I spent a lot of my childhood wishing I were braver.
I spent an entire summer afraid — and vocally so — of sliding down the pole on my next door neighbor’s swing set. It wasn’t high off the ground; I could have easily jumped the distance. But something about that short breach between the wood of the tower and the metal pole terrified me. Would my legs cling tightly enough? Would my hands be shredded as they slid, or would they burn on the sun-heated metal? When I finally conquered the pole, it was not when my dad stood below and told me that if I started to fall, he’d catch me. It was not when my friends stood behind me and alternated between cheering and threatening to push me. It was when nobody was looking; it was my own triumph. And it was so easy that I immediately knew I had wasted an entire summer being afraid.
Once, my mom had to pick me up from Girl Scout camp shortly after we arrived because I realized “open air cabins” meant fragile wooden structures with no doors or windows. Anything or anyone could saunter in and snatch me! My friends waited with me in a troop leader’s car in the parking lot and hugged me when my mom pulled up. My mom never mentioned the incident again, nor did my friends.
When I was old enough, my mom would try to send me to run short errands alone. Here’s some money, buy a carton of milk at the grocery store, she would say, waiting in the parking lot. (Did my whole life revolve around waiting in a parking lot? Did everyone’s? Oh the heavy stillness of the black top, dampening in the sun!) I would tremble and often cry, refusing to go until she insisted. I imagined that everyone was staring at me. My sister Amy came with, sometimes, which helped. She’s two and a half years younger than me, and would have been noticeably smaller, but she would easily step forth and hand over the neat ones to the cashier, the fistful of coins. She would collect the change as I kept my head down so no one could see the tear streaks.
At my grandfather’s funeral, when I was seventeen, the minister offered us a quality of my grandfather’s. Ask God to grant it to you, he said, as if God could absorb character from one fading being and bestow it upon another. Maybe he could. Maybe he can. I wasn’t doubtful at the time. In my head, I cried out for courage.
I saw Wonder Woman last week, and unexpectedly, I began to cry halfway through. It meant so much to see a female superhero onscreen, a strong woman who was fighting for what was right without seeking permission or stopping to consult. Without even stopping to wonder if she could do it, or whether she would come out unscathed. If it was the right thing, she would do it.
Watching her brought back my old wish for courage.
I’m still afraid of the same things as I was. Do we change? Sometimes I think so, and sometimes I think not at all. Adulthood has not, contrary to expectations, consisted of a shedding of fears. Instead, they have clung, they have adapted to their new environment like so many wise creatures.
This is my list: being caught in the dark. Taking physical risks. Awkwardness, including: parties where I don’t know very many people, conferences where I have to network with strangers, unpleasant confrontations, any kind of confrontation.
But I think, now, that I could be brave. I have been the girl who finally crossed the breach when no one was looking, and even now, they’re not looking. So now I will cross some more, as many as I can.