I don’t like being scared. It’s scary.

Halloween is fun.  When it's not terrifying.

Halloween is fun. When it’s not terrifying.

It’s Halloween time!  While I love carving pumpkins, finding the perfect costume and eating all things pumpkin, I do not, repeat: DO NOT like scary things.  Suburban yards littered with coffins.  Fangs, blood, gore and leaking brains are not my idea of fun.  Even a trip to Target with a giant devil/ghost hanging over the doorway is enough to send me screaming.  But hey, whatever works for you!

After watching the Exorcist when I was about 12 years old, I was convinced that I was possessed by the devil.  No, I never peed on the floor while my parents hosted a dinner party.  Nor did my head ever do a complete 360.  I may have puked a substance reminiscent of split pea soup on my mom at one time or another, but do not remember doing so.  Complicated by the fact that I was attending Catholic school at the time, the whole priest/devil thing was intense. At one point, I asked one of my nun-teachers if it was possible to be possessed by the devil.  She told me yes, and that she herself had required an exorcism as a child.  Great.  More nightmares.

Last night, we started to watch a kid movie called Paranorman with my 9 year old daughter.  Supposedly made for  kids, this shit had a kid talking to his dead grandmother (who bounced around his room), coffins and skeletons coming out of the ground and a scene where the kid pulls a book out of his uncle’s rigor mortis-ed hand.  What the fuck?  If that’s suitable viewing for kids, I’ll be under the couch.

This week, the new version of Carrie is hitting a box office near you.  Frankly, I would rather poke hot coals in my eyes than see this movie.  If it’s anything like the first, I’ll be a blithering idiot for the year following my viewing of this flick, and I will be of no use to society.  BUT…I have friends who watch the shit out of this stuff and LOVE it.  I mean, they go to zombie live performances where they get sprayed with blood, have horror movie clubs and read scary books too.  Why?  When the keys of the piano start playing in that high pitched soundtrack to Halloween, I have to cover my ears.  But they are like, bring it.

To all you horror loving folk, what you are experiencing has a name.  It’s called the excitation transfer process.  Sharing the scary is one reason for loving the scary.  Most people who love the horror stuff love it in groups.  This way, they can enjoy going out to eat or getting a drink afterward.  Have you ever gone to a scary movie and afterward hung out with a group and you were just laughing and having a great old time?  Because it wasn’t you that got chased by a zombie and your brain chewed out?  Talk about relief!  Your heart rate, blood pressure and respiration all increase during the frightening foray into murder and mayhem, but they continue to stay elevated as you are having a beer and enjoying your not-death.  And what do you know?  To your brain, that translated into a good time.

In the instances of say, a fearful young girl watching the Exorcist, well the neurological response is not so favorable.  Not surprisingly, some of us are just wired differently.  About 10% of the population love the adrenalin rush (aka:  physiological arousal) of horror flicks.   They may also be the same people who love roller coasters and other high-fear experiences.  Men also are much more likely to love horror movies than women, who sometimes go to horror movies simply to snuggle up to someone.  However, very few enjoy watching a scary movie alone.

Also, scary movies may be one way that our primitive brain is still trying to master control over dangerous situations.  Or, we may be subconciously attempting to deal with violence in our own world.  Or we just can’t look away.  Like that wreck on the side of the road.  In any event, highly empathetic people resist scary movies altogether.  A-ha! That must be me.

At a Halloween party today, there were zombies, skeletons and a cute/freaky Easter bunny.  And it was dimly lit.  And I found myself wanting to bolt.  Candy is awesome, but I don’t want to be trapped in a room with a guy in a hockey mask. I have seen too many movies, people.  Halloween, Nightmare on Elm Street, the Exorcist…What do they all have in common?  The suburbs.  Face it, some scary shit goes down here.

And so, last night I turned off Paranorman.  It was freaking us all out, anyway.  We turned on Spy Kids 2 which was quite literally the worst movie I have ever seen.  But it wasn’t scary.  And any movie with Steve Buscemi can’t be that bad.  I got in a good cuddle with my 9 year old.  And I surfed the internet on my I-pad.  And I forgot about all the dead people and cemeteries and body counts.   Instead, I focused on one thing I really love about Halloween:  the glow of a bright harvest moon.

Are you a scaredy-cat?

I'm not scared anymore.

I’m not scared anymore.

Thanks again to Barbara Paulsen of Mt. Hood Mama photos.  These photos are so eerily beautiful.

“Mom, I’m scared.” Yeah, me too.

I'm thinking about fear; how it affects what we do, who we are and how we live.

