I’ve logged more experience than most with simplicity and the complexity you discover inside simplicity, minimalism and asocial behavior, endurance and landscape.
Here is the truth: I think some deep wisdom inside me (a) sensed the stress, (b) was terrified for me, and (c) gave me something new and hard to focus on in order to prevent me from lapsing into a despair coma — and also to keep me from having a jelly jar of wine in my hand.
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That our car won’t pass inspection. That the bread I’m baking for dinner tomorrow won’t rise. That I’ll get fat.
That worms will devour the kale at the campus garden I manage. That the student I supervise won’t get the grant. That my contract won’t be renewed. That I’ll get fat.
That my dad’s Parkinson’s will decimate his mind. That my mom’s arthritis will leave her unable to tend her perennials. That my husband will get hit by a car while riding his bike.
That I’ll get fat.
I wake at 3:30 AM, this catalog of fears visiting me again. Then I think of the Bosnian man who, with characteristic dark humor, told me of waiting for bags of rice, sent as aid, to drop from a helicopter, and how he’d added falling food to the long list of things that might kill him.
Or the Serbian woman who, when she was little, was whisked out of Belgrade with her brother and taken to her grandparents’ farm, where their grandmother kept them from wondering if they’d see their parents again by introducing them to telenovelas.
Or the Nigerian couple, now U.S. citizens and residents of my city for nearly as long as me, who worry they’ll be pulled over for driving too nice of a car.
I’d love to say that these people’s stories are enough to silence my self-centered despair, but I have yet to master the art of putting my fears in perspective.
I tell my husband I have to do this, showing him the “shark adventures” website. It has photos of menacing sharks and a description of the shark-proof cage, which it says is 100 percent safe.
“Where’s the adventure in that?” he asks.
Ever since reading Jaws at the age of eleven, I’ve been both terrified and fascinated by sharks. Growing up, I feared there was a secret trapdoor at the bottom of our pool and a shark lurking below, waiting for me.
When the boat arrives to take us on our shark adventure, my husband whispers, “At least the captain washed off all the body parts from yesterday.” After an hour and a half of bouncing along the waves, we stop with no land in sight. The captain throws a mesh bag filled with four pounds of bloody fish guts over the side and steers us in a circle. He also puts three-foot-long carcasses on several lines. I try to recall my reason for doing this.
When three or four sharks begin to feed, I climb into the cage and allow myself to be lowered into the 58-degree water. I’m wearing a wet suit with a mask over my eyes and nose.
At first I hook my feet through the metal bars to keep from floating to the top of the cage. Then I realize a shark is hovering nearby, assessing the snack potential of my feet, and I hold the ladder rungs instead.
I learn sharks are actually rather timid. It takes a while to get them to approach. After several turns in the cage, I’m back on the deck when I hear humpback whales exhaling through their blowholes a hundred yards away. They breach with their mouths open, and I grab a camera and lean over the eight-inch-wide bow of the boat. Half a dozen sharks circle below me.
Sometimes, preoccupied with marriage and children and making a living, I’ve wondered what happened to my once-wild spirit. Where did she go?
On the bow of that boat I thought, Oh, here she is.
Shaker Heights, Ohio
When I was eighteen, I told my mom I was breaking up with my boyfriend, Steve. “He might be upset,” I said. “I don’t want you to get involved, but if something doesn’t seem right, call the cops.”
She looked shocked. I hadn’t told her about the abuse I’d endured for the past year and a half. Mom had a boyfriend, a job, and three other children to distract her. And we were still grieving the loss of my father, who’d been murdered two years earlier.
Steve pulled into the drive in his Dodge Ramcharger. I still wasn’t sure how he would react. I met him at the door and suggested we sit in the backyard. “What’s going on?” he demanded. “You’re acting weird.”
I told him I needed a break and that, no, there wasn’t someone else. My mom watched from her bedroom window, phone in hand.
After two hours Steve finally left, promising he’d be back in the morning, after I’d had a chance to think things over. When I came back inside, my mom made me tell her the truth about Steve. She’d never liked him, but it wasn’t until that day that she feared for my safety.
