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Reading Matters

Doug Wilhelm is a full-time writer and an independent publisher in Weybridge, Vemont. His newest book is the novel STREET OF STORYTELLERS (Rootstock, 2019). His 15 previous novels for young adults include THE REVEALERS (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2003), which has been the focus of reading-and-discussion projects in well over 1,000 middle schools.

When we hit the barrier of fear

There’s a slim book, still quite popular though it was published almost 25 years ago, that’s titled Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway. It has helped and encouraged a lot of people. I read it years ago, and I remember that you really just need to read the title. That’s the message. On this week after Labor Day, as the country struggles with the start of a school year that’s way too burdened, way too uncertain and so very frightening, I remember that title. I wish I had more to offer. What can anyone offer but compassion and encouragement? We should have been in a different place by now but we aren’t; it’s not fair, it’s very scary, and people all over the country are just doing it anyway.

My teacher friends are stressed to the very edge of coping. One told me she submitted her resignation on a Tuesday, the week before school started, then withdrew it on Wednesday. I live in a college town that’s tense with anxiety as the students come back to campus and go through the testing, the waiting, the supposed quarantining. We see clusters of college-age kids on the street or outside a cafe and wonder: Are they following the rules? At a normal time they’d be here to experiment with choices, after all. Will their choices today spread the contagion? There’s fear and anxiety everywhere.

The first night I had covid-19 last April, I couldn’t take a full breath. About two-thirds of the way it hit a barrier of pain in the lungs. There was that pain, and there was the fear. Would this grow tighter, like a curtain slowly closing? I didn’t know anyone, at that point, who’d had the virus. I had no way to know.

What I found I could do, that first night, was accept the fear. Panicking would only make the breath come tighter and faster. If I stayed with things just as they were, I still hit the pain but I could breathe. I could. I arranged pillows so my head was higher, and I tried my best to just take it breath by breath. That was all I could do, but it was something. Breath by breath I did settle down, and I got through the night. And the next day, and the next.

Driving yesterday, I saw a sign: “We WILL get through this.” And when we have, we will owe a debt beyond measure to those who worked through the endless-seeming exhaustion, uncertainty and fear because they had to. Because we needed them. It may be a wan hope, but I do hope we will come through this with a new sense of what community means, what interconnectedness is. We will have a whole lot to rebuild, and we can only do that together.


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