Oh, still peeved

A minor incident from my youth, which should have been taken as a strong sign that I was destined to become a copy editor:

I was 16, and I was taking a composition class at the local community college for college credit. My teacher was a young-ish, brown-haired woman with a pleasant disposition, which is all I can remember about her, save for this one moment.

We had been assigned to write a dramatic retelling of a childhood memory. I wrote a heavy-handed, theatrical essay about the girls-only club I started in fourth or fifth grade and about the club’s tragic demise when I, the self-appointed president, stumbled upon my minions meeting in secret to make a unanimous decision to dethrone me. (I was, after all, a pigtailed tyrant.)

After the papers had been graded, the instructor called me to her desk at the end of the session. “This was excellent,” she said, “you got the highest grade in the class.” I beamed. “But I had to take off a point for a spelling error,” she said, raising her eyebrows and flipping to the offending page. I was astonished and crestfallen. “There,” she said, pointing to a sentence in a concluding paragraph. “You wrote, ‘O, the cruel injustice of mutiny!’ but it should be ‘Oh,’ with an H.” I blinked and nodded and took my paper.

But as soon as I got in the car, I raged audibly. Oh, with an H? Had this plebian never read any ode, any poem, any ancient drama?? Clearly, she didn’t get  it; clearly, she had never read literature. My fury knew no bounds.

The fact that this story is still vivid to me today, some 11 years later, is damning. O, the tyranny of the perfectionist child. O, the lack of grace for the classically uninformed. O, the inability to let the most minute things go.

A personal history with anxiety

I was born fearful. At least, I believe I was. Somehow neither nature nor nurture seems responsible for my anxious temperament. I do not have fearful parents; my father, if anything, is a daredevil, prone to boyish recklessness. But I emerged into the world with a tightly wound, nervous disposition.

As a child, I was afraid of everything. Water. Having to enter bodies of water. Putting my face under water. Old people. Old men with facial hair. Dogs (yes, dogs). The green slime that would collect on the rungs of the ladder connected to my grandparents’ dock. Chicken pox. Calling strangers on the phone. Vomiting. Splinters. Strangers. Dental visits. Public speaking. Card games. Parasites in any shape or form. Competitions. Boys with mental disabilities. Making travel arrangements. Having to perform in front of audience. Holding newborn babies. Holding the hand of someone who had eczema.

More than anything, I hated disappointing the adults in my life, which is why I so vividly remember the ways in which my fears disappointed or embarrassed them. I can only remember one time my sweet, saintly grandmother was upset with me; it was at her church, and she snapped at me, because I was too scared to talk to her friends and hid behind her skirts. I hated disappointing her more than anything, but I hated talking to strangers even more.

I remember how disappointed my father was that I was so fearful; he seemed incredulous that I, this tiny, whimpering thing, could be related to him. When I was little, he’d try to throw me in the ocean, and I would scream and fight him so passionately that his arms would be covered in small, bleeding lacerations. He’d endeavor to get me to play catch with him, and I’d just pull a George Michael. He was trying to make me brave and tough, but I was impervious to all such efforts and remained firmly entrenched in my nervous state.

I don’t know where these fears came from or why they were so specific and persistent. My siblings never seemed to suffer from this disposition; all three of them turned out to be buff, courageous athletes who laughed in the face of danger. And I would sit in my room with my books and wonder how they got to be this way.

My parents made me join the neighborhood swim team when I was a young teen, and it was easily the most miserable summer of my young life. Swim team combined almost all of my most virulent fears (water + competition + performance + various states of undress). Before every meet, I’d devoutly pray to get my period, a really horrific, bloody, wracking period; if the risen Lord answered my prayers and I was visited by the moon blood, I’d celebrate and then rush to tell my parents that there was no way I could compete; I couldn’t use tampons, because you never know how leak-proof they really are. If menstruation didn’t excuse me, I was a miserable competitor. On the blocks before the horn went off, I’d look down at the pool and wonder how my vomit was going to look, slowly rippling out across the surface of the water. (Thankfully, this never happened.) The coaches told me that I actually had a very good form, but I was so slow. I can still remember the muffled underwater sound of my coaches yelling at me during a race: “ABBY, GO FASTER! GO FASTER!” I wasn’t motivated; I just wanted to quietly get out of the pool, even if I was dead last, and never get back in it again. Meanwhile, Kelsey and Grace were racking up medals and asking if they could join the year-round league.

