Tuesday, October 30, 2012

It’s a beautiful world, but also a scary one


I’m not a Halloween person. And this is not said to judge anyone who is, or to detract in any way from what can clearly be a fun holiday for many people I know. But it’s not my holiday. I don’t like things that are ghoulish. I don’t watch horror movies, either.  I just don’t like to be scared. Not if I can help it. There’s so much fear in this life we can’t circumvent. It’s my goal to keep fear down to just the mandatory stuff and nothing more.

When I was a kid, I lived in a perpetual state of fear. And I really didn’t know why. It wasn’t directed at anything in particular. In fact, I think I purposely looked for places I could direct it. Maybe that gets to the heart of why a lot of people do like to be scared by movies and Halloween haunted houses. I just know that every night I’d lie in bed awake, often until one or two in the morning, petrified. Just absolutely petrified. Rigid with fear.

I took to reading stories of the paranormal, so I’d have a better picture of what I was afraid of.

I remember when I was ten or eleven, I used to have a lamp with shaky wiring. Every now and then when it was off, it would turn itself on. Every now and then when it was on, it would turn itself off. I was in my room in the dark, in bed, reading a story about a haunted house by flashlight. The people who had just vacated it had all the electricity to the house turned off. And, as they stood on the lawn watching, every light in the house turned on. Anyway.

And at the exact—and I do mean exact—moment I read that, my light turned itself on.

I’m amazed I survived to tell you about it. I swear it was enough to stop even an eleven-year-old heart forever.

When you’re a kid, it’s all well and good to say you’re scared but you don’t know why. But I’m not a kid anymore. And I’ve been through years of therapy, and decades of recovery. And I’ve got to tell you, there was scary stuff happening in my house. But I wasn’t dwelling on it consciously. So if you’re pretending nothing’s wrong, that all is well in your house and family, you will accuse yourself of being scared about nothing. We do that a lot as kids, it seems to me. And often as adults. Accuse ourselves of doing something for no reason whatsoever.

I said in the dialogue of a short story once, “Nobody ever does anything for no reason. People do things for reasons you can’t see. Sometimes people do things for reasons they can’t see. But nobody does anything for no reason.”

I also said once in an interview that, when I write, I follow the fear the way other people follow the money. I’m not sure that will make sense to everyone who hears it, but I think enough people will understand. If I can just pay attention to the subtext of fear in characters who will outwardly tell you they’re afraid of nothing, I’ll never run out of stories as long as I live.

My favorite of all my books (still, after all these years) is Becoming Chloe. Because it’s a rare example, it seems to me, of a book where fear of the world in general is openly the theme. It’s a book about whether we can love the world, love our lives unconditionally, without ever papering over what a dangerous and unpredictable place it really is.

It’s a beautiful world, but also a scary one, as Jordy says.

I can now lie in bed with one hand hanging off the mattress, and not think (much) about something under the bed reaching up and grabbing it. I can sit up on the side of the bed with my feet down on the floor. In a more adult arena, I can get a letter from my bank, or from a government agency like the IRS, without my heart jumping into my throat. These days I think, “It’s probably nothing much.” And I’m almost always right.

Then again, I’m old. These gains didn’t come quickly or easily.

And I’m still not ready to like Halloween. Mandatory fears only.

3 comments:

  1. Thank goodness for bad childhoods. Not sure there would be YA literature without them. Thanks, Catherine, for sharing this.

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  2. "People do things for reasons you can’t see. Sometimes people do things for reasons they can’t see. But nobody does anything for no reason.”

    Yes!!

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  3. I often think that the level of fear one has is directly proportional to the amount one cares. (The more you care, the more you fear; the less you care, the less you fear...)

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