Fear of heights, fear of spiders: common, understandable, have some kind of word that ends in -aphobia associated with them. Fear of commitment, fear of letting go, fear of trust: common, understandable, frequent topics on The View, Sex and the City (are we still referencing that show?) and the girlblogs … almost always associated with men. But fear of being you?
Today, in the age of the “fearless woman”, it is easy to believe that everyone is independent and brave – boldly going wherever the hell they please. Everyone but you that is. Why don’t we tell each other how our stomach knots up when entering a restaurant alone, when speaking up at work, when standing up for ourselves with our mates … and all those other times when we absolutely know there is nothing to be afraid of, that all we want is to be ourselves in any situation but we are still gripped with trepidation.
Or maybe it is just me.
Recently, I was on my way home from a house-hunting excursion in Vermont and decided to stop for coffee at MoJo’s Café in the little village of Sugar Hill, New Hampshire. An adorable young man directed me to the only public restroom (in the grocery store across the street), and said he would have a fresh pot of coffee ready for me when I got back. I quickly used the ladies room/utility closet in Mac’s Market, found my hot coffee waiting for me at the café and a fresh-baked gluten free cookie to have with it on the long ride home.
Expect that’s not how it happened.
That’s the type of easy-going, carefree scenario I read with great envy in solo female traveler stories.
Here’s how it went down for me.
I had planned to stop in Littleton because there is a cool vintage shop there called Just L and figured I’d pick up a coffee nearby. The shop was great, but forty-minutes and about forty bucks later there was no coffee to be had in downtown Littleton. At least I didn’t see any; and I didn’t even think to ask anyone.
I got back on the highway before I realized I had to pee and there was no rest area in sight… and damn did I need a cup of coffee. So I got off at the next exit and drove west and then east, searching. Nothing, not even a town – another ten minutes wasted and I was getting cranky … and a bit desperate. I took the very next exit to Sugar Hill and spied some semblance of a village to the right of the intersection, but I didn’t recognize anything – no familiar pink & brown of Dunkin’ Donuts – so I drove straight. It was only a mile or so before I knew I had to turn around.
Yes, I am a middle-aged woman with two marriages, two children, and two college degrees behind me, but I am still afraid of unfamiliar things. No, that’s not it. I am afraid of interacting with people in a way I’m not used to. In this case, the automated way of the drive through; the “Place Your Order Here” exchange. Arggh! How many times have I faced my fears in my professional life? Overcome fears in my personal life? And yet ….
So, I turned left at the Intersection towards the village. Fifty feet later, I parked the car entered this incredibly threatening coffee shop called MoJo’s. A mean and scary boy with a wry smile and dreadlocks asked me what kind of coffee I wanted – “mocha, latte, espresso?”, and I said “just coffee”. And I had to say “coffee” three times because I guess no one gets coffee in a cool coffee shop that sells vinyl records in a corner and is called MoJo’s.
Deep breath. Keep it together, Catherine.
The truth is, the boy behind the counter was adorable and very kind … and it was wigging me out. Because … well, because I guess I wanted them to like me, but how could they like this middle aged white girl wanna be hippie with the brand new Marmot jacket and anchor woman haircut? So much kindness, I just wanted to leave, but I went to the self-serve coffee counter to pump a regular cup of coffee, only to be greeted with the spit and sputter of the empty carafe. Sigh. I looked up and the boy said “I’ll brew you a fresh pot. It will only take two minutes.” Denied immediate gratification and in order to avoid further pleasantries, I asked if they had a bathroom. “No,” he said, “but there’s one across the street at Mac’s – not the clown store, the grocery store.” (could he really have said clown store?).
I put up my new Marmot hood to protect my anchor woman hair against the rain and ran across the street to Mac’s. And because I’m in a store, I have to look at things. And because I looked at things, I remembered that I didn’t buy the beer in St. Johnsbury – the special beer I like and I was beating myself for that now too. I had hit the wall and almost started to cry. Over beer that couldn’t be spilt because I didn’t have it and because I still had to return to the nice people at the café who were probably still laughing at my bright shiny new jacket.
The coda to this story, of course, is that there was never anything to be afraid of. It is far more likely that the counter help at MoJo’s had no interest in judging me and nothing to say about me after I left. And, they were perfectly lovely. When I returned from Mac’s, my fresh brewed coffee was waiting for me and there were cookies! And a guy, who looked like Tommy Chong, came out of the kitchen as I was putting the cookie in my mouth and trying to pay, and said “whoa, those cookies are awesome” (just like you are hearing it in your head, only without the “dude” suffix).
I’ll never be sure why I felt – and will probably always feel -- the way I did that day, i.e. alone without friends, shy, inadequate – when not one of these is actually true. The silver lining here is, of course, that I know if I feel this way, I am not the only one. And neither are you. Being afraid is okay, not matter how silly … but you absolutely must take the turn at the intersection from time to time, regardless. Else you might not discover your MoJo.