Remember when you were in elementary school, and the teacher would tell you to close your eyes while she read a story to you? I say “she” because I only had women teachers until I reached middle school which is a story for another day.
If I could, I would tell you to close your eyes just the way your teacher did so long ago. Close your eyes and imagine the scene and the story I’m going to tell you.
I was in the first grade when my paternal grandfather, whose health and mind had begun to fail him, was placed in a nursing home. He would be there until he passed away when I was sixteen years old. My Memaw was, to say the least, not accustomed to living on her own.
She worked in nursing homes, herself, when I was a child, sweating her days away in the kitchens. She knew how my grandfather would be spending his day to day life once he was checked into Cherry Street Manor in Paris, Texas.
That thought only just occurred to me as I was writing. She knew.
Anyway. though I cannot remember why the decision was made, Memaw moved from the home she’d lived in with my Papa to a house in the country. She was closer to my aunt who could carry her to see Papa regularly so that might have played into the decision.
The house she lived in was situated just off an oil-top road. Across that road lived a couple, Russell and Rebecca, the mother and father of my cousin Joe’s wife.
Russell drove a big-rig cattle truck for a living, and their house was surrounded by livestock. Chickens and guinea fowl ran through the yard alongside their four or five dogs. They kept cattle in the fields next to my memaw’s home, and there were hog pens that stunk to high heaven under the hot Texas sun in the summer.
Many a night was spent with our noses covered as we tried to fall asleep with the smell of the hogs, somehow sickly sweet and foul at once, obliterating every other scent as it wafted through the open windows.
I remember a lot of things about those years.
I remember cold winters sitting as close as we dared to Memaw’s wood-burning stove. That is a scent that I’ll never forget. It never fails that the smell of a wood-smoke in the winter takes me back to that kitchen with its uneven floors. It was perfect.
I remember the green of summer. The grass was so thick it felt like carpet between your toes, though you had to be careful to avoid the “stickers,” a catchall name for anything that grew wild that would scratch your feet if you weren’t careful. Some weren’t so bad, but that occasional “goat’s head” would stop you in your tracks.
I remember days on the porch shucking corn, shelling peas, and talking with my cousins. Several of us would inevitably end up spending a week at Memaw’s every year when when it was time for those particular chores.
Coincidence? I think not.
The driveway at Memaw’s house was a strange one. It was a sort of circular drive designed so you could drive up to the house and make the circle over to the gates to the cow pasture and back down a rather steep, gravel and dirt hill to the oil top.
If you turned left, you were headed back toward her house. If you made a right turn, you would find yourself traveling down yet another somewhat more gradual descent, but it still seemed like an enormous drop as an eleven or twelve year old boy.
Of course, as kids with bicycles, the draw of that hill was too powerful to resist.
Many a day was passed regardless of the season, sitting at the top of that hill, rocking the bike back and forth preparing for the ride down. You didn’t even have to pedal. All you needed to do was push off from the top and hold the handlebars steady as you quickly picked up speed toward its base.
The real trick was to know which direction you would turn at the bottom of the hill. Trust me when I say, you didn’t want to make that decision at the last moment! My brothers, cousins, and I all had our share of skinned knees and ankles making that mistake.
Now, the left was obviously the safer choice. You could ride right back around and to the top of the hill again, or you could keep riding down a relatively safe, straight path on the oil-top road lined with trees.
You could take the right-hand path, navigate over the dried ruts in the road, take a sharp left turn, and keep your momentum going down that second hill into a dip at its base. This path was also tree-lined, but they went by much faster in a blur of varied colors depending on the season.
The left path promised the same thrill all over again; the right, an extended thrill…something more. There was this feeling that would take you over between clearing that first hill, coming out of the dip, and up onto the oil-top to begin the second descent.
My stomach dropped and my head felt light as if–for one perfect moment–the unknowable something or someone that had always held me in its iron fist, close to the ground and afraid, lost its grip and I touched something more, something beyond.
I loved that second hill. I loved that feeling, because when that thing let go of me so did the near-constant anxiety that I had lived with since I was about six years old. I couldn’t have put that feeling into words then, and honestly, I still have trouble describing it.
I am forty-four years old, now. Memaw has been gone almost twenty years. My days of riding a bicycle down a hill so fast that I could outrun my anxiety are long gone. I have been to counseling, taken the doctor-prescribed pills, and self-medicated more than I would care to admit.
Nothing has ever kept my unwanted companion entirely at bay, but I have found that on certain special occasions, I can experience that thrilling sensation again.
No, I didn’t become a sky-diving, bungee-jumping, mountain-climbing adrenaline-junkie. There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s just not for me.
Connecting with an audience while singing will do it. When they’re giving back every ounce of energy that I’m giving them, it completely erases the near-debilitating stage fright that plagues me before a performance begins.
Sharing ideas and stories with other creatives is another. Is there anything more exciting?
Receiving an email or a DM from a reader telling me that something I wrote made a difference in their lives, gave them a connection, made them realize something they’d never considered before they read an article or story I’d written. That will actually curb the imposter syndrome for at least an hour or two.
There are other examples, of course, but these are the most potent that come to mind in this moment. They are my oases in the Great Anxiety Desert, and they are almost as good as Memaw’s homemade biscuits and gravy.
I’ve been chasing this feeling my whole life. On the good days, I catch it.
Okay, you can open your eyes, now.