I’m thinking about fear; how it affects what we do, who we are and how we live.

As parents, we are often called upon to allay our children’s fears.  Spiders, the dark and blood are common fears among the kid-set.  But what about when their fears overlay our own?  What about when the things they fear bring about thoughts about what we fear in ourselves and our own lives?  When your 8 year old says, “I’m afraid that you might die in a car accident,” is there a little voice in your own head that says, oh my sweet girl, that scares the shit out of me, too.

The things I am scared of now are not the same things I was scared of in my twenties.   Then, it was more about worry over getting my heart broken, obtaining a speeding ticket, sleeping through my alarm or getting caught with an open bottle of beer in my car.  Now, my fears directly relate to my people.  I’m sure yours do, too.  Am I doing damage by the way I parent them?  Subtext:  will they get pregnant at 18 and drop out of college?  Am I giving my husband the attention he deserves?  Subtext:  will he finally get tired of the fact that I put my pajamas on at 7:30 and go have an affair?  At this point, all my fears come down to one basic fear:  There are people in this world for whom I am responsible.  They count on me.  I can’t screw this up.  It is no longer just about me.

This week has piled fear on top of fear in our country: bombs, jihad, chemical explosions and all manner of anarchy.  The footage of those young guys calmly preparing to kill people is disconcerting to say the least.  The London marathon, held this past weekend, reportedly had significantly fewer and more jittery spectators in attendance.  My daughter, despite her fears, rides in the car with me on a nearly daily basis. So it got me thinking.   How do we do it?  How do we get past our fears?  Of course, there is a fear and subsequent emotional response when we encounter situations which make us afraid.  Your lovely amygdala, almond sized in the temporal portion of your brain, mediates the fear response.  When you get sweaty palmed, tight lipped and tummy-sick from fear, you have your amygdala to blame.  So what keeps this little guy from going into overload?  Another structure called the rostrate cingulate tells your amygdala to chill out.  In my daughter’s case, having been in the car many times, the rostrate cingulate quells the fears by relying on prior evidence that this car thing is actually pretty safe.

That little gem the amygdala.

That little gem the amygdala.

And also, there is Brene Brown‘s work which tells us that “faith is a place of mystery, where we find the courage to believe in what we cannot see and the strength to let go of our fear of uncertainty.”  According to her research on courage and vulnerability, anything worthwhile we get in life is basically because we put ourselves out there.  And being fearful is in direct conflict with being joyful in the world.

Ok, so I get it.  Fear is part of life.  We rely physiologically on fear to prepare us in case we need to get the hell out of a situation.  We need to walk through fear to feel relief and relinquish the idea that we actually have some modicum of control in our lives.  I think about people like Woody Allen or author Jonathan Goldstein, who have made careers out of their fretful, some would say neurotic manner.  Both are highly successful, but retain a certain level of skepticism and arms-distance from the scarier aspects of life.  Then I think about adventure junkies like that rock climber who doesn’t use ropes.  Or people who hike by themselves for vast distances without knowing where they are going.  We are all part of the same human continuum.  After the Boston marathon, we can choose to never do a sponsored race again.  We can live in blame.  Or we can sign up.  And show up.  And see what happens.

In suburbia, I have heard people wondering if this is the “new normal.”  Worrying about the future of our children.  Of our country.  I get it.  I worry, too.  While following the news coverage of the hunt for the suspects, I heard the story of a community in the heart of the lock down.  The families gathered in a neighbor’s house, made pancakes, the kids played in the playroom and the adults made inappropriate jokes and speculated on the reasons the suspects did what they did.  What an awesome gathering!  What a remarkable way to heal.  Together.  Because really, aren’t we all just a little fucking over being afraid?

So, yes, my 8 year old is afraid.  She frets.  She worries.  But I admire her deeply.  She tells me what scares her.  She trusts me listen, help and most importantly, not judge.  With such unabashed honesty, her giant pooling eyes well with tears.  But she is so smart.  She knows she doesn’t have to go it alone, that sharing gives purpose and meaning to things which make no sense.  In her fear, she does not blame and she does not get angry.  And after we talk and snuggle, she’s better and runs off to play.

We could learn a thing or two from her.

It's okay.

It’s going to be okay.

Thanks to Barbara Paulsen from Mt. Hood MaMa Iphoneography for her beautiful photos.  Don’t be afraid to check out some of them.

