There is an anecdote in my baby book that explains so much. The brief notation is written in my mother’s perfect handwriting.
Christmas 1969 Trina was in the Sunday School program but kept falling backward.
That is all it says.
As a teenager, I remember asking my mom to elaborate. There really wasn’t much to tell. Apparently, nearly three-year-old me was one of several children singing Away In the Manger, but I could only get through a few lyrics before I’d fall backwards. Then I’d pick myself up, resume singing, and fall over again. And then I’d pick myself up again. And again. And again.
I hadn’t thought about that story in decades until this week when I was clinging to the root of a wild Rhododendron bush on the side of a cliff.
How could I have let myself get into this situation? I am the person who was once too uncoordinated to sing and stand up at the same time.
Being uncoordinated has shaped the person I am. I am the little girl who could never do a cartwheel and failed gymnastics. I am the kid who never once hit the ball during softball. I am the teenager who could run fast during a track meet but tripped at the finish line. I am the college student who sprained her ankle walking down the stairs of her dorm. I am the friend who got left behind on a ski trip because I just couldn’t get my feet to work correctly. I am the woman who shattered her wrist while walking her dog. I am the person who constantly has bruises and who everyone at work worries about every time they hear a crash or a loud bang.
My lack of grace generated a sense of fear in me at an early age. I wasn’t afraid of heights. I was afraid of what I might do to myself if I tried to do anything from a height: jumping downstairs, going off a diving board; springing off a swing in mid flight. I’d watch in awe as other kids did those things, but I avoided doing any of those them myself. And those decisions came with regrets. I once stood at the top of a fire pole willing myself to go down, but my feet refused. They felt as though they each weighed a thousand pounds.
My journalist mother was writing a feature story about a family that had installed the pole in their house as a fun way for their children to get from the second floor to the first floor. All of the kids in the house, their friends, and even my mother had gone down the pole. And yet, I stood in fear at the top unable to grab and go. The shame I felt from having to take the stairs stayed with me and inspired me to push through the fear.
Which is why, earlier this week, I found myself desperately hanging onto the side of the cliff.
My husband and I had taken the week off to spend time hiking and exploring state parks. He was on a mission to find a certain waterfall from a historical illustration, and his search took us to a series of falls that could only be accessed off the beaten path.
Off the beaten path turned out to be what I can only describe as an almost completely vertical cliff.
Getting to the first falls was fairly easy, but I took one look at the steep descent to the next one and said, “I can’t do it.” But then I did it anyway. The descent to the third waterfall, the one that plunges forty feet, was basically a forty foot vertical drop with vegetation and a few foot holes. “I can’t do this,” I said. And then I did it anyway. My forehead and back were dripping in sweat, but I did it anyway.
As my husband and I stood on a rock taking photos of the falls and basking in our success, he turned to me and said, “Now we have to do the hard part and go back up.”
“I’m not worried about that,” I replied. “Getting back up has always been the easy part for me.”
I wasn’t just referring to the fact that, to me, climbing uphill really is much easier than going down a hill, when I often feel unbalanced.
I was referring to the fact that life has demanded that I learn to turn my weaknesses into strengths. When I was almost three years old, I had a problem simultaneously singing and standing. But when I fell, I always got back up. And I eventually learned to sing and stand. And to ride a bike. And to climb trees. And to climb down cliffs. And to trust myself to take risks.
The secret to enjoying life isn’t just about finding those things at which we are innately good and pursuing them. It’s about finding joy in overcoming those things at which we sometimes fail.
It’s about getting back up.
They embraced danger.
After hiking almost to the top, I told my kids not to walk along the ridge or the narrow trails others were carefully navigating. I imagined how a mere slip could result in disaster, and the signs warning about the number of people who had died on Seneca Rocks didn’t help. They simply fed my fear.
Later, as we were driving home, I thought about my fear.
And I realize that one word “my” said it all.
To me, fear is all about the risk of physical or emotional harm to me or someone I love. I identify that risk and then I do everything I can to avoid it.
That’s how I operate.
Apparently, others operate differently.
My friends tell me that some people don’t analyze their behavior as much as I do.They say most people don’t even know when they are afraid. Instead, they just think they are angry.
Lately, I’ve been debating whether I agree. I never used to think my anger stemmed from fear.
I get angry at injustice when people aren’t treated fairly. Am I afraid that I too can be a victim of injustice?
I get angry when incompetent people are allowed to continue in their jobs despite their ineffectiveness. Am I afraid that my hard work is pointless?
I get angry when people blame me for their inability to be effective. Am I afraid that others will believe them?
My answers to all these questions is”maybe.” But I’ve begun to realize the question shouldn’t be if my anger is rooted in fear. The real question is: “If I am afraid, how do I deal with that fear?”
I can either face it, like the rock climbers do.
I can avoid it, like I did when sitting on the cliffs.
Or I can learn to turn it into something meaningful.
And that choice is the real fear factor.
As I sat in my driveway Thursday night watching fireworks, I was transported back to a July evening more than 40 years ago.
My family and I were sitting in lawn chairs in front of our small rental house on the Warm Springs Indian Reservation in Oregon watching an amateur fireworks show. As a very young girl, I didn’t know the pyrotechnics were less than impressive. All I knew was that my parents were complaining about the long delays between explosions and that Charlie Brown was scared. And I was worried about Charlie.