It took a long time for him to stop calling, showing up unannounced, or following me. I looked over my shoulder for years, not knowing if I’d ever be free. Even as I write this today, thirty years later, my hands are shaking.
As a child I appeared well adjusted, but I feared walking to school on my own, being called on in class, or playing dodgeball and red rover. I don’t think my parents knew of my anxieties.
At the age of ten I talked myself into going off the high dive at a pool party, but when I got to the top of the steps, I froze. The kids behind me had to climb back down so that I could descend. I was humiliated.
Many years later, on a playground, my four-year-old daughter climbed into a bright-yellow tunnel that led to the top of a slide. At the top she sat down and didn’t move. “Come on, honey,” I prodded. “I’m right here to catch you.” She shook her head. Other children were waiting to slide down. “Come on,” I said. I was getting angry.
She began to cry, and I yelled at her to let go. Finally a mother who had been watching us climbed through the tunnel and held my daughter while they slid down together. Embarrassed, I thanked her, scooped up my daughter, and left.
I realized later my anger had come from fear: fear that she would be like me.
I have apotemnophobia: the fear of losing a limb. I’ve had it longer than I can remember, and I can’t explain why. Maybe in a past life I lost a leg in a carriage accident or an arm in the grinding machinery of a textile factory.
When I was little, I was scared the monsters under my bed would gnaw off an arm if it hung from under my blanket. I hated to swim in oceans and lakes. In pools I floated in the shallow end, where I could keep a close eye on what was below.
On warm days my dad would drive with his arm out his window. I’d sit with my hands folded in my lap. What if a car passed by too close?
I always imagined the sudden, violent loss of a limb. It never occurred to me that it could happen slowly and quietly. After my diabetic father nicked a toe, gangrene set in. He lost the toe. Then his foot. Then his leg below the knee. From there it was hospital visit after hospital visit. What if my dad just slowly faded away?
He’s been gone for six years now. It feels like a piece of me is missing. I know now that my fears were grounded in something much deeper than losing a limb, something I couldn’t name at such a young age. I was scared that one day something that should be there wouldn’t be — that things would change. What if I wasn’t strong enough to change with them?
I was raped in New York City when I was seventeen years old. I lived on the West Coast and was in the city for a student trip. It was exciting. I had been reading the Beat poets and had heard about how cool Greenwich Village was.
Dressed all in black with white lipstick, as the beatnik girls did, I ventured into the Village. At a cafe some college students invited me to sit with them. We talked for a while until one guy said he had to run across the street. He asked if I wanted to see his “pad.” I said yes.
In his apartment I was unable to fight him off. After he finished, I collected myself, hid the tear in my pants with my sweater, and left. One of his friends met me and took me to the subway stop. He asked if I was OK, so he must have had some intimation of what had happened, but we didn’t talk about it.
Back at the hotel I took a hot bath and poured rubbing alcohol on myself to kill any germs. I told two girlfriends who were traveling with me, but never anyone else. I was embarrassed and figured it was my fault — that the cops would not do anything. It’s taken me fifty-six years even to write about it.
I recently moved close to New York City. I have traveled all over the world, often on my own. I am cautious, but never fearful. But when I go into New York, I feel panic-stricken. I figure that the more often I do it, the less fearful I will become, but every time the train approaches the station, I feel nauseated and afraid I will faint. The memory is there, underlying everything.
I’ll never quite trust men. I’ve been married twice, and I learned to trust my husbands, but the fear is always there.
I was just starting my lesson, the students stifling laughter and scribbling answers to the warm-up questions, when the voice came over the intercom:
“Teachers, please go into lockdown.”
I rushed to check that the door was locked, flipped off the lights, and closed the curtains. The students were already under the tables, and I grabbed my computer before joining them. The school was supposed to send an alert to everyone’s e-mail.
The kids huddled around their phones and whispered. After an hour on the floor, one of them scooted over next to me. “He has a gun,” she murmured.
I knew immediately who she meant. One of my students, a constant source of trouble, was absent that day. The student next to me showed me on her phone the rumors that were being texted back and forth about him. I consoled my student and refreshed my e-mail. Still nothing.
