My mother pulls the long cord of connected metal beads that hang to the right of the dining room drapes, long beige fabric panels patterned with forest vines. They overhang the sliding glass doors that open to the painted concrete steps of our back patio. Outside, maple leaves edged in gold hint at fall, and giant marigolds tip heavily toward the lawn. Only a few miles from our house in Maryland, Gerald Ford has announced his pardon of Richard Nixon.

Mamma lifts her hands one above the other and closes off the view of the back yard. Late Saturday morning, and I have come upstairs from watching tv alone. Only Mamma and I are home, giving the morning that forever feeling, stark, like when I was small and home with her all day. Daddy must be on a weekend shift at the Weather Bureau, and, at eight, I am either too young or too hesitant to be included in whatever my big sisters are doing this morning. I am bored. I’ve watched Lynda Carter grasp the magical Egyptian bracelet on her wrist and declare, Almighty Isis! And she spins around and around, unblurring into “Wonder Woman,” resplendent in a gold bathing suit, ready to do good. Mamma is wearing cleaning clothes, a cotton top and an old pair of old pants with mud stains on the knees from the summer’s vegetable garden. Her clothes telegraph that that she is not going out, no shopping or errands today, just a determination to get something done in this house.

She pulls a dining room chair in front of the closed drapes and stands up on it, then reaches her short arms up to where the curtains hang in a smooth-running track. What are you doing? I ask. These are dirty, so I am taking them down and washing them. Her Icelandic accent, even directed into the soft fabric, sounds sharp. How do curtains get dirty? I ask, but I know this is my father’s question. He might hold a cold can of Stroh’s as Mamma fills a bucket with soapy water, and opine The floor looks fine to me. Why wash it? Cleaning is something my mother prefers to do alone, if she can.

But she answers my question. They get dirty from dust, and from people pulling on them with dirty hands instead of opening them the right way, by pulling the cord. Mamma removes each metal hook from the top of the curtains and hands them to me to put on the dining room table. Keep them together, don’t drop them. Then she hugs the fabric panels close to her slim middle and walks with them downstairs to the laundry room.

The patio doors look naked and bereft, the rod like an accusing eyebrow over a blank stare. When I was little, I made a private world between the drapes and the panes of sliding glass. Invisible from inside the house, I could see out into the world but still be sheltered and warmed. But this Saturday I am twice as old as I was when the dining room’s leafy green plants were a jungle surrounding my other-world hiding place.

Later, still bored, I go to the basement laundry room. My sullen mood shifts to a desire to be helpful, so I heave the heavy, wet drapes out of the washing machine and stuff them into the black mouth of the electric dryer. I push the start button and walk away with my shoulders back, feeling grown up and responsible. An hour later, I am in my straightened room when I hear Mamma approach. Her feet land on the floor with the weight of a bureaucrat’s stamp. She is angry.

Arriving at my door, she asks, Did you touch the curtains?  I nod. Come here, and look what you have done!  I follow her into the dining room. The curtains are hanging in front of the glass doors again, but they look all wrong, shorter than they should be and puckered in places where they are supposed to be smooth. These never go in the dryer! They are ruined!  The drapes hang six inches above where they usually meet the floor. I stand in front of her as she glares at me. A light film of perspiration shines her face. The drapes had been so pretty, the long brown fabric that I used to hide behind, pretending to climb the upward-reaching vines. Blood rushes to my feet. My face flushes, then tingles to marble.

All day, my pallor and stiffness linger. And Mamma is sorry. She walks me back to the dining room and shows me that the drapes have stretched down again, almost to the floor. They have lengthened and smoothed themselves out. They are okay—see?  Her voice is soft and her eyes look at me like a warm day. She is sad for me, but she can’t undo my shock or the way I pulled her anger inside my body. Her rage of the morning is tucked under my jaw line and layered behind my eyebrows. Frozen inside me and scraping against the calcium of my bones is knowledge of my capacity to ruin. I will need to be careful. Forever.



I am an anxious person who loves adventure sports. This paradox makes for some thrilling days, days that can ricochet between panic and transcendence.

It’s been over a year since I skied Headwall, off the High Lift at Crested Butte. This year has been defined by the things I fear most, by suffering and by death on a global scale. Every conversation these days starts with It’s been a year since… A year since the first deaths in Colorado, a year since every decision became framed by the pandemic. But that February morning at Crested Butte, looking at heaps of soft, fresh snow, Covid 19 was not in my head at all.

I was with my friend Carl, an expert skier with an unflappable temperament and generous spirit. At the entry to High Lift, signs adorned with double black diamonds warn “expert terrain only”; photos of the steep and rocky terrain that is the only way down from this very high place are meant to discourage beginners. An advanced intermediate skier, I can get down anything if I go slowly and don’t give in to fear. Still, I try not to look too closely at the warnings. 

The High Lift at Crested Butte is, in fact, a tow line, an inverted metal “t” hanging from a long cable strung above the hill. Each side of the “t” snugs under the hips of a standing skier or snowboarder, who is then tugged upward, feet gliding over snow toward the azure sky.

I am not chasing adrenalin. I just want to see the beautiful, remote places. At the top of High Line, a panorama greets me: the peaks of the continental divide are mile upon mile of white cathedral spires outlined in heavenly blue. I am awash in the feeling I used get to singing in church. A stillness, a time-stopping majesty, tells me I am so small, yet I am part of something enormous. Looking around, I feel like I could drop upward into the bright foreverness of sky. Instead, I just have to figure out a way just to get down.

