Fear and High Water…


I  want to talk to you about fear — fear over this impending journey.

Wading in Water

It rises and falls like the water in my basement last night. I have an 82-year-old house. We had torrential rain. Sometimes the storm sewers swell beyond capacity, and the water runs backwards, up through the floor drains in old basements like mine. I know I should have installed a sump pump, but college, cars, and emergency appendectomies were more important. So we bail, we mop. We cast a wary eye to the summer skies. I snark at the weather bunny on TV. I hate the weather in the Midwest.

So does Libby. She has weather anxiety. She’s not, as a general rule, an anxious dog, well, except for squeaky doors which are only halfway open, but overall, she’s pretty chill. High winds, thunder and lightning, though, send her running for the basement or standing on top of me in the bed, looking out the window. I didn’t want to put her on doggie downers, not being a big fan of drugs myself, so I tried a pheromone collar at the suggestion of the vet. Have you heard of these? It’s a soft rubber collar which provides a scent similar to what a mother dog puts off to calm and reassure her puppies. I wish I’d had something like this for my kids.

Anyway, the collar seemed to help. That, plus getting another dog, they are pack animals you know. So, okay. We got Louie, The Stubby Tyrant, the new puppy, who less tyrannical and more comical every day. Still and all, at nine months, he has come to reign over the dominion of 1231 with aplomb. 1231, that’s our street address and a central character to this saga, as you will see.

Libby’s alpha status didn’t last long, Louie bullied his way right onto my bed and like the accommodating kid in a dysfunctional family, (code for Jean) Libby acquiesced – taking the floor, or skulking down the basement stairs to sleep in the stinky band room, except for last night.

At 4 a.m. she came into my room and hopped up on the bed. After the excitement of the rising tide and subsequent rollicking in the muddy water, Louie was spent, choosing the cool ceramic floor in front of the air conditioning vent in the bathroom. With the storm passed, waters receded, her fears subsided, Libby came hunting for solace. “Libby, I can’t believe you’re here with me,” I said as I stroked her on the nose. And then I began to bawl. Three hours of bailing and mopping tends to make a girl emotional.

And so the damn dam broke, even though I’d been feeling pretty confident since I gave my notice last week. I got choked up when I explained it to my boss. This thing, this crazy dream, this desire. It sits in my throat, always there, like a wad of paper, some choking force I have to talk around, it’s so big. It’s so complicated, yet it’s so simple, what I want, how I feel. Explaining it to someone you assume will be a skeptic tightens up that space in your throat.

But, he couldn’t have been nicer. He said he could hear in my voice and see in my eyes the passion I have for this project. I think passion is a catch phrase now, I want to frame it as longing. How I’ve longed to do this road trip, meeting all these people, patching up my psyche. He got it. He was gracious. He even said it’s a hell of an idea.

I thought it would be like free fall, you know, telling him I was quitting. Like I’d immediately freak out, thinking, “what have I done?” But right after I told him, I just felt happy. I just felt focused. I was more clear-eyed then I’d been for a long time. Ready to do this thing — to make this journey and bring all my fellow sojourners along for the ride!!!

Free from the constraints of the nine-to-five, striking a blow for the working class, frustrated writers everywhere, dogs inside invisible fences, dogs inside REAL fences, people stuck inside glass offices, or even worse, CUBICLES!!! It was an adrenaline rush, like I didn’t really know until I told him that I was going to do it and then, “ I’m doing this thing. I’m actually doing this!”

But then the rains came, in my bed, exhausted, with my goofy dog, quietly scared to death — trading the fear of the unknown; the potential financial disaster, more than 8,000 miles, being alone, shit, what if I get a flat tire? I’d upgraded to a more titillating fear from the soul-killing old one.

I see it all around me, we’re consumed by it. We’re fearful of losing the jobs we hate, because our whole way of life goes down the drain with it. Our house, our kids’ school, that precious two-week paid vacation, our savings, (or not) our health. Don’t get me started on health care reform. In this economy, we’re made to feel grateful to have any job at all, believe me, I understand this. I have one good friend who’s been unemployed for more than two years, who started a new job two weeks ago, and cried in her car when she saw her first paycheck. And these weren’t tears of joy, my friends.