The absent boy was supposed to be in my class right now. I looked around at my students’ furrowed brows and hoped that they would all walk out of the room safely. If only there were something I could do for them besides refresh my e-mail.
Two more hours passed with no real information. Students were lying on the floor with earbuds in, watching videos to pass the time. I was on my computer, trying to prepare a new lesson plan for the next day that would make up for the time lost, when the announcement came: “Teachers, please transition to shelter in place.”
The whole room let out a sigh, and the kids moved back to their seats. I turned on the classroom TV and found something for them to watch as I scanned the Internet for information. A local news station had a special bulletin from the sheriff — with my missing student’s picture below the headline about an “armed runaway.”
That’s when I decided to leave teaching.
When I was a kid, I feared my belt-swinging, disciplinarian grandfather. As I became a teenager, I feared the neighborhood hoodlums, who succeeded in turning me into one of them. After that, I feared the cops, who seemed to be on a mission to incarcerate me. I went to the California Youth Authority at the age of fourteen.
Twenty-seven years later I am sitting in a cold prison cell. I fear for my daughters, trying to navigate an unforgiving world and survive despite their father’s failures. I fear my mother will never see her only child become something more than a number counted by prison guards. I fear this is all my life will ever be.
I fear people will read this and label me a pessimist, when in fact I label myself a realist. I fear I might be wrong, but I also fear that having unrealistic hope is futile. I fear God will not forgive me for my sins. I fear that when I’m released, I’ll make the wrong decisions and come back to prison. I fear I may not be good enough to survive out there.
San Luis Obispo, California
I sit cross-legged on our falling-apart old couch, feeling the dread rise up.
In my youth I hitchhiked across Canada with a French communist, slept by the side of the road, and solicited rides from truckers in diners. At twenty I hitchhiked by myself through France, occasionally sleeping in cornfields. I screwed up and was rescued by kind strangers, or else I figured it out myself. I survived thanks to an overworked guardian angel, dumb luck, and a ton of privilege: white privilege, social privilege, the privilege of a hardy constitution.
I had another privilege I wasn’t conscious of until it vanished: estrogen privilege. When I was young, I was so busy feeling melancholy and lustful and dreamy and moody that it barely occurred to me to be afraid.
After menopause, though, I am afraid of simple things. As I pack for a trip to Kenya, I’m terrified: What about the plane flight and my aching back? What about the money I’m spending when I should save for health insurance or retirement? What if I get sick while I’m there and can’t work when I get back?
I feel shame that I’m so scared of a simple trip to Africa. The fear comes in a wave of intense cold, then hot; then it subsides.
I’m going to Kenya.
I’ve done a lot of risky things in my life, but this is the first time I’ve truly had to be brave. It’s the first time I’ve felt real fear.
On my birthday I show up to surf and find a warning sign at the beach: Shark Sighting, Enter at Your Own Risk. Though once terrified of sharks, I feel a strange sense of calm as I paddle on my surfboard. What scares me now is not something hidden in the ocean. The biggest terror of my life grew inside me, detected only when it had permeated so much of my abdomen that I almost died. Though it’s in remission, the cancer might attack again at any moment. I take a blood test every three months to determine if it has made a comeback.
A shark fin on the surface of the water would be nothing compared to waiting for that test result every three months.
Santa Cruz, California
I am a trained massage therapist, and for five years I offered seated massages to homeless people where they were: on the streets, under the viaducts, or in the shelters of San Francisco.
When I tell people this, one question always comes up: Weren’t you afraid?
Yes, the first time I set foot in the Tenderloin district, I wanted nothing more than to get the hell out of there. Homeless people were everywhere, and urine, spilled coffee, and cheap wine stained the sidewalks. Even the parking meters were broken, their looted heads lolling at odd angles.
But I was with my mentor, Mary Ann Finch, and I didn’t want to disappoint her. She asked my opinion about the damaged knee of a homeless woman named Marjorie. I sat on the sidewalk in front of Marjorie, and once my hands touched this woman, I felt a connection, like an electrical current. It banished my fear. Suddenly, unexpectedly, this became my calling.
