Do Not Be Afraid

I lie back on the table. On the ceiling above my head is a picture of the ocean. The room is bright and inviting, one I’ve been in enough that I could detail it with my eyes shut; the couch by the window, the two arm chairs, the crystals, the rows of tinctures.

I start to drift off. My breathing settles. A heaviness sets into my limbs. Ten minutes passes, or an hour, I can’t tell. Eventually, her voice cuts through my wandering, pulls me back into the room.

“Rachel,” she says. “An interesting thing happened.”

I open my eyes to look at her.

“There was a man in the room. He had olive skin, like yours. Dark hair, blue eyes. It was like he was just looking you over, like he was waiting for something, just watching, and then he left.”

I was silent for a moment, taking it in.

“He has visited every time,” she says. “Always the same man.”

I turn my head so I can see her better. I weigh up what to say.

“I’m going to need more information,” I say. “Did you catch a name? Address? Place of employment, perhaps?”

She laughs, like I know she will, and the sound of it drifts around the room like a bubble.

“I can’t know any specific time-frames,” she says. “Once I had this recurring vision of a man and it took seven years for a client of mine to eventually meet him.” Great, I think, but I keep looking at her, showing that I want her to go on. “It’s hard to know when, or even the how of it,” she says. “But he’s there. It’s simply a matter of time.”

 

*

I sit on my couch, cradling a cup of coffee. A friend sits beside me, dressed in activewear, her hair pulled back into a pony tail. She is the kind of woman whose voice has the force to drown out any critic in its way. Her positivity is relentless, her belief in you like a stern headmaster who will not tolerate your lack of it. Hers are the sentences you pull from your pocket long after she’s spoken them, when it’s 4am and you need to quiet the ghosts in your mind.

I recall the details of my psychic session to her. This blue eyed guy who appears at every visit. The one who always enters the room, looks over everything like he’s waiting for something, and then leaves. Once the psychic had a vision of us on top of a cliff somewhere. I was wearing a blue flowing dress with fluted sleeves, my hair was whipping in the wind. We stood beside tufts of long green grass smiling at each other. “It’s from a past life,” she had said. “I get the sense the cliff is somewhere in the UK. Scotland, possibly England.”

My friend sits there silently and doesn’t interrupt a single thing I say. I wonder to myself if she believes in all this stuff or not. Eventually, she asks, “Do you know who it might be?” I immediately think of him, someone I met last year not long after I separated from my husband.

I hesitate. “I thought I did,” I say,  “But now I don’t think so.”

She nods, because she knows exactly why I don’t.

We sit in the silence, and then, in a movement that startles me, she reaches for my phone, which is resting on the coffee table between us. It’s not what I’m expecting, so I wait, mildly amused.

“Well,” she says, finally, looking up at me, “This is going to make your Tinder experience a whole lot easier for me to manage.”

I laugh.

“I’m not getting Tinder,” I reply.

“Yes, you are,” she says. “Dark hair, blue eyes. We only swipe for that. Really, it’s so streamline!”

I get up, put my coffee cup in the sink, turn back around, and when I see her there looking at me, I laugh again.

“I will cry if you make me go on a tinder date,” I say.

She sighs, tosses my phone on the couch.

“I’m just not there yet,” I say.

“What do you think is going to happen?” she says. “Do you think the clouds will just open up and this magical guy with the gorgeous blue eyes will just fall from the sky when you’re on top of one of your mountains?”

“Yes,” I reply. “That’s precisely what will happen and I think you should take more seriously the high likelihood of that occurring.”

She laughs.

“I put Tinder on your phone,” she said. “Think about it.”

*

I carry the last box down the front stairs. My dad is standing by the side of the ute, strapping furniture down. His shirt is drenched in sweat. The removalists would be coming the next day to move the bigger stuff. My dad is secretly relieved about this, though he’d never say.

