Guest Contributor Amy Gigi Alexander offers her journey through fear in this lyrically complex exploration of writing, courage and the personal narrative. This piece is universally compelling. It reaches beyond the page and what we desire to record, to that tender place between fear and fearlessness, and touches the heart of childhood.
Someday I Will Be Fearless
written by Amy Gigi Alexander
The first story I ever told myself was a story called How to Be Afraid.
I did not think of writing it down at first as I was very young, and could scarcely write my letters. Later, writing was dangerous, and once found it could be torn, eaten. And of course, there would be punishments. Instead, it was an oral tradition I started with myself, a long list I committed to memory, a guidebook to help me navigate through a world of adults.
I was about six years old when the story began to take shape. At that point, I had the awareness that grownups said different things than what they did, and that they created stories about who they were.
It was a dangerous time, an unsafe time. I never knew what would happen, and I did not yet know how to read people and trust my instincts. I did not understand why bigger people frightened me; I only knew that at night I would pray fervently that they would not come into my room. I lined up protections around me. Charms. Dolls. Rosaries. I crossed my arms over my chest and lay still, pretending not to breathe.
They came anyway.
They seemed to like the fear they inspired in me, and I did notice that. I recall looking at the ceiling and taking myself to new places and planets, a time traveler. I remember that I went to Australia and walked in the desert; to India, where I saw painted elephants; to France, where I lived on a barge that was covered with pots of geraniums. But I never let on that I was somewhere else. I was careful to keep my expression fearful, for I knew otherwise they would hurt me more. Yet I was always worried I would be found out, for I came back from those trips smelling like crushed geranium leaves and with sand between my toes.
When I turned nine, something changed. The story no longer floated around as an idea, but began to be a solid thing, touchable.
One day I was walking to school. Summer was over and how happy I was to be out of my house, to be near other children and people who did not know of that dualistic place: happy laughter mixed with nights rocking until morning. To other people, that house appeared like everyone else’s, but I knew differently.
It was several blocks to school and I played a counting and word game on my way. I would walk in a series of eight steps, and after eight sets of eight steps, I had to have a sentence in my mind.
It came to me that I could write out a set of instructions for my childhood. A set of sentences which I could hold close, that would last until I was an adult and could be somewhere new.
The name of the book came to me right away: How to Be Afraid. I needed something to remember for those moments when it showed on my face that I was meant for bigger things than mouth-covered-don’t- make-a-sound-sharp-hurts of the past. They had ended, but there were always new inventions of control, sometimes in the form of belts, shouts, slaps and a love that only came when I wore the face of obligation and responsibility. I needed to write a mask in my mind from words and letters, black and golden and feathered on the inside, painted crying mime on the outside.
One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight. Again. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight. Again.
I would repeat it with each step, and a sentence would arrive by the end of the loop, encrusted and golden, bundled and tied with raffia, gifted.
The story was made of up short fairy tales, almost like fables, with advice or instructions at the end: a coded set of words, tightly strung, to survive.
If you cannot look up, look with your listening.
Eat what is given, but think of that cherry tree smell from the neighbor’s yard.
At two am, everyone is sleeping, and you can dance in your room.
When they smile and love you, smile back, love them back, but remember that it is not always like that.
She doesn’t know what she is doing, and you must pretend that you don’t notice that.
It is important to look afraid, because if you look like know who you are, you may lose yourself.
Who you are is like the story of the watermelon seed that grew in your stomach.
It is there, and it will wait.
One day, it will actually grow.
They say those seeds don’t grow, but this is your secret: you know that they do.
Close your eyes and imagine you are in a strange country, but look like you are sleeping.
Sit at the table with your new friends in that place and taste the tastes of those sweet fruits.
Watch the gestures for clues, but act as though you are staring at the sky.
Never write this down, you be will found out, and it will be worse.
The story of How to be Afraid was a story that went on for a long time: many pages of sentences joined together, like a daisy chain I wore around my waist and as a crown, unseen.
I took the story and I memorized it. I slept with it at night and I ate with it on my lap. It was a warm coat in winter and cool sprinkler on the lawn in the summer. It was pink cotton candy that stained my mouth red, my mouth closed to hide the stains. It was running away, every minute, and coming back, in the same time. It was everything.
I followed those rules, and I lived a double life: the life of my imagination, and the life I was expected to live.
