The thing about being a novelist is that you spend your life devising creative ways to torment your characters. When you’re writing contemporary fiction (as opposed to fantasy, for instance), these torments are supposed to be 100% plausible for the real world. The question we are trained to ask is: What if?
I love writing fiction, and I don’t use that word flippantly, since my fiction centers around the real meaning of the word love. But I have to be honest: encouraging this question can be a real difficulty for a person who has a history of latching on to irrational fear.
I spent almost two years being afraid of bridges, because one night I imagined the bridge collapsing and myself confronted with the impossible choice of which child to try to save. (Imagine traveling anywhere at all when the Missouri River crosses the highways to the south, west, and east of my home. Crazy twisty rivers.)
It wasn’t that I refused to go anywhere. It wasn’t even that I was terribly afraid in the many moments I was crossing those big bridges. I knew it was irrational. No, it was the “wee sma’s” (inappropriate apostrophe noted), as L.M. Montgomery used to call them, that were the hardest. Unguarded moments before dropping off to sleep, or when rolling over in the middle of the night, when the entire thing would unfold before my eyes with horrible clarity.
Because what if? I live in a state, after all, that is so opposed to tax increases of any kind that one of those crime shows referenced people buying cigarettes here and reselling them in New York at significant profit. A state where the abysmal quality of the roads is a joke as perennial as the weather, and a bunch of bridges are, in fact, in very bad shape–yet just a few days ago, the legislature voted down a tax increase to fund roads and bridges.
It’s an irrational fear, but unfortunately not that irrational.
I woke up at 5 a.m. on Good Friday to an image of Alex eating something that would cause his beautiful, intelligent, thoughtful and creative mind to be riddled with holes. It doesn’t even make sense now that I write it down.
And yet… what if?
Last Wednesday, I let the three younger kids walk from the church to the nursery without me, because I was running choir practice solo and we were running late. They’re all three busybodies. Nothing is going to happen to any one of them without the others coming running to me about it, and who is going to snatch all three at once? Especially when one of them has a disability? Besides which, Nicholas is turning into a pretty responsible and delightful young man these days, for the most part, deeply cognizant of the fact that he is more advanced in every way now than the sister who was his virtual twin for so many years.
And yet… what if?
A few weeks ago, a friend posted a story by a woman who was in line at the grocery store and the person in front of her asked to hold her little one, and how she started to walk off with the child. It was deeply involved and I can’t find the link now, but the upshot was that this woman was convinced it was a group of people involved in human trafficking. It was horrifying, because I spend my life trying to make sure my kids affirm their own competence in doing things without me breathing down their neck—without feeling insecure because they’re outside my sight lines. Take this to the mailbox; take the garbage down to the compost tumbler. Yes, the two of you may play outside together. Yes, middle schooler, you can walk to the bus stop by yourself. I consciously cultivate independence in my kids because I was so insecure about leaving the familiarity and security of home and my parents.
And yet…what if?
The world is such a scary place, and yet for most of us, it’s really it’s only scary when you process the big things, the things that are elsewhere. When I look around my world, here in middle class America, I see plenty to annoy or infuriate me, but nothing to scare me. My world is filled with good people and with evidence of community members looking out for each other. We don’t live in a world where terror lurks behind every bush and within every car that drives by. It’s the very security of my life that enables me to play around with the question “What if?” If there were real terrors in my life, I wouldn’t be wasting time making them up.
This is what I have to remember, as my kids get older and spread their wings.