By Dyana Herron
Most of the time, I don’t feel like a brave person.
This has been true since I was a child, a child plagued by strange and vivid fears. I remember lying in bed at night listening to the drone of airplanes passing by overhead—I would imagine a change in the tenor of the engine, and felt certain the plane must be diving downwards to crush my home.
Other times I would lie there thinking about the cup from which I had sipped water before going to bed, and my throat tightened as I convinced myself it must have held some invisible and tasteless poison. Sometimes I heard sounds from the back hallway and decided a prowler was picking the lock of our trailer, which was located a mile down a dead-end gravel road.
As I grew older those childhood fears vanished, to be replaced by duller, subtler fears. Nights of sharp panic gave way to a low, ever-present undercurrent of dread—that I would fail at work or school, that I would disappoint my family, that I would unwittingly separate myself from God’s love.
Every year it has gotten better, and I’ve felt stronger, more capable. I’ve done things my friends consider brave—moving from Tennessee to Boston with no job prospects, moving from Boston to Seattle eight months later with no furniture, earning an MFA degree in poetry at a time when the average American prefers Anne Hathaway to Ann Sexton.
But while I was scouring the Boston job boards or stepping off the plane into Seattle for the first time or struggling over a sestina while my friends used their business and law degrees, I didn’t feel brave.
I felt like I was doing what was right for me, but I didn’t feel brave.
Last week I visited my family in Tennessee for the first time in a year, which I had been looking forward to for months. It surprised me, then, that while looking out my plane window at snow-dusted mountains, I began to feel the familiar beast of fear uncurl itself from its den inside my chest, and scrape a little with its claws at the lining of my stomach.
As always, I tried to calm my nerves with my head. Automatically I searched for the culprit, the reason I might be feeling unsettled. A few contenders came to mind: perhaps I was afraid my family would think I had changed, or resent me for moving away, or perhaps I would resent myself for leaving them.
The feeling didn’t pass, even as I arrived at my mother’s home and stood in the yard. It was exactly as I remembered: the surrounding fields were sienna and ochre, and beyond them the faded red barn sagged behind our small pond, the top frozen over from a lingering cold snap. Instead of the shaggy firs I have grown accustomed to in Seattle, the tree line was a tangle of bare oaks lacing the horizon with an intricate gray webbing.
The day before I left, my brother Dylan, my boyfriend David, and I walked to the pond. My brother picked up a handful of gravel from our driveway and pitched each stone across the slick surface. The rocks did not land with a crack as I expected, but skidded with a reverberating sound, as if a metal prong had been pulled back and released, left to vibrate in the cold air.
“You were so brave when we were kids,” my brother said, and when both David and I looked up in surprise, he went on.
“I wanted to be like her, but the things she did scared me,” he said to David. “We had these two chow-chow dogs, and it seemed like they were always having puppies. When it came time for them to give birth, they would dig out a tunnel underneath these sheds on our property. These sheds were old, and falling apart, and every summer we would find snakes curled up inside.”
“But she would decide she wanted to see those puppies, so she would wiggle underneath the sheds through the space the dogs dug out, would go under the floor to see if she could find them. I always wanted to follow her, but I was too scared.”
Suddenly the memory of all this came back to me at once. I remembered the smell of earth and mold, the tightness between the ground and the old floors, tiny slivers of light shining in through the boards. I remembered the dog’s eyes glinting in the dark, her body curled around her pups, rooting blindly at her stomach.
What I did not remember is fear.
I know the old adage, about courage not being the absence of fear. And I know that to be considered courageous, one does not have to be like my friend Jenny, who travels alone across the globe, or like my brother, who scales rock faces.
Every person I meet during the day, each face on the street or bus, is brave, living through common fears and some I can’t even imagine. Sometimes I wish I could tell them like my brother told me, remind them that inside is a person unafraid, clawing joyfully through the dark.