When I was a child I lay in bed at night wondering when the bad people would come and murder my parents, or take me away, or bomb my house. These fears, I believe, were the result of an over active imagination and going to the movies with my parents; I was an only child for ten years and my parents enjoyed watching films, so I’d go with them, often falling asleep on my father’s lap. They favoured war movies, stories of heroes from the Second World War, a war that lasted through most of their adolescence. In addition, my mother listened to the radio so I heard news bulletins about Czechoslovakia, Korea, and the Bay of Pigs crisis. Us Baby Boomers grew up knowing about Hiroshima and Nagasaki and for an imaginative, well-read child who spent most of her time with adults, it was easy to imagine the worst because the worst had happened in the decade before her birth.
Alone in my bed, my anxieties would get the better of me. I’d start to weep, call my parents, and tell them my fears. They did their best to soothe me, ‘Don’t be silly,’ they’d say, ‘you’re safe with us. No one is going to hurt you. Go to sleep and stop worrying about nothing.’ My parents never wanted to make things worse, my night fears worried them, but words like ‘silly’ and ‘nothing’ facilitate anxiety instead of quenching it. I grew up ignoring my anxieties and berating myself for having them. Instead of being properly addressed, my unwelcome, unhelpful worries were fed with ‘what if?’, ‘look out,’ ‘take care’, ‘this will never work’ and ‘I’m afraid to…’.
Teaching revealed one way to cope; responsibility for the well-being and education of, initially, young children and later, adults, turned me into a manager and organiser. I learnt how to anticipate, plan for and manage contingencies. I developed, at least professionally, a range of strategies that helped me control any situation. Addressing the insidious ‘what ifs?’ became proof of my skills and an indication that I took my job and responsibilities seriously.
Personally, however, my anxieties were a liability. Firm management, detailed organisation and making sure everything goes as planned is not easy where children and family are concerned and my need for control lead to bitter conflicts.
And so, my ‘default program’ became an innate, distrustful wariness. Predators lurked on every street corner, the trappings of civilisation such as road rules, regulations concerning food, personal hygiene, and travel, to name a few, seemed like illusions designed to negate my fears, not address them.
As I age, particularly given the potentially dire state of the world, my anxiety is getting worse. A decade ago I stepped outside my comfort zone and thrived, but now I feel less inclined to do so. I recognise my methods of coping no longer work so I meditate and use mindful breathing, rational thinking and writing to help me cope.
These skills are crucial because, in the next couple of days, I am leaping out of my comfort zone and heading, with my partner, to Europe on my first major trip overseas. We’re visiting five countries in seven weeks and while this prospect is thrilling, the little girl in me wants to cower beneath her blankets and stay put.
But cowering is something I’ve done most my life. I’ve embraced the known, stuck with what is safe and celebrated the familiar and remained where I have a degree of control.
When I was researching and writing my memoir, I drew heavily on a story my parents read to me when I was three years old. I knew Goldilocks and the Three Bears by heart. If my mother changed the wording I’d correct her. As part of my doctorate I wrote a research paper that accompanied my memoir, ‘Reading Goldilocks’. I wrote that Goldilocks, ‘is a feisty, assertive, determined, [and] resourceful’ child because she refused to let an unanswered door get in her way. This aspect of Goldilocks helped me explore and embrace my skills and identity as a writer.
I have decided, therefore, to take Goldilocks with me, metaphorically at least, to Europe. If anyone knows how to walk away from what’s known and secure, it’s Goldilocks. Together we will dispel the anxiety that has hounded my preparations for this trip; we will stray far from home, enter forests made of steel and concrete or trees and glades. Yes, we will encounter a bear or two. Some beds will be too hard and while I hope we won’t break any chairs, I will want my porridge gluten free. Goldilocks and I will have a companion, my partner, to walk the trails with us. The three of us will do our best to make this trip ‘just right,’ and if we are menaced by an occasional grumpy bear we will be okay; Goldilocks knows how to safely leap from a window.
I hope you will follow us on our journey; I plan to share our adventure here on Elixir because, as Thomas Moore has written,
Standing in a doorway, you are forced into the imagination, wondering what you will find on the other side. It is a place full of expectant fantasy […] Anything of moment takes place in these intercises.
By stepping over my threshold and sharing it with you, I hope we can embrace the benefits of being mindful, and learn to live in the moment instead of suffering from illusions born of our fear.
Thomas Moore, ‘Neither Here Nor There’, Parabola, 25.1 (2000), 34-39 (p. 34).