Do What Scares You

This essay first appeared on Violinist.com, June 19, 2014

Do-What-Scares-You-by-Michael-Ermilio

The door will open, casting a long rectangle of light on the dark floor and letting in the sounds of the audience, rustling and coughing.  The people in the front row will turn and peer in, trying to catch a glimpse before I enter. I will stand and wait, a thudding in my chest. But this time it will be my heart, alone. 
—Tricia Park, from “On the Q”

I’m not scared of much, but I’ll tell you a secret: I don’t like spiders. I mean I really, really don’t like them. I realize it’s irrational. The spiders around my house are harmless, even beneficial to humans. And yet they terrify me on some deep, subconsious level. Even two-dimensional images (like just now as I google the spelling for “arachnophobia“) make me queasy. And I’m scared of heights.

I didn’t climb trees as a kid. I don’t like to go up ladders. At roof-top parties when everyone else is leaning over the railing exclaiming about the skyline, I keep close to the center of the deck. So as you can imagine, it was pretty stressful for me when the rest of my family became aerial acrobats. It all started when my oldest daughter, Lauren, decided to take a circus class for fun. Before I knew it, the whole family, including my husband signed up lessons. He was great at it (until he suddenly needed rotator cuff surgery.) For me, it was scary enough just watching them perform. A few years later, Lauren founded an aerial acrobatics theater company and her youngest sister, Pascale, (pictured above) became a member. I think Lauren’s pretty brave, and not just because she performs on a trapeze. She turned away from easier, more obvious career possibilities to become an arts entrepreneur and producer. Risky, and thrilling.

In an essay about becoming an aerialist, Pascale wrote about coming to grips with her anxiety: “My heart beats against my chest, just enough to annoy me. The thumping is a reminder of my greatest flaw: my fear. My tacky hands grip the steel hoop encased in tape, my fingers stick to the frayed adhesive lining momentarily, and I lift myself. As I situate myself on top of the lyra, in between the triangle formed by the two ropes that attaches the ceiling, I gaze at my destination. My instructor looks at me expectantly from below. I exhale and shoot my legs above my head, weaving them between the ropes while pushing my torso through the hoop: I did it! This victory masks my brief moment of anxiety towards the ominous hardwood floor, which swings beneath me, taunting. But I did not fall, I flew.”

Of course, every performer deals with fear. It’s all part of the job. Will I choke on the exposed solo passage? Will I make it to the next level of the competition? Will they try to force me check my instrument at the gate? You might say that risk and the fear that accompanies it is a vital, healthy element in every profession, and certainly throughout the arts. Imagine how dull your life would be, how stagnant your work would become, if you insulated yourself from every twinge of apprehension. Fear keeps us sharp. And if we manage it well, we can fly.

But not all fear is equal. Job-related fears become almost workaday as we develop the tough skin necessary to cope with them. That’s “comfortable fear.” The writer finishes her essay and presses “send”. The the aerialist confronts the ominous, swinging, hard wood floor. The violinist steps valiantly onto the stage. That opening run in the Brahms Violin Concerto is scary, but after a life of practice, she knows how to keep her anxiety in check. She uses her fear to make her performance even more exciting.

Sometimes we need to step even closer to the edge, away from the comfort of our well-managed fear.

Early this morning I walked into a house spider as it was descending from the kitchen ceiling on a silken thread. I gasped and sloshed my scalding hot mug of coffee. But I didn’t run away. I’ve been working on my fear. Instead, I bisected the spider’s silk lifeline with my extended index finger and walked briskly towards the screen door. Outside, I gently tossed the swinging, inch-long acrobat to freedom in the garden. My heart flooded with relief. Outside, it was a brilliant summer morning. Fear makes the world a little brighter, a little more alive.

A couple months ago I sent out a call for essays for a literary magazine I edit. Most of the submissions we get come from professional writers and MFA students. But I was delighted—because of my personal interest in the violin—to receive a creative nonfiction submission from Tricia Park, a concert violinist and violin professor who happens to love literature and writing. She hasn’t been writing long, but she’s talented. And brave enough to take the risk of sending out her work.

The editors selected Tricia’s essay as one of three that would appear in the June issue. But first (as we often do for writers whose work appears in the magazine) we asked her to go through several sets of revisions. I didn’t know how Tricia would respond to editorial suggestions, but I should have figured: as a highly trained classical musician, she took to critique in this new discipline like a natural. Each revision brought her ideas and words into sharper focus. Her wonderful essay blossomed on the page. This is her first publication, one of many to come.  It’s a coming-of-age piece about busking, first love, playing in Carnegie Hall, and…oh, you just really have to read it.

Earlier this week, when the issue went live, Tricia posted a link to her essay on Facebook. “Do what scares you,” she wrote.  She’s right. Do it.


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