Friday, September 4, 2015

Courage is its own reward

My friend, Barb, says I'm a kid magnet, and I suppose it's true.  Wherever I go it seems a spunky little child makes a beeline for me and always has something interesting to say.  These days I find I'm attracting preschoolers, four-year-olds in particular, who regale me with stories about the color of their shoes, the flowers in my garden, or the yummy spaghetti they ate for dinner last night.
The other day I was hiking at the park when I passed a shelter house where a birthday celebration was winding down.  Groups of moms and young children were making their way to the parking lot when I noticed a young boy dawdling behind, gazing up at the trees.
As I passed by, I heard him say, "Excuse me!"  When I stopped to see if he was speaking to me, he grinned.  "What's your name?" he asked boldly. 
"I'm Kate," I smiled.  "What's yours?"
"Darren*," he said.
"Was that your birthday party?"
He shook his head.  " was for my cousin."
Worried that he might get into trouble for not keeping up, I glanced over his shoulder at the retreating family.  "Is that your mom?"
"Nope, she's over there," Darren said, pointing.
Sure enough I saw a woman back at the shelter who was helping clean up the errant paper plates smeared with chocolate cake and vanilla ice cream. 
"Great...why don't I walk you over to her?" I offered.
By the time we reached his mother, Darren had told me all about the joys of being four and how much fun he was having in kindergarten.
When we met his mother, we talked for a while and I mentioned that I used to be a teacher.
"I'm proud that Darren was able to start school early because he passed an entrance exam," his mother smiled.  
"He's pretty sharp," I told her.  "What a friendly and polite little fellow."  I gently patted Darren's shoulder.  "Thanks for making my day!"
"Sure!" he beamed.
Walking away I remembered the terrified four-year-old I used to be when I started kindergarten a couple of weeks before my fifth birthday.  Every year after that, I didn't want to go to school because I was afraid of a new classroom...a new teacher...and new kids who might or might not be friendly.  Sure I was smart enough to skip preschool and head right into half-day kindergarten.  But I know now that I wasn't emotionally equipped to handle it...which is probably why every single year I taught elementary school, I spent the morning before the first day either throwing up or managing my bad case of nerves with gingersnaps.

The next day I went hiking once more and on my way in and around Wildwood Park, I passed a host of people.  Older couples.  Young mothers pushing strollers.  Joggers out for an afternoon run.  Deep in the heart of the red trail I saw a couple of men in the distance walking toward me and an old, familiar mantra bubbled up from deep inside:  I will not be assaulted today.  I will not be assaulted by those men.
As they walked by, the men politely moved into a single file so I could pass, saying, "Good afternoon."
I returned their friendly greeting and kept right on walking, letting go of the mantra once I realized I could trust my gut instinct that the men were harmless.  
I'm not afraid to go hiking alone.  I do it all the time, and have for years.  I know to stay walk with look people in the eye.  I've never had an incident at Wildwood or Secor Park or anywhere else for that matter.  But no matter what, whenever I pass men on the trails, I remind myself that I am safe.  That I won't be dragged into the woods and beaten...or worse. 
I imagine many women might feel as I do.  Perhaps being single and going most places alone heightens my awareness and makes me that much more conscious of my surroundings.  I've been stalked, harassed, and humiliated, so of course it's made me leery and distrustful of men I don't know.  Sure, there are a host of great guys in my life who are just like brothers.  But I've been sexually assaulted as well, and that experience often overshadows my friends' kindness and gentility, no matter how much I struggle to let their light outshine the darkness.
It's taken a long time to deal with my history. 
Even longer to admit I'm still healing it. 
Of all the blogs I've published in the past three years, this one is perhaps the most difficult to write.  Still, I feel compelled to do it because I recognize that courage has many faces, and sharing my story is only one of them.  Perhaps this one will find a reader or two who can relate.  Who might need some reassurance that they're not alone in their experience.  That there's someone else who knows that sometimes healing can take a lifetime. 
More than twenty years have passed since I initially found the courage to face the cause of my fear of intimacy and commitment.  Now I'm at the point where, while I don't lead with my old stories anymore, I realize that somehow many of my longstanding defenses still keep me armored, safe from the outside world. But this year I've been striving to work through them, to learn once again that courage does not mean I'm unafraid to move forward.  It simply means I won't let fear paralyze me anymore.
Or at least not for long.
Five years ago I called it quits with men.  After years of attracting ones who were either benign repetitions of the man who had stalked me, or increasingly angry men who mirrored those from my past, I finally decided that it was better to be single and at peace.  Better than being attracted to a person who initially rocked my world,  then eventually rocked my boat until I fell overboard and floundered in the mess and deafening silence he left behind.  
For five long years I taught yoga and wrote books and hung out with my friends.  I kept busy so I wouldn't have to think about how quiet my life had become.   It worked...for a while.
It worked until I realized there are more important things than writing and teaching.

This spring a friend gently prodded me into going on a blind date which I wrote about in "Biker babe".  It took all of the courage I had to say "yes" when she asked if she could give Pete* my phone number.   Even after we had a great phone conversation, a couple of days later I found I had to dig deeper in order to summon the strength to drive to the restaurant and meet him. 
But I needn't have worried.
Pete was a real gentleman.  He was smart and curious and very sweet to me.  I found it was easy to let go of some of my defenses and just be myself.  Even though it was late, I could have stayed at the restaurant and talked with him for hours, but we both had other things we needed to do.
As we walked to the parking lot, I wondered nervously, How do I let this guy know I want to see him again?
I needn't have worried about that either because he gave me a friendly hug and said, "We should do this again sometime."
I smiled, "Sure...that would be great.  Call me anytime."
But he didn't.
Months later, risking the possibility of rejection, I eventually plucked up enough courage to contact him.
But he didn't respond.
I wish Pete hadn't said he wanted to see me again if he didn't really mean it.  And sometimes I wish I hadn't opened up myself to the possibility of a connection with a man only to have the door slammed shut as quickly as it had opened.  But everything happens for a reason, even if I can't understand it all right now.
So here I am, back where I was five months ago.
But not really.

There have been countless times when I've felt that I should have been rewarded for my courage.  That I should have gotten the guy or found the right agent or whatever it was that I wanted.  After all, I had to barrel through a wall of fear to even entertain the possibility of having it.  Yet in bravely focusing on who and where I am now, I've learned to not make any man pay for the pain of a past he didn't create, and I've whittled down all of my baggage into a small carry-on which I often leave at the door when I venture out into the world. 
I might be scared.  I might be unsure.  I might even be silently chanting my old, familiar mantra.  Still I'm ready to leave the shadows of my past, and open myself up to a new life I'm only just beginning to cultivate.  My determination to stay vulnerable in healthy ways keeps me ever-mindful to continue letting go of what has been...and can never be undone. 
My courage is its own reward.  It builds undeniable strength by daring me to walk into the unknown with the awareness and the ability to keep my heart open for miracles....especially when I least expect them.

*Names have been changed.