I’m numb, unsure of whether I feel too much or too little. Like a parallel life, I am watching the main character tie her hair up in a bun and walk up the front stairs, dabbing the sweat off her forehead with her dirty shirt. She sits down on the lounge room floor, in the middle of her empty home and takes a swig of whiskey straight from the bottle. She lies down, closes her eyes, and in rushes the solicitors, the paperwork, the meetings, the signatures, the bank people, the tax people, the real estate people, the phone calls, the emails, the settlement documents, the child support, the custody arrangements, the grief, the panic, the exhaustion, all swirling around her like a thunderstorm she is directly inside. If it were a movie, there’d be a soundtrack to it. Something nostalgic, but with a hint of piano, the uplifting kind, so the audience knew what the main character didn’t: That it would be a small montage of suffering before the script would change and the story recommences with interesting new characters and exciting plot twists and a “Well, that all worked out” kind of optimism. Only real life doesn’t work like that. Real life is tedious and sweaty, slow and rife with pain. There are no soundtracks. No lighting guys. And the whiskey in it isn’t glamorous — it’s not a cute relationship like a bottle sitting on Sarah Jessica Parker’s desk as she writes about heartbreak in her New York apartment. It’s one that ends abruptly when the rest of the bottle is tipped down the sink on Christmas day, in between great heaves of sobbing.

My dad walks through the front door.

“Where’s Sasha?” he asks.

It’s then I realise, in the chaos of everything, that I haven’t seen our cat for days. I eventually find her on the cold cement under the house, curled up in a ball next to the washing machine. I go to pick her up. She can barely even cry, her body limp in my arms. And that’s how I arrive at the emergency vet at 4pm one Saturday afternoon in December, in between the final stages of a marriage separation, trailer-loads of moving boxes, and a life that I was about to leave, forever.

Sasha’s death that Saturday in December still haunts me to this day. The way the vet had said to me, almost with anger in her eyes: The kindest thing to do is to put her down. The way I had cradled her in my lap. The way it took only 2 seconds from the vet’s injection to death, stopping her heart instantly, the quickness of it shocking me. The way the vet had put her inside a cotton bag, and I had carried her lifeless body out to my car, how heavy it felt, how I didn’t know where to put her so I just placed her on the front seat next to me, unable to look at her. It was a boiling hot day. I drove all the way home in silence, death a strange visitor I didn’t know how to greet. I carried her body up the front stairs, into my empty house. I shut the door behind me and because I didn’t know how else to keep her body from the stifling heat while I waited until the morning to have a proper burial with my children when they returned, I simply put her in the fridge. It wasn’t until I closed the fridge door, that I slumped to the floor, unable to stand. In that moment, her death was the death of everything I had built around me, and I cried there on my kitchen floor until night came.

Later that night I would be out at a friend’s birthday in the city, surrounded by noise and cheer and bottles of champagne. It could not have been further from how it was I felt inside. I would arrive and a friend would ask how I was. I would reply, “There is a dead cat in my fridge if that answers your question,” and though it wasn’t the answer he was expecting, I can’t say he looked surprised about it; a dead animal in my fridge exactly the kind of thing that would tumble out of my mouth. He would later text me and say, “10 days. That’s all you have to get through, Rach,” as if the end of the year would bring all of this to a stop.

It would be a couple of weeks later that I’d recall author Kathleen Norris and how she wrote that the Greek root of the word ”crisis” comes from the word “sieve,” which means: To sift. How I sat on the edge of my bed and viewed this as some kind of revelation, that that’s what crises do: Shake us up and force everything to fall away except for the most vital things. That a crisis was a gift, but only with the right amount of time and whiskey.

I looked out of my bedroom window and wondered what it was that was left after the bottom fell completely out of my life, and when I think of it now, I see two things, like birds that sit side-by-side at my windowsill. What was caught in that sieve when everything else fell away, were two things: Fear, predominantly, and Faith.

