In the acclaimed Broadway musical, The King and I, British teacher Anna Leonowens travels to Siam (now Thailand) where she serves as tutor to the Siamese King’s many children. Anna’s young son bemoans his trepidation over his new home and his mother’s stern supervisor. Anna gives him some advice that I love to sing along with whenever I hear the song playing on Sirius Broadway. She tells him~
“Whenever I feel afraid,
I hold my head erect
And whistle a happy tune
So no one will suspect
Make believe you’re brave,
And the truth will take you far.
You may be as brave
As you make believe you are.”
I’m sure Anna was just as nervous as her son was about leaving England alone, a newly widowed mother. It was probably scary for her to travel halfway across the world to work in a far-off land for a stern King whose cultural expectations were quite different from anything she knew. Her trick for dealing with her fear was simple – Whistle.
We’re all afraid of something, and we all have tricks to deal with our anxieties.
As a child, my brother and I experienced what we and our parents believed was a near abduction. The creepy man who chased after us down a cloaked path to a quiet park one summer afternoon denied any unkind intentions when he was questioned later. Our suspicions remained nevertheless. The paralyzing fear that shot cold through my veins that hot summer day, chilling my cheeks and my limbs as they pumped for dear life, has also remained. It’s dormant most of the time, but at the right moment, it can rear its creepy head into any experience and freeze me.
You see, at the end of the path, I turned one way and raced through the woods toward home.
Without discussing his planned escape route, my brother had run in the other direction, toward the playground and the backs of neighbor’s houses. When I made it back to my home, breathless and hysterical, I thought my brother had been kidnapped. Words spilled from my mouth, probably unintelligibly, as my mother stood gaping at me from behind her shower curtain, trying to figure out what had scared me into such a state before throwing a towel around herself and hurrying to call the cops.
Even though everything worked out that day, the fear of strangers stuck with me. Most of the time, I’m totally functional, outgoing, and independent. But, when I’m caught in a bout of paranoia, my overly imaginative brain can conjure some doozies about who’s going to break into my house when I’m alone and what their sinister plans might be.
Like Anna’s son, fear attacks me when I travel alone, especially to new places.
It’s kind of a conundrum, because I love to travel alone to new places! I’ve been halfway across the world by myself, flown to France and Italy alone to visit family. Being by myself allows me to take in people and places in a way that’s not possible when I’m accompanied by my kids or husband or even friends. I enjoy traveling with others as well but being alone is satisfying in a different way, undistracted. So, the anxiety I experience before and during a trip is really annoying.
I nearly always almost cancel.
But then I don’t.
I stand in line at security at the airport and imagine all kinds of stories. Someone’s following me. Someone’s a terrorist. Someone’s a serial killer. And, of course, I’m the target.
Every situation has the potential to be a risk.
Hotel elevators- perfect place to subdue and abduct a person.
Taxi- the driver is definitely part of a sex traffic ring (so he’d choose a 40 year old woman to abduct, right? Now, that’s some logic.)
A semi-deserted street in mid-afteroon in Anycity, Anystate – crazy people prowling for victims.
It’s really maddening.
Only recently did I finally discover my own trick to conquer fear. When on a trip to New York City with my girls, my oldest was battling her own anxieties, and she was fearful of getting into a taxi with a driver who was a stranger to her. I told her – just talk to the guy. When you realize a person’s humanity, you find likeness in him. You see him not as a taxi-driving stranger but as a person. Someone’s husband or father. Someone who’s traveled far from home to make a better life for his family. Someone who likes to eat pizza with mushrooms on it, just like you.
By teaching my daughter this, I realized it was actually my trick. When I’m afraid, I talk to people. I find human connections, and my fear evaporates.
I believe that we are here on this Earth for the sole purpose to connect with other people, to learn from them and to teach them. I believe that fear blocks opportunities for connection, but when we push through the blockades and reach out to strangers, we break barriers and build meaningful and purposeful experiences that stay with us.
In other words, my taxi-driver has something to teach me, and if I’m too afraid to talk to him, I’m missing out.