In the years that I served, I kept my wits about me at all times. I was in danger once or twice, but the people of the streets protected me, and I was never afraid.
These days that question — Weren’t you afraid? — allows me to share my stories and try to help others lose their fear of society’s marginalized people.
Whidbey Island, Washington
One of my earliest memories is of my mother disappearing for weeks at a time to stay at a mental-health hospital. My sister and I stayed with our grandmother and visited Mom two or three times. We met her friendly, bald therapist, who did magic tricks for us. We met other, lost-looking patients. Despite having a welcoming lobby, clean rooms, and a better-than-average cafeteria, the place felt sad. My sister and I never knew how long it would take for Mom to come back to us again.
I experienced depression by fifth grade and anxiety by eighth grade. I was put on medication at eighteen. At the time, I trusted my therapist’s and doctor’s judgment. Mom took pills, so this seemed right to me.
I’m now thirty-seven. After my mother’s death a year and a half ago, I decided, with the guidance of a doctor, to wean myself off medication. I knew the process would be difficult, but I wanted to know who I was without the drugs.
Over the past few months I have sometimes felt like I’m losing my mind. I worry about alienating those close to me because of how changed I am. But at other moments I have a newfound clarity about who I am.
I promised myself I would give it at least a year. I fear not being able to handle day-to-day living without the drugs. I fear I’m not a whole person without them. I fear giving in, but I also fear I will become my mother.
I’ve had apocalyptic nightmares since I was five years old. I grew up under the constant scrutiny of alcoholic parents. They were loving most of the time, but I never knew when one of them would snap.
When I was thirteen, I escaped rape in an elevator. In college I was stalked by a rapist who was out on parole. The next year a burglar tried to break into my apartment through a window while I sat with my back to it.
I’ve lived out in the boonies for almost half my life now. It took fifteen years for me to stop being afraid that a marauder would find my remote house. The night I watched Donald Trump stalk Hillary Clinton on a debate stage, I drove home, shut off the headlights, and sat in my car, afraid to get out. I listened to the silence, knowing I had nothing to fear, yet sensing an assailant about to emerge from the woods. The short walk from car to house left my heart pounding and my throat constricted.
I’m not afraid of mountain lions, coyotes, bobcats, or black bears, all of which live around me. Give me wild animals any day over humans.
My mother had just arrived home after a long day laboring in the agricultural fields of California’s Central Valley when I approached to ask for her help with a math problem. She gave me a desolate look. Holding the paper with calloused, dirty hands, she appeared deep in thought.
My mother handed the paper back to me and said, “Discúlpame, mijo, pero yo no le entiendo a tu tarea.” (I’m sorry, Son, but I don’t understand your homework.)
I was incredulous that my mother, an adult, lacked the knowledge to help her eleven-year-old son with a math problem. I looked in her eyes and said, “Madre, te prometo que nunca me voy a dar por vencido y voy a salir adelante.” (Mother, I promise you I will never give up and I will persevere.) That was the moment I understood the challenges I would face in my education. It was also the moment I became afraid of failure.
Although I kept my promise and have had many personal and professional achievements, the fear of failure has never left me.
Jose J. Franco
I spent sixteen years in prison, but nothing there scared me more than being unemployed in the real world.
In November 2017 the call center where I’d worked for more than a decade shut down, and I was laid off. I applied for food stamps and unemployment. When my health and dental insurance ended, I got Medicaid through Obamacare.
I searched in earnest for a job, but I was sixty-two years old, an ex-felon, and a registered sex offender. Few employers were willing to look past all that.
I was renting a house with a fenced-in yard, perfect for my dog, Rex, but I couldn’t afford to keep it. Most apartments did not allow pets. I could have given Rex away or taken him to a shelter, but I could not bring myself to make hard decisions. My survival skills were disastrously lacking.
I paid my bills with credit cards, though I was already in debt from four road trips over the past year. I hoped I could pay off the debt, but that depended on having a job. I had to take my pickup to the shop to keep it running. I needed dental work for an abscess and a root canal, but my Obamacare didn’t cover it.
Thankfully another call center hired me after three months, perhaps because I have a bachelor’s in English and had shown some stability at my previous job. I have been there ever since, but I still worry I will be homeless someday. That’s what I fear the most.