These two birds were all that existed, Fear flashing its claws and tearing right into Faith, Faith retreating in fright, but somehow, every time, flying back, ever-so gently, showing up at my window again and again. My therapist had told me, very early on, that when we are faced with a lot of unknowns in life, what our minds then do is fill that blank data with our most fear-driven stuff. There is nothing like a crisis to teach you what your most intimate fears are. You learn the roughness of their skin, you know what they smell like, what they sound like, what they taste like inside your mouth. They howl and scream, demanding to be seen, to be felt, to be believed. And you do. You do believe them. 

But Faith: It’s a strange word, Faith. It implies a blind ignorance, a power outside of yourself that you do not participate in. But it’s not blind, nor is it ignorant. It’s a quiet, steady kind of a thing, a very deliberate reframing of your experience where you are an active part of your own rescue. It’s something that feels like trust, a giving up of control, the relentless belief that it didn’t matter what happened to me, I had the power to make myself okay. That despite it all, I was still being led, maybe by the universe, by god, by something divine, but maybe simply by my own self. Faith is the thing that allows us to stand at the edge of the cliff and jump. Faith is the thing that makes us brave and gives us hope, that allows us to survive the greatness of our pain, the one thing that looks directly into the eyes of Fear and says: You are not the boss of me. As Pema Chondron once said, “It is only when we face annihilation over and over again that we find what is indestructible within ourselves.”

That thing, I’ve found, is simply the long, quiet and brave practice of faith.

*

I get up, swing my legs to the side, perch on the edge of the table. She grabs a tincture from the shelf and tells me to take 4 drops of it every day. I feel taller, lighter, more grounded in my own body. She waves her hands around, flicking her wrists into spirals. And when I think we are done, she catches me off-guard as she looks directly at me and says, “Rachel. Do not be afraid.” She places her arm on my shoulder, another one cups my face. “You can never lose your children,” she says, and like an involuntary reflex, tears prick my eyes. She flicks her wrists in a spiral again above my head, helps me off the table. I thank her, take a large gulp of cold water, go through the usual rituals of saying goodbye, and as I walk out of the room, into the warm sunlight I feel my phone buzz in my bag.

Did the blue eyed guy visit again? my friend texts. I laugh to myself, grateful she is in my life. It doesn’t matter to me anymore who he is, or when it is he’ll arrive in my life, if at all. He is not the finish line, the thing which will eventually save me, make everything okay. Love is the ultimate life experience, but not without first walking to the edge of the cliff, outstretching your arms and jumping bravely into your own life. Because what you discover after the terrifying free fall, is that eventually you will land, and it will be your own two feet that you land upon, and as you look back up upon the fall you survived, you will understand that there is nothing in the world quite like the feeling of realising you have just gone and saved yourself. 

I put my phone back in my bag, get in my car, turn on the ignition. I am headed to meet a wedding couple, and when I arrive in the carpark, I cut the ignition, put some lipstick on in the rearview mirror and reach over to grab my bag. I pull out my phone to text my friend back, and when I do, there is a message from another friend. I open it up, and all that is there is a picture simply of a bird resting on the palm of a hand. I know instantly what it means. This friend, months back, had explained that whenever she feels anxious or worried, she says to herself “Trust”. She would picture a bird, resting on the fingertips of a human’s outstretched hand, trusting that the human wouldn’t kill it, but rather hold it in support. It became an ongoing mantra between us. Trust. Trust. Trust.

I smile, glance at the time, realise I have to go, and when I look up, ready to get out of my car, a lone bird lands right on top of the bonnet, just on the other side of my windscreen, half a metre from where I am. It faces me, fluffs out its wings, then begins to peck my bonnet. Peck, peck, peck, peck and then it stops, looks directly at me, and flies away.

I sit there stunned, and as I get out of the car and walk to my meeting, I am that bird, resting in the palm I have come to understand is life itself, wholly supported by something I found inside myself when I lost everything else.

 

 

‘Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Do not be afraid.’ Frederick Buechner

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