a straight path through the world

Posted by on March 18, 2008

I like to think that I can stand before my child and the world with a flaming sword and gleaming breastplate to shield her little nerves from every source of shock, but there is always some seemingly innocuous thing that, though small enough to slip past my vigilance, turns monstrous in the hyperbolic lens of a child, and my protection proves inadequate.

I remember being at a hardware store with my father when I was about four years old. As we were standing at the glass counter, making a purchase, an alarm sounded. I still do not know what this alarm was meant to indicate, but it threw my four year-old nervous system into a state of panic. I looked around and wondered if I had done something wrong or pushed a forbidden button. I searched the faces of the adults up above me for clues about what was happening and was further confused by the fact that none seemed perturbed. The rest of the memory is muddled, and obviously my intense internalization of the situation was irrational, but I have never forgotten my pounding heart. Perhaps because I remember so many instances in my childhood in which I floundered in my lack of perspective and hypersensitivity I am now especially aware of a child’s limited ability to contextualize. I constantly try to help Esme grasp her experiences in order to spare her from this horrible feeling insofar as I can, until, bit by bit, her scope of experience expands to include a wider variety of happenstance. But already I perceive the limit of my powers as arbiter.

If my parental fears have any practical application at all, it would be as a window onto my own fears, a means of knowing myself better.

Because Esme is typically happy. She seems as well-adjusted a toddler as I could hope, open to unfamiliar people, brave, wandering far from me on the playground, taking tumbles without dismay. But of course there are moments which defy her resources. More than once when I have left the vacuum cleaner out she has wandered up to explore it, switched it on unwittingly, and then dashed away, flapping her hands in horror when it roars into life. I cringe when I witness her face register the shock waves of the seemingly terrible. During a recent bathtime, I was sitting on the edge of the tub while she stubbornly kept trying to stand up in the water, and I tried to dissuade her. Sure enough, she slipped and hit her nose. To her horror, and to mine at first, it bled, and she climbed in my lap, drenching me in bath water, tears, and spotting my now wet jeans with bright red blood. Jeff came in and we tried to soothe her, dry her off, stop the bleeding, and demonstrate by our reaction that what had happened, like the sound of a vacuum, was not as bad as it seemed. I had so many bloody noses as a child, from softballs deflecting off my glove and clocking me in the face or poorly executed bottle rockets off of slippery diving boards, that I eventually became brazenly smug toward all variety of nosebleeds.

I wish I could say that after thirty years of life I am similarly toughened to moments of debilitating self-doubt like the one in the hardware store. But self-doubt returns to me again and again. Again and again I irrationally internalize false alarms for which I am not truly responsible. It only recently dawned on me that this emotion, in its varying forms, is the precise phantom–my pet phantom–that I want to rescue Esme from ever encountering. I want to spare her from ever feeling like confidence turns its face from her, that life is painfully confounding, and uncomfortably weird. But even as an adult with much thicker skin I cannot save myself from feeling this way from time to time. A misfiring alarm in a hardware store would not phase me, but other design flaws, just as ordinary, albeit more humanly complex, can throw me into system overload. I try to achieve that elusive thing called perspective, but the horizon recedes. Some days this makes me feel merely self-pitying, but on other unfortunate occasions I feel like I have just pressed a red button that is going to bring the roof down over mine and everyone’s head.

And what do I do to cope with this but analyze? I burden myself by looking for insights which will supposedly banish uncomfortable uncertainties. I plaster the cracks in my personality with home remedies. I think if I flap my wings hard enough I will find a perch from which to look down upon this uneven land with a dispassionate eye.

I am in the habit of thinking that confidence is what I lack, the one thing I need. So naturally, I am fascinated and intrigued by confident people, the way they appear unfettered by the nexus of concerns that so bog me down. I am at home, sitting cross-legged on the floor with a pencil, filling in details in my notebook about the world and its inhabitants, second guessing my conclusions. Meanwhile, the confident person sits at a desk, commanding and streamlining within a tidy sphere of influence, never doubting, always professional, upbeat.

I envy that person at the desk but in my heart I do not really want to trade places. I do not really believe that confidence for its own sake is a virtue, any more than I believe that self-doubt is virtuous. And in any case, why would I want to trade in one hubris for another when I am already so well-acquainted with the pitfalls of being me?

Recently my friend Kristy hosted a gathering of women at her house. All were mothers, and there were at least five pregnant women there as well. The topic of fear came up– fear for one’s children–which is probably the universal experience of motherhood, though I am sure that the content of a mother’s worry is broad in kind. Kristy gave us each a slip of paper with a prayer from St. Gregory the Theologian which says:

“Without you, not one footstep can we place, Lord Christ, for mortals source of every good; you are yourself our straight path through the world.”

I love this prayer for presenting me with the image of Christ as a path, with the world on either side– the world of my thoughts, fears, anxieties, misconceptions, false perceptions, and inborn faults.

This Lent, I want to escape the absurd homework assignments I am always giving myself, the essays and algorithms. I want to develop the habit of sitting down, being patient, and holding the person of Christ before me as much as I can, until anxiety falls away on either side.

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  1. anna j
    March 19, 2008

    I must return your last comment now, to express my gratitude for the comfort you have just given me: in an unexpected way this post hit home. Though not dealing with motherhood, I am spending my days intensely hyperaware of my new position here in my new locale . . . I incessantly analyze my “performance,” wondering how I’m doing each aspect of my job here and worrying about everyone’s perceptions of me.
    But of course, it is not a burden that should be borne: as the prayer so sweetly reminds, it is a burden that Christ is bearing for me.
    So thank you, dear, for your ever-eloquent reminder.

  2. Manuela
    March 19, 2008

    So beautiful, Julia. I love the prayer of Christ being the “STRAIGHT path through this world”. Lately I have often been sitting down thinking that the burden of my thoughts is too much to carry on. The path does not seem straight but full of obstacles and turns. I want to see what comes next but I can’t. “Christ as the path”, I hope this image will stick with me and I, too, can sit down and let Christ deal with the obstacles and let him lead me through the winding roads which then will seem straight.

    You have a great gift, Julia. You can reach many with your words.
    Don’t let anything hinder you from getting out there. Write, write, write as much as you can. It’s a treasure.

  3. Ser
    March 20, 2008

    This is so beautiful, Julia. I find parenting hard for so many reasons, and the fact that it is continually revealing to me my own weaknesses is one of them. I also find it so grounding, though, to always have the mundane tasks of child rearing to ground me when I begin to flounder around in self-doubt.

  4. Jenny
    March 22, 2008


    Beautiful. Just beautiful!