It all began with my mom freaking out about a feather.
My mom has always been afraid of birds. That fear started long before I existed and was made worse by a visit to a science museum in Boston where an owl swooped near her head and glared at her. Apparently, that powerful owl glare was enough to push her over the edge.
I wasn’t allowed to have bird feeders or stuffed animal birds. If there were robins outside on our lawn, Mom would avert her eyes and draw the shades in the windows.
My mother’s fear of birds grew so big that she screeched when I was four years old and proudly brought a peacock feather home from a nursery school field trip to a wild animal farm. I was so psyched about this feather, which I won by answering a bunch of animal questions correctly.
The feather made me feel super smart for the first time in my little life. It was my prize and my reward and I was the only one in the whole nursery school who received one. It was like a Nobel Prize or a Pulitzer in my four-year-old head. It was such a super big deal and I knew — I just was absolutely positive — that my mom would be psyched and put it on the wall and maybe frame it or something while she announced to all her friends, “My youngest daughter, Carrie? She is so smart. So smart, I tell you! See this feather? It proves it.”
When I presented the coveted prize to my mom, she screamed and made me throw the feather outside.
“Get it out! Get that dirty thing out of our house!” she yelled. Actually, she screeched.
I remember pivoting in our heavily wooded, dark kitchen, running out to the screened-in porch, and into our yard. I took the peacock feather to a giant boulder where I played deserted island and Wizard of Oz and all my lonely made-up games, and I climbed up to the top of the rock.
Once there, I kissed the feather, the dirty thing, goodbye. I cried because it was so beautiful and I won it and then I had to let it go.
I let that beautiful feather go. I didn’t hold onto it the way we tend to hold onto our fears. It is just so hard to let go of our fears. That’s especially true for my poor mom who wouldn’t go to friends’ houses if they had birds in cages. She hated the beach because birds were at the beach. Every year black birds would hang out on our front lawn during their migration. There would be hundreds of them. She’d call in sick to work. Her fear held her back over and over again.
Years after the peacock incident, my mom ran screaming from a park where we were having a picnic with my daughter who was then two. A seagull had come too close. Too close was about a football field away.
When I caught up with my mom, she was standing in the doorway of a local restaurant, shaking.
“Don’t judge me!” she said. She was reapplying her lipstick with a shaking hand.
I grabbed her hand in mine because the lipstick application was not going well.
“I’m not judging you,” I told her, “but I don’t want Em to grow up afraid.”
That’s when I realized that my mom missed out on so much of life even though she was the liveliest, absolutely most alive person I knew. She missed out because she listened to her fear.
My daughter grew up to study Krav Maga in Israel, to apply and get in to Harvard, to become a field artillery officer in the Army. She’s jumped off roofs at stunt camp, log rolled, rock climbed, was the flyer of her cheerleading squad. She is known for picking up birds that she finds in parking lots, shopping centers, and bringing them to safety.
She is bold and unafraid most of the times. She’s not a fan of spiders, but she deals with them. Even when she is afraid, she faces her fears, snarls at them, and tells them to stand down.
She made my poor mom’s heart race and palpitate more than once.
Even for those of us who don’t have phobias like my Mom, the biggest fears that we have are often the ones about not being enough, not smart enough, not loved enough, just not enough. Of failure. Of being imperfect. Of being alone. There are so many fears we punish ourselves with. But we don’t have to listen to those fears. We can face the fears, see them for what they are and ignore the fears’ advice to cower, to yell, to blame, to run away.
My mother was afraid of a feather.
And our fears? The ones we hold inside of us? The ‘not good enough’ moments that feel so dam real? They are even less substantial than that feather.
That’s right. Those fears are not even as heavy as a feather, nowhere near as substantial. Still, we let them hurt us and hold us back.
Here’s the thing: You don’t have to let them hold you back.
Here’s the other thing: You can’t ignore your fear and you can’t give in to it. You have to jump headlong into the scariness and embrace the fear and snarl at it and know what it is. What is it? Fear is that voice that rings so loudly in your brain telling you what to do or what not to do. When you refuse to listen to it? That’s when you win.
You can beat your fears.
What are you afraid of? What makes you shake and cower? Not your phobias. But your fears. Are you afraid of failing so much that you don’t try to succeed? Bankruptcy? Not being loved? Commitment? Being evil? Being good? Being taken advantage of? Taking advantage of others? Face them head on because those fears are keeping you from being your best self.
I’m trying to be my best self. I fail a lot! So much! But I hope you’ll grab my hand even when it’s shaking and try with me. I think we can do this. Together.
Email or comment if you want to say hi and talk about it, okay?
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