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“A compelling story of everyday courage” (Elizabeth Gilbert).
Patty Chang Anker grew up eager to please and afraid to fail. But after thirty-nine years, she decided it was time to stop being a chicken. Motivated initially to become a better role model for her two young daughters, she vowed to master the fears that were choking the fun and spontaneity out of life. She learned to dive into a swimming pool, ride a bike, do a handstand, and ...
“A compelling story of everyday courage” (Elizabeth Gilbert).
Patty Chang Anker grew up eager to please and afraid to fail. But after thirty-nine years, she decided it was time to stop being a chicken. Motivated initially to become a better role model for her two young daughters, she vowed to master the fears that were choking the fun and spontaneity out of life. She learned to dive into a swimming pool, ride a bike, do a handstand, and surf. As she shared her experiences, she discovered that most people suffer from their own secret terrors—of flying, driving, heights, public speaking, and more. It became her mission to help others do what they thought they couldn’t and to experience the joy and aliveness that is the true reward of becoming brave.
Inspired and inspiring, this book draws on Anker’s interviews with teachers, therapists, coaches, and clergy to convey both practical advice and profound wisdom. Through her own journey and the stories of others, she conveys with grace and infectious exhilaration the most vital lesson of all: Fear isn’t the end point to life, but the point of entry.
I’m in a bathing suit, and people are laughing. Oh, this can’t be good.
The sun was a spotlight on the diving board. It must be twenty degrees hotter up here, I thought. My forehead was sweaty, and, come to think of it, so was everything else. I bent over. The image of Tiffany Chin skating her 1987 U.S. Nationals long program with a wedgie in her blue Lycra costume flitted through my head. I dug my toes into the nubby wet board and tried to get a grip on my own situation.
Do I have a wedgie? I don’t think so.
With my arms stretched overhead, I tucked my chin and swallowed at the same time, which made me want to cough. Don’t cough! Don’t fall in! The board was wobbling. Ergo, my thighs were wobbling. Great.
A line of teens jostled one another behind me.Were they watching me? I wasn’t sure. The water below looked cold and deep. I closed my eyes.
I’m almost forty years old. Lord, help me. I don’t know what I’m doing.
IN THE STORY of my life there are many times when I did not, literally or metaphorically, dive in. I was raised by Chinese immigrant parents who wanted my sister and me to excel in school, succeed in our careers. In my mind, that meant focusing on things I was good at (reading and writing, pioneer crafting) and avoiding areas where I might fall short (most everything else). I was not only afraid of failing, but I was afraid of the fear I would feel while trying not to fail. Afraid of feeling fear itself.
Diving into a swimming pool, with its associated risks of belly flops, drowning, and public humiliation, was something I had successfully avoided all my life. Until now.
My husband and I have two daughters, Gigi and Ruby. Gigi was eight years old and scared to jump off the diving board at camp. “Go ahead, try it, don’t worry what everyone else thinks, you’ll be fine!” I said, praying for her not to ask the obvious: “Mommy, do you dive?” Ruby, then three years old, was already asking why everyone in the family had a bike helmet but Mom. I wanted them to worry less and enjoy life more, to take risks and try new things. But I rarely sought to go out of my comfort zone myself.
In fact, given my nervous nature, my bookish upbringing, my midlife responsibilities, and my boundless propensity for tripping and falling and hurting myself, my comfort zone was less a zone and more a skittish zigzag from car to coffee shop to supermarket to office to sofa to fridge to bed, where I lay awake, worrying. The day I realized I wanted something more for my girls was the day I realized I had to do something more myself. And the day all our lives changed for the good.
I scheduled two diving lessons with my daughter’s swim coach, Jenny Javer. Zoe, an old college friend, had always wanted to learn how to dive and asked to join in. Jenny is exactly who you’d want by your side if your ship was on fire and you had to jump off the deck to save yourself. “A belly flop is like stubbing your toe—it hurts, but you get over it, right?” she said, instantly dispelling a lifelong fear for both Zoe and me. We were diving (that is, falling with style) from the side of the pool within a half hour; and by the end of the first lesson, she’d deemed us ready to try the diving board the next time.
Yet at the beginning of the second lesson, Zoe and I had lingered in the shade, meticulously applying sunscreen, as if a layer of SPF would protect us from all pain. We watched the teens lined up for the diving board push and shove and dare each other into ever more dangerous stunts. Do we have to do this? our expressions must have said loud and clear, because Jenny broke in: “Don’t think.”
The two of us, Chinese-American straight-A students for life, stood blinking at her, uncomprehending.
“You know what to do,” Jenny said, appealing to our knowledge base. “It’s the same as what you’ve done before, just a little higher. Come on now.”
It sounded so sensible on the ground. I tucked my hair into a ponytail, put one last smear of sunscreen on the back of my neck, and took my place in line. A few minutes later, and ten steps down the plank, I was suspended over the county pool, sweating through my Speedo. I’m on the diving board. This feels a lot higher up than it looks.
I took a deep breath, and dove in. With a big fat splash.
It was one of the proudest moments of my life.
Not only did Zoe and I survive, we became divers that day. Not only did we become divers that day, we got a new lease on life. If I can do this, something I never thought I could do . . . well, then anything is possible. I was captivated by how fears held for decades could be dispelled in a matter of minutes. How many of us are held back by fears that make our lives smaller than they need to be, fears that, before we know it, define who we are?
I started a blog about facing fears and trying new things in midlife, called Facing Forty Upside Down. I figured if I committed myself in writing, at least Gigi could follow along and hold me to my promises. I wasn’t sure if anyone else would read it. Everywhere I looked I saw confident, successful people. I wasn’t sure anyone else could relate.
It turned out I was far from alone. Friends from all phases of my life and around the world responded from cyberspace. New acquaintances and neighbors from around the corner pulled me aside at the coffee shop or the playground to tell me how afraid they were. Afraid to swim, to drive at night, to ride a chairlift. Afraid of getting hurt, of looking dumb, of growing old. Some were tentative by nature and nurture. Others remembered living exuberantly until a bad experience scarred them. Still others, spread thin by life’s responsibilities, no longer had the energy to shake things up. It struck me how universal the emotions were beneath the specific fears. It all boiled down to fear of pain, fear of rejection, fear of death, a sense of powerlessness. And the stranglehold these feelings had on us made us less than who we wanted to be.
Not that there was any lack of advice out there. The self-help section of any bookstore had lots of suggestions for how to face fear. Unfortunately, they all seemed to conflict. It doesn’t matter why you’re afraid, just do what you fear was one school of thought, while another cautioned, Stop, think, why are you afraid? It’s because of your brain, your genes, your upbringing, your chakras, your past lives, your diet, your pets or lack thereof. If you could focus on your future, if you could reframe your past, if you could just be in the present, all might be well.
