Tag Archives: fear

Dream poetry: The best medicine

This was inspired by a dream I had last week. I woke to my alarm in the middle of the dream, and its disturbed feeling stayed with me until I had time to sit down and write about it. As I recorded the dream, I saw patterns that very nearly reversed my initial perceptions, so that I ended up feeling very positive about it. I guess maybe I’m one of those irritating glass-half-full people.

The Best Medicine

A technician arrives to put in
the IV. Cancer, the doctors say.
Five tubes of thick, red poison
wait in a tray. The rubber strap snaps
around my upper arm; cool fingertips press
the crook of my elbow, my wrist,
the back of my hand. I look away, cold
with fear and anger. The bee sting of entry
barely registers, but slashing pain seconds later draws
unwilling sound from my throat. The tech pulls
the needle, bandages purpling flesh, murmurs
apology, avoids my eyes. She puts
her arms around me and I see
she is crying.

Some thoughts on fear

Lately I’ve been thinking about fear, particularly fear that divides us even as it holds us in its grip. We are all afraid of homicidal sociopaths with guns. Fear begets fear, and our reactions to that common fear differ widely: some of us are afraid that we won’t be allowed to arm ourselves adequately to defend against homicidal sociopaths with guns; some of us are afraid that anyone we allow to have a gun might turn out to be a homicidal sociopath.

By evolutionary design, fear is not a rational state: it demands a split-second decision to fight or flee. Some years ago, when we as a nation faced great crisis, a leader reminded us that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself. He called it nameless, unreasoning, and unjustified, and accurately noted that it hampers our ability to move forward.

Arguing with someone who is frightened does not make him less afraid. When a child comes into your room in the middle of the night because he has had a nightmare, you cannot reason with him that it wasn’t real. He has experienced that nightmare, and its effects on him are very real: elevated heart rate, adrenaline release, feelings of helplessness, sleep disruption. You can tell him that the nightmare is over and that he is okay, and you can offer something that will comfort and reassure him. Dismissing or belittling his fear will not diminish it in any way, but recognizing it and reconnecting him with normalcy will make it possible to move beyond it.

The tricky thing about fear is that it is based in reality, no matter how tenuously. The things we are afraid of really are out there, which is why reason doesn’t work against fear. But naming those things that frighten us gives us an opportunity to develop strategies for dealing with them. The next time your child wakes with a nightmare, he may remember what you said and did the last time and be able to go back to sleep on his own. If you find out that his nightmare may have been triggered by a TV show he watched in the evening, you can change your family viewing habits.

Fear is not banished by argument, but it can be surmounted when recognized. We need to listen to each other, to acknowledge even those fears we don’t share. Then, with these concerns on the table, we need to craft responses that address them all – not just knee-jerk reactions to the loudest or most alarmed.

From phobia to philia: A tangled web

Reading Lory Manrique-Hyland’s delightful post on family “pet” Jimmy the Spider brought to mind my own childhood encounters with spiders, including the pet spider I had when I was small.

It may come as a surprise to some readers, but I have not always been fond of spiders. As a child, I was actually quite terrified of them. My mother was rather arachnophobic, and millions of years of primate evolution suggested that I ought to be as well.

I began my gradual transformation the day I discovered a very small spider had made her web in one ceiling corner of my bedroom. I was eight years old, no doubt primed for this experience by the recent release of the classic animated version of Charlotte’s Web. The spider in my room was tiny and far enough removed from my person to pose no immediate threat, and I could lie on my bed and watch her. Although she didn’t do much of anything and was so small that I couldn’t see her in any detail, she was always there when I looked for her, and I found that somehow comforting.

Not long afterward, I read the story about Robert the Bruce and the spider, in which the Scottish hero was inspired to continue the fight for Scotland’s independence by a spider’s persistent web-building. This particular version of the tale concluded by saying that Scots refuse to kill spiders to this day in gratitude for the great service done them by this legendary spider. Having recently discovered that I was of partial Scottish ancestry, I resolved to do the same. My long-suffering mother tolerated my sudden interest in relocating unwanted arachnids, though she stipulated that I had to see to such operations myself.