This past weekend I traveled alone to Chicago for C2E2, a comic and entertainment conference. As usual, I performed the same song and dance of “should I go?” and “what if?” but eventually made it on the plane. The first leg of the trip, I was jittery. The airline lost my luggage, and I was exhausted and I didn’t know Midway airport at all. I had to get a taxi to my hotel, and the taxis in Chicago looked altogether different from the yellow ones I was used to in NYC. Suspicious! (Insert eye-roll emoji here.)
Finally, sans luggage, I slipped into the seat of my cab, where my driver was chatting on speaker with his son. This made me feel comfortable, because the guy was a dad. Still, crazy thoughts jumped around in my mind about what could happen if this stranger took me somewhere other than my hotel. What if he was only posing as a taxi-driver and was actually a creep? I pushed the inane thoughts away and started chatting with my driver once he was off the phone.
When I face my fear of strangers and being alone I am rewarded with beautiful people and experiences that seem driven into my life by God and fate. This guy was inspiration, personified.
He was unusually chatty for a taxi-driver. Usually, I have to ask all of the questions, but Ammikhi was generous with his conversation, telling me about his kids who live in Israel, his talented dancer daughter, his headstrong son who plays basketball, and his youngest son who has a big gregarious heart like his dad. We shared the headaches and triumphs of raising tweens, and he gave me some good advice.
He asked me about my career in writing and I told him a little. He seemed especially interested in my Whisper Trilogy, which is fiction - spiritual warfare for teens. We discovered that we both have a strong belief in a higher power and that we both believe in the idea of unseen forces that lead us in certain directions while we’re here on Earth. Some good forces, some evil. It was a deep and spiritual conversation to be having with someone I’d just met. He then shared that he is a rap artist who writes “positive rap music.” I came to understand, through our conversations, that everything Ammikhi does is done to spread positive energy, righteousness, and love in the world. He’s just a really awesome soul with a talent for writing and performing awesome rhymes.
“I’ve got kids,” he said about his rap, which contains no curse words or violence. A huge smile stretched across his shiny face. “I can’t be doing that. You know what I’m saying?”
I totally did.
He played one of his songs for me – ‘Stay,’ and I loved it. The tune was catchy and soulful, and the rap was beautiful, a testament to what he believes about love relationships and how we should interact with our partners. I immediately purchased it from itunes and have listened to it several times since.
My 45 minute drive with Ammikhi was purposeful. I feel like he was meant to remind me that the unknown – people and experiences – don’t have to be foreboding. A stranger can become a friend or adviser in the space of a cab ride. Common threads twine through strangers’ lives, connecting us. Our unique life lessons can be imparted, paid forward with our hearts and our tongues. Sometimes our stories are the best gifts we give.
Ammikhi set the tone for my trip to Chicago. Once my head was reset and my anxiety had evaporated, I met each new experience and person (even the ones wearing detailed alien costumes and toting weapons) with a positive attitude. Some amazing people graced my life over the weekend. I was able to meet my fellow Pandamoon authors and Mindsoak colleagues in person, which was really cool because I’ve interacted closely with them online for almost two years. “Comicon” would not typically be my thing, but after being reminded that all experiences, even the most unlikely ones, have purpose for my life, I walked into C2E2, a.k.a. Crazytown, with an open mind, ready to share with others about my books and writing and ready to learn whatever I could from a myriad of superheroes and villains – 162,000 on Saturday to be exact.
When I contacted Ammiki to ask him to drive me back to the airport on Sunday, he was glad to agree to do so. He has a super-strong work ethic and a positive outlook on working. He asked if he could purchase all four of my books, and when I offered to gift them to him, he refused, said he wanted to support good people who spread good messages. I proudly signed them and sold them to him, feeling like we each had a piece of each other as a memory of our short time together. He has my words, and I have his music!
Now, every time I listen to Stay or think of Ammikhi, I am reminded that there’s always opportunity for comfort and purpose and wonder, even in the sometimes scary shadow of the unknown.