I have recovered from most of these fears (although I will still fight you if you try to throw me in the ocean). Thanks to some steady work of lifetime conditioning, some of my fears have become my great loves (e.g., dogs and public speaking). But I seem to have acquired new fears to replace the old ones. They haunt me to varying degrees, but I at least feel slightly more capable of handling (or at the very least, voicing) them.

My anxiety is often a mystery to Guion, who is, mercifully, one of the least anxious people I know. “Just stop worrying all the time,” he will tell me. I nod and tell him I’ll try. But I don’t know how to try. Worrying is one of the few things I’m really good at.

 

 

Places I have inhabited

the ones that got away: may
My parents’ home.
the house
My host family’s home in a Tokyo suburb.
211/365
McCauley Street life, senior year of college.
view from the backyard
Home I lived in during my summer in Denver.
256/365
First house in Charlottesville; we lived on the top floor.
Practicing off-leash recall in the front yard
Second house in Charlottesville.
Day we bought the house
Third house in Charlottesville; the day we bought it.
Home in spring
Our house now, with more plants and dogs.

Around this time, years ago

263/366

20 September 2008: Prehistoric Nettles! Guion performs for one of the first times in Chapel Hill, in the basement of the Student Union.

27/365

20 September 2009: A rare moment of quiet in the kitchen at McCauley Street, the house I lived in during my senior year at UNC. I don’t think this kitchen ever looked this clean again.

The group

18 September 2010: Hiking Crabtree Falls with our new friends, Sam, Sean, and Julie. Sam’s apple rolled down a rock face right before this photo was taken, but he decided to eat it anyway.

Balboa Towers

24 September 2011: Jonathan and I visit Catherine and Ava in Virginia Beach. Here we are looking out from Balboa Towers.

Lounging around the house
17 September 2012: Pyrrha, lazing around the house. Kind of feeling like I might do a third 365 Project (first done in 2008, second done from 2009-2010), maybe starting in January 2013? I miss being able to look back through the years and remember every single day. I am reminded that I have the most boring, well-documented life. But it makes me happy and I think my memory gets an artificial jolt from all of those photos.

Baby bunnies

Baby Rabbits
Source: Flickr, user craiglambert

I remember searching for and finding handfuls of baby bunnies in freshly dug warrens in the Blaker’s back yard. Their house backed up to ours and we shared a fence line. Mrs. Blaker was a rather inattentive woman. She yelled a lot at her mean kid, smoked constantly, even when she was pregnant. But on a whim one day, she bought a few rabbits from a pet store.

She let the rabbits roam free in her back yard without food or cages or attention. After a few months,  as the old cliche would tell you, there were dozens of rabbits. They had become more or less feral. They started digging complex tunnels through the yard, where they would give birth to their plentiful young, finding shelter from the weather and the hawks. They ran around in their self-made, fenced-in village, completely unchecked.

When the Blakers were gone during the day, we would climb over the fence and go searching for the rabbits. I like to think that we kept them from becoming completely feral, because we handled them so often. We’d sneak them baby carrots and celery from home. We would gently and carefully retrieve the adorable, fluffy babies from the warrens, sticking our skinny arms down dark, animal-made tunnels, feeling gently for a warm ball of velvety fur. Miraculously, we never got bit. We’d sit back there and cradle these bunnies for hours. It was a paradise for an animal-crazy child like myself.

One of the Holland lop does gave birth to a beautiful litter of white and dusky brown babies. At this time, Mrs. Blaker finally realized she had a rabbit problem on her hands and started advertising free bunnies to the neighborhood children. We convinced our parents to let us get one. It was our first real family pet, because fish and finches don’t inspire too much affection; kids want something fuzzy to love. Mrs. Blaker invited a bunch of us little girls in the neighborhood to come play with the bunnies, probably to tempt us with them while our parents were unaware. Our bratty friends, Jennifer and Allison, started physically fighting over a pretty chocolate-colored bunny, grabbing at it like it was a doll, and snapped its legs. It died the next day.

We were mortified and swore we’d never play with them again. The next morning, we quickly picked out a sweet white-and-brown male from the litter. We named him Spencer (maybe because I’d been reading a kid’s version of The Faerie Queen? I don’t know) and told all of our friends that Jennifer and Allison were never allowed to hold him. I felt a great sense of pride that we had rescued him from his quasi-feral, neglectful situation. Dad built Spencer a big bunny mansion, a two-story hutch that sat against the fence. When we let him out, he would run against the fence with his still plentiful relatives. He once got bit in the face by his uncle and his little velvet nose was forever split in two.

