On flinching

When I was a child, I was scared of many things. Dogs terrified me. Fireworks, and thunderstorms, even popping balloons, drove me wild with fear. I had to check my closet each night to make sure no monsters or psychos were crouching inside. A premature viewing of To Kill a Mockingbird did not impress upon me the evils of racism, or the dignity of Gregory Peck, but instead, left me traumatized by Boo Radley, rabid dogs, and derelict houses.

            In an attempt to cure me of my fear of dogs, my father decided to get me a puppy. He took me to see the litter, and told me to reach down into the cardboard box and pick the one I wanted. I remember being surrounded by adults, all watching intently as I winced and whimpered, steadfastly refusing to put my hand in the writhing box. “Those sharps things! Those sharp things!” I supposedly repeated. Finally, my father took my hand, and forced it underneath the belly of one of the pups, where I was surprised to discover a soft, compliant warmth.


            As I got older, new, more complicated fears replaced the old ones. In my early 30s, I began to experience debilitating panic attacks in public places. It became harder and harder for me to go out, or to face even the slightest social interaction. I would start to sweat in mid-conversation, would feel my heart bumping around in my chest, and have to leave immediately. I abandoned full shopping carts in grocery store check-out lines, canceled appointments last minute, turned the car back home, halfway toward various destinations.


            I am confessing to being a lifelong coward.


            So, it is with considerable skepticism that I regard the celebration of a weird form of machismo in our culture. Everything, from documentaries on Paris Hilton, and Anthony Weiner, to the fiction of Lucia Berlin, and Margaret Atwood, essays by Roxanne Gay, and Leslie Jamison, are hailed as “unflinching,” as though flinching wasn’t a perfectly reasonable response to certain situations, as though it were weak, or unseemly. It’s nothing new, of course, art has long had its share of tough guys, and cold dames, turning their gimlet-eyes on life’s gritty realities, but it has creeped into our critical standards and measures, becoming a built-in way of valuing work that is distant and affectless, over work that is more vulnerable, more prone to—gasp!—sentiment. 

            I tell my students all the time that sentimentality occurs when you aren’t paying close enough attention. All you have to do is conjure the image of a little girl with a fatal illness, and the reader’s emotions will respond with sympathy, but it isn’t earned—that workshop word!—unless you make the girl particular. In other words, you can manipulate the reader’s emotions by offering up a generic, sentimental situation, but a good writer gets beyond the cheap and ready-made, to the closely-observed, sharply-rendered, individual case.       

            Somewhere down the line, though, sentiment itself came under suspicion. Growing up, I admired writers like Joan Didion and Susan Sontag, whose cool, cerebral elegance was hot, hip, and happening, and I remember reading a lot of New Yorker stories where all the characters seemed to operate as automatons, semi-detached from their comfy, yet unfulfilling middle-class lives. Nowadays, it is quite common to encounter stories, movies, books, paintings, wherein there is not a single un-ironic action, or inflected feeling. What once might have come across as cool, has become tiresome; what was once a stance, has become a posture. With the onslaught of Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, et al., we swim in a continuous stream of social interaction that is largely performative, guarded, fraught; far from flinching, we brace ourselves, girding our loins for battle, pumping up in self-righteous outrage, hunkering down to protect ourselves from attack.

            I get it. Smart people are often smart at the expense of their feelings. They prefer to think about emotions as though they were pieces of furniture, to be arranged decorously, in distant rooms. Okay, anger in the corner, where it won’t be noticed; disappointment over there, by peevishness; awkward positive feelings, front and center, where, hopefully, they will not be misconstrued as needy or insecure. Some of us were scolded and shamed for our feelings. Whenever I was upset over something, my father used to command me to stop crying, which, of course, made me cry harder. The lesson I absorbed from this, along with my tears, was that anger was a valid emotion, but fear and sadness were not. 