There were books that profiled extraordinary heroes—jet pilots, prisoners of war, Olympic athletes, world leaders—stepping up to extreme challenges. There were books about putting life on hold for a spiritual quest, or doing Fear Factortype challenges like skydiving or shark cage diving. I loved those stories. But how did they relate to my life? I was tempted to chuck it all and buy The New Encyclopedia of Flower Remedies.
And then it came to me.
I want to write a book about how ordinary people face everyday fears. About what motivates us, what keeps us going, what helps us most of all. About how our lives change when we become our best, bravest selves.
Of course, fear is a valuable self-protecting mechanism, so I left some life-preserving intuitive fears (snakes, lightning, blood, clowns, for example) well enough alone. But other common surmountable fears were fair game and I had a theory that different methods would be effective in different situations, so I cast a wide net. I joined Toastmasters and did ropes courses and self-defense classes and put myself in more ridiculous predicaments than I’d ever imagined. I wore helmets and harnesses, high heels and swimsuits (not at the same time), and over and over again, I looked at myself, thinking, I’m about to do something completely different now. And I loved every nerve-racking minute.
Along the way, I met so many inspiring people: a priest, a rabbi, and a swami; therapists; multiple swim coaches; and two car crash survivors. I heard about near-death experiences by plane and boat and hanging off a cable way above the ground. I saw shaking people step up to a mic and grown men pedal undersized bikes. I watched adults working with kids and discovered that who learned more from whom was entirely up for grabs. I encountered breakthroughs and setbacks and surprises I certainly didn’t see coming.
Every single person in this book opened my eyes in a different way, and collectively they showed me how much we are the same. For it’s not just fear we have in common but our endless capacity for joy.
What began as a challenge that I took on for the sake of my kids became a series of lessons in how to open my heart to the elements. The payoff—exhilaration, irrepressible laughter, gratitude, and lo! courage, too—is what I want to share with you.
You can face your fears. You can learn and grow. And you can have the time of your life doing it, too. You can go from being an armchair adventurer to the heroine of your own story, and you don’t need a personality transplant or a sudden windfall to do it. You don’t even need to do anything crazy (unless you discover, as I did, that you really kind of want to).
All you need is some nerve.
Splash! The foam football, heavy with seawater, bonked my head on its way into the ocean, landing with a wet thud that kicked salt water into my eyes.
“Sorry, lady!” the tattooed man to my right called out. I was floating on my brand-new boogie board, just behind where the waves were breaking, and had been watching him and his friend play catch in the waist-high water for a while. They gradually drifted closer to me, until the ball was sailing over my head. Or into my head. It was the second time I’d been hit with it.
In the past, I might have assumed they, like the rest of the world, were out to get me. But not today. I was in a great mood today. I picked up the ball, wrung it out, and tossed it toward a blurry tattooed form, yelling cheerfully, “Your friend has lousy aim!” Blurry tattooed man number two, behind me, waved sheepishly.
“Do you think those guys are flirting with me?” I asked Barb, floating on her board a few feet away. “Or was I just the monkey in the middle?”
“They were definitely flirting with you,” Barb said. “No question.” She leaned her head back into the water.
“I love you, Barb.” I laughed. “You always know what to say.”
I sighed happily, touching the ocean floor with my feet, just to make sure it was there, before I let them float back up. This was no tropical vacation—we were at Jones Beach, that is to say, the Atlantic Ocean with a few million New Yorkers mixed in. The water was cold and brown, with objects I didn’t want to look too closely at drifting by. But still, it was bliss. I was here with my friend, stealing a few hours while the kids were in camp. I had just turned forty-one, and after more winters of discontent than I cared to think about, it was glorious summer and things were looking up.
Hazy sunshine soaked through the topmost layer of water. I hugged the warm board, feeling almost comfy enough to be lulled to sleep. I marveled for a moment at how relaxed I was. Me. Having fun. In moving water!
I have never enjoyed the sensation of being off my feet, and since an ill-fated tubing incident on the Esopus Creek—gosh, was it nearly twenty-five years ago?—being off my feet in fast-moving water that could drown me had long been off my list of how to have a good time.
The list wasn’t very long to begin with. Growing up, when my friends were out climbing trees and skinning knees, I was in the library reading about Laura Ingalls climbing trees and skinning knees. I guess you could say I was more of an armchair kid.
As I grew up, the list shrank. First there was the career to think of, and then the children. The real, and what felt like real, battles between life and death, success and failure, took every ounce of my energy. To my sleep-deprived brain it was all about conserving strength: If it didn’t haveto be done; if I didn’t know how; if it was too scary, too complicated, too inconvenient, too expensive, too time-consuming, too embarrassing, too cold, too hot, too wet, too icky; if I could get bit or dizzy or fall over; if it could hurt my bad back, bad neck, bad ankle; if it made me or my mother (or the mini-version of her I carry in my head) cluck and say, Why would you want to do that? it went by the wayside.
“Mommy doesn’t do that,” my kids would say—she doesn’t ski or sail or ride a bike. Mommy doesn’t play catch or do roller coasters or program the TV. She’s busy! She’s tired! She has Important Things to Do! If I had died in 2009, my headstone would probably have read: Mom: She Worried a Lot.
But then, I changed. So much that my husband is still searching the back of my neck for signs of alien abduction. Who can explain it?
Maybe it was turning forty and realizing that it wasn’t just days but decades slipping by in the same worn paths that somehow grew narrower with each foray. Maybe it was the sense among friends that as we got older we were becoming more like ourselves, but not in a good way. I love you, but didn’t we have the same conversation last week? Maybe it was the hypocrisy of stuffing my children into snowsuits and shin guards and helmets and sending them out into the fray while I cheered from a bench. Maybe it was a combination of all that and a last-gasp, premenopausal burst of hormones.
Whatever it was, after a lifetime of living nowhere near the edge, I had had enough. I started diving in.
The sounds of teenagers teasing and splashing each other and children screaming happily filled the air around me and Barb. This is what it feels like to be part of the fun, I thought, my own pleasure suddenly tinged with guilt. Gigi, my older daughter, loves the water, but I had avoided taking her to the beach for years, because I was so afraid. The last time I’d waded into waves with her, I squeezed her slippery little wrist so hard my own hand hurt. Ruby, my younger daughter, hated putting her face in the water at the pool; who even knew how she would take to the ocean? My own limitations had limited us all for so long.
It’s not too late. I’ll bring them to the beach before the summer is out.
My toes broke through the surface of the water and I wiggled them proudly. “My feet look like the feet of a CSI: Miami victim,” I said to Barb, pointing to the chipped polish.