When I turned twelve, I began to write. It was a daredevil act, I knew very well. I risked a great deal in my quest to tell the truth somewhere, to see it outside of my head and on something I could actually hold. I will admit I did not come by my writing materials honestly: I stole them from the local drugstore and was always worried that I would be discovered. I stole erasers and pencil-boxes and flimsy notebooks and pens which seemed very grown up to me: shiny silver elongated fingers that leaked black ink on my hands and caused me to scrub them raw. It was better than asking for them though, or spending my allowance, which would cause my discovery.
But I wrote. I wrote in the middle of the night, in the dark, with a stolen flashlight, under the covers, door blocked by a chair. I wrote about boys I liked, the slumber party that had been awkward as I wasn’t like the other girls, the bed wetting I was still hiding, the dinner table conversations, the shapes of flowers, the shadow figures that bounced off the walls.
At first, I hid these notebooks in my room. But they were found, either by my mother or sister—I’ve forgotten now– and I soon realized that I had to come up with a better solution.
I hid them under a board in the box turtle pen outside my bedroom window. I made a slit in my jacket and tore their stiff covers off so I could fold them. I took the pages and stuffed them into my socks. I kept them at the school library, in books people never checked out.
I wrote every day. I started writing about small things and soon, they were detailed descriptions of people and happenings: the pull of my sister’s mouth, the art she ripped from my wall, the strange parties my parents had, the way my mother looked when she was angry and walked out of a room. I had not written out the story of How to Be Afraid, but it was there. It guided everything, like a conductor, twitching as I told the truth, nervously anxious, shuddering. Be silent. Stop, it said.
I could not stop. Writing in those notebooks was the only real place in my life, where I could be myself.
I wrote about good things too: our family road trips, the food fights at meal time, my crush on Johnny Garcia.
For a while, I tried to write in a new language, with new characters, my own secret hieroglyphics. But my dyslexic mind couldn’t decipher it from one day to the next, and I spent more time trying to read what I’d written than actually writing it.
One day, I went to retrieve my journals from the library and they were gone….all of them. I switched to keeping the journals in the hollow of a tree in a park a bit out of my way on my school route. I was able to keep them there until I was fifteen, and then one day, they too were gone.
From that time on, I never kept them again. I would fill one out and throw it away. I wasn’t always careful: a few times, I threw them away in the family trash can, and they were almost found. Or I threw them away at school, and since I had doodled my name on the outside, someone saw that they were mine and returned them to me.
A boy at my high school liked to burn things: sometimes I would meet him and let him kiss me as the journals burned.
I filled them out quickly, I wrote without stopping, sometimes writing most of the night. The fuller they became, the more of a risk they were.
My mother thought I was a wonderful writer, and she often said so. She read essays from school that I had written and sometimes I would write a poem and share it with my family.
“You should be a writer,” she would say, as she read.
I knew that I could not be writer like she said. There were too many things I could not write about, too many moments and remembrances that were off-limits. To be a writer meant I had to tell the Story of Me.
The story of How to be Afraid was no longer a story I told myself to survive temporarily. It had become true.
I kept writing the journals in the same fashion until I was thirty-five, throwing them away as they filled up. At that point, the journals were such a habit, that I was easily writing three thousand words each evening after work, and on a day off, six thousand. This did not seem extraordinary to me: it was a habit, a recounting, a revisiting, a dialogue that I could have with my life. But in my mid-thirties, I began thinking of traveling to those places I had gone when I was the girl in that bedroom so long ago.
I was so afraid of life at that point that I needed something drastic. I was still rocking myself to sleep every night, I still had night terrors, and I still slept with the light on, arms crossed over chest. I dreamt strange dreams of infestations of insects and dark walkways which were full of holes and fallen palm branches that raised up like animals. The protections of the past had not worked and were still not working.
I was petrified to go to work, to go outside. I devised elaborate systems for everything so that I could avoid as many fears as possible.
One day, for a reason I cannot find even today, I found myself in a travel agent’s office.
I bought a ticket to Guatemala, gave up everything I owned, and took a single day pack with a few changes of clothes and dozen notebooks and pens.
I arrived in Guatemala extremely on the edge: I’d rarely done anything alone that was so drastic, but I felt that the story of How to Be Afraid had become my rulebook, my bible, its instructions running like invisible tattoos down my arms and in-between my legs, in-between my teeth and on the whites of my eyes. I had no choice but to go.