Spencer was the best pet. We liked to think he played hide-and-seek with us. He playfully chased us around the yard. He never bit us, which was incredible, considering how we (especially Grace) tortured that poor bunny. Grace liked to smuggle him inside and put him in doll’s clothes, zip him up in purses and swing him around. He was always good-natured. He lived for many years until one winter, we found his still, frozen body on the ground floor of the hutch. I remember wondering if we had failed him, if we should have let him live inside, if we didn’t love him enough. I imagine these thoughts, a specter of Spencer, will always resurface when any animal of mine dies.

This post is dedicated to the memory of Spencer and to my god-bunnies in the United Kingdom, Indy and Felix.

Evangelizing

Winston-Salem
Source: Flickr, user jbtuohy

I remember being forced to evangelize on the streets of downtown Winston-Salem with a bunch of other teens from the apologetics summer camp. After sitting through a few lectures on the right questions to ask, the right answers to give, we were split up into small groups and set loose by the bus station. Our minds were swimming with fear and scripture-based acronyms. My group started wandering around aimlessly, passing people and trying to decide when to make a move.

I was the first person from our group to have the guts to go up to someone. I walked up to an older white woman in a suit, standing in a courtyard. “Excuse me, ma’am? Can I ask you a question?” She nodded, and, as instructed, I asked her what she thought would happen to her when she died. Her face suddenly registered rage. She drew back and screamed in my face. “How DARE you! How dare you ask me that? I don’t want to be preached at! Leave me alone!” I was startled and scared. Tears welled in my eyes but did not fall; adults never screamed at me. We backed away quietly and piously said amongst ourselves that we would pray for her.

After another hour passed, we stopped a young black woman on the street. She was the first person who listened to us long enough to hear our full gospel plea. One of the guys asked her if she’d like to pray to accept Jesus. She said yes and, thrilled, we all prayed the Jesus prayer with her. We went back to camp feeling victorious, glad that it wasn’t a total waste, that we could brag to our other friends that we’d been “successful.” Looking back, I think the woman said yes so we would just leave her alone.

When I got back in my room that night, I remember climbing up in my bunk bed and thinking to myself, “If this is how you’re supposed to tell people about Jesus, I don’t think I want to do it ever again. Surely there’s a better way.”

Red clay

Green Corn Red Clay
Source: Flickr, user laurabell

I remember making “pottery” in the back yard at Ash Cove from the plentiful red clay. Mom, tired, would send us outside and we’d start digging holes. We would snatch Tupperware bowls and containers from the kitchen and fill them with water from the hose. We’d mix in clay and begin to shape little bowls and plates. We’d leave them on the brick patio to dry and in the morning, we would have creations. Sometimes we “glazed” them with Mom’s clear nail polish, so they’d last longer.

Once, our childhood nemesis, Micah Blaker, asked to join our pottery session. He lived in the house behind ours and we shared a fence with him. We’d always hated him. He was mean and fat and aggressive. He once threw a rock at baby Grace, who was a mere three-year-old porcelain doll baby at the time. We stared at him through the fence, astonished at his shy request. I told him he could come over and he climbed over the fence. He sat quietly at the plastic picnic table and made bowls with us. That night, we ran inside and told our parents everything, how nice he was now, how he didn’t yell at us or try to push us in the mud. It was our first lesson that people are not always as bad as they seem, that even people formerly written off as evil had good inside them, too.

Catching newts

Newt
Source: Flickr, user madrat

I remember catching buckets of newts on the edge of the Van Eerden’s largest pond. We separated them into male and female buckets, guessing—rightly, I recently found out—that the males had the flared tails and the females had straight, tapered ones, like the tails of a Dalmatian. We planned to establish a comprehensive spotted newt breeding program, and wouldn’t our parents be delighted when we suddenly had thousands of baby newts hidden in the back of the garage?

While we were daydreaming, Samson, that great, lumbering black lab, would stick his head in the newt bucket, like he was bobbing for apples. He’d come up with a face full of writhing newts, squirming in his white teeth. We’d squeal with terror and try to pry them out of his jaws, but he’d take a quick gulp and they were gone. From then on, we made the littlest sisters stand guard over the buckets and block Samson from any more snack attacks.

I remember the large puddle that was packed with wiggling black commas: tadpoles squirming for life. We would scoop up handfuls of them, dump them in other red buckets, and wait for them to turn into frogs. They never did. When the sun went down, we would trek to their house up that long, winding driveway, tired and content, feeling like conquerors. We hardly ever saw our parents.

