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Writing (and Living) in the Midst of Fear


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Note: This post does not contain a happy ending. 

In Seattle, June is the cruelest month. Terrifying. Violent, too. A month where people rarely leave their homes, and if they must, they hurry from house to car, exhaling only once safely inside, windows rolled up, doors locked. In June, schools forgive truancy. Non-urgent appointments–dental check-ups, meetings with financial planners, eyebrow shaping–pretty much anything other than trips to the ER–are put off until mid-July.

Have you seen Hitchcock’s film, The Birds? Hitchcock himself claimed, “It could be the most terrifying motion picture I have ever made.” 

I bet Hitchcock was inspired by Seattle in June. 

Because of Poe’s quothing ravens, I’ve always found crows a bit sinister, but in general, I had no beef with any corvids, not really, until June 2013. While walking to get my daughter at school, a crow–out of nowhere–slapped me across the back of the head with a rolled-up magazine. At least, that’s what it felt like. 

The June 2015 NPR story, “They Will Strafe You,” taught me these attacks are common. I was simply in the wrong place (near the crow’s fledglings) at the wrong time (June, fledgling season). This particular crow, undoubtedly sleep deprived and struggling with postpartum depression, deemed me a threat. Thus, she grabbed her June 2013 issue of The New Yorker, or perhaps The Economist, or maybe it was The New Republic, and whacked my head. 

I began to fear another strafing. 

“No eye contact, people!” I’d yell at my children, my husband, my dog, whenever I saw a crow. “You make eye contact, and THEY WILL STRAFE YOU!”  

The whole world was starting to feel unsafe, and not just in June. Year-round, I felt the beady eyes of crows upon me.

Fast forward nine (terror-filled) years, and we arrive at Spring 2022.

At the end of May, bunion surgery left me horizontal with my sad, swollen foot in the air. For weeks, I crutched only between the TV room sofa and my Room of Convalescence. Back and forth, forth and back.

Then May became June. 

June! 

Bedridden and homebound, I could not escape their terrible cawing, could not ignore the murderous shadows that darkened my windows. Twenty-three days post-op, loopy with a weird mix of boredom and fatigue, tired of my POW status, I raised my fist at the crow-laden spruce in my yard. 

“Nevermore!” I shouted. “NEVERMORE!”

After Googling “what do crows eat,” (the answer: “pretty much anything”) I crutched to the kitchen and found a box of stale, generic-brand Wheat Thins. I then crutched awkwardly–it’s difficult to crutch while holding a box of anything–to the sliding glass doors that leads to our backyard. I opened the doors six inches, set my crutches on the floor, sat myself beside my crutches, then frisbee’d a fistful of crackers outside.

And I waited. 

Needless to say, by the end of the week, I had a handful of brainy crow-pals, all of whom I christened “Carole,” a gender-neutral name that ensured I wouldn’t wrongly assume their preferred pronouns. Their crownouns.

Extending the olive branch of generic Wheat Thins, inviting my worst fear into our yard, having the opportunity to applaud the Caroles for the way they neatly stacked crackers, four at a time, then transported their repast with Henry Ford-like efficiency to their roost, all that made me a little less fearful. Not fear-free, just less fear-full.

Except my husband was uncomfortable. My children, confused. My BFF, Erica, feared I had finally lost my mind. My funny friend, Robin, dropped off a little crow finger puppet.

Worse, there was exponentially more crow crap in our backyard. And things had gone missing: twine that held my husband’s raspberry bushes against the fence, a few of his melon seedlings, the pack of tiny-handed raccoons who sauntered, arrogant and badass, through our yard pretty much whenever they felt like it. 

Would my dog be next?

Recently, I think a lot about fear. How, like a contagion, fear infects our hearts and brains, our relationships and communities. Even when there’s good reason to feel scared, fear tempts us to retreat, isolate, blame, hoard. Our hearts become hard, stingy. Our worlds become small. 

But thank goodness for writers! Writers invent stories that connect strangers and expand hearts, stories that make readers’ worlds bigger. Writers arrange words into images that remind people of the beauty that remains, even amid today’s difficult news. Stories, even scary ones, make us feel not so alone, not so disconnected, not so fear-filled. 

On June 1st, after spending ten years writing, and another ten years of rejection and revision, my loyal agent and I found a home for my first novel. 

I am thrilled.

Also, I am TERRIFIED. 

There are roughly seventy-five reasons for this nebulous, nagging fear, all of which are simultaneously valid and stupid. But just as we cannot create a world where epidemics, tyrants, injustice, and dive-bombing crows are extinct, we cannot create a fear-free life. We can only keep inviting the crows to our backyard. 

Until we cannot. 

“The Caroles are eating my bean plants,” my husband announced.

The bean plants he grew from seed. I swallowed. “You’re sure it’s the Caroles?”

He nodded. “And there’s the crow-crap. And the missing twine … I think we need a scarecrow.” 

A scarecrow? Suddenly I was meant to terrorize the Caroles? 

Equally important: How could I face my fear if I couldn’t, well, face my fear?

He was right though. I had to stop feeding them. There was the issue with the crow-crap and the missing stuff. Plus I love my dog. I didn’t want the Caroles to take him as their own.

And honestly, I was still scared of the Caroles. I still worried they’d attack me, tie me down with the stolen twine, steal my shiny necklace, then peck out my face. Acknowledging the fear, exposing myself to it, feeding it stale crackers, had not made it evaporate.

Likewise, acknowledging that this next phase of the writing journey is terrifying, identifying the reasons for the terror, blogging about it, none of that eradicates the fear. It’s still there, and it’s still scary.

So … now what? 

Simple! I continue moving forward in my writing journey. So do you. We continue using words to expand the world, to amplify empathy, to fertilize the love-parts of our fellow human’s hearts. We keep creating characters who are happily living their safe lives–until they are suddenly very much unsafe. Those characters help us understand how to navigate a vast array of our own real-life, omnipresent, Hitchcockian horrors. 

See? No happy ending.

Just this truth: The world needs not scarecrows, but stories. Mine and yours. 

Your turn! What’s your greatest writing-related fear? Have you ever been crow-slapped? What crazy things have you done as a result of bunion surgery? What do you do when fear, depression, or sorrow feels bigger than your need to write?

I can’t wait to hear from you. 

Crow photo by Flickr’s Sheila Sund.

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About Sarah Callender

Sarah Callender lives in Seattle with her husband, son and daughter. A crummy house-cleaner and terrible at responding to emails in a timely fashion, Sarah chooses instead to focus on her fondness for chocolate and Abe Lincoln. She is working on her third novel while her fab agent pitches the first two to publishers.

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