St. Petersburg, Florida
At forty-four I was twelve years into multiple sclerosis when my legs crumpled underneath me in a parking lot. I was used to falls by then. The nerves in my limbs don’t respond properly to the signals in my brain, and my left leg doesn’t always lift high enough to clear obstacles. But this fall was different. My legs had just given way, and my knees had hit the asphalt.
I met the eye of a woman five feet away, hoping she might extend a hand to help me up, but she had an air of imperiousness and breezed off to do something more important.
A surge of fear coursed through me. I wasn’t afraid I wouldn’t be able to get up; I would. I wasn’t afraid my medicine would fail and I’d end up in a wheelchair; I faced that fear every day. What frightened me was the knowledge that one person could so callously walk by another on her knees.
Asheboro, North Carolina
After twenty years as a Navy pilot, I’d flown nearly a million miles in all kinds of weather. I’d landed on short, primitive strips in the Alaskan bush and on potholed sand runways in Africa. I’d landed aboard aircraft carriers in bad weather and been catapulted off them into black nights. So I thought I knew something about fear. But then I reconnected with my cousin.
Though we had been close in childhood, I hadn’t seen her in years. We reminisced over coffee about growing up in a small Midwestern town in the fifties. Inevitably our conversation turned to the loud-mouthed aunt, the alcoholic uncle, and the family get-togethers that ended in drunken shouting matches. We spoke of what it had been like growing up in our parents’ houses, and of the fears we had as kids. I asked what her greatest fear was.
She lowered her head, and her mood darkened. She looked up at me as though ashamed to speak. “My greatest fear,” she said, “was lying in bed at night, waiting for my father to enter my bedroom.”
That’s when I learned the real meaning of fear.
© Bill Witt
In December 1949 my family arrived in the United States from a refugee camp in Germany. I remember lying awake at night, my stomach in knots and tears in my eyes. I was eight years old, spoke no English, and would start school in a few weeks.
My parents were busy learning English and looking for work and had little time to worry about me. They assured me I’d pick up the language once I was in school, but that wasn’t my only concern. I would not know any of the games, songs, or stories my classmates shared. I would be an outsider.
School proved worse than I’d imagined. Sister Mary Francis sat me at the front. I didn’t dare turn around to look at my classmates’ faces. The hours dragged, and recess was the worst. While the other children ran around the schoolyard, united by the common bonds of friendship and experience, I sat on a stump near the fence.
Sister Mary Francis drilled me in English and had me read aloud in class from the Catholic version of Dick and Jane books. In the story about Jane’s First Communion, I couldn’t pronounce “white veil,” which came out as “white whale,” provoking uproarious laughter. At noon my classmates galloped past me shouting, “White whale!”
The nun must have heard the teasing, because she began to supervise the playground games every day. She had us form a circle and sing songs like “The Farmer in the Dell.” She always took my hand and kept me next to her — a coveted spot. “Hi-ho, the derry-o!” I’d shout, though I had no idea what it meant. She lectured us on kindness and found books with nursery rhymes and holiday songs for me to read.
My parents’ prediction came true. After five months I was proficient in English and young enough not to have an accent. It took me years to appreciate Sister Mary Francis’s compassion. Her actions led to my becoming friends with my classmates and finally feeling that I belonged.
I cannot imagine the terror refugee children today feel as they are ripped from their families at our borders and locked in wire cages. How can we have policies that inflict such anguish on children?
It is a crisp fall evening, and I’m looking forward to writing music after a day of sifting through financial documents at my job. I swing open the door at home and find my roommate eating leftover pizza on our couch. “This is the week,” he says. “You’re going down.” He gestures to the NFL game on TV and raises his phone to remind me to check my fantasy-football score. I crack open a beer, plant myself on the other end of the couch, and check to see if my wide receiver has outscored his running back.
On a different night, in winter, I get home feeling drained by the audit report I spent my day drafting. I look forward to experimenting with a few song ideas that came to me at the office. I drop my lunch box in the kitchen and boot up my computer. That’s when I receive a text from a friend: “We need a sixth person for Overwatch. Want in?” It’s been a while since I’ve played an online video game with my buddies. I push my keyboard to the side and reach for my gaming headset.