            For a long time, I felt that this prohibition on showing your feelings was the unique territory of my Korean immigrant parents. To say we never talked about our feelings is an understatement: we averted our eyes; we stuck to routine; we didn’t speak at all. I soon learned, though, that dealing with emotions was problematic for most of the children of my generation, whose parents grew up in the ‘40s and ‘50s, in WASPy New England, like my ex-husband’s family, in Pennsylvania Dutch country, like G’s parents, and across the Midwest, like a number of my friends’ families. No one, it seems, has a monopoly on emotional repression.


             When I was told I had breast cancer, I flinched; I winced, I cried, I stomped around. When I was told it had come back in my lungs a year later, I flinched, winced, and stomped around some more. I moped, flopped, and screamed out loud. I was about done in with rage and fear and disappointment. When it spread to my liver, more of the same. When my port got infected and I ended up in the hospital in Billings, Montana, ditto. I would have been a fool not to.

            It scared me. I didn’t want to feel that bad. I didn’t want to risk being seen as weak, and I did not want to burden G., or my kids, with my messy emotions. Like many of my peers, I wasn’t used to feeling my feelings. (I was, however, used to performing them. I entertained numerous therapists with my hyper-articulate self-analyses of everything that was wrong with me, tap-tap-tap dancing around the real issues, leaving most of them bamboozled, and with not much to add. What I really felt, however, was most often as much a mystery to me as ever.)

            True to form, for all my flailing and wailing over my cancer diagnosis, little of it was done in public, and not very much on the page. The act of writing is a kind of composure, a distancing in and of itself, and I can be accused of tap dancing still, chronicling my adventures with a breezy acceptance I do not feel. Partly, I realize that the act of distancing, of recording my experience as something other than my experience—fashioning it into something shapely and significant—has become a mechanism of survival, a way to regain some control over what is happening to me. As a writer, especially, I have been hard-schooled in decorum—from Flaubert to Nabokov, from Tom Jones to Tristram Shandy, Didion, Sontag, and de Beauvoir, my masters have been smart as whips, cool as cucumbers, and as witty, arch, and ironic as Gods. Much of the rush and pleasure of writing, for me, lies in the chutzpah surrounding this kind of authorial power.

            But, mostly, if I am honest with myself, the real reason I keep most of my flinching off-stage is because I am embarrassed. It is one thing to confess to being a coward, quite another to show it. The stigma of weakness, of revealing oneself to be vulnerable, is hard to shake. “Stop crying!” I hear my father say. “Babo, stupid girl!” Because the implication is, of course, that “unflinching” is synonymous with courage, with stoicism, and inner strength. Stiff upper lip. Grace under pressure. All of the mettle, with none of the mess.

            Very slowly, though, I feel my experience with illness, and the prospect of imminent death, changing me. I am moving further from the distanced, ironic stance, like a kid holding onto the edge as she creeps toward the deep end of the pool. I suppose it is a kind of eminent nostalgia that erodes the careful impulse to “cool it”—the two-year-old girl who lives next door, gives me a picture she has drawn, and I tear up; two young bucks, in the field outside my Wyoming studio, play at locking horns, and I laugh out loud; a still space in sunlight, with the warmth at the back of my neck, and I am made giddy with gratitude. The prospect of death illuminates life, and also reduces it to essence. There is no escaping the sentimental conclusion that love is what matters in the end, love and the joy it brings, connection to others, kindness, beauty, generosity of spirit. Hard won, difficult, intermittent, and elusive, but simple, powerful, and true.

            Because real bravery is not about being stoic, or unflinching, but in risking sentiment, being vulnerable, and un-ironic, open to life, and alive to possibility. Flinching is not a backing down; it’s not a surrender or retreat; it’s an honest reaction to the surprise, and sometimes, terror, of life, an acknowledgment that sometimes fear is the only proper response.


            I am no longer afraid of dogs, in fact, dogs are a major part of my life. In a similar way, I am learning not to be afraid of my future. I am feeling my way down along its underbelly, hoping to discover a soft, compliant warmth.