“That means you’re having a good summer,” Barb said. I was having a good summer, a great one, in fact. I’d been to the pool countless times to prepare for this outing. I still had a panicky response underwater, where my go-to relaxation technique, deep breathing, remained singularly ineffective. Navigating moving water was a work in progress.
Barb rested her chin on her board, long brown hair fanning out around her. “Can you believe how far you’ve come? Do you remember the first time we did this?”
I certainly did.
IT’S PAINFUL EVEN TO think of now, how sad and lost I was when I first got to know Barb, just two years earlier. I’d stumbled into Antoinette’s Patisserie with Ruby on my hip, as I did each morning. Ruby, at age three, was too old to be carried, but she had eczema all over, down to the soles of her feet. She scratched constantly, cried often, and slept rarely. Some days all we did was cling to each other. In the warmth of the coffee shop we self-soothed with milk and butter cookies for her, coffee and a chocolate chip muffin for me.
At the time, I had few friends in the village. I had left my full-time career in publishing ten years before, when we adopted Gigi and then Ruby, and it seemed as if I’d left my confidence behind along with my commuter rail pass. My girls were the center of my world, but with special needs in the mix, that world revolved around doctors and therapists, not Girl Scouts or T-ball. Often I felt like a foreigner in my own town.
But here was Barb, spilling over the bistro table in front of her, with cups and plates, books, a journal, a laptop, and people, so many people, all within arm’s reach. I’d met her once before without our kids but felt too shy to break in here to say hello. It was overcast, and although I was sitting by the window, the light over their cluster glowed brighter by far. They were laughing, and when Barb laughed, her thick wavy hair shook in a way that looked so soft and warm, I wanted to rest my head on her ample bosom and go to sleep.
“Hi, there!” Barb said, catching me looking at her longingly. She said it in a friendly way, but I blushed deep red as her companions looked at me curiously. “Who’s this?” she asked, smiling at Ruby. I introduced ourselves to the group and then as soon as I could, I hightailed it out of there.
Our next interaction was better. She had asked, “What’s your favorite misheard lyric?” and I chimed in, “I always thought ‘Secret Agent Man’ was ‘Secret Asian Man.’” Barb thought that was hilarious, and we sang the lyric together for the entire coffee shop to hear.
“Don’t laugh,” I said, laughing. “I loved Secret Asian Man. He was so intriguing. I still feel robbed.”
She invited me to sit with her at the popular table, where I was out of my element entirely. Here was a Little League dad, a Boy Scouts leader, a La Leche mother, a community organizer, or two or three. I couldn’t keep track. Barb, a local music festival producer and the mother of two active boys, was connected to everyone in town. I did nothing but smile and nod at the whirl around her, while bouncing Ruby gently on my knee.
After a while my head started to hurt. It was warm already; the day was going to be oppressive. I needed to get out of there.
“It’s so busy here today!” Barb declared, dabbing her brow. Then she sighed dreamily and said, “I can’t wait for tomorrow. I’m going to the beach.”
“Family vacation?” I asked absentmindedly. I was already mentally in the rest of my day, ticking off errands to do.
“No, just by myself. For the morning.”
I stopped and stared. “You’re going to the beach by yourself?”
“Yeah,” she said, smiling. “It’s heaven. Just sit with a book, watch the waves, listen to music.” She stopped and looked at me. “Wanna come?”
“Hell, yeah!” I spluttered. But what was I saying?
I can’t just go to the beach tomorrow! I have things to do.
Ah, there it was, the imaginary Greek Chorus of Perpetual Doubt. It was a little slow on the uptake today—usually it would not have allowed me to say yes in the first place. I tried talking back to it, in my head. Well, actually, Ruby’s nursery school has a camp; I could put her in for a day . . .
Oh! The Greek Chorus did not like that one bit. What kind of mother pays for child care so she can go to the beach? What if something happens to the kids and you’re far away? What if you drown? Who would raise the children? You don’t even like the beach! And, hello: What if Barb was just being polite? She doesn’t really want to go to the beach with you. Don’t go.
“Are you serious?” I asked her.
“Uh, sure!” Barb said, nodding. She looked like she was thinking it through at lightning speed. She had asked and I had answered without thinking it through at all. Didn’t Malcolm Gladwell have a theory about this? That big decisions often happen in the blink of an eye?
I looked into her big green eyes. She seemed sincere. It felt so good to be invited. I wanted to go. I never did anything spontaneous anymore. I wanted something different in my life, to be different from how I was. Patty Chang Anker would never do this. I blinked.
“Then I’m in,” I said. The Greek Chorus opened its mouth, staggered backward a step, and passed out cold.
I told no one I was going. My husband, Kent, worked long hours at a law firm in the city and hadn’t breathed fresh air in a decade. I crumpled with guilt at the thought. My Chinese immigrant parents would not approve. Had they sacrificed everything for their eldest child to squander her “Ivy League” education (honestly, was Penn even in the Ivy League?) and leave her job at The New York Times (The New York Times! At last, a place people had heard of!), to stay home with children, and then have her put those children in camp, and leave laundry in the hamper, so she could go sit in the sun? I felt downright naughty.
The next day, when I opened the back of Barb’s SUV to put my tote bag inside, an avalanche of gear—towels, beach umbrella, helmets, mitts—started sliding out. I put my hands out to stop a beach chair from unfolding on top of me. Barb laughed, leaning into the trunk.
“Can you tell I’m a mom?” she asked. “I’m ready for anything.”
My trunk had exactly zero gear in it for having fun. My insides shifted at the thought.
“Take the cooler out, would you?” she asked. “Ooh, and the Cosmo, too. Let’s put those up front.”
I pulled the glossy magazine out of the trunk and shoved my little bag in, feeling giddy. Was I really going to get in this car with a woman I barely knew?
Once we were on our way, Barb flipped me her iPod. “Feel free to pick some music,” she said. I was at a loss. I didn’t know how to work an iPod. I didn’t even know what kind of music I liked. My husband usually picked the music. Five minutes into the drive and I was already inadequate—what were we going to talk about for the next six hours? This was a mistake.
As we started to chat, it became clear that I would not be able to sustain a facade of fun-loving gal, ready for any adventure. The truth was going to come out. Around minute seven, it did.
“I don’t know how to ride a bike.” So it began.
“Not one with hand brakes. Or gears. I’ve never gone camping. I’m scared of the ocean. And rivers. And most things in nature, to be honest. I don’t even know how to dive into a swimming pool. Or do a handstand. I think it’s because I hate being upside down.” I was starting to gather steam. This was too much information, and I knew it, but I was like a woman on a blind date who cannot stop talking even though she knows she’s taking the evening down in flames.
“I’m married to my high school boyfriend.”
“Look out, Barb!” She pulled the car back into its lane.
