The Hard, Scary Things
“In this life, it’s the hard things, the scary things, that get you where you need to be.”
I’ve said this to myself, my kids, my husband, countless times. Put it on my tombstone – that is how strongly I believe it. And I know it's true because I've lived it.
The first hard thing that registers in my memory happened when I was 13. I took a test to get into one of New York City’s most elite public high schools. And I got in. Going there meant leaving the neighborhood I knew so well -- Sunset Park -- and getting on a subway to go to Downtown Brooklyn. Downtown. (We didn’t even call it Fort Greene then. It was just “Downtown.”) I might as well have been in Nebraska for how close I felt to Downtown Brooklyn.
So here was the choice: If I didn’t go to Brooklyn Tech, I’d go to my zone school: John Jay High School. Not only did this school have a notoriously bad reputation, but most of my friends were zoned for a different school so I'd be heading there on my own. I had to choose: the big, elite school all the way in Downtown Brooklyn, or the scary, burnout school in Park Slope of all places. (Park Slope in the 1980s is not Park Slope today.)
My parents left the decision to me. Yes, it was a subway ride. Yes, all the kids were smart. It would be challenging. I could take the risk, or I could do the easy thing.
And so at 13, I decided to do the hard, scary thing. In the process, I learned what it was to not be the smartest kid in the room. I met kids from around the city, from all different ethnic, cultural, and religious backgrounds. Most important of all, I met my future husband. Hard things? I learned early they are usually pushing you towards your destiny.
Speaking of future husband... When I was 16 and there was a boy who I couldn't stop thinking about, whose attention I craved like a drug, my emotions scared me. Did I have the courage to act on them? Pursuing romance always comes with risk: What if it's an unrequited love? But my hesitation was rooted in a basic, superficial fact: he was brown and I was white, and we were still years away from seeing an interracial family in every laundry detergent commercial. I didn’t know any interracial couples, at least not any adults. Our society was not comfortable with it yet, nor were our families. He and I both got the "it'll just be easier to stay with your own kind" conversations. I remember playing mental ping pong about this. Could I date a brown guy? I thought, and assessed, and simultaneously felt myself falling deeper and deeper in love. As scary as this relationship was, I realized the real risk lie in walking away. And so I learned how to ignore the stares, the confused looks, the snide comments. I learned how to sit on the floor for hours at a pooja (Hindu religious ceremony), how to eat without utensils (right hand only), and how to maintain my own identity while also assimilating into an entirely new family and, new world. Hard, scary, but also the greatest decision of my life.
When I was 23 years old I was fired from my first reporting job. I was sure that this mark against me would make me unemployable, especially in journalism. But somehow I found the guts to apply, and apply, and apply for another newspaper gig. And I got one, and it brought me to do work that to this day I am incredibly proud of.
At 30, I had the guts to decide to become a mother even though I was sure I wouldn’t be good at it. At 31, when my husband (the brown guy -- we got married when I was 25!) got a job offer that allowed us to move closer to family, we left our burgeoning careers and sold our first house (at a loss) to move to Rockaway Beach at a time when no one was moving to Rockaway Beach, a community that had two grocery stores, four restaurants, and failing schools, but a beautiful beach and space enough for our kids to stretch out as they grew up. Years later, when my daughter had her opportunity to go the great school in a far-away neighborhood, the express bus that took her there had a stop right on our corner. Could I have planned for that? No. Did it feel like a reward for having taken a risk? Yes.
When I was 32 and a doctor told me that I was at risk of miscarrying my son, and the only way to prevent that was to take daily injections of blood thinners, I held my breath as my husband found new, unbruised spots on my hip to deliver the daily, stinging dose. When he had to travel for a family emergency, I summoned all my courage to deliver the injections myself. It was hard and it was scary, but nine months later my perfect, healthy, nearly 7 pound son was placed on my chest.
When I was 39, a hurricane destroyed half my house. This time the scary thing was done to me, and the hard part was moving past it, and my resentment, and figuring out how to rebuild a house as well as a life.
At 45, when my husband was laid off from his job, I worked as many hours as I could to replace as much of his income as I could. When I woke up in the middle of the night, filled with doubt and fear over how we would make it through another month, and then another, I fought back those feelings. I took that fear and squashed it, sometimes screamed it out. Going from secondary to sole breadwinner was scary, but I did it and it got us through. Just like with the hurricane, sometimes the scary things are not a choice. But previous success primes you for future wins, and that knowledge helped me to manage.
Chronicling these experiences has made me wonder: What comes next? As I approach 50, I wonder if I’ve come to a place where I’ve stopped challenging myself with the scary things. Just doing what’s expected, achieving what is available, seems so—manageable. Easy. Especially after a decade that included a hurricane, job loss, a pandemic, and raising teenagers, what is wrong with a manageable and easy life?
Nothing, except – it doesn’t get you to where you need to be. Where you should be. Where you deserve to be.
What scary thing is next for me? I don’t quite know, but I feel something is brewing. I’ve never been one for monotony or complacency. My experience has been that if an opportunity presents itself, say yes. Because life has a way of moving you towards where you are supposed to be, so long as you have the courage to do the hard, scary things.