My life in chapters

Chapter One: A blissfully happy childhood, in which my greatest concerns are how many library books I am allowed to bring home and how many baby rabbits we can smuggle over from the neighbor’s back yard.

Chapter Two: The dark days of middle school, in which I fill up many dramatic journals and feel murky and confused inside.

Chapter Three: High school, in which my weirdly conservative debater identity takes hold; in which I feel that I am very popular, even though I am homeschooled and my entire social circle is about 40 people.

Chapter Four: Freshman year of college, in which I feel elated and totally excited about everything; in which I date a boy for the first time; in which I am still very judgmental.

Chapter Five: My sophomore year in college, in which everything falls apart and I am rebuilt again.

Chapter Six: My summer in Tokyo, in which my entire worldview is broadened; in which my Japanese language abilities make exponential strides; in which I have never worked harder in my entire life.

Chapter Six: Junior year in college, in which I am in love with Guion and find that he changes everything; in which I am happy, genuinely happy again.

Chapter Seven: Summer working for the Denver Post, in which I become an adult; in which I find a new, bold, extroverted self emerge, a self who makes new friends and invites them hiking every week; in which I am more fit and joyful than I have ever been before.

Chapter Eight: Senior year of college, in which Guion decides to marry me; in which I live in an almost constant state of stress; in which I learn that living in a house with six other women is difficult but has its benefits; in which I finish my thesis and feel very accomplished; in which I plan my wedding and graduate.

Chapter Nine: Our first year of marriage, in which we are excited to be together every single day; in which we move to Charlottesville; in which I get my first full-time job and he starts graduate school; in which we fall in love with a town and its people.

Chapter Ten: Our second year of marriage, which has just begun; in which we think we might just stay here forever, for who could feel this content?

Week 10: Playing the guitar

In honor of my sister Grace, I am imposing a set of weekly challenges on myself. For 12 weeks, I will attempt a different “challenge” each week–to do one thing every day for seven days, ranging from serious to silly. At the end of each week, I’ll let you know how it goes.

I learned how to play the guitar shortly after my father did. I was about 14 and the guitar was one of his new obsessions. He bought a number of guitars to learn on but really splurged on a beautiful (and surprisingly great-sounding) Ibanez acoustic. This, more or less, became my guitar and my emblem of my Teenage Years. We learned that guitar lessons were probably not worth it and it was just as easy to teach yourself chords as it was to watch a really fat man play them. As my knowledge progressed, the guitar became my constant companion. I started playing in the worship band at my church youth group. I would squirrel myself away in my bedroom until the wee hours of the night, playing guitar, figuring out new chords, trying to write super-dramatic songs. I mean, what’s more “teenage” than that?

I brought my guitar with me when I came to college and continued to play it throughout my freshman year. It was also a great source of solace during my sophomore year, which is like the Middle School year for college students (confusing, depressing, awkward).

But then, one night late in my sophomore year, I met this boy named Guion. He visited me in my room and picked up my guitar and started to play it. I was stunned. “I… never had any idea it could sound like that,” I stammered. This kid was a genius. And I suddenly felt very inadequate about my pseudo-musical abilities. We started dating and I started getting involved in other things, like internships and writing. My once beloved guitar gathered a lot of dust in my dorm room closet.

As a disclaimer, this should not sound like Guion is somehow at fault or responsible for my abandonment of my guitar. Rather, it should be seen as a criticism of my own lack of self-esteem. There’s always going to be someone out there who is better than one at any given skill. This does not mean, however, that one should abandon said skill. I wish someone (i.e., myself) had told me that in college. But I had moved onto other things. When I started my senior year, I left my guitar at home and effectively bequeathed it to my little brother (who has, let it be known, now surpassed me in my musical abilities).

Guion has always encouraged me to play the guitar; he hates that I gave it up. But as the years passed and my calluses disappeared, I was too discouraged to pick it up again. After all, I’d forgotten practically everything I had known. So, this week’s challenge was a return to the past, to my former self, and to the guitar. I am still grossly self-conscious about it and I can’t strum to save my life, but it’s coming back gradually. As I type this, the tips of my left-hand fingers sting a little bit. And that’s a good sign.

Unlike some of my other challenges, I hope to keep this week’s challenge incorporated into my day-to-day life. I won’t presume to ever play in front of anyone, but I was never trying to be a musician anyway. Rather, I liked having this therapeutic channel that was wholly separate from reading or writing. It would be nice to have that again.

Next week, I will be wearing a dress every day. Here’s to hoping for warm, spring-like weather!