“You’ve been with the same man since you were a teenager?” she asked.
I nodded, then wailed, “I was afraid of dating!”
We both burst out laughing. “I mean, he’s also a really nice guy,” I said, as we laughed some more. I realized I was being myself and it was going well—we were having fun. It was a relief actually, coming clean.
We were driving through the Bronx, near where I grew up, on our way out to the shore. I looked out at all the aging concrete. It was like looking at myself from a distance.
“My problem is, I’m so afraid of getting hurt or looking stupid that I don’t try things,” I said. I looked around for Gigi and Ruby, as if they would be in car seats behind me. My heart skipped a beat, then I remembered where I was. Suddenly, I had the kind ofout-of-the-box insight one can only get when plucked out of one’s box.
I don’t want my girls to grow up scared.
Right then and there, I decided. I was going to turn over a new leaf. I’m going to start saying yes to things that scare me.
At the beach, Barb dived into the trunk and came up with two boogie boards. “Want one?” she asked.
“Uh, yes!” I said brightly. She handed me a purple foam board and then turned to look for towels. There was something that looked like a leash attached to the board. I furrowed my brow. How do you use this thing? Barb handed me my bag, a towel, and some magazines as I clumsily tried to tuck the board under my arm. She expertly carried all her stuff plus a beach umbrella as we scouted for a place in the sand. Gulls swooped all around. A lone city pigeon pecked on by, looking lost. “You and me both,” I whispered, quickening my pace to keep up with Barb.
The next hour went by in a dreamy haze of sunbathing, chatting, snacking, and listening to music. So far, doing things outside my comfort zone was extremely pleasant. When Barb asked, “So what about going upside down scares you?” I answered, “It’s like my brain freezes and I don’t know what to do.” But as I lay in the warm sand, the fear seemed quite remote. “Maybe I should learn how to do a handstand,” I murmured lazily. This out-of-the-box thinking was getting out of hand.
Then Barb said, “Wanna go in the water?”
I stiffened. “Uh, okay!” I said, my body all at once cold and twice as sweaty.
Barb put her boogie board’s leash around her wrist—that answered that question—and led us out past where the waves were breaking so we could float while hanging on our boards. I watched the kids bodysurfing and felt a tumult of terror inside. A wave washed over my head and I came up coughing.
“I don’t see how you can stand facing away from the waves,” Barb said. “I like to see what’s coming.” I turned around reluctantly. I’d always hated advice like “Don’t turn your back to the ocean” or “Keep your eye on the ball.” Seeing the thing about to hit me in the face only made me want to squeeze my eyes shut and cry.
We watched a wave come toward us. “What do we do?” I squeaked.
“Jump up!” Barb called out, and it went past us. “You know that part when the wave is coming and you’re not sure whether to jump or dive under or ride it in? That’s my favorite part.”
Is she kidding? I thought, scanning the horizon worriedly. The not knowing part? That’s the part I hate.
A big wave was building. “Oooh, good, ride this one in!” Barb said.
“What, how?” My brain froze. What do I do?
“Belly on the board, hold on, now go!”
I went. Every which way. The light foam board, perhaps half the length of my body, was no match for the elements at play. I felt like a Barbie doll put through the wash, arms and legs splayed, head and torso churning in opposite directions, the hair will never be the same. In the roiling surf I tumbled like a gymnast, a really bad gymnast, in to shore. I lurched upright just in time to hear Barb screaming excitedly, “Patty, you did it!!”
“You were totally upside down!”
On the way home, Barb marveled at the moment she saw me go under the water and then both my feet popped up. “Your legs were sticking straight up in the air—you did a handstand without even trying!”
I laughed and my body ached from the underwater pummeling, the sun, and exposure to the elements. The experience felt completely new. “Maybe I should write about this,” I mused out loud. “I could start a blog about trying new things. I could call it Facing Forty Upside Down.”
I stayed up late that night after everyone else was in bed, looking at what I’d drafted for my inaugural post. I declared I would learn how to dive into a swimming pool, ride a bike (without crashing into a tree), and do a handstand, all before I turned forty.
The Greek Chorus had a conniption. What will the neighbors think? I’ll tell you what the neighbors will think. They’ll think: Who does she think she is, learning how to dive? Doesn’t she have kids to raise? Money to earn? If she’s got spare time, shouldn’t she be donating it to charity? She’s got some nerve.
“Who cares what other people think?” a voice interjected, almost startling me from my seat. It was my voice, the clear, confident one I use with my kids all the time. It had never spoken to me like this before. I hit Publish. Nothing ventured, nothing gained, I thought. I shut down the computer and sat for a moment in the dark. I wonder what’s going to happen now.
What happened was this: I wasn’t alone. Friends from every phase of my life came out of the woodwork, saying they, too, were tired of feeling tired. Of living a more limited life in the little slices of time they had between work and family. Some, like me, had never been very adventurous, but with time ticking by they were thinking, If not now, when? Others, who’d been very outgoing as kids and young adults, looked up in middle age to discover that their fears and fatigue had nibbled away at their enjoyment of life to the point that they couldn’t remember the last time they’d done something they never thought they could do. They forwarded my posts to their friends. “Take me with you!” was the common refrain.
And so I learned how to dive with my old college friend Zoe and took a bike lesson at dawn arranged by my friend Kim. It took a year of practice before I could do a solid handstand. Five days before my fortieth birthday, when I was about ready to quit trying, Victoria Ramos, my tough-love yoga teacher, said, “Have you ever seen toddlers learn how to walk? How they fall and fall and never give up?” I kept going, until at last I felt the sensation of walking on air. My brain did not freeze. Quite the opposite: My upside-down grin said it all.
Everything changed. In facing my fears and encouraging others to face theirs, I found my calling. In writing our stories, I found my voice. After a career spent promoting other people’s writing, I decided to write my own book about how ordinary people face everyday fears. After a string of mostly pleasant surprises and successful outcomes (Diving, check! Handstand, check! Bicycling, at least I didn’t crash!), I was starting to look forward to new experiences with excitement rather than dread. In fact, I was looking forward to attending my first writers’ conference, Bread Loaf, in Vermont in a couple of weeks.
But first I wanted this day at the beach with Barb.
This time, two summers after our first date, I’d plugged my own iPod into Barb’s car stereo and put on Sheryl Crow’s “Soak Up the Sun.” At the beach shack, I picked out a peppy blue Hawaiian print boogie board; I was ready for one of my own. “This is a sign of my new life,” I’d said, plopping down the cash to pay for it. And now I was hanging out in the ocean, as if I was the kind of person who could just do these things. All this was what Barb was talking about when she said, “Can you believe how far you’ve come?” Neither of us could believe it. Of course not. It was too good to be true.
