On Not Being Afraid

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I spent the past two weeks sitting at this desk. From my window, I had a view of a green pasture with two ponies in it. Many days, rain drizzled down the glass window. I sat at this desk so much that my back started to ache. I would stop and do downward facing dog on the cool wooden floor, triangle pose, or children’s pose. Sometimes, I would go for long walks instead. I ate luxurious meals that were prepared for me by Éireann, and we had dessert every night. Instead of American coffee, I drank bitter black espresso sweetened with one cube of sugar.

I didn’t pay for any of it because I was on a generous fellowship. I also received a scholarship from my English department that covered my travel expenses. I know that I am very lucky.

While there, I wrote three chapters of my book, as well as the beginning of another chapter. It wasn’t as much as I had wanted to write. I sent two of the chapters to my editor. She didn’t love them. I retooled them. Towards the end of the first week, I had a crisis of confidence. My host told me that was normal. Towards the end of the second week, I re-read what I had written. I realized that it wasn’t terrible, and I forgave myself.

I felt lonely in the beginning of the residency. I missed my friends and family, but when I left, I teared up because, unexpectedly, my hosts and the other two residents had become my friends and family.

I didn’t want to say goodbye, and I was lucky to spend two more nights in Brussels with one of the other fellows–a visual artist from Scotland. Last night, we sat on a sidewalk and drank Belgian beer. We giggled. We talked about how much we were going to miss our host’s cooking, her kind spirit, and her silly sense of humor. We talked about relationships, about how nice it is to be single–with all of the freedom that comes with–but also, about how it would be nice to find someone. I told him that, when I was with Caleb, I didn’t like myself. I told him that I’ve realized that, when I’m in a relationship, I need to pay less attention to how I feel about that person and more attention to how I feel about myself.

I had never articulated that to someone before. I don’t know if I had even articulated it to myself.

While at my residency, I unexpectedly sent an email to the first man I ever loved. I apologized for shutting him down the last time he had contacted me (while I was married to Caleb). He responded kindly. He is married now and sounds happy, and I’m glad that he’s happy. I loved him, but, as with Caleb, I didn’t love myself when I was with him. He was not right for me, nor was I for him, but I am happy for him that he has found someone to love. I believe that he will be happy for me when my time comes.

It is easier for me to be generous when I am happy. When I am happy, I am less likely to resent the happiness of others. I am less likely to be jealous of the things that I do not have myself. When I am happy, I am able to love freely and widely.

I am happy right now.

—–

I spent the night before flying to Europe with River Guide. He was traveling but finished his trip early, so that he could see me (I was flying from Salt Lake). He said that he felt he would have been stupid to pass up the opportunity to see me.

My friends all rolled their eyes when I told them I was going to see him. He, himself, said, “You took me by surprise.”

Last summer, I told him that I didn’t want to see him anymore, and I meant it. It was a healthy decision for me to make at the time. Still, at the end of the summer, he asked if he could take me to brunch. I didn’t know how to say no, so I didn’t. We went to brunch. Then, we went to dinner when I passed through Salt Lake on my way to New Mexico. And soon, we were back in touch, but for me, it wasn’t the same. I didn’t think of him in the same way. I felt more in control. My best friend said that it was because I had ended things on my own terms when I needed to. She was right. I knew then that I always had a choice, that he couldn’t string me along if I didn’t participate.

In SLC, we had dinner. We laughed and talked. We watched some television. We have always been comfortable with each other. The first summer that we met, he said, “There has never been a moment with you that hasn’t been easy.”

I feel good about myself when I’m with him.

But I am not in love with him.

Frankly, he would never let me get close enough to him to love him, and I am not going to try because there is an entire world full of people for me to love.

At his house, I asked, “Do you remember that first night that you kissed me?”

“Of course,” he said. “How could I forget that lightning storm above us?”

“I am not as naive now as I was then,” I said. “I’ve changed a lot.”

He was quiet for a moment, then said, “When I see you now, I see how you’ve changed. You are much more confident.”

Then, he paused, “I like it. I like the confidence.”

And, of course, I wondered, does he really like this new confidence? This new confidence means that I know I am in control. This new confidence means that I am happy to see him still, but only on my own terms.

This new confidence means that when my favorite author offered to let me work on my book in her house in the Mission District of San Francisco for two weeks in July, I hesitated at first because that is the period of time when I would have seen River Guide this summer, but I only hesitated for the briefest moment. River Guide can survive without me this summer. I was the one who had to learn that I could survive without him.

And I did.

The night before I left my writer’s residency, we all stayed up late talking. In such a short period of time, we had grown so fond of each other. I can’t really explain it. Even our hosts, with all of their experiences with these residencies, conceded that this one was special. Éireann told me that she had worried before I came, that she had wondered if she should let me know ahead of time that I was going to be there with two men (obviously, she knew the subject of my writing). In the end, she decided just to treat me like any other resident, and I’m glad that she did.

I’m not afraid of men. With time, I have come to realize that Caleb, although emblematic of a certain type of man, does not represent all men. He does not even represent most of them. (As an aside, this is not a #notallmen kind of moment. Only the men who actually are those men feel the need to assert themselves in that way.)

But I’m grateful that I spent my residency with two men. I’m grateful for that because every good man who enters my life shows me that I no longer need to be afraid.

When I was married, I had to learn some lessons that no one wants to learn. I had to learn how to be afraid.

Now, I am learning how to be unafraid.

I prefer these new lessons.

——

When I got on the train from my residency to Brussels, I pulled out a card that Éireann had slipped into my pocket. It said, “Thank you for coming here, and your openness, and cheerfulness, and sense of humor.”

I was so grateful. I don’t want to be remembered because of my fear.

I want to be remembered because of my openness, cheerfulness, and sense of humor.

—–

River Guide doesn’t read my writing. He doesn’t like to feel sad. When I was at his house, he told me that he always feels like a “dick” because he doesn’t read my writing. I responded that I like it that he doesn’t read my writing, that it’s nice for me to have someone who is close to me who only knows the person in front of them, but not the person on the page. I was sincere, and he was relieved.

But you know what?

He’s missing out. He’s missing out on so much complexity and beauty. No one likes to feel sad, okay? My own fear of sadness kept me from making too many changes, but I did eventually make them. And then, I felt sad. I felt so sad.

Sadness became my extra limb.

But I am no longer afraid of sadness; I am more afraid of fear.  Whatever it is–no matter how sad or frightening–I’m ready; I can take it.

I say to this world of sadness and beauty: Bring it.