I am in a restaurant toilet stall the other day and glance up to see this written there.
Love > Fear
It catches my eye first because, well, without going into too much detail, it was quite a bit different than most of the other stuff people had markered, scratched, or ballpoint-penned all over the cubicle landscape.
But it also grabs my attention because it’s one of those phrases that seems wrong at first glance, in a high SAT score, What’s Wrong With This Picture, kind of way. Shouldn’t it be
Love > Hate.
…While, at the same time, on a whole other level, which I can mostly feel but not even articulate, it seems so profoundly right. And it seems like a message left there for me.
I take a photo with my phone and send it to my youngest daughter Hannah to get her read on this for a possible tattoo for me. She and I have been both talking about getting tattoos for a while. It started when she was 14 or 15 and said she might want to get one (thinking perhaps as her mom I’d be a bit aghast and against it, perhaps? Or just testing the waters to see if her suspicions were true, and I wouldn’t be?). At any rate, I said, “Wow. I’ve always wanted to get one too, but I could never figure out what I’d want to have inked into my skin for the rest of my life…not to mention, exactly where I’d want it. You know, where it’s not going to look awful when you’re 80.”
Ever since then, we’ve been floating tat ideas past each other.
“But are love and fear connected?” she asks.
Yes, yes, yes! I shout, but just inside my own head of course, so as not to freak out the person in the stall next to me.
And I want to tell Hannah: “Haven’t I been filled with feet-knocked-out-from-under-me love for you and your big sister Zoe since the moment you made your entrances into the world…and at the same time covered in fear for you, from head to toe, like flies cover raw meat, every single day? Afraid when you were babies that you’d stop breathing in the night, that I’d drop you, break you somehow, try to cut your tiny baby fingernails and slip and put an eye out? Or when you were toddlers, that I wouldn’t catch you before you fell down a flight of stairs, or put your hand on a stove? Afraid to put you on your school bus every morning, terror, a brush fire through my body, as I smiled and waved and watched you in that big yellow death machine pull away from the corner.
“But my love was greater than my fear. And because I loved you I knew I had to let you go, sometimes in fact, push you into the unknown, so you could find your way, stumble and fall, get bruised, get back up, keep going. Like the rest of us humans.
“And I’ve hated that.
“Like when Zoe was 15, and desperately unhappy after her freshman year at our local high school, I let her get on a plane in the fall of her sophomore year, to Quito, Ecuador, to live with some family I’d never met and go to a high school in a big city in a country I’d only read about. She was there four months, one semester, and every day I felt like my heart was being dragged behind a truck. (And believe me, I don’t feel like I’ve ever gotten enough credit for that piece of parenting…I feel I should be honored in the Mom’s Hall of Fame, somewhere and I keep waiting for the invitation letter to arrive…)
“Or…like when you went to music auditions, Hannah, the big ones, the little ones, always with your heart and hope and desire, so wide open and exposed, such an easy target.
“Like every moment you have been away from me this year, your freshman year in college. When friends were assholes to you, when professors didn’t embrace you for the amazing and talented and completely god-like child I knew you to be. When boys were jerks and nights were lonely and you were crying on the phone, and smiling on the outside when you were feeling so bereft, in more pain than you’d ever known, and just wanted relief, and couldn’t find it anywhere. Every single day I’ve felt fear, immense soul shredding fear…and it was everything I could do not to get on the next flight, heck maybe even commandeer the next plane leaving the city, to come be with you, rescue you, make it ALL RIGHT.
“But I love you too much to do that.
“Because my job, as a parent, was not and is not just to keep you safe, it’s to raise you in such a way that you can go out into the world and navigate it with grace, or at least with as much grace as most of us on the planet seem to be able to muster up on any given day, which is to say, a kind of stumbling, fumbling grace, a goofy puppy’s kind of grace.
“But oh…It’s such a tricky thing. Loving you makes me so afraid for you. I don’t want to see you get hurt. I don’t want to lose you. And it makes me want to keep you close, keep you in a protective bubble. And yes, it is important to protect you, but too much protection is a bad thing…it would keep you from being fully alive and would ultimately end up hurting you, limiting you. So I have to love you more than my fear and walk this line I can barely see. And some days I do better than others. But somehow, each day, I have to muster up a love that is greater than my fear for you baby. And most of the time, most days, I do.”
Of course all of that won’t fit into a text.
So what I write back to Hannah is this:
There’s this bible verse I like which says perfect love casts out fear. I think in a way if we love others and love ourselves we are less afraid – less afraid to trust or risk, etc.
As I type those words I am struck once again by the fact that trying to parent someone else has always been such a helpful thing to ME. Because as soon as my thumbs are off the phone I actually see what I’ve written…Loving ourselves makes us less afraid to trust or to risk, too.
Now, if you look at me from the outside you may not be able to tell this, but most of my life I have been walking around with this huge knot of fear inside me. It’s my baseline, my default position. And by knot I mean, big blue exercise-ball-sized, taking-up-all-the-available-space inside me knot, which is gasoline fire hot, and smells like dog poo. It is one BIG NASTY MOTHER OF FEAR that is made up all these little fears. The fear that I will do something wrong, get hurt, hurt others, fail hugely and miserably and publicly, fear that I am going to be found out to be the worthless piece of shit I suspect I really am, fear that I’ll walk out of the bathroom with a huge wad of tissue sticking out of the back of my pants, fear that I am going to be yelled at, fear that no one really loves me, fear that I’m not really good at anything, that I AM ONE HUGE GIGANTIC FRAUD, fear that I have a piece of snot hanging out of my nose, fear that someone will say out loud how ugly I am, fear that I don’t really deserve any of the love I get, and it will soon be snatched away, so there…! Fear that everyone else will have all their dreams come true and I won’t. Fear that there’s never enough to go around. Fear that I will take care of everyone else and no one will take care of me. The list could go on. Oh yeah, and fear that this list has gone on so long already you are totally bored by it.
These fears keep me…sometimes…a lot of times…more often than I’d like to admit…if not totally grounded, then simply flying at a low altitude through my days. Keeping my mouth shut, reining myself in, remaining invisible, polite, “good,” holding back laughter, holding in tears, sucking down screams, leaving things unsaid, unwritten, undone.
And if I was my own daughter, I, realize in that moment, what I would say to me is, “Oh baby…it’s gonna be OK. Don’t be afraid. I love you so much, and I’ll be here if you crash and burn. But go ahead…soar.”
I wonder, suddenly, if that is what God is trying to say to me in that hip, veggie restaurant bathroom stall, if I could believe she is my Mother, my mother who loves me desperately enough to not want to see me safe in a protective bubble, who wants me to breathe deep and leap, and trust the wings she gave me, and the Love that can let me go but will not fail me.
Maybe God, who they say works in mysterious ways, left me a note in the toilet. Maybe She is trying to tell me that her love is greater than her fear for me, and bigger than my big blue ball of fears, and that it’s time to open the door, and get going…time to go, Baby..go, despite the fears that so easily beset me. Maybe it’s time to write that formula on my skin…
Love > Fear
so I see it everyday and can’t ignore it or forget it, let the ink seep into my bones, and the truth swim through my veins.
Anyone know a good tattoo artist?