BARB’S SHOULDERS WERE turning pink. “We should go soon,” I said.
“One last run?” Barb asked, and before I could answer, a big wave rose out of nowhere, filling my vision, top to bottom, side to side, taking all my words away. In that moment of not knowing what to do that Barb loves and I hate, the wave decided for me. It pushed me in to shore, in a massive whoosh of water and noise.
I clutched my board, my brand-new board, to my chest. Check me out! I whooped to myself, feeling the rush under my belly. This is scaring the crap out of me! And I’m doing it anyway! The wave kept going—when would it stop? My eyes were shut, there was no way to know. Oh crap! The board ran aground and then the wave receded, sucking backward with such force that I thought it might rip the skin off my body. I staggered to my feet.
I’m alive! I hoisted my board up over my head like the Stanley Cup. I am the champion! I am a cool mom! Prepared for anything! Put this baby in my trunk! I AM FACING . . .
The wrong way.
Boom!The next wave didn’t so much crash as detonate. I both heard and felt it strike me down from behind, like lightning and thunder combined. It hit the back of my head and shoulders, popping the board out of my hands and knocking me off my feet. I gasped, sucking water up my nose and spitting it out of my mouth as I got dragged under.
The water IN MY MOUTH was FROM MY NOSE! THAT IS SO GROSS! I gagged. Air! I need air! Held by the leash, I was tossed against the board like a rubber ball against a wooden paddle. I had no idea which way was up, until bam! the wave threw me against the sandy bottom. My left foot made a sickening yet oddly clarifying crunch. Ouch. Okay. That way is down.
I pushed myself onto all fours, then lurched upright. But my foot didn’t want to take my weight, and I crumpled down again. This is ridiculous, I thought. I’d always been afraid of getting sucked out to sea, never of being thrown toward land.
What came next was a series of poor decisions. I probably shouldn’t have crawled back out into the ocean to rest my foot. Yes, it felt good to dangle it weightless in the water while I coughed seaweed out my ears. But the cold probably also numbed it, so I didn’t believe it could be broken.
“I’m fine,” I told Barb, as we packed up our things. Although when I tried to lift my bag onto my shoulder, my foot sank into the sand and I felt something inside it go crack. It was the strangest thing. My foot was attached to me, just like always. It was clearly my foot. But it didn’t feel like my foot anymore.
“I’m fine,” I told the couple who had seen the whole thing and now offered me some ice from their cooler. “You sure?” the man said doubtfully. “You’ve got some big scratches on your leg. And your arm.”
I probably shouldn’t have walked the two hundred steps to the lifeguard shack, picking my way around each picnic blanket en route, leaning on the boogie board for support.
“You know we could have come to get you, right?” the lifeguard said when I hobbled past the Lifeguards Only sign to collapse onto a bench. “I didn’t want to bother anyone,” I said. “I just need an ice pack for the ride home.”
I should not have listened to the EMT who treated me, a young man in shades who rode in on a Kubota jeep, ready to save the day. After asking about vital things like chest pain and dizziness, he looked at my foot. It had not yet begun to swell. “You probably just bruised it,” he said. “Rest, ice, elevate. If it doesn’t get better, go to your doctor. You definitely didn’t break it.” Whew.
The lifeguards lounging around the shack seemed calm. Maybe my fear of oceans was overblown. “What kinds of injuries do you usually see here?” That, I should not have asked.
“Cuts, sprained ankles, that kind of thing. Occasionally we have someone helicoptered out of here for something more serious,” the EMT said importantly.
I gulped. Thousands of people were spread out across the beach, children everywhere. Any one of them could end up on a stretcher.This is a death trap! I wanted to shout it into a megaphone. Clear the beach!
But I didn’t. Instead, Barb brought the car around, and I went home with a fourth metatarsal bone in my left foot that, as the doctor later said, was “most definitely broken.” And a fierce desire never to go to the beach again.
I PUT an It-could-have-been-worse-at-least-I-have-a-good-story-to-tell gloss on the situation, but back at home I felt like the worst mother in the world. I couldn’t cook or clean. I couldn’t bathe Ruby or hold the girls’ hands crossing the street. I’d be counting on the whole family to fill in for me in the weeks ahead at a time when Kent was crazy busy at work. I was useless.
My fears of moving water had been justified all along, obviously, and with that realization all my newly minted courage drained away. A week later, crutching my way slowly across the rural campus of the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference in the pouring rain, it all caught up with me.
My whole body hurt—my foot from swelling, my armpits and hands from crutching, and my heart worst of all. I worried about falling with every step on the slippery gravel paths. Each time I planted the crutches, crunch, and swung my foot, swing, I heard my mother’s gentle voice, my constant companion, saying, “Xiao xin. Xiao xin,” “be careful, small heart.” My heart contracted, a little bit smaller, with every step.
I stopped and looked around me. I was across from the nurse’s cabin, set prettily in a field of wet wildflowers. I made my way across the threshold and collapsed in a parlor chair, pouring puddles of rainwater onto every surface I touched.
The nurse came to greet me, and I asked whether I could get a brace that would give me a break from the crutches. She set to work looking up medical supply stores in the area, then asked, “So what are you writing about?”
It was an innocent question.
“I’m supposed to be writing about how people face fears,” I said. And then I burst into noisy tears.
The nurse, looking slightly alarmed, gave me some tissues, as I tried to speak between sobs. “I wanted my book to inspire people, but how can I help anyone if I can’t be brave myself? I can’t go back in the ocean—just look at me! I’m a mess! I can’t hold an umbrella, my clothes are muddy. I can’t even do my laundry.”
The nurse patted my hand. She offered me an apple, the first of many gifts. “Oh, honey, I can help you with the laundry,” she said, and she ran through the rain, took my dirty clothes from my dorm to the laundry shed, and popped them in the machine, lickety-split, filling me with longing for the ability to do anything with ease. She also arranged for me to get a walking boot, so I could have breaks from the crutches. I finally let myself start taking the Vicodin my doctor had prescribed. I hadn’t wanted to be woozy, but wooziness was called for, I decided.
Things were looking up.
That night, sick of hiding in my room, I put on a dress and started crutching my way toward the Barn. There was a dance party going on, and I wanted to be near the music, instead of wishing it away. I figured I could sit on the sidelines and put the crutches down, and stop talking about what happened to me. I could fade into the background and try to forget.
It was dark, and the gravel path was uneven. Partway there, I stalled, unsure whether to keep going or give up and go back to the dorm. It wasn’t worth twisting my good ankle.
“Hey, do you want a flashlight?” a man’s voice called over. It was Jamie, a fiction writer from New York.
“I can’t hold a flashlight and crutch at the same time,” I said.