I have another close friend who just lost a job of eight years, after she lobbied for and promoted a gigantic industrial plant, only to see the place shut down, no demand for cement these days. Her husband lost his job last year. They’re my age. They probably think I’ve lost my mind.

But I had lost my soul. I’d lost who I was. I didn’t like myself anymore. I had changed. I went to work, put up a good front, smiling, nodding in meetings, taking constructive notes like, “I want to poke my eye out with a stick.” I don’t think this is healthy.

I resented the 50-hour workweeks. I was crabby. I didn’t like the sound of my own bitching. I was short with people in traffic, the ATM card didn’t swipe fast enough, the kid at the drive-up was an idiot. The only thing I didn’t do was go home and kick the dog, because that was the best part of my day.

“Libby, what have I done?” I whispered into her silky ear, her back to me, my arm draped over her shoulder, spooning. “I quit my job! I quit my fucking job! We’re going so far away,  I’m scared, Libby. I’m scared. What happens if it floods while I’m gone? What happens if a tree falls on the house? What if something happens to the kids while I’m gone? What happens if I get sick or my back gives out or I break down on some lonely stretch of road? What happens if I go to all this trouble only to discover that I’m a professional malcontent?

This reminded me, suddenly of a career planning class I took at Old Dominion University in the late ’70s. The textbook was from Peter Drucker, the career guru, who created a revolution with his What Color Is Your Parachute? I was working my way through college waiting tables in a crappy Chinese restaurant and was worried that Drucker’s book would reveal that I’d make a good waitress.

Until this quiet moment, in the middle of the night, I had not given in to such fleeting, moments of panic. Out there in front of me — a flashing orange signal at a busy intersection, obscured by cars and buses. And me, shifting my head — left, right, like a boxer dodging a punch, trying to get a good look, so I could land the first blow. But it was building up, like the brass floor drain, dull with layers of silt, it lay just underneath the surface, this panic.

What happens if I fail? What happens if I end up a fool? I don’t want to embarrass my kids. What happens if I don’t do this?  What if I lose Libby?

And then, I thought about Sean.

He was a freshman in college. He was going through the motions at school, keeping his grades up, keeping up appearances, putting up a brave front until he just couldn’t do it anymore. Talk to anybody who has panic attacks, they’ll tell you how bad it can get. Wrapped in anxiety, curled up in the stairwell of his dorm building, my youngest son, calls me in the middle of the night. “I have to come home. I can’t do this. I feel like my heart is going to explode out of my chest.”

He’d had some times like this before. He had worked through it. He chose to be a football player for Christ sakes, talk about fear! My first instinct was to jump in the car and race across the state to talk him off the ledge. But I wouldn’t be able to do that every time. We steered him toward some answers. He talked to his roommates, he talked to a counselor at school, we found a wonderful  therapist close to campus. Three more days until the appointment, two more, just one more. When you’re struggling, hours feels like days. I get a call at five o’clock one morning.

“It’s bad, it’s worse. I want to come home.”

We’d made a deal. If his anxiety got so bad that he felt like he couldn’t make it through another day, all he had to do was make it to the train station.

“You’ve got an appointment at 8:00 this morning with someone who can help you,” I told him. “That’s three hours. Three hours. Get through three hours and go see the man. And if you still want to come home, there’s a train at ten o’clock.”

It was pouring rain in Kansas City. Early springtime storm. Sean got on his bike and rode for miles to meet this man who could help him. He rode in the driving rain to find his healing.

We see now who becomes our teachers.

“It’s just me an you, Lib,” I whisper to the back of her head. “You have to stay close, you hear?”

Libby sighs one of those deep doggie sighs, as if saying, “Nobody really asked me if I wanted to go on this trip.”

She’ll be sick of me by Barstow.

About Jean Ellen Whatley

Writer. Dreamer. Sometimes schemer. Journalist/memoirist/observer and sometimes constructive irritant. Prisoner of demon muses. Mother to four humans and two dogs. In my spare time, I delete phone numbers of former boyfriends.

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