My relations with spiders remained in a state of detente for many years: I pretty much avoided them and did them no violence when we met, but I still found them rather creepy and horrifying. Then one summer after graduate school, I was unemployed and spending a lot of time at home, an old rental house with an overgrown yard. I seemed to run into spiders everywhere, inside and out. I began to feel anxious and uneasy, my skin always on the verge of crawling.

I went to a conference in the midst of all this where I heard a Native American speaker talk about viewing non-human beings as messengers. Returning home after several days of creep-free living, I took a deep breath and asked myself, “What are all these spiders trying to tell me?” The first thought that popped into my head was, “Stop being afraid of spiders.” The simplicity of it was breathtaking.

I spent the rest of the summer talking to spiders that I encountered. I didn’t try to get all cozy with them; I just said things like, “Hello, there,” and “Since you’re sitting in that chair, I’ll sit in this one.” As I felt less freaked out by the spiders, I started to notice things about them: colors, body shapes, ways of moving. I began to recognize them by type, and because being able to identify something makes it more familiar, I began to feel even a little friendly toward them.

The strength of this new understanding was tested in the fall, when I agreed to house-sit for relatives who were going on vacation. Their immaculate house was spider-free, but when I went to close the blinds the first evening, I found that a very large spider had built a web across the bedroom window. The web was so big that it covered the entire window, and the very large spider was sitting in the center of it. I was startled by this unexpected discovery, and shuddered involuntarily before quickly closing the blinds and resolving to sleep in another bedroom.

When I opened the blinds in the morning the spider was gone, but her web was still there, with several tell-tale holes in it. “Clever spider,” I thought; the light shining through the window at night no doubt attracted all kinds of bugs. When I closed the blinds that evening, the spider was there again, web repaired, ready for her night’s work. I remembered something about manners from the Mowgli stories in Kipling’s Jungle Book and wished her good hunting.

Strange houses make strange noises, especially in the middle of the night. I woke in the darkness, convinced I had heard something amiss. I lay there for some time, heart pounding, barely breathing, unable to decide if it was worse to get up and meet the burglar or wait to be discovered and murdered. After a while, it became clear that there was no burglar, but my fears had been set loose.

The following string of thoughts flashed through my mind: I wish I had a net to capture my fears — a dream catcher traps bad dreams — a dream catcher looks like a spider web — there’s a giant spider web on the other bedroom window — no burglar would come in that window — that giant spider would eat anyone who tried to come into this house. In an instant, the spider had become my protector, and following the incoherent reasoning of the wee hours, I soon fell back asleep.

I dubbed her Grandmother Spider, reflecting both the Native American folk figure and the hyperbolic Gulf War era description “the grandmother of all [fill in the blank].” She was certainly the biggest non-tropical spider I’d ever seen! I looked for her every evening and once again found mysterious comfort in the presence of a spider, of all things.

And that’s how I learned to stop freaking out and love spiders.

(You can read more about my Grandmother Spider, who belonged to the genus Neoscona, in my post about giant spiders.)

Monstrosity: a nightmare

A child stands in a room on the ground floor of a grand old house. The room is wood-paneled, with high ceilings, a fireplace, and cases full of books built into the walls. It is furnished with wing-backed chairs in reddish-brown leather and small tables with reading lamps. Over the fireplace hangs a large copy of the painting “The Spirit of ’76.”

In the rooms overhead, the child hears heavy footsteps. She looks at the ceiling fearfully; those are the footfalls of her grandfather, who has been transformed into a monster. She is hiding from him here in the study. The room is still except for the movements of the monster and the quiet crackling of the fire.

Somewhere in the room a frog begins to croak, something between the high trill of a spring peeper and the deep boom of a bullfrog. The child is loathe to move for fear of making some noise that might attract the monster, but she is curious about the frog. She listens carefully; the sound seems to be coming from the area near the fireplace. She creeps toward that part of the room with painful caution, pausing frequently to listen for the monster, which can still be heard roaming upstairs.