“It’s a headlamp,” he replied. He caught up to me and put it on my head, but it was too big, and it slid down around my neck. So there I was, a headless crippled woman haunting the grounds, seen only by the pool of light illuminating her conspicuously modest cleavage. So much for my plan to fade into the night.
Once in the Barn, I “danced.” With the boot, I could stand without crutches for a few songs at a time, flinging my arms about freely. It felt great to stand upright, until people high-fived or hip-bumped me too vigorously and almost toppled me over. When I got tired, I crutched my way outside for some air and found Jamie standing against the porch rail.
He was next to another man, whom he introduced as I made my way over. “Patrick writes about surfing.” Between the Vicodin, the thud of music, and the chatter around us, I wasn’t sure I’d heard correctly. “What?” I said, listing a little. But Jamie was already turning to chat with someone else, and Patrick nodded at my crutches and asked the inevitable. “How did you hurt your foot?”
“I was boogie boarding,” I began.
“Really?” Patrick looked surprised. “I’m a surfer. I teach surf culture.”
“Really?” I replied. I had heard correctly, but it still sounded implausible. Could you really get paid to write and teach surf culture? Wasn’t surfing essentially high-risk fooling around on a beach? And wasn’t he a little old for that? Patrick’s hair was more white than not, the lines around his eyes crinkled like he was thinking something funny.
“Do you surf?” he asked, seeming excited to have a love of water sports in common. I hurried to correct the misperception.
“Oh, no way,” I said. “I’m actually afraid of the ocean, period. I’m writing a book about facing fears, and let’s just say my field research didn’t go so well. This may be a very short book.” I made myself sound lighthearted but I ached inside. How could I write about finding courage when I no longer knew where I’d put mine?
“Well, you need to learn how to surf, then!” Patrick declared. “To face your fears.” I groaned. I should have seen where this was going. I recognized the look on his face. I got that look myself, every time I saw an opportunity to encourage someone else to try something new.
I tried deflecting. “Are you kidding? The wave that broke my foot knocked me down when I was standing in ankle-deep water. I’m wondering if I’ll be brave enough to go back in the ocean at all, let alone try something as crazy as surfing.”
“You can do anything you set your mind to,” Patrick said. He said it effortlessly, like it was some simple truth.
For a moment I felt torn. I wanted to say “Hell, yeah!” I wanted him to think well of me. When I was a girl growing up in the Bronx I may have been afraid of most things outside my door, but I had a good imagination. Hiding in my bottom bunk with my books, I was Laura Ingalls on the prairie, Jane Eyre on a windswept moor. I tried for a split second to imagine myself surfing. It could not be done.
“You don’t know me,” I said. “My daughter calls me a ‘magnet for disaster.’ With my luck, if I tried to surf, I’d get sucked out in a riptide, attacked by a shark, and then thrown back on land, whereupon a wave would break my other foot.”
Patrick looked at me quizzically. There were plenty of young, hale, and hearty people around he could talk to about surfing. Why was he wasting energy on this middle-aged housewife, crippled by fear? He’d probably leave me alone now.
“Well, I believe you can do it,” he said quietly. He wasn’t being a bully, I realized, and my defenses softened, a little. “And then, when you stand up on a wave,” he added, his face brightening, “you’ll know what it’s like to smile the biggest smile of your life.”
It could have been the porch light reflecting off his hair and his Hawaiian shirt, or maybe it was the Vicodin, but Patrick was glowing.He looks like he’s absorbed a lot more sunshine and fresh air in his life than I have in mine, I thought. I looked down at my black hair, black dress, black boot. We were dressed for entirely different parties.
When I’d first started facing my fears, I felt like I’d been living my life in a narrow hallway, where I’d shut all the doors to anything that seemed too much for me to handle. “Don’t make fear the end point,” my therapist had said. “Don’t let it stop you from doing what you want and need to do.” When I started opening doors, I realized that fear is not the end point but the entry—to new experiences I could not have imagined while I was stuck in the hallway.
As long as the risks ended in triumph, it was great. But getting hurt . . . hurt. Patrick smiled at me encouragingly and I looked back at him, wanting to believe and wanting to be left alone in equal measure, as the Greek Chorus wailed, Pay no attention to the surfer! You have responsibilities! You’re facing fears for your kids, this is not about you. The biggest smile of your life is beside the point.
The evening mist around us was turning to rain.
I was suddenly almost painfully thirsty.
“Do you dance?” I asked Patrick, resorting to what I usually do when feeling out of my element by changing the subject and running—well, hobbling—away. “Waving my arms to Salt-N-Pepa on a nice solid wood floor is more my speed than surfing.” As we returned to the warmth of the Barn, I shook raindrops out of my hair, feeling like I’d gotten away with something. I’d chatted with a surfer and escaped without committing to doing anything crazy. Door closed. I’d have to figure out some way to face my fears, it was true. But one step at a time. For now, I was glad to be safe and dry.
I put my crutches aside and considered plopping into a chair, but the sight of so many normally self-conscious writers cutting loose on the dance floor drew me in again. I joined the crowd and waved my arms to the music, feeling energized for the first time since the accident. I smiled a little smile, not realizing this was just the beginning, having no idea of the joyride to come.
The desk I was sitting under had been mine since I was fourteen years old. I’d outgrown it in every way. Its little drawers, perfect for a young girl’s diary with lock and key, had been crammed to capacity long ago. The computer now sat atop it like Jabba the Hutt, belching piles of paper overboard with each move of the mouse. “Stop stepping on my work!” I’d yell at the kids. “Then why is it on the floor?” they’d yell back.
It was all over the floor—work, bills, medical forms, school notices, kids’ art, toys, photos, cables, Christmas cards, clothes—and that was just the layer I could see. I’d returned from Bread Loaf with a box of new books and nowhere to put them, a file of story ideas I already couldn’t find. Poking apprehensively at a stack with a crutch, I wondered if I needed to rethink my approach.
Back at The New York Times and the publishing houses where I worked as a publicist, everyone knew better than to step into my office. My piles were a sign of my productivity. I’m too busy to file! Look at ALL THIS WORK! Someone make me some copies! I knew where everything was. My piles spoke to me in the voices of the writers, the editors, the executives wanting to know where things stood. “I’ll get to you and you and you,” I would tell the stacks, as nine p.m. approached and the cleaning lady passed by my office again. No way you’re getting to vacuum this floor today, lady, I’ve got work to do. I was in charge.
But here in the home office I share with Kent, the cacophony had grown unbearable. Now the voices from the piles were those of my two daughters, their teachers and doctors, my husband, my students and clients. The thank-you notes, the half-knit sweater (and vest and scarf) clamored, too: What about me? Did you forget me? When will you get to me? Take care of me! And from the corners came the whispers: It’s too late for me.