I spent the first three months in a village homestay with a family, locking myself in a room with no lights, writing in the twelve notebooks I’d brought. Every once in a while, I’d leave their house to wander the stone paved streets down the hill, to see the view of the nearby city and watch the people in the village fly kites. But the main difference about what I wrote was not that I was somewhere new, it was that it not the same: I’d stopped writing about events and people and ideas.
It was the first time I wrote stories which came from some strange hidden place, like this one you are reading now. They just came, they spilled, they moved out of me without any effort at all. I did not think about what each story would be. There was no outline, no plot, no characters, no start, no beginning. But when I finished each one, it had everything inside of it, all fitting together, like the inside of a pomegranate.
After three months, I had written twenty-eight stories. And I had more swimming in my mind, one after the other after the other. Endless stories, forever.
At forty, I came home and visited my parents. They seemed kind of soft and fragile and not as I remembered them. Older. Uneasy. Tired. I spent a few days with them, and I knew that I would not see them again. It took me awhile to say goodbye, to see that I could not be the writer I might become if they were in my life. The stories helped: they were my family, now.
I still had no idea if I would ever share them, because the idea of putting them into the world seemed like setting one’s children in paper boats on fast-moving river. I needed them for myself, and I was reluctant. I’d already lost everything and they were all I had to hold onto.
One day I realized that How to Be Afraid, was still my life manual. I was keeping my head down and living a life guided by fear, even though I had dragged myself around the world and had done everything I could think of to become the person I knew I was meant to be. I was very concerned that despite cutting my family off, that they would be upset with me when they found out I was publishing my work—so I didn’t try. I could not even call myself a writer.
Two years ago, at age forty-four, I finally decided that I would I send one story out into the world. It was fresh agony every minute during that time, but it did very well. More followed, and along with it, letters from my parents which called me fervently back into a life of fear, of obligation to family secrets, to shades drawn and doors locked.
“We don’t talk about those things in our family,” my mother said.
I told her I could not write without talking about them. They were part of the Story of Me, my story that I was creating that was everything that I ever knew, and I ever will know. I explained that I couldn’t pluck out the parts they didn’t want me to say.
“You are making a mistake. You have obligations,” my mother said.
I told her I had no obligation to fear.
“I always loved you when allowed it,” my mother said.
I told her I loved words. The stories simply could not stop coming, I could not help it. I knew what love was now, I told her–and it’s not what we had had.
I don’t get the letters from them anymore.
I wrote down everything I could remember from How to be Afraid, and put in a notebook just like the ones I had stolen when I was twelve. One night when I was feeling especially strong, I tore all the pages out and burned them in my trash can in my apartment, causing the fire alarm to go off and the neighbor downstairs to call the Fire Department.
I still remember the whole book, though. I have to leap over those sentences every day, sometimes just to get out of bed, to get dressed, to walk down the street. I battle them as I try to publish my writing, talk in front of people about the path to being an empowered person, and share my life in a very public way. The only time I don’t think about them is when I’m writing a story.
I still sleep at night with my arms crossed over my chest. I still sleep with the light on, sometimes. I find myself rocking when I’m stressed. It is a constant battle to not do these things.
I still line up protections, but now they are grown-up talismans: a necklace of stones from Panama; a wooden elephant from Sri Lanka; a bracelet from Argentina; a clamshell necklace on a red cord from Spain.
The first story I ever told myself was a story called How to Be Afraid. The story I tell myself now is that I’m still afraid, but it doesn’t matter. My new story is called I Will Be Fearless, Someday.
Amy Gigi Alexander is a traveler, explorer, and travel writer who also writes fiction and memoir. Once she decided to become a writer and give herself totally to the craft, her writing life bloomed. She’s been published by The Nervous Breakdown, Mayday, Alternet, D’la Republica, The Hindu, Lonely Planet, the BBC, Nat Geo Traveler, Nat Geo India, World Hum, Travelers’ Tales, among others. She’s in several current literary anthologies including Lonely Planet’s newest, An Innocent Abroad. She also is included in five literary anthologies in 2015. She shares long form stories and inspirations about the power of goodness on her website, www.amygigialexander.com You can find her on Twitter and on Facebook.