Friday, July 22, 2011

Small Acts of Courage

These are some of the things I am scared of: drawing, singing, meeting people, doing new things, talking on the telephone, making appointments, ladies in waxing salons, performing in public, nuclear power, global warming, and the zombie hand that might reach out of the toilet and drag me down when I’m sitting on it. It’s true: I am scared of most things. I always have been; I’ve been waiting for the axe to fall for as long as I can remember.

It’s easy to explain. My mother loved me, yet was highly critical of everything I did; I had some abusively bullying teachers in primary school; and between one thing and another I’ve never quite got over the combination. As a child, whenever I stuck my neck out and often when I didn’t, somebody shrieked at me.

Add to that three key caregivers, who looked after me from when I was a baby and who died when I was four, and this little girl learned that the world is not a safe place.

So I became a mouse. Every now and then the lion came roaring out but for the most part the mouse is with me, whispering that I should sit down, shut up, and not move a muscle lest the farmer’s wife come running, carving knife in hand.

Yet I don’t want to grow into a querulous and fearful old woman. But unless I practice being brave now, that’s exactly what’s going to happen. So, timid as I am, I’ve spent the last decade working on my fears, and addressing those voices which tell me that I’m no good at anything and that the world is fundamentally dangerous.

How?, you ask. Well, to begin with I found myself a nice pen, and at least once a week I’m doing a drawing in which no line can be erased. I’ll never be an artist, and that’s fine; the exercise has other purposes. It’s to remind me there’s nothing to be afraid of: I’m an adult now and no teacher is hanging over my shoulder and telling me what I can’t do. It also reminds me to observe closely and look, really look, at the world. I enjoy the feeling of my brain shifting into another gear and my hand cruising across the page; I enjoy laughing at the terrible drawings that result. It’s been a small exercise in bravery, and I think it’s making me bold.

Because the other day, as we were eating our lunch, my youngest daughter and I heard ‘fresh new potatoes!’ blaring through a megaphone. For years I’ve heard this call once or twice a month as a white ute cruises slowly through our suburb. I’ve been intrigued, but am too cowardly to flag it down. I worry that the veggies might be sprayed with pesticides, or the sellers rude or annoying... what if they hammer on my door every time they come into town?

How ridiculous. The worst that will happen is I spend a couple of dollars on some bad potatoes that can always be thrown to the chooks. But the other day, having done half a dozen drawings lately, I was feeling heady. I grabbed my daughter; we ran out and waved the truck down. We met a lovely couple, husband and wife, who run a small organic farm and trundle through the suburbs of Melbourne to sell their produce direct; and we bought the best apples and potatoes I have seen this year. We had eaten most of the apples by the end of the day.

The apples gave me such a burst of courage that I left the house on my Thursday ritual thinking about other fears. I can’t shave under my arms; I get terrible rashes. I don’t mind being hairy, but it does make me sweaty as I power walk to school and back. My lovely waxing lady, found in a previous burst of courage, moved to a small island off the coast of Scotland late last year and I’ve been shaggy ever since. But filled with good apples and knowing there were new potatoes on the kitchen bench, I strode straight into a convenient salon to make an appointment. It was quiet, and a woman could see me immediately. I’m pretty scary under there, I said; and the woman, taking a look, said ‘I’m not running away yet’ and started to giggle. Somehow our eyes met and the giggles turned to a shared belly laugh. I relaxed; she smeared on hot wax and ripped out the hair; and that was that. No big deal, after all.

While I was putting my clothes back on, my mobile rang and I felt compelled to answer it. As I chatted, I reflected that despite my fears I’ve been practising this telephone business for years now, and I feel like I’m starting to get good at it.

All this courage! I certainly need it. Although I am scared of singing anywhere other than at home, a few years ago I joined a choir full of strangers. Truth be told, I chose my children’s school not because of any recommendations but because of the parent’s choir. After my own primary school experience, where teachers were deliberately cruel and parents sidelined to the point that I seriously contemplated home schooling my own daughters, this seemed to be a healthy sign. And the choir, and the school, have been good.

Being in the choir’s scary enough, but we’re rehearsing more seriously than usual; our cheerful group, normally focussed on red wine and gossip, has been asked to perform at a public event and I feel sick at the thought. I was anxious about rehearsal; then again, I was full of new apples from the potato man; I was freshly exfoliated; I had chatted on the phone; and I’d just done a drawing. It was pretty bad, but one or two lines have signs of life that are slightly encouraging.

I may not be able to do much about my fears of nuclear power, global warming or the hand that lurks in the s-bend, but it’s about time I performed in public. So despite my anxiety, off I went to choir practice; and at some stage, as always, I began to enjoy it.

That’s the funny thing about small acts of courage: they almost always make me happy.

And look! I posted some drawings of mine... wildly imperfect, but another small act.


  1. Your drawings are great, there is an honesty to them just as there is to your writing, beautiful.

  2. From an artist like you, high praise indeed! Thanks. Wish you'd been my art teacher somewhere along the line at school, where I apparently did nothing right!

  3. I like those drawings-they are simple (in a great way, as most drswings are), and you've captured something in the faces....
    I am petrified of uncovered windows at night- in my own house! I always walk/run past them quickly, trying not to look...the idea of seeing some thing or person out there has always freaked me. Celebrate our neuroses/idiosyncracies! woo hoo!

  4. This is a gorgeous post, as usual. Thank you for being so brave.

  5. A while ago I had the idea of separating ordinary courage from tremendous courage. I had previously treated phonecalls, apologies, driving unfamiliar roads and trying a new sport as major acts requiring enormous bravery. But they're little. I decided that anything that fell under the 'ordinary courage' category must be attempted.
    It was terrific! But I have let it lapse. This post has reminded me to have a crack at little bravery again. It usually results in big pride and satisfaction! (good drawings, by the way! Drawing requires courage every time for me, even though it is my primary interest and occupation - keep going. You will develop quickly).

    1. I love the idea of things requiring ordinary vs tremendous courage! If I spend all my time being scared of things that require ordinary courage, I have no energy left for tremendous courage - so I might as well practice small things now... Thanks (and also for encouraging me to draw... I know your heart stoppingly beautiful and poignant work)


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