Surveying the mess, I felt frantic: Yes, I promise I will. I’ll get to you tomorrow. I can’t believe I haven’t taken care of this yet. I hate myself. Why am I like this? God help me.
Which is why I was under my desk. I had to register Ruby for kindergarten, and I had three problems. I couldn’t find the forms, her immunization records, or a pen. Declaring war on clutter, I’d started toppling piles. Eventually, the only clear place to sit was under the desk.
Most of my friends felt good when they cleared space around them; they were afraid of clutter and of being hemmed in. For me, the opposite was true. The very idea of coming home to empty surfaces filled me with anxiety. “I’ve lived in the Bronx,” I’d deadpan to friends. “My first instinct would be—WHO STOLE MY STUFF?!”
The truth is, I would have wondered, Who lives here? Why is she important? What does she do? What does she have to live for?
MY MOTHER GREW UP in wartime China, and in 1949, when she was seven years old, her family fled to Taiwan. “I could take one toy car with me,” she’d once told me with sadness. “Because it was small enough to hold in one hand.” Everything else stayed behind. She wrapped her favorite doll in the blanket she’d knit for her, laid her in the toy crib in the closet, and closed the door.
I, on the other hand, as a child had scores of hand-me-down Barbies and Fisher-Price people and all the accessories. My mother saved scraps of cloth to make us doll dresses and puppets; she fashioned animals out of homemade play dough, made glue out of rice and water. We collected things—stamps, rocks, leaves, and seeds. Other kids loved playing at our house. It was full of love.
Maybe that’s why once I became a mother myself I flipped past the “Declutter your life!” articles in women’s magazines, the same way I ignored my husband’s pleas to at least clear the doorway of the day’s detritus so he could enter the house. I turned away, so I felt more than saw the raised eyebrows of friends watching our kids spread finger paint off the paper and onto the floor. “I wish I could be so . . . relaxed,” they’d say before rushing their children home for a bath. Even when more than one friend asked if I’d ever watched the showHoarders, I clung to the notion that there was something heroic about putting parenting before organizing.
Until the kids themselves started speaking up.
“Mom, you are so disordered,” said ten-year-old Gigi, the backseat clinician, the morning I left the car a third time to retrieve a forgotten item from the house. Gigi has ADHD, and because it takes one to know one, suspected I had issues, too. “You need fish oil,” she prescribed kindly, the time I couldn’t find the house phone I needed to call the cell phone I had lost.
“You need sleep,” my doctor said at my checkup. I had asked him if I had ADD or early-onset senility. “You have so much going on—your brain is like a computer with too many applications open at once. It glitches. It happens.” He had never seen our house.
But Karen Clay, a licensed social worker, had. Ruby’s allergies and skin issues made her extra sensitive to her surroundings, and Karen came weekly for a time to help us work with her sensory needs. Karen’s soft Southern drawl made everything she said sound chatty and benign, and I found I could accept parenting advice from her far more easily than from friends or relatives.
At our next meeting I cleared a corner of the dining room table so we could sit. “I love everything the girls make,” I said, pointing at five unfinished craft projects on the table. “I love that we’re spontaneous and creative. But the mess is getting a little out of hand. I can’t bring myself to throw an old button away, let alone anything they’ve worked on. Is this a problem? I’ve never really thought of myself as a hoarder, but . . .”
“You are a clutterer, not a hoarder,” Karen said. “Your house is clean, you’re not putting anyone in physical danger—believe me, I would tell you if you were. But . . .” She said the next part slowly, watching me closely for my reaction: “Kids have a harder time regulating and organizing themselves internally if they are surrounded by disorganization externally.”
I looked into Karen’s quiet brown eyes. Closing mine, I saw Gigi and Ruby, whirling dervishes, me, the supposed adult, whirling alongside them, none of us able to stop.
It was time to make a change.
After Karen left, I did some research online. Clearly I wasn’t alone. There are seventy-seven chapters of Clutterers Anonymous in the United States, a 12-step program modeled on Alcoholics Anonymous, with weekly in-person meetings. But adding another meeting to my schedule meant having to find my calendar, and that was not happening anytime soon.
I also discovered the Institute for Challenging Disorganization’s clutterhoarding scale that professional organizers use to assess how serious the problem is in a given household. To my relief, it supported Karen’s conclusion, placing us decidedly on the clutter end of the scale.
Finally, my research led me to the National Association of Professional Organizers, which has about 4,200 members. I was skeptical, though. I’d had two well-meaning organizers work with me before, and all that remained of their work was some neat labels on files and shelves that bore no relation to their current contents. We come across them occasionally, like hieroglyphs from a civilization that died off long ago.
This time, though, I was serious. A friend recommended the author of three books on getting organized, Mary Carlomagno of Orderperiod.com. I made an appointment a week and a half away and then told everyone I knew to hold me accountable. I’m not going to fail in front of the world, I thought. This is for the kids. I’m not going to fail, period.
MARY’S BOOK Secrets of Simplicity opens with a quote from the Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu: “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” What I dubbed Operation: Find My Floor began with baby steps. With nine days before Mary’s first visit, I eased myself in by thinking about it, reading about it, talking about it, taking “before” pictures, and buying clothes to clean in. Oh, that last bit is bad, I know.
“I’m breaking the golden rule of decluttering,” I muttered, raiding the clearance rack at Target. “I should be giving away my T-shirts, not buying a new one. But how cute would I look cleaning in this?”
I wasn’t all talk. On Day 1, I dumped twelve nearly empty bottles of toiletries, freeing up a section of bathroom counter, and on Day 7, I found twenty-five pens scattered around the office where on Day 6 I’d sworn I had none. On Day 8, I discovered a still-full hot water bottle under a stack of work, my embarrassment at not remembering how it got there balanced by my elation that moving it reduced the stack by two inches in one go.
On Day 9, however, panic hit. The organizer is coming! This house looks like a crazy woman was locked in here with wild animals for the winter! I can’t show her this! Who can live like this?
Even the porch was a disaster. I moved aside a pop-up tent, two cardboard boxes, a bucket of chalk, three spray cans of sunscreen, two pairs of Crocs, three newspapers, and a bag of last winter’s ice melt so she had a chance of entering. And escaping.
And then I saw her walking up the path. Short, in her early forties, with a friendly smile and a head of brown curls, Mary was wearing a long-sleeved black T-shirt and comfortable jeans, looking ready to work.
“Be careful around the broken bricks,” I cautioned, leading us up the front steps. “We have to get those fixed.” Already, seeing my life through a stranger’s eyes was giving my to-do list new urgency. Our front door opens into our foyer/parlor. Once upon a time, this room had housed an adult sitting area with antique Chinese furniture and comfortable cushions for sitting on the left and a small, clear space for yoga to the right.
