On Flying, Failing, and Fear

I fear/I have nothing to give–Sarah McLachlan

To live is to fly–Townes Van Zandt

There were supposed to be pics of dragons on a plane, but I may have freaked out and forgotten.......
There were supposed to be pics of dragons on a plane, but I may have freaked out and forgotten…….

The Friday before last, I got on a plane.

Big deal, right?

But it was.

I used to be a girl with wings. I was a girl who flew–on transatlatic flights in big passenger planes, on smaller planes crewed by non-English-speaking stewards who gave emergency instructions in a language they clearly didn’t understand, on a tiny Indiana Jones-style plane that the pilot flew one-armed because he needed his other arm to hold a broken window shut. I landed in Heathrow amid heavily-armed guards, in Guatemala City where guards whisked us from tarmac to building, on a grass landing strip hacked into the jungle. I reveled in the exhilaration of takeoff, the thrill of landing.

And then, somewhere along the way, I became afraid of flying.

I think it’s because I finally had something to lose. A husband, and then a dog, and then a home and children. Fear–of losing, of loss–clipped my wings.

And so, because apparently I don’t believe in doing anything the easy way, the Friday before last, I got on a plane. And it was worth it. But I was terrified. The flights from to to fro and back again passed in a nightmarish haze of fear. The entire time, I imagined in vivid detail a stray electrical storm, a wing snapping off, a sudden mechanical failure. I can’t remember when I have maintained such a fever pitch of terror for such an extended period of time. Thankfully, they weren’t long flights. But they seemed like years.

I took to the air to find the girl I used to be. But I didn’t find her. She’s flown away. Her finger- and feather-prints remain on my soul, but I’m not her anymore. It is a sobering realization–a loss.

Loss has become a constant for me over the past few years. From a thirty-year-old with four living grandparents, I have metamorphosed into an almost forty-year-old with a single Nana. I met amazing people, kindred spirits who I thought would be part of my everyday life, and who subsequently moved far away. My first companion animal died this spring after twelve years of best friendship. In the past week, I’ve gotten three rejections of full manuscripts I’d submitted to agents.

And I lost that girl–the one who was fearless, the one who adored flying.

“Does anyone have one of those little paper bags?!?”

I haven’t blogged in a while, but it hasn’t been out of busyness or neglect. I’ve been struggling with what to say. What do I have to say that is worth hearing, that is worth part of someone else’s day to read? What can I offer that is worth the price of minutes of anyone else’s life? I don’t know.

But the epiphany came this afternoon as I prepared tea. So many revolutions of the mind take place this way, in the quiet steeping times. I still don’t know what I have to offer. It is a strange thing to be an unpublished writer who spends her days crafting stories that may never take flight. But during the steeping, I at least realized what has been holding me back.

Fear.

I am afraid I have nothing worthwhile to offer. I am afraid I will spend my life telling stories that will never find their readers. I am afraid I will not leave this world better than I found it. I am afraid of airplanes and flying and death and loss and looking stupid in front of other people and I am afraid of earwigs and cans of refrigerated crescent rolls when they POP open and I am afraid of never finding the right words and most of all I am afraid of these fears, of their power to limit and bind me.

So I got on that plane. And I hated it. I didn’t kiss the ground when I landed but I thought about it. Fortunately my panic attack was considerate enough to contain itself until I got in the car by myself and had a sort of retroactive panic attack (is that even possible??).

hated it.

And I will do it again.

And I will finish the novel I’m rewriting, and then I will return to the one I’ve been submitting, and it will be hard and sometimes I will hate it, but I will rewrite it using the agents’ responses (writing lovely, characterization great, pacing way too slow, some scenes unnecessary, maybe rethink that one subplot).

I’m not really afraid of flying, I guess. I’m afraid of falling. I’m afraid of failing, whether it’s a failure to stay aloft or to give my stories wings.

I’m not sure exactly where I’m headed. I’m a little afraid I won’t have anything worthwhile to say next week. It is fear that binds my tongue and my wings. Like all dragons, this one will feed on my village if I don’t face it, and we are getting kinda short on edible young maidens around these parts.

So. I will return to the air, and the page. Again and again. And somewhere among the words and the clouds, I may meet myself. One thing I know–this flight trajectory I’m on is only navigable by courage. I have to keep reminding myself that bravery isn’t the absence of fear, but the doing in spite of fear. I also have to keep reminding myself that I am not that girl. But I am this woman, here, now, and my bravery doesn’t look like anyone else’s. There is a profound courage in being a writer, although it’s the quiet kind that doesn’t tend to provide photo ops. It’s a Jane Eyre kind of courage, a be-true-to-oneself kind of courage.

So here’s to the writers writing in the in-between, on napkins and laptops and scraps of paper, between shifts and classes and midnight feedings. Here’s to facing our dragons on the page and in the bellies of airplanes. Here’s to the silent courage of showing up every day for the stories that need to be told.

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8 thoughts on “On Flying, Failing, and Fear

  1. Brenna: Just what I needed to hear today as I was afraid that not sitting down once to write this past week (not even having time to think about writing this past week) would mean that I wouldn’t be able to write today. But I’m taking stock today and writing from a place of gratitude and not fear, and that feels great. You might want to read my latest blog about how breathing can help you when you’re a million miles up in the air in a machine that makes no sense at all in terms of how it stays aloft (https://bbucknersuarez.wordpress.com/2015/09/14/breathing-its-not-just-for-labor-anymore/) I am like you and no longer enjoy flying. BUT – I don’t have panic attacks about it anymore, either. For that I am also grateful! Sending you BIG love and I applaud your courage! PS – The fear of the crescent roll popping made me laugh out loud! I freak out about that too! You’re wonderful, you know that?

    1. Thank you so, so, so much, Barb–for your kindness, for your generosity in reading and empathizing, and for your help with the freakouts! I’m glad that you dug down and found the courage to write (oh, your week and mine must be twins!!), and I’m going off to read your blog post now!

  2. Brenna – I second what Barb said about you being wonderful – your words land squarely in my life as I know it too, never think you don’t have something to share in your blogs, even if it is only the sweet balm of camaraderie and compassion, that is a lot. Trust me.

    I would like to offer that you might consider some sort of personal ritual – honoring and thanking that girl you were, and consciously crossing that threshold into all the goodness that is the woman you are now (that you couldn’t be as that girl, because well, you weren’t there yet). Feel free to email me if you want to talk further about what that might look like. xo

    1. Peggy, you are super-cool, and that is a brilliant suggestion! Thanks so much for your camaraderie and compassion as well. I hadn’t thought of ritual, but that is perfect. It’s so easy, in the Age of Distraction, to forget to mourn the losses and celebrate the passages in meaningful ways.

  3. The best thing about Liz Gilbert’s new book is how she addresses fear . . .

    Also–I haz new job. New job means I have to work this Saturday.
    But I wanna hear about your trip. (Phone date?)

  4. Oh my sweet Brenna. I hear new wings growing. Feel around on your back. I suppose, I consider and wonder, if when we shed those girl-wings, that new ones grow, but they take years of tears and single lane bridges, and hand rails, and steep rocky parts and wind whipping skirts and things flying out of our hands, but somehow, something grows and carries us forward. Maybe?
    Adoring you. And this.
    Write on.
    xoxoS

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