, it seems, is in applying this drill).
And now. Venturing back into a world that’s divided on how to face an ongoing pandemic: deny deny DENY! or overprotect, same depth of conviction, same end result, of an atmosphere of terrification for us all (yes, I did make that word up to describe the end result of that polarisation process). Trying to find that middle line, whilst all about you people are doing their best – through simply having an opinion – to terrify you, one way or another.
Doing the one thing that scares me now, Fall 2021 version, is letting my littles venture back into the world. In-person classes whilst coronavirus makes its way not-so-slowly through the Greek alphabet, lambda on the horizon now, hitting the young hard. The two halves of my Mama’s whole heart desperate for connection beyond the screen. I hear them. I feel their need. I understand. Oh, how I understand. But I’m terrified. I’ve decided I’m going to go with the science on this one (as I always do): no relationship has been found between in-person classes and significant outbreaks. Masks. Hand washing. Social distancing. Another, less spiritually deepening, drill. Trusting them to maintain the criteria we’ve spoken about, even when it’s all overwhelming and uncomfortable.
But I’m terrified. As all mothers are. As we all are. And terrified, perhaps more, of our inability, as a human race, to see beyond ourselves and our kin to the bonds that unite us all, and how necessary it is to strengthen these bonds. Connection the bridge we need to build. The pandemic is, after all, simply a preview of what’s coming: however much we like to ignore it, we can all, in our quiet moments, hear climate change rolling up its sleeves, assuming the macho chest-out posturing of the wronged, shouting (enraged) “Hold my beer!”. Our arrogance tragicomically pathetic in the face of so grave a challenge to our very existence.
We’re all scared. Of something. Of someone. Of ourselves. Of the power of our true selves. When we meet it head on, it extends its hand and shows us a new path, a new viable way. Fear navigation as the ultimate teacher. Is it, I wonder, connection itself that we’re scared of? Some of us fuck around with various partners because we’re afraid of making a commitment to our own evolution, some of us do the othering positioning, as if being part of an “in group” has ever had any long-lasting merit.
We’re all guilty of not connecting, of not facing connection, however that manifests. If masks, mandated for health and safety reasons, weren’t a unifying bridge of connection (a badge of “I care about someone else enough to do this”), then I wonder how we’ll fare when climate change, Malthusian-like, reveals what it truly has in store. When liveable land will be at a premium and the ones who’ve survived will give thanks for, or rue, the fact that they get to the end of each day.
I have no answers. My spirituality offers no solution. The Gods offer a path for those who believe. And the escape route being brokered, the white patriarch’s recent journeys into space “for all mankind” is laughable. All I know is that we somehow have to hold onto hope that we will all see the folly of our ways. Somehow. Nature always finds a way. She will be fine. Us humans, with egos more fragile than lacewings (with little of the beauty) won’t fare so well unless we come together. As the one we are.
*I still have that piece of paper tucked in my purse, some nearly three decades later. It’s fared well: perfectly wrinkled, beautifully aged. It’s getting a little fragile now, more tears than wholeness, but just knowing it’s there has helped me through some of the most difficult times. A little talisman, telling me, whenever I need it, that everything will be OK if I just go beyond myself, beyond the edges that limit. Do that one thing, Helen, however tiny, that scares you because always, always, in that space there’s something wonderful waiting. Even if, at first, it appears there is not. An invitation to the ongoing birthing of full self-expression.