On a Saturday in spring I have nothing planned. I’d feel satisfied if all I did was pick out a few synthesizer textures or sketch a couple of chord progressions, but I’ve only gone to the gym once this week, and I’ve been eating a lot of carbs. I should probably hit the gym before the afternoon rush.
By summer I power up my music equipment and stare at an empty screen, unable to enter any notes or open any of my virtual instruments. What’s the worst that could happen? I think. That I record a couple of melodies and decide I don’t like them? That I waste a couple of hours?
No, the worst-case scenario is that I actually finish a song, or a few songs, and I put them online, and people listen to what I have created, and I am exposed as a fraud, embarrassed and disgraced.
Los Angeles, California
I grew up in the rural South with mostly boys as playmates. We wrestled, played ball, swung on vines, and raided our neighbors’ gardens when we were hungry. I was known for being the toughest kid in the neighborhood — and not just “for a girl.” (In college I dated a boy who had grown up in my neighborhood; he confessed he’d been terrified as a kid that I might beat him up.)
As I matured, I stopped picking on the boys, who had grown much bigger and were beginning to be interested in more than just sports or climbing trees. I never felt nervous or intimidated and would often join in the teasing about who had a crush on whom.
At fourteen I had a boyfriend I was crazy about. One night we were at a party where I drank several beers and excused myself to use the bathroom. My boyfriend’s cousin stood blocking the doorway. He was a football player who I thought was cute, and he asked for a kiss before he’d let me pass. I laughed, declined, and attempted to push past him. He stood his ground and insisted I give him a kiss. I laughed again and said his cousin wouldn’t appreciate that. I playfully shoved him out of the way and entered the bathroom.
Before I could close the door, he rushed in and locked it. Still I thought he was joking around. I had known him for years; he had only just become this awkward giant. I told him to leave, but he grabbed me and kissed my neck. I laughed and shoved him away. It wasn’t until he slammed me into the wall that I felt afraid.
He stuck his tongue in my mouth, pawed at my breasts, and reached down my jeans. I began fighting like the tomboy I’d once been, the kid everyone in my neighborhood had feared. It wasn’t enough. I screamed for help and kicked at the door.
Just as he was covering my mouth, voices yelled for him to open the door. I yelled back to tell them what was happening. He loosened his grip, and someone kicked the door open. I ran out and found my boyfriend. The boys who were at the door roughed up my attacker, who eventually rejoined the party. There were no instructions for this — no parents around, no discussion on what to do. I simply knew that after a fight you shook it off, just like the boys did.
It was not the last time I had to shake off this fear of being assaulted. It was a skill I honed well into adulthood.
In 1968 I walked out of the El Toro Marine Corps Air Station in California, just three days after I’d left Vietnam. I was home.
Every night in my house in the suburbs, I couldn’t sleep. I lay on my bed, staring into the dark while my heart pounded in my ears like an alarm signaling the perimeter was about to be breached, again.
My days weren’t easy, either. As I walked the streets of my hometown, my head turned from side to side, scanning for ambush sites and booby traps. I couldn’t turn it off. When bread in the toaster popped up, I heard a detonator click on the trail. When my niece’s bubble gum burst, an illumination round went off overhead. If a gunshot echoed, I immediately knew the caliber, distance, and direction.
A couple of the neighborhood fathers had fought in World War II but never spoke of it. We were supposed to stuff it all down and get on with life. My family and friends could suggest only barbiturates, opiates, and, of course, alcohol. With no PTSD-awareness programs and no local vets to confide in, I made an appointment with the family doctor who had treated me when I was little.
He entered the waiting room in the same white coat I remembered. We shook hands, and he asked, “What’s the problem?”
“Doc, I can’t sleep.”
He nodded. “Follow me.”
In his office he turned to face me. “Tell me.”
I felt like a child again. Without hesitation I told him about my fears and my nightmares. I told him everything. As he listened, I felt the fear evaporate. He placed his hands on my shoulders and looked me in the eye. “Son,” he said, “you will never have those nightmares again.”
