On Trusting the Tapestry
I’m writing this from a cramped window seat on a flight from Hartford to Orlando. (And no, I’m not going to Disney World. I’m spending three weeks as a Master Artist in Residence here.) I’ve been spending a lot of time on airplanes lately. Sometimes with my husband, sometimes with my son, but often alone, on my way to teach somewhere, or give a reading. So none of this is new. But what is new are the tears in my eyes as I write these words. Tears of gratitude that the fears that plagued me for so many years have subsided. For a long time –– in my twenties and early thirties –– I did everything I could to avoid travel. I wasn’t quite agoraphobic, but I had terrible anxiety when it came to taking risks of any kind –– and my definition of risk wasn’t paragliding or skydiving. No. My definition of risk was getting on a train, a bus, a plane. Even driving a car to an unfamiliar place set me on edge. All of it felt, to me, as if I was courting disaster. As if I wouldn’t survive the journey.
I don’t know what, exactly, changed. My son was four years old when I went on book tour for my novel Family History. I remember calling my publicist from the departure lounge at LaGuardia airport, weeping. I didn’t think I could do it. I didn’t think I could board the plane that was going to take me away from my husband and little boy. Fortunately, my publicist –– a mom herself, and one who had been through some hard times –– was able to talk me down in just the right way. I got on that plane, and the next one, and the next. But still, I sat in my seat, a heart-pounding, palm-sweating mess. I was able to do it –– but the cost was high. I would arrive at my destination wrung-out and exhausted.
Eventually, I discovered a pharmaceutical solution to my fear of flying. I became willing to medicate my terror. I had a system. Just before going through security, I’d take a half of a half of a sedative –– a very low dose, but enough to quell my nerves. I became able to board flights more easily, and even anticipate flying in a different way because I knew I didn’t have to suffer. I did this for years. I flew more and more frequently for work, and this system was just simply part of what I did in my new role as literary road warrior. I had my travel-sized cosmetics, my plastic bag for carry-on toiletries, my go-to outfits for public speaking, my pile of magazines, and my little pill case.
But then something happened to me –– so radical, so amazing that I could never have imagined it. After many thousands of miles –– Rome, Florence, Venice, Positano, Paris, London, Prague, Amsterdam, San Francisco, Los Angeles, San Diego, Seattle, Chicago, Anchorage, Minneapolis, Columbus, Miami, New Orleans, Charlotte, Detroit, Houston, just off the top of my head –– one day it occurred to me that perhaps I didn’t need to take that sedative before going through security. Maybe it would just be enough to know I had it with me. I could always take it if I became nervous. So I kept my little pill case in my pocket. A talisman. A rabbit’s foot.
Just two weeks ago, my husband and I were on the way to the airport for a trip to LA when I suddenly realized, with a nauseated jolt, that I had forgotten my pill case at home. It was too late to turn back. I felt that old anxiety stirring from its slumber. Could I get on a plane with no safety net? Was I pushing my luck? Did I dare?
Reader, I dared. I was a little tense –– old habits die hard –– but something inside me had shifted in a profound way, and though the superstitious part of me believes it’s tempting fate, I will say that I feel fairly certain that I have changed in a deep, internal way. And to what do I owe this shift? Certainly, I worked hard to overcome my anxiety, but we all know that working hard isn’t enough. I became willing to take medication –– to understand that it was bigger than me. I learned to meditate and developed practices that are a part of my inner landscape. (May I be safe. May I be happy. May I be strong. May I live with ease.) And all of this together formed the roots of a desire to live this precious life, to live it fully, completely, with courage, with abandon. To recognize the improbability of this gift I’ve been given. To see the world. To expand my horizons. To trust the tapestry that weaves us all together.