I started doing yoga around the time I stopped working full-time, and in typical type A fashion, decided to justify my time spent lying down doing nothing by getting a credential while I was at it. I became a certified yoga teacher, and for the first time in my life, learned, at least while I was on the mat, to quiet the Greek Chorus.
Then one Christmas Santa filled it with a mini-trampoline and a profusion of stocking stuffers, and it was all downhill from there. As fast as I could move things out, more came in—laundry to be sorted, swimming bags to be emptied, a printer, a drum set, for crying out loud.
“I’ll never get my meditation space back,” I’d moaned to my yoga teacher. “And even if I do, the stuff will just pile up again.”
“You don’t need much,” he’d said, “just room to sit.” And then I could see it. A cocoon. Clearing an entire room was too much to take on. But Dumpster-diving through mountains of clutter, I unearthed my altar, a candle, and a cushion, and set a Japanese screen around it in the corner of the foyer. Two square feet of peace. Now my Secret Hiding Place was the only space in the house clear of clutter. I showed it off to Mary.
“Yeah, that may have to move,” she said. “It’s prime real estate for organizing the whole foyer.”
Move my altar?My sacred space? The one place I felt good about, the one place I felt was mine? This was no “make it pretty” organizer. This was a clutter slayer.
I was horrified, yet fascinated. I needed someone to help me get to the source of my attachments and learn to release them. I couldn’t do it alone. So I resisted the urge to kick her out then and there.
“Let’s go see your office,” she said.
Going upstairs, Mary praised our arrangement of family photos on the wall. “I like that you have all black frames—even if the pictures are different sizes and colors, it’s less busy and easier on the eye.” I puffed up with pride before my fall. We opened my office door.
The walls inside were a deep, jazzy blue, chosen by my husband in a romantic mood, the first and last thoughtful gesture we put into the room. In went two desks, two bookcases, a kid’s art table, and every stray object we didn’t know what to do with. The overall effect was part storage unit, part preschool frat house.
“This is a good-sized office,” Mary said, squeezing past a waist-high stack of books and a fan. “What’s in this box?” In a room teeming with piles of crap, she’d alighted on my one nice file box, sitting quietly in front of the closet, guarding the mayhem spilling from the shelves above. It was one box we didn’t have to worry about. I’d packed it ten years ago.
“It’s my files from The New York Times and Norton,” I replied.
“Oh, good,” she said, cracking open the lid. “Let’s start here.”
“What? Why?” I was confused. “This stuff is organized. I know what’s in it—call lists, press kits, my phone logs.”
“Yes, and it’s taking up prime real estate in this office. Let’s say bye-bye.” She looked as happy as my kids with a bowl of potato chips, ready to attack until there was nothing left but fingerprints.
“Wait, I might need that stuff someday,” I protested. But then I stopped. Even I didn’t believe that. Every freelance job I’d done required building updated lists. I changed tack. “It’s a record. Look, every call I’ve ever made is in these steno pads.”
Mary is a petite but commanding presence. Inside her Jersey-girl-next-door exterior beats the heart of an Italian mama. She used to run celebrity events for Barnes & Noble before she started her own business. Her books have punchy titles in the imperative form: Give It Up!and Live More, Want Less. She speaks frankly, and I guessed by the look she gave me that she’d heard this one before.
“Patty, if the IRS comes knocking on your door saying, ‘We need to see where the money went,’ you show them the files with your tax returns.” Pause. “I guarantee you: No one you worked with ten years ago is going to come knocking on your door asking if you pitchedGood Morning America.”
The absurdity of that cracked us up as I rifled through a pad, pretending to look up what GMA said. “It’s here! See? I made the call. I did my best.” I wiped tears of laughter away as I caught my breath. “This represents so much talking, so much work. All the energy I put into each writer, each project, is here.”
“Oh, I see—this is about how good you were at your job,” Mary responded. She took my hand and looked me right in the eye. “Okay, let me say this for you: You were SO GOOD at your job. You worked SO HARD. And we all appreciate it.” Is this what I needed? To hear that I was good at something? To hold in my hand proof that people respected me once, even if today’s reality was me screaming, “Pants! On! Now!” to little backsides skipping away in glee?
Mary opened a trash bag. “Now say bye-bye. You cannot make room for your future if this office is about the past.”
She was right. I could easily locate the fax numbers of editors from 2001, but I couldn’t find the book I was writing about for a deadline a week away. In one go, I dumped about ten steno pads. Bye, voice mails. Publicists don’t even use voice mail anymore. Bye, lists. Bye, Conan O’Brien contact from the show before The Tonight Show.
This was the moment home decorating shows turned on. The catharsis! Let the healing begin. Mary was proud, I, verklempt. But purging the rest of the room was easier. After I’d released something of such symbolic value, what was the point of holding on to the rest of this junk? Five garbage bags filled themselves.
We sifted real gold from fool’s gold, like the photograph of my husband as a child taken by his dear grandfather (real) crushed in the closet by the broken lamp I was intending to fix one day (fool’s). “It’s not only about what you let go but treasuring what you keep,” Mary said. All things are not of equal value, but when underfoot or shoved in a corner, they’re all treated equally badly.
Lastly, Mary took my active box, which could not hold one more thing, and removed everything having to do with the kids and the house. “This box should be about work,” she said. “We’ll put the rest in a file drawer.”
“But my kids are my work,” I said. I was used to squeezing my professional work around their needs. Without their stuff, the box looked terrifyingly empty. “We are going to put beautiful, new files in here,” Mary promised, getting ready to go. “You’re going to be excited to fill them. Your creativity is going to flow!”
Later that night, exhausted in bed, I considered going under the porch and retrieving my ten-year-old files. I could do it—the garbage wouldn’t be picked up for two days. That box represented solid triumph. Without it, all that was left was the mess that life had become since—X-rays and doctors’ reports, schools and therapies tried, so many hopes, so many false starts. Gigi’s and Ruby’s medical needs filled the days with appointments, the nights with worry, and the office with paperwork. I filed their records, five years’ worth spread all over the house, into four two-inch binders, as if by wrangling them into one place I could control the outcome for both. Now they stood in a row on the shelf, declaring, “This is what I’ve been doing with my life. This is how hard I have worked. I am good at my job.” Even if it often felt like I was failing.
What if my writing career didn’t take off? What if, like many times before, the family’s needs put my work on the back burner? So much easier to rest on the laurels of achievements already achieved. So much easier to say I was too busy to try.
As a supposed advocate for facing fears, it had never occurred to me that holding my belongings close was tantamount to fear. I would readily admit to being too busy, too lazy to be bothered with housework, but would I ever say too afraid?