Friday, September 23, 2011
At the Bottom of the Stair
First, I must wish a happy birthday to two of my favorite literary characters: Frodo and Bilbo Baggins. So convenient that it's also the first day of autumn. It's only fitting to celebrate with a chocolate hazelnut cupcake from Esther's Cupcakes (voted Best of Sacramento). That's my story, and I'm sticking to it.
What a great discussion this week! Katy was knocked flat with the idea, then got up, brushed herself off and wrote about it. And Sharon's post reminded me of my favorite go-to book, Ray Bradbury's Zen in the Art of Writing. In it, Mr. Bradbury tells about the fear he had as a child having to go upstairs to use the bathroom in the middle of the night. Things waited up there in the dark for him. Fears he'd collected throughout childhood. Wild imaginings from his fertile mind. And he issues a challenge: "I leave you now at the bottom of your own stair, at half after midnight, with a pad, a pen and a list to be made." What fears are waiting for us, and can we dispel their power over us with a pen?
His fears were common everyday childhood anxieties and terrors that paraded as skeletons, martians and carnival oddities. From those, he conjured a deathly chase on All Hallows Eve, familiar faces plotting evil deception and a man's tattoos that illustrated impending death. What a rich imagination! Our fears may be different, but they can still keep us doing the wiggle dance at the bottom of the stair, glancing at them through the side of our eye, unable to look them squarely in the face.
It could be something we did or didn't do when we knew the right course of action. Or maybe it's the thing we figured out too late to do anything about. Is it still our fault? We never intended bad to happen, but our lack of intuition made us slow on the uptake and we live with regrets. Sometimes, bad regrets. We wouldn't clothe them in skeletons or fantastical creatures, but in more everyday attire that makes our fears even more insidious because they can hide in our natural responses and we're left to wonder, "Where did that come from? What was the origin of that?"
We may feel we don't have fears, but if we have regrets, we usually fear exposure. We imagine, perhaps wrongly, that others will finger point. We worry (fear) our children will turn out differently than us, or that they will become just like us. We feel anxiety (fear) that others will know we've experienced bankruptcy, or were abandoned by the ones who knew us best and found us unlovable or that we couldn't keep ourselves or our loved ones from substance abuse. Sometimes, it's a sense of unworthiness or insecurity about whether God loves us. We read that He does, but do we believe it when we experience failure or that old dread lifts its head and gives us the evil eye?
There are many books written today that expose the character's (author's) desires and fears, which result in messed-up situations that escalate until there seems to be no way out. Someone is pushed out onto the ledge and they don't find a way back. I recently read about halfway through The House of Sand and Fog and I'm glad I only paid $1 for it. The writing is excellent and the characterization is insightful, but the story leaves me cold. I can't root for either character to 'win.' Neither deserves the house, and perhaps that's the point. But even if Oprah liked it, I'm sticking the book in my upcoming garage sale.
From the bottom of the stair, we call down our fears one by one and look them full in the face. We have at our disposal the hope of genuine redemption, not a Pollyanna resolution but a drawing of swords with our shadowy adversaries and keeping them at bay, if not completely dispatching them. Readers need to hear the truth about the stuff at the top of our stairs, that we wrestle with it daily and that we know there will eventually be resolution, even if it's not found within the pages of the book.
I won't ask you to name your fears. Save them for your list. Instead, I will ask if you know of stories with satisfying, realistic resolutions even if they have no complete sense of closure. And have a cupcake to celebrate.