“Terror in the Suburbs!” OR “Letting Go of Control”

My pumpkin patch, or apparently the place to leave discarded weaponry

On the way up my driveway last Monday, I was checking my pumpkin patch.  My daughter’s pumpkin was ready and I was admiring it as I halfheartedly looked forward to the chaos of Halloween.  I had just dropped the kids off at school, and I was turning over writing ideas.  Then, I caught sight of something metallic and shiny.  As I approached, my brain tried to make sense of what I was seeing.  It was a gun.  And, although I didn’t know it at the time,  it was loaded.

I ran inside to tell my husband, my heart racing and my mind attempting to formulate some sort of explanation.  He walked outside with me.  While I yelled at him not to touch it, he gently used a pumpkin leaf to check it’s weight.  Apparently this is what you do when it is a couple days before Halloween and you are unsure if the supposed gun is real or a toy.  It wasn’t a toy.  So,  I called the police.  I stood in the window watching it.  As if it might get up on it’s own and commit a crime.  Or in case someone walked into my yard.  I was prepared to yell “Gun! Gun!” to anyone who entered.

The police showed up like 10 minutes after I called.  Seriously fast.  Get this, one officer picked it up with his bare hand.  Hasn’t this guy ever seen CSI?  Doesn’t he know about fingerprints?  DNA for fucksake?  He made a couple jokes to try and make light of the situation, given that I was in my pajamas, my husband was ready to go for a bike ride and the four of us were looking at an instrument of death.   We made guesses as  to how it got there.  They checked the barrel.  One bullet missing, but otherwise loaded.  No safety.  They took down my name.  They told me it was  a 32 magnum (which I had to google). With a shrug and a “well that’s one less gun out there,” they left.

As much as I tried to get on with my day, and then my week, as much as I rationalized, I was left with one agonizing and recurring thought.  What if my kids had found that instead of me?  They were out there playing the day before with friends.  I played a tape in my head that ran all week of a child pulling a trigger.  Nothing could be so scary.  Not the fact that my family was staring down a major storm.  Not that my husband’s mom is in hospice and we are left to watch a strong spirit wither away.  Not an election that seems to have no end.  No, nothing is as scary as a cold, icy gun in the hand of a child.  Nothing.

For those of you who have experience with guns, this may all seem a bit over the top to you.  After all, you may be used to the power of a bullet propelling itself out of a metal barrel.  But I am not.  I remember all the movies I have seen and all the headlines I have read and I am terrified.  I can’t get myself out of the running tape.  That night, I confess to my husband that I am scared.  We decide, for now, not to tell the kids.  What kind of damage had that gun already done?  Obviously someone wanted to get rid of it.  Then, suddenly, I felt ashamed.  Like I had done something wrong or that this was a reflection of the downward spiral of my neighborhood.  I don’t want anyone to know.  I wish I could take back the friends I have told, I panic.

So, I call the police department.  I want to know what happened to the gun.  What it was used for? And what has happened to it?  If you have ever called the police department,  you already know what a head-banging experience in frustration this is.  There are multiple numbers on the website and I got directed to another two.  At last, there is a nice person who knows a thing or two and she helps me stay calm.  As my de-facto therapist, she explains that I don’t need to feel ashamed and that I have done nothing wrong.  She said I was the “victim” here.   And then it hits me.  That’s exactly how I feel, that I have been violated.  There was a person or persons who saw so little value in my life or the lives of my children (we very clearly have children based on how our home is decorated for Halloween) that they tossed a loaded gun onto my property.  There you have it.

My friend Tami soothes my nerves as well by telling me that the reason others may be uncomfortable with the situation is because they worry it could happen to them.  I remember comforting myself with iterations of  that neighborhood or those people when something happens that is scary or unforeseen.  It can even happen with things like divorce or job loss.  We tell ourselves it won’t happen to us for whatever reason.  But as the officer told me, people do desperate things.  I sigh.  I want to be in control, I want to be able to protect my children.  In my mind, I don’t call the police.  I keep the gun in my bedside table and feel it’s cold comfort in my hand as I aim it in the direction of those who would hurt my family.

But wait.

That’s not me!  I remind myself of who I am and who my neighbors are.  We are all really just doing the best we can.  So I will continue to do the things within my control while I giving myself some room to breathe when they are not.  And often, so often, they are not.    My pumpkin patch and my yard have given me much joy, and facing the truth always feel better than hiding.  Suburbs, we are all in this together.

 George Harris sticks carnations in gun barrels during an antiwar demonstration at the Pentagon in 1967.

Photo by Bernie Boston of the Washington Evening Star.  George Harris was sticking flowers in gun barrels at an anti-war demonstration at the Pentagon in 1967.  Guns freak me out too, George.  But I sure as hell wouldn’t choose to get that close to one.