If you walked by me on the street, if you didn’t know me, with just a glance you’d probably think you had me figured out. And maybe you would.
One look at me and you might say, here’s a woman who prefers a glass of wine to a session on the treadmill. You’d be right about that. Another look at me and you might say, this woman has an obvious weakness for coffee and polka-dotted purses. I mean, maybe you could tell that by looking at me, especially with the mug permanently affixed to my hand and all.
And if you really stared as I walked by, took a good look into my eyes, you might see a woman who swore a solemn oath at 8 o’clock last night to get a really good night’s sleep, and then finally realized her complete and utter foolishness around 11:21pm, while sitting on the couch watching another episode of Tiny House Hunters and playing a Tetris knock-off game, wearing pj’s but nowhere near laying down and turning off the lights. Yeah, you’d be right about that, too. (I predict this will happen again soon.)
If you didn’t know me, though, heck, even if you DID know me, you might not know about my fascination with spiders. And now that you do know this, you might ask me, point-blank, okay, what’s up with this spider thing?
And, should we be worried?
Alright, to clarify, I do not enjoy being surprised by a spider crawling up my leg, and I harbor absolutely no guilt about killing the hundreds of black widows who nested outside our house in the desert. No guilt that I’m aware of, anyway.
But I do love a good spider movie. Anyone seen Arachnophobia? Eight-legged Freaks? Big-Ass (pardon my words) Spider? I highly recommend these movies to anyone who enjoys an entertainment cocktail of cheeky humor and creepy-crawly skittishness. So, what gives, you ask? Is this my dark side coming out? Will you soon see me donning the stereotypical goth robes at the office? Um, not that there’s anything at all wrong with goth robes, but no.
Pull up a chair. (You already have one? Great.) Let me explain. This all started one day when I went to the zoo with my mom. I don’t know exactly how old I was – I think this was around the middle-school years.
On this particular day at the zoo, I found myself faced with an opportunity. While walking around the small-animal section of the indoor portion of the zoo, we came upon a staff-member with a fuzzy tarantula in her hand, offering me the chance to hold it. I don’t remember the details, but we all pretty much know how tarantulas look, right? It was probably larger than a quarter, maybe as big as a cookie (okay, not those gigantic cookies they sell at Starbucks – imagine more of a medium-sized cookie), and, of course, it was fuzzy, with hundreds of dark shiny eyes. I know, it only seems like they have hundreds of eyes, but those eyes really complete the whole spidery look, don’t they?
Now, I was old enough to understand that the spider would probably not bite me, and I definitely knew that my holding that little creature posed way more of a danger to it than to me. I’m thinking the spider was aware of this, as well. Still, I hesitated. Why?
Let’s talk about fear.
In many ways, fear is a good thing, isn’t it? It reminds us that we’re mortal, and, in many ways, fragile. Fear taps us on the shoulder every day, insisting we stop to evaluate this situation or that.
Hmmm, should I jump off this bridge? Probably not, because of dying and all. Should I park in a dark corner of this parking lot at midnight? Maybe not the best plan. You understand what I mean here.
Yet, there are times we might question what our fear tells us. Should I eat this raw fish? Welllll, it could be tasty. Should I leap out of this moving plane thousands of feet above the ground with only a glorified blanket and ropes strapped to my back? Some people would actually say yes to that one. Should I tell this person in front of me what I’m REALLY thinking? *sigh* Sometimes I do.
There are times, yes, when listening to our fear is a great idea. And then there are other times. Times we should defy fear. Because if we don’t, if we always make our choices based on fear, we may never move forward.
“Mom, you’re not afraid of anything.” My kids have said that to me many times. Is it true? Nah. What’s true is that I’ve become quite adept at hiding my fears, so no one even knows they’re there. I avoid them. Circumvent them. Sometimes I disguise them so well, dressing them up in camouflage and tucking them away, that even I forget they’re there. Sometimes for years.
Okay, I’ll fess up. What is it I’m afraid of? (cue drumroll)
Writing. Yup, I’m afraid of writing.
Well, actually, no. I’m not afraid of writing, exactly.
