When Fear Comes in Broad Sunlight

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Yesterday a friend posted that he felt dread, the horror that something terrible was about to happen. I wonder if this is how animals feel when the pressure changes in the air, it becomes still, or it roars and they know something is marching slowly over the horizon. You can see them drop their heads and turn tail to the wind.

I know this feeling well. He reminded me a terror that rose when I sat in Philosophy class. It punched me with fear, on a sunny day in a concrete room. I looked out the window and took notes, wondering who died, or who was about to die. Was God going to nail me with some discipline for stepping wrong? No, God stayed still.

It took awhile for me to realize that I ate and drank solitude like bread and milk. I’d grown up on a farm, tucked a mile off the main road and was an odd child, not much different than I am now, striking wrong with my classmates, just plain not fitting in. (What teenager does? But I was vocal about my faith, an evangelical who proselytized.) But at Wheaton College people liked me. If my face fell, strangers would ask what’s wrong? Or what did God teach you this morning when you prayed? (Even then I resented the question, an invasion of privacy, like asking about my sex life. Who were they to ask me why I didn’t look happy, happy?) I holed up in the library, a niche by the window, or rode my bike on the Prairie Path or jogged a few blocks, to give myself space. The school saw this and gave me a rare single room from my sophomore year on.

Even now,  my heart races, for no reason, so I hear my friend, when he says it’s a horrible feeling. It’s like terror in the chest, my heart skipping beats. Lately my heart has hurt like it did when I opened an email, drawing out a accusation I wanted to forget, smashing my nose in it like a dog’s nose smashed in his mess, for another five months.

My heart pounds when I do chores, haul buckets, lead horses outside, a job I’m used to. I don’t know if I should call my doc. Years ago my heart pounded because I tried to pack too much into my life. The docs said it was harmless and I cut my hours at work and set boundaries.

I wake up overwhelmed with my life, it’s been a dull, shell shocked feeling. My novel is due out in July and I can barely get to the work it needs. I teach writing. Papers crowd my weekends. Chores in bitter cold take three hours a day. Come spring the mares will need work.

Is the terror in my chest a nudge to sell my horse because she needs training and like me, she doesn’t fit the protocols, even the kind, positive reinforcement ones? The novel feels like more disruption than celebration.  Or is it the aspirin and Diet Coke I drink first thing to kick me into the day? I breathe deep cleansing breaths and think of the scoop shovel I dig under the frozen manure, so I can open the gate.

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My friend’s post reminded me of Don Williams’ song Ghost Story.

I asked him if he had indigestion, not to insult him, but sometimes things we eat can make our hearts race. I told him that his fear could be a vapor from his breath. I didn’t want to say ghost because a ghost implies something terrifying. And those old ghosts that rise from our post traumatic stress are terrifying. They sting a person’s face like  below zero air.  But they are just vapor and familiar like our own breath, when the air is bitter. And maybe like our breath we need them, maybe to kick us tell our story. Maybe these vapors strengthen our courage, to step out on that sidewalk, the sun shining, and do the next thing in love.

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