I think I’ve gotten the reputation for being a pessimist. I’m not sure why. Maybe because I think things can turn out badly. Not just badly — but fatally.
That would account for the time I was talking to a friend on the phone and we agreed I would pick her up in 15 minutes. I arrived at her house and rang the doorbell. Nothing. I rang the doorbell again and again, then started knocking loudly. It immediately occurred to me she was probably dead. After many knocks and screams, she finally appeared and it turned out she’d been drying her hair with a loud hairdryer. As usual, this reinforced one of my basic beliefs: The world is dangerous.
Similarly, travel. “You mean your family always traveled with the idea you’d all be killed?” an acquaintance asked me. “That’s awful.”
Yes, it is awful. Year after year, we made the dangerous trek to Oklahoma, crossing the Red River, where we would encounter God knows what. My parents’ wills were newly filled out and my father always searched the horizon to see where he could maneuver the car in a potential head-on crash. You just never knew. As my parents always pointed out, the roads were terrible in Oklahoma and the bridges were deathtraps.
I’ve gotten a little better about this as I’ve grown older. For years, when I was at airports waiting for planes, I searched the faces of my soon-to-be fellow passengers. These are the people I’m going to die with, I’d tell myself. Their contorted, screaming faces will be the last thing I see before we plunge to certain, fiery death. This always disconcerted me, since I never felt I knew these people well enough — or even liked them well enough — to die with them.
I don’t know how many tens or hundreds of safe flights it took for me to realize that my gift for ominous premonitions was nil and I might as well hang it up and buy a People magazine, instead. Even I was getting a little bored by my fears.
Still, they linger and persist in funny ways. They may no longer control my movements and decisions, but they underlie my actions. A trip to Europe? Across that big, cold ocean? You think it’s safe, but you never know, do you? You might not be coming back.
All of which is to say that when my husband and I are about to rent out our house and take off to another city thousands of miles away, it seems threatening to me. I want it, I’m excited by it, I’m scared by it, I’m semi-convinced we’re never coming back.
I look at the way the light shifts this time of year, part of the patterns I now recognize in a house we’ve lived in for 12 years — longer than I’ve ever lived in one place in my life. We’re not gone yet, but I miss it already. I miss the seasons we won’t have here this year — the autumn, assuming it’s ever autumn and cooler again after months of relentless inferno, the glorious, sunny winter days, the beginnings of spring. I’m already missing seeing my friends, the guys who feed me at the nearby restaurant, even the corny football season and pageantry.
Sometimes, I think some of us are just born to be — or grow into — people who fear loss and feel it more deeply, even before it happens. We’re the modern equivalent of Lot’s wife, turning to look back in spite of the warnings. We always look back and mourn, even if it means we’ll turn into salt shakers, even if we become cautionary tales about how not to live (even to ourselves).
Growing older is so funny to me. Part of it, to me, is learning to accept myself — the good, bad, indifferent, the truly deplorable. Oh, yeah, so this is the way I am. I’ve learned I can move on, but, somehow, it costs me more than it costs most other people. So the pessimistic salt shaker sprouts legs and keeps going, even if a soft chorus keeps drumming in the back of her mind saying take heed, this may be the last view of places she loves. The world beyond the Red River, she knows, is a dangerous place.
(Copyright 2009 by Ruth Pennebaker)
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