I follow Carl as he glides left around an escarpment to the top of a steep hillside covered in thick trees. At first, I only see their tops, a pokey carpet of snow dusted evergreens. But then I glance down into the forested abyss. Immediately, vertigo starts my legs shaking. I don’t need to descend through that steep forest, simply traverse above it on clear tracks. But my legs will not budge. No matter what I tell them, they refuse to make the sharp right turn onto the trail. Anxiety says to sit down, and I obey. Then, to turn my skis in the right direction, I swing them up over my my head. One ski lands where I need it to, but the other makes it only half way before planting its tail into deep snow. I breathe and try to calm myself, try to not care that “real” skiers may see me floundering here on Headwall.

You can’t force fright away, can’t make the wise body do something that seems to threaten it with extinction. It takes years to trick the mind into accepting risk. It takes hundreds of repetitions without mishap to convince the fatty brain that what it sees in a place like Headwall will not lead to disaster. I twist and I tug, and finally I yank my ski tail up out the snow. One more breath, and I am standing on both skis. I navigate slowly toward the rectangle of reassuring brown that is Carl’s jacket, and we are ready to go.

A narrow chute opens on the left, holding two or three VW beetle-sized moguls. The steepest pitch I’ve ever stood on, I can reach my arm without leaning and touch the sloped wall of snow next to me. Carl waits below, looking across the beautiful snowy expanse. As I scootch inelegantly downward, he calls to me, Good job! I make one real turn, then stop for a breath, and make one more. Carl skis, and I slog, until we are off the steep pitch and on a single black diamond that is beautifully spacious, joyfully ski-able.

Later that day and the next, I start connecting turns on big moguls. “Easier than Headwall” becomes a mantra. Everything is easier after Headwall.

A year later, our minds and the world have been irrevocably changed by the horrors of Covid 19. This year, Carl and I ride the lift in masks, unloading at the top of Kachina Peak, above Taos, New Mexico. A light wind riffles prayer flags, and the Sangre de Cristo mountains glow in the morning light. Trees don’t grow here, over 12,000 feet above sea level, but fear does. If I didn’t have three layers of pants on to protect from wind chill, my knee caps would be clacking like castanets. I stand at the top of a wall and look down once again at my implacable friend, gazing contentedly around while he waits for me. But looking down sends a ripple of anxiety shooting through my belly and up to my heart, which is beating less like a waltz and more like 80’s disco. Breathe, I tell myself, out loud. Look where you want to go, which, unfortunately for my fright, is down. Just make one turn. I look uphill to make sure a real skier isn’t swoosh-dancing between the moguls and straight into my frightened self. But a moment later, I make a turn. I breathe all the way to the bottom. Still a little rattled, I smile and say to Carl, Wow, fun!

But I don’t want to do it again. I don’t want ever again to be on Kachina Peak with my knees knocking.

Do I?

What if I’m less scared doing it again? I ask the patient hubby as we catch up in our hotel room that afternoon. I don’t want to only do the hard part and miss out on the fun part!

So the next day, Carl and I ride up to Kachina Peak again. When we ski it this time and the next, my breath is taken by beauty instead of by fright. The rest of the day rolls out with a sense of wonder and reprieve. I will remember this lesson in fear as one of the biggest of the pandemic year, the year that never seemed to end but now seems to offer hope.


I’m Not Scared!!

Halloween morning, three days until the election, and I ask the same question I ask every year—isn’t the world scary enough without putting goblin heads on our front doors? Even without Trump and Covid–two frights that only make each other worse–I am a chicken. Don’t say Boo to me—my startle reflex is so tightly wrapped that seeing the word carved into a pumpkin can make me jump out of my skin. And I worry.  I worry about so many small things (mice, socks, humidifiers) that I can barely make room for the big things (elections, democracy, climate). But the big things pervade, and nothing dominates the aptly-named “Breaking News” today than the soaring number of Covid cases. Rising community spread in Denver is enough to keep me home on a sunny day, but it’s time to refill my Ativan prescription.

I’m lucky that Ativan works for my anxiety (along with exercise, meditation, and the occasional self-hating rant). It’s a drug that is easy to abuse, and I know it helps me most if I use it only a couple of times a week and don’t think of it too often. It’s the difference between, say, a cute acquaintance at the coffee shop and a full-blown romantic obsession.

Today, I go to a neighborhood pharmacy where, two days earlier, they gave me someone else’s medication. (Yes, I worried about that person, and no, I didn’t mistakenly take their pills.) The only problem with my prescription is how much worry it causes me to stand in line at the pharmacy, so this second trip, on a busy Saturday morning, has shallowed my breath and dampened my palms. I have picked up a couple of bags of candy for possible trick-or-treaters, some worry-reducing ballpoint pens, and sensitivity toothpaste because I’m a very, very sensitive person. Before my turn in line, I realize that in my bike pouch outside I have left my cell phone, neatly bundled with all of my plastic and $70 cash. It’s still there when I go back for it. I resume my place in line.

The pharmacist is kind, apologetic, practically oozing with her own concern that the person behind me in line is my lawyer. I verbally confirm my name, birthdate, and phone number, but the small beads of sweat breaking out on my forehead confirm my diagnosis: anxious AF. The pharmacist hands me a $25 gift certificate and a $10 cash refund. I hand them back to her to pay for my purchases, then sanitize my hands and thank her profusely.

Making my way to the exit, prescription and pens and Halloween candy in hand, I pass less than six feet behind an older white man and say, I’m right behind you, so sorry. He turns to me and loudly replies, nose jauntily uncovered by his mask, Why are you sorry? I’m not afraid!  Me either, Mister, me either.