I was a fearful child. I refused to ride on most of the attractions at Camden Park, the amusement park near my hometown of Huntington, West Virginia. Even the merry-go-round was more than I could handle. The horses had menacing gazes. The lions gaping mouths were ready to devour small children. The merry-go-round had a brown bench with a narrow seat and a high back, colorless among the brightly painted ponies. My mother made me go on the merry-go-round once and tried to coax me onto one of the horses, but I went straight to the brown bench, where I sat until the ride mercifully ended. She never made me go on the merry-go-round again.
My mother was fearful of life. As a child who paid attention, I did not miss the fact that the person I depended on to navigate through the world of big people was a frightened guide. That is how we inherit intergenerational trauma. Mom never got over her fear. She tragically gave up and quit trying, never getting out of bed the last ten years of her life.
Over the past decade I have had reason to be fearful. I lost hundreds, even thousands, of friends and acquaintances, to say nothing of losing my job of 35 years and a large pension. We make it through life by holding onto the notion that we are in control of our lives. We are not. Well, we do have control over whether we eat three chocolate covered strawberries for breakfast, which I may or may not have just done, but most of the big things are out of our control. You might have noticed.
Every time I pick up an Anne Lamott book, I am struck by how transparent she is about her shadow sides. Invariably, I find myself in the pages, unable to put the book down. Her shadow sides are similar to my own, only she writes about them with so much more clarity than I do. She also writes with more self-compassion, which makes her words easier to digest than mine. When I write about my shadow sides, my friends say, “Give yourself a little grace.” But they don’t know what it is like to live in this body. I really do want to get it right, though I miss the mark so often.
If we are committed to the process, we go through many conversions in life. We begin our adult lives fulfilling the unfulfilled dreams of our parents. That works until it doesn’t. Then we move into what Carl Jung called the second adulthood, in which we begin to focus on our own dreams and aspirations. As the years progress, we find we have fewer friends but deeper friendships. We are more interested in being in relationship than being right. And most frightening of all, we realize that when we are called, we no longer have the luxury of rejecting that call. We can no longer claim that we need to put the kids through college and save for retirement. We are forced to look the call straight in the eye, knowing time is running out. Will we show up or will we stay locked in our comfortable houses? Because of our predisposition to remaining comfortable, the call in the second half of life does not come as a moment of joy, but as a moment of terror.
Assuming you do answer the call, the surprises continue. You find you might be called time and again, onto ever more frightening journeys, the kind that will show your every flaw and demand that you work on the stuff you’ve avoided for decades.
I’ve read that the sixties are the most productive decade of life, followed by the seventies, followed by the fifties. If we haven’t done so in our forties, during our fifties we find the courage to answer the call. Our sixties are when we find our stride. Our seventies are when we realize there is yet another call, one we never anticipated. This one is easier to navigate. We’ve already failed enough to know that failure is good for the soul. We let our wisdom make the major decisions, looking deep inside our own souls for our sense of direction, knowing that looking outside ourselves never works out so well. I don’t know anything about the 80s, but I’m watching two mentors closely. They are still finding new ways to serve and grow.
I still occasionally get overwhelmed by fear. After every blood test I anxiously await the results. Things happen when you get older. Our bodies wear out. Mine has been very good to me. I still mountain bike and run and hike and all the things. No one ever thinks I am the age I am. But you can’t outrun time. I remember the day my mentor, Jim, said he was going through his final conversion, giving up his attachment to his own body. He was 98.
I will be back in Huntington, West Virginia next month. It will still be winter, so Camden Park will be closed. That’s fine with me, though I would like to know if the same merry-go-round is still there. I wouldn’t be frightened of the horses and lions now, though I still would not ride on them. I’m prone to vertigo when I spin. The spinning of the planet is enough of a challenge, thank you.
It will be good to be back in Huntington. I will be speaking at Marshall University, where my father worked on a master’s degree. Huntington is only about 30 miles from where my parents and other family members are buried. In many ways, the region is still home. When I return, it looks like it has been expecting me.
I am not as fearful as I once was. I have looked life straight in the eye and done the hard work. I don’t ride on the brown bench in life. I ride on the wildest pony, and when I go back to the Tri-State region of my youth, I am reminded of just how far I’ve come.
And so it goes.