Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Floating My Fears Away by Lael Littke

I just returned from a cruise to Alaska. Aside from the usual benefits, I found that I gained something else from the trip: I overcame my fear of deep water, just about the last of my lifelong hangups. As a child, I had a list of fears as long as my cat’s tail. In fact, the cat himself was on my list. I’d heard that if you let a cat sleep with you, it would take your breath. Exactly what that meant, I wasn’t sure. But it wasn’t true because the cat frequently slept on my chest and I let him because I loved him. If he took my breath, he gave it back each morning.

I was afraid of the tiger which lived under the porch. Hadn’t my brother pointed out its eyes shining in the dark? In fact, my brother said the tiger had eaten his playmate, George Harry Petey John. He said it was a bloody fight. Since I had never seen George Harry Petey John, I couldn’t say for sure. His playmate, he said, was something like the Holy Ghost, always there if you needed him but never intruding when you didn’t.

My brother alerted me to the Tree Witch who lived in the tall box elder in front of our house. She was there to snatch away children who missed the schoolbus or faked illness in order to skip school and then had the bad judgment to go outside and play. She was related to the Water Woman, a cruel prankster our mother warned us about who pulled little kids under the water of the creek that ran past our house if they got too close. (I wonder if that’s where I got my fear of water. That creek was at least eight inches deep.)

I was terrified of a tall girl named Letha at our small country school. She would peer over the door of the stall in the girls’ bathroom and snarl, “What are doing in there, you little twerp?” Most days I would try to wait until I got home to go.

I won’t go through the whole list, but one by one I conquered most of my fears, or simply grew out of them. But it took a while to overcome my fear of submitting a story in my writing class in New York City. I had taken every writing class offered at Utah State University, but we were mostly Mormons there and my mild little tales were well received. But after I was married and my husband and I moved to New York to pursue further education, I signed up for a class at City College of New York.

The students there were different from those at Utah State. They were sophisticated, jaded, blasé. They’d seen everything, done everything. They wrote stories of sexual perversions I’d never even heard of. How could I hand in my little yarns about Snookie, the shy young Idaho cowboy smitten for the new schoolteacher lady, or Grandma Feeney who saved her best dishes and linens for “company best” and thus never used them – until the day that . . . .

To my surprise, my classmates liked my stories and laughed in all the right places even though they regarded me as something of an anomoly there in the Big City. The teacher, a hard-bitten woman who wore a strip of adhesive tape on her forehead and down over the nosepiece of her glasses so they wouldn’t slide, called me to her desk one day. “Ms. Littke,” she said, looking over the top of said glasses, “you could be a selling author if you’d just write about reality.” “But I do,” I countered, shamefaced at being so country-girl. “What I write about is reality to me.” She stared at me for a long moment, and then said, “Ms. Littke you’re very lucky.”

So much for fears. If that old Water Woman was along with me on my Alaska cruise, I hope she enjoyed it as much as I did.

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