Though my days continued to be a challenge, the doctor was right: I didn’t.
San Anselmo, California
I was running near my home one afternoon when I heard snarling and barking and saw two Dobermans charging at me. I knew I would never be able to outrun them or defend myself. Unless I took control of my mind, I would not survive. I couldn’t just mask the fear; the dogs would still smell it. I had to actually make myself unafraid.
I slowly turned and faced the dogs. Some divine grace took over, and I was peaceful and calm. I sank to my knees and said, “I will not harm you.”
The Dobermans stopped within feet of my outstretched hands and gazed into my eyes. They focused on my face, pranced, snorted, and then became still. I rose and backed up in tiny, measured steps. When they decided I was no longer prey, they trotted back to their home.
Today, when I’m faced with potentially fearful situations, I recall that experience. Even though I’m not sure how I did it, I am never afraid.
Conway, South Carolina
The man on the train was wearing all black: black pants, black shoes, black shirt, black hat, and dark sunglasses that hid his eyes. And he was staring right at me. I was a high-school freshman taking public transportation to school for the first time. My friend Zach had convinced me to bring a pocketknife — because, he said, “you never know what type of person could be standing next to you” in Los Angeles.
And here I was across from this large man wearing all black and staring me down. I tried to ignore him as I reconsidered my decision to attend a prestigious high school far from my suburban home in Pasadena. I’d been excited about the challenging academics and meeting new people from all walks of life, but now I wondered if it was worth it.
I looked up and saw the man had a small white club in his hands. My apprehension grew. Why had I pushed myself to pick a more difficult school rather than someplace easier and closer to home? I remembered my knife.
As the man continued to stare emotionlessly at me, I decided to open the knife in my pocket. The train slowed for the last stop: Union Station. He was tapping the white club into his palm. If anything was about to happen, it would be now. The doors opened, and the man extended his white club — which expanded and became a long cane that he used to feel ahead of him as he exited the train.
He was blind.
In my life I’ve pushed myself to experience new things and meet new people. The more I’ve done, the more I’ve learned that most of the things I’ve feared really aren’t that scary.
Los Angeles, California
In the hectic, hopeful years that I was busy having children and building a life with a charismatic and broken man, I’d stay up late reading your magazine with a flashlight so as not to disturb my kids. Some nights I’d wolf down the whole issue in one sitting. The Sun touched me in a way no other publication ever had. The writing was gritty and reverent, unadorned and unpretentious.
How can I say this? Somehow, without meeting any of you, I felt like I had found my tribe.
My subscription survived a move to Canada and the dissolution of my marriage, but life as a single mother was hard, and the day came when I could not afford to renew. I still remember that final issue and the silence that followed.
One of my kids is now a goofy engineering student. The other is mostly through vet school. I own my own house, surrounded, almost fiercely, by flowers. And this spring I could finally afford to subscribe again.
I had changed so much from the foolish young mother who was confident she could change the world. The world had won. The world had changed me. I worried The Sun might seem saccharine and contrived to me now.
I am partway through the June 2020 issue, and already I have cut out a poem and taped it to my fridge. That man who brings people together to listen to each other’s truths? That woman who struggled to stay alive, one careful breath at a time, with COVID-19? That woman who wrote poetry to prepare for her suicide? Every single reader who wrote about “Fear”? I feel, for the first time in a long time, proud to be a messy flop of a human. I’ve missed you guys.
I read with perverse bemusement M.A.’s Readers Write piece about the distractions he finds — video games, the gym, football on TV, and so on — to avoid making music and taking creative risks [“Fear,” June 2020]. I know that game all too well.
M.A. got the last paragraph wrong, however. He says the worst-case scenario is actually sharing his music with the world and facing everyone’s judgment. The worst-case scenario is telling yourself for fifty years, like I have, “I’ll start tomorrow.”
As I finished the Readers Write in your June 2020 issue, I realized I already attend Council, as described by Jared Seide in the same issue, every month — in print rather than in person. I feel close to these writers I will never meet, who regularly bring me laughter and tears. They inspire in me compassion for the folks I encounter face-to-face.