The croaking sound is clearly coming from the immediate vicinity of the fireplace, not from the bookshelves on either side. But the hearth is wide and clear, offering no place for the frog to hide. The child ventures into the open area before the fireplace, trying to make sense of what her senses are telling her. She stares at the licking flames and glowing coals, feels their heat scorch her face. In a flash of horror she realizes that the croaking sound is coming from within the firebox.

Overwhelmed by the enormity of this paradox, she shifts uneasily, unconsciously. The ancient wood floor creaks loudly. She freezes, eyes and ears on the ceiling. The monster has also stopped. After a long moment it begins moving deliberately in the direction of the staircase. It has heard her.

Caveat lector (part 1)

An old e-mail chestnut showed up in my inbox today, one of those tiresome pieces of overblown demagoguery that seem to have a ghoulish life of their own. This particular tirade has been haunting the internet for almost a decade, where it apparently feeds off the self-righteous indignation of people who fear they will become marginalized in a pluralistic society. Because they usually subscribe to points of view that have dominated Western culture in recent memory, the dynamics of a more egalitarian arrangement present an uncomfortably steep learning curve.

This particular e-mail came from a person whom I both admire and care about, which created a quandary for me. The shoddy rhetoric typical of such harangues makes them more annoying than chain letters, which tend to be sentimental and/or superstitious and therefore easy to dismiss. As a public service to my fellow webizens, I want to point out the glaring gaps in logic and encourage the person who sent me such drivel to thoughtfully examine anything inflammatory before forwarding it to everyone in her address book. To date, this strategy has not succeeded in educating any e-mail correspondents in the arts of critical thinking, but it has felicitously gotten me removed from more than one mailing list.

Because I regularly see the person who sent me the message that started this discourse, I deleted the message rather than reply. This was a good decision from a personal relationship point of view, but it didn’t satisfy my need to take a stand against the careless dissemination of such blatant hokum. I decided I could direct my efforts to a slightly larger audience by exposing the deeply flawed argument of the message in question here on my blog.

(continued in next posting)

Unsettling trends

This past week I found out that one of my friends is getting divorced and another is expecting another baby. Among the people I know, that makes four divorces in less than two years and at least six new babies (I’ve lost track — it seems that every time I turn around someone else is pregnant). When I shared these bits of news with my SO, he first responded with sorrow and wry surprise, respectively, then grew thoughtful.

“That’s scary,” he finally said.

“What’s scary?” I asked.

“All of it,” he replied. I nodded, aware that fear lay coiled, dormant and unvoiced, in the back of my mind: Could it happen to us? Could we be standing at the edge of a precipice and not even know it?

What seems sudden and unexpected to onlookers, however, may not be so surprising to participants, especially where a dissolving marriage is concerned. All four of those marriages showed some signs of stress, but what marriage doesn’t? Only the individual partners knew the toll that stress took on them; to the rest of us — maybe even to one another — it looked as though they were coping as best they could. Surely they had some sense that they were nearing the end of their resources, even if they didn’t let on to those around them.

But what if they didn’t? What if they simply found themselves one day on the wrong side of an invisible boundary, beyond which there was no hope of returning? Perhaps it is only in retrospect that anyone can point to a moment, a choice, an event and say, “There’s the straw that broke the camel’s back.”

Thus the unvoiced fear moves in its sleep, mumbling incoherent anxieties.

Not so daily

I named this daily with every intention of posting to it on a daily basis, but that has proven to be more of a challenge than anticipated. In part, I haven’t been diligent enough about setting aside the time early enough in the day; I often find myself writing late at night after everyone is in bed, working against a midnight deadline but needing to decompress before I can be coherent. Another factor is my fear that what I write will be boring or irrelevant, coupled with my insistence that my writing be of a certain quality. While it’s good to hold myself to those standards, it’s not good to allow those standards to be an impediment.

So I’m turning the pile. I’ll begin writing at the first opportunity rather than leaving it for the dregs of the day. I’ll be a little less exacting and a little more willing to appear foolish or irrelevant or boring, trusting that the composite result will be of high quality even if individual morsels aren’t. After all, I did choose compost as my model, and heaven knows that compost starts out as a mess. I need to put my biodegradable refuse where my mouth is.