I’ve loved stories for as long as I can remember. I remember where I was as a kid when I first read Stephen King’s Boogeyman, which began a habit of checking closets that lasted for more years than I might admit. I remember our family trip to Florida when I was a young teen. Not the beach or anything, no. I remember the sectional sofa in our rental where I stretched out and read Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series for the first time. And I have a huge memory mishmash in my head of all the times my mom got up at 3am on a school night to find me still awake, reading a book that I just COULD NOT put down.
I remember writing a short story in my eleventh grade Sci Fi Lit class, and the encouraging words from the teacher. I remember standing in the kitchen seventeen years ago, chopping cucumber, and telling my husband the title of the book I was writing in my head.
So what happened?
Why did I study something else in school, something other than literature and writing? Why did I shelve my aspirations and plans for decades? Of course, there’s always the urge to blame other things, events, people. But I need to squash that urge and own up. I put off writing for so long because I was afraid. I am afraid.
I’m not talking here about phobias of pens and paper, or of keyboards and ideas.
What I’m afraid of is sharing my writing with the world. I’m afraid of wearing my odd thoughts, crazy notions, and impossible visions on my sleeve, for everyone to see. I suppose it’s a fear of judgement. Not just from family and friends, even from strangers I’ve never met, will never meet.
Yes, sometimes we should listen to our fears. And other times we should look our fears squarely in the eye before turning our back on them, sprinting in the complete opposite direction, and diving into whatever terrifies us most.
Okay, back to the spider story.
Did I hold that spider, all those years ago, back at the zoo? I’m pretty sure my mom doesn’t remember what I did, and I’m absolutely sure she didn’t hold the spider herself (I’ll let her tell you another time what SHE thinks of spiders).
And what about me? I faced a simple opportunity. All I had to do was reach out and let a little brown fuzzy thing walk onto my palm. I’m pretty sure the staff-member told me the little guy was gentle, that it knew it was in way more danger than I was. If I dropped it, it could die. I’m also sure I was aware of the door, only a few feet away to my right, leading me to other, arguably cuter, and way less scary creatures.
From my vantage point now, thirty-some years later, it seems this was a pivotal moment in my life. I had a choice. Face the fear of holding an eight-legged furry thing that evokes shivers in the hearts of so many human beings, challenge that fear, or succumb to it and do nothing.
I’d love to say I held that spider. I wish I could tell you that I petted it and cooed at it, that it turned up its pile of eyes to regard me with love, that I finally and truly understood it’s just another creature trying to survive this world, like me. Honestly, my kids might be surprised to hear that I didn’t do even one of those things. I didn’t.
On that day, I chose the door to safer, less-scary things.
I have regretted that choice ever since, and every single time I’ve visited that zoo, starting with the very next visit after that fateful spider-filled day, I’ve peeked into the same room holding small creatures, and looked for a staff-member holding a furry eight-legged little guy. I’ve wondered if I might get another chance.
It hasn’t happened yet.
Still, as I exited the metro this morning and stepped up to a very long escalator, bound for a quiet spot and a long, beloved day of writing, I was so glad I’ve at least had the chance to face down this fear. Here I am, right now, sitting in a writers’ room in the city a few decades later, my coffee and notebook and pen and keyboard spread across the desk, moving forward despite my fears, spilling myself out in written word for all to see.
After reading a draft of one of my stories not long ago, a member of my writing group said something along the lines of, ‘so, do you have a thing about spiders or what?’
Yeah, I’d say I do.
Not only do spiders show up in my stories, they usually show up as something less scary, more approachable. Take Hubie as an example, from my story Fishbowl. He may be really, really big, but he’s also loyal and kind, the best friend a girl could have.
Okay, you say, I get it, thanks. You’ve explained the spider thing.
Now, what about the giant squid thing? Did you ruin a chance to hold one of them, too?
Uh, let’s tackle that one another day. For now, keep a lookout for friendly spiders in my upcoming stories. There’s an interesting purple one you’ll hopefully read about very soon. Also, keep an eye out for those pesky fears. When you find one, consider what it’s telling you, and then maybe ignore it and run in the other direction.
A. Katherine Black