In 1972, when I had just started second grade, my 48-year-old father went to the emergency room with chest pain on the evening of Labor Day, had a massive heart attack in the hospital Tuesday and died early the next morning.
What this tends to drill into your subconscious at age 7 is the message that big, terrible, unpredictable things may be lurking around the next corner.
At age 47, that message hasn’t gone away (it tends to be bolstered over time as you see more big, terrible things happen to other people you love), but age and parenthood have thankfully brought me an alternative perspective.
(The star of this tale.)
These days, thinking of both my 48-year-old father (with whom I shared fewer than eight years) and my 11-year-old daughter proves to be a regular, powerful kick in the pants about how stupid it is to spend any significant amount of time on worry and fear.
But I haven’t exactly reached the fully enlightened stage in this cerebral battle, which brings me to the vacuuming story.
At my house, the home of two writer/readers, we love words, and we have a lot of magnetic poetry tiles hanging around. They’re supposed to live on the refrigerator downstairs or a metal bulletin board upstairs, but over time, they’ve somehow ended up scattered all over the house.
So whenever I set out on a vacuuming frenzy (one of those rare occasions when I feel ambitious enough to vacuum under furniture and all sorts of unseen spots where visitors would never notice dust), it’s not unusual to come across a tiny magnetic word or two in unusual places.
During my most recent frenzy, I spotted a tile wedged in between the slats of a basket and pried it out, doing a double-take when I saw what it was.
“Fear” had become stuck in the basket where we keep our games … those things you do for ”fun.”
I laughed at the irony, put the tiny white tile aside and turned the vacuum cleaner back on.
A minute later, I inadvertently sucked “fear” up into the vacuum.
Horrified, I turned the vacuum off.
“You can’t take my ‘fear’!” I nearly shrieked at the machine, immediately relieved no one was around for that unhinged moment.
Realizing how nutty it all was, I pulled the canister open, carried the nearly full bag out in the back yard and poked a letter opener around in the dusty innards until I recovered my “fear.”
A psychologist or therapist could obviously have a field day with this story.
I don’t have to knock myself out to come up with the obvious armchair psychologist analysis: I clearly need to do just a little more work on that “fear of the unknown” problem.
My other analysis of the Vacuum Cleaner Incident is more rooted in who I am – writer, editor, lifelong journal keeper – than in my psychological junk.
Words are powerful for me.
… I keep a list of favorite words.
… I’m not very good at meditation and breathing exercises, but when I go for a run when I’m stressed out or busy, I’ve gotten in the habit of concentrating on good words as I breathe in and bad ones as I breathe out (‘fear’ is a big one on the exhaling list).
… And I’m very picky/proprietary about our magnetic poetry tiles; the words that really speak to me are the ones that make their way into nonsensical, semi-racy or inspiring sentences. The ones that bore me become outcasts, pushed down into the word ghetto at the bottom of the refrigerator door.
So I think that crazed, visceral reaction was partly the result of feeling a certain horror at seeing that small but forceful word – one that’s obviously deeply embedded in my life’s vocabulary – being taken away from me in such a literal way.
I’ve thought about sticking “fear” back in the bottom of the game basket, where it could take on a more laidback life … Fear of losing one’s empire in Monopoly. Fear of getting sent back to ‘home base’ in Trouble over and over again, just when you have your last peg ready to go into the home base row. And so on. Much more doable fears than the ones that tend to scroll through your head on sleepless nights.
But I think I’ll put it back into circulation on the refrigerator and see what poetic things I can do with “fear” to lessen its magnetism.