From the day my parents adopted Charlie Brown, they should have known I would fall deeply in love. I was born to be a dog lover the way some people are born to be athletes or musicians. According to my baby book, one of my first words was “doggie,” and, as a toddler, I would search out dog books at the local library.
But until Charlie Brown arrived, my family never had a dog.
Since then, my family has never been complete without a dog.
And even though we loved Charlie, his early years weren’t easy. He came into our lives at a time when dogs were allowed to roam, and roam he did. When he strayed onto a cattle ranch and started chasing the cows, the rancher shot him. He barely survived, and my parents always blamed his fear of thunder and fireworks on that incident.
Their explanation was reasonable, and I always believed them until I discovered that other dogs, those who have never been shot, also fear thunder and fireworks.
That’s when I began to wonder where the fear comes from. I just couldn’t understand why so many dogs would be afraid of the same thing when their experiences were so varied.
The concept of fear has always fascinated me, especially since I’ve spent my own life overcoming unjustified ones. When I was young, I was afraid to swim in water that was over my head even though I could swim perfectly well when I could touch the bottom. I was afraid to slide down a fireman’s pole, even when all the other kids were expressing sheer joy during the descent. And I’ve always been afraid of rejection and failure to the extent that I avoided potential relationships and challenges.
Then, at one point in my life, I thought I had finally figured out the fear factor.
In college, a Psychology professor discussed the theory of collective memory, and the concept clicked. I might not have experienced an event that would provoke fear, but one of more of my ancestors had. They would have then passed those fears down to me.
That made sense for the dogs as well. They may not have experienced the danger associated with loud noises, but their ancestors had.
For years, as I’ve slowly overcome my fears one by one, I’ve held on to that theory.
Then Rodney entered my life.
Rodney is the current canine member of my family. He’s a giant German Shepherd with a lot of energy and very little fear. That is, very little fear unless you count his inability to be left alone.
When we first adopted Rodney from a rescue group, he wouldn’t even go into our backyard without someone accompanying him. Over the past three years, he’s improved, but he still hates to be separated from the family, and, yes, particularly from me.
On Thursday night, as the human members of the family sat in the driveway watching fireworks, Rodney sat in the house watching us. He whined, he whimpered and he cried until I brought him out to join us.
And then he was content. While the city fireworks boomed overhead and the neighbors shot off their firecrackers, he simply watched. And my theory about the roots of fear was forgotten.
Because, at that moment, I realized that no matter where fear comes from, there will always be an even greater force.
It’s called love.
On May 14, 1972, I got my first real lesson in fear.
That’s the day my uncle, my mother’s only sibling, was killed in a plane crash.
That’s also the day I stopped leaping from the top step.
Before that day, I loved jumping off the front steps of our small rental house on the Indian Reservation where my father worked. The joy of the jump was partly due to a sense of flying and partly due to the risk I was taking. More often than not, instead of landing on my feet, I’d land on my hands and knees. But the scraped knees and elbows were a small price to pay for bragging rights.
According to my brother and his friends, walking down the steps was a sign of weakness. Jumping was the only acceptable means of getting off the porch, and the jump had to be from the top step. Even jumping from one step down was considered cheating and a more egregious offense than forgetting to jump at all.
So, every time I walked out the front door, I would hurl my short, five-year old legs over five steps and land in various positions on the sidewalk. Then, I’d brush myself off and walk away with a sense of pride.
That all changed when my uncle crashed his twin-engine plane.
That Mother’s Day started in an ominous way. It began when my dad and mom, a burgeoning journalist, woke up my brother and me before dawn and bundled us into the back of our red, Ford pickup. There had been a train wreck, and we were going to the site. My dad, brother and I stayed in the truck while my mom, notepad in hand and camera around her neck, wandered off to interview people. Sitting in the truck, my imagination ran wild with thoughts of who and what Mom was encountering.
Hours after we had returned, the phone ran, and my mother disappeared for a long, long time, When she finally returned to our living room, she told us “Uncle Lowell was in a plane crash.”
My imagination, already quite stirred up from the morning’s adventure, envisioned all of the injuries he could have sustained. For some reason, I became fixed on the idea that he had, at a minimum, broken his leg. The possibility that he’d died never crossed my mind, and I don’t even remember how or when my mother finally told us. I do know that by the time she did, I’d so worked myself up about the horrors of broken bones that dying seemed like a great alternative.
I’d also decided that, based on my lack of coordination, the next time I jumped off the top step, I would most certainly break my leg.
That fear ate at me, and the next time I had to go down the steps, I couldn’t jump. I was frozen, and the ground seemed to be a long, long, long way down. I eventually jumped from the second step from the top, but I would never leap from that from the top step again.
Now, forty years later, a five year-old’s leap, or lack of a leap, seems insignificant. But it’s not.
That experience taught me about regret and about how inane decisions are made out of fear, limited information or both. It’s also taught me that sometimes we get so wrapped up in an imaginary fear that we are blinded from seeing the genuine and more critical facts.
I still fall into the trap of letting unfounded fear affect my decisions. But more often than not, I remind myself of the joy that comes from leaping off the top step and the pride that comes from going outside my comfort zone.
And then I jump.