Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Starting Without Fear

A while ago, at the Royal Ontario Museum I went to the public restroom. Just before I came out of the stall I heard a high clear voice say, “Who’s going to get me soap?”
I walked out and saw a little girl with blonde hair and blue eyes, the arms of her white sweatshirt rolled up as she stood at the sink. She couldn’t reach the soap dispenser. I wasn’t sure to whom she had addressed the question. The room was empty except for the two of us.

“I can help with that,” I said and proceeded to offer her soap from my hands.

“What’s your name?” she asked as she scooped up some of the foam.

Seeing she couldn’t reach the faucet I pressed it down for her and replied, “Oriah.”

“I’m Dakota,” she offered promptly.

“Hi, Dakota.” She nodded and proceeded to rub her hands under the flowing water.

“And how many years old are you?” she asked in a matter of fact voice.

“Fifty-five,” I replied. She frowned a little and then held up four fingers. “Ah,” I said, “and you are four years old.” She nodded and moved over to the hand dryer putting her hands under the warm air. My own hands now washed and dried, I headed for the door.

"Good-bye Dakota. Nice to meet you.” She smiled and waved good-bye.

Just outside the doorway, a young man stood waiting. “I bet you’re waiting for Dakota.” He smiled and nodded, and I assured him she would be right out.

The incident could not have lasted more than three or four minutes but I keep going over it in my mind and smiling, wondering why it touched me so. Physically Dakota reminded me of myself at that age- I was also slight, blonde and blue-eyed. But Dakota was so at home in her own skin, it took my breath away. She was not trying to be precocious, or ingratiating or demanding. She needed soap and she couldn’t get any so she wondered out loud who was going to help her, and seemed to take my appearance as a reasonable answer to her question. She was confident but aware of her own limitations. She was curious but not invasive, willing to give whatever information she asked of the other. She was. . . . whole and at home with herself and the world in way I could not remember being as a child.

Thinking about Dakota I remember being the same age and visiting Buffalo NY to shop at Grant’s Department Store with my family. It was 1958, and I was carrying a small pink purse. As my grandmother and I waited for my grandfather at the entrance of the store, an elderly black gentleman walked up and squatted down in front of me smiling. I heard Nana gasp and felt her suddenly grab me and pull me back against her as she stepped away. I could feel the fear coursing through her body hitting mine like an electric shock. The gentleman looked up at her. His smile faded and he slowly shook his head as he held out my purse.

“Your little girl dropped this,” he said. He looked so tired and so sad I felt like crying, but I didn’t know why. I wanted to say something, but he quickly got up and walked away. I felt confused and embarrassed for my grandmother who just stood there, her body rigid, her arm across my chest pressing me against her.

Dakota was not afraid. I have no doubt that if anyone tried to harm her she could fight and yell for assistance very effectively. And of course she was too young to be there alone, and her guardian was close by. But she did not start from a place of fear. She did not expect me to be anything but helpful. No one had yet taught her to be afraid of everyone she did not know. My grandmother had been taught to be afraid of strangers, and a racist culture has taught her to be afraid of people- particularly men- of colour. I have been privileged to live in a city of such multi-cultural diversity that many of the fears she passed from her body to mine have been expunged and healed. But I remember them and how they affected me, how they put up a barrier to the other.

Encountering Dakota made me feel hopeful. Maybe we can raise children who do not approach unknown people or places or ways of being with fear and hostility. And maybe, if we do not meet the stranger with fear, we can get to know each other a little, can find ways to live and work together.


  1. You brought back soaring memories of how appalled my Dad was that I could bring home a black boy from school at 9 years old and call him my friend.

    He forbidded me to have him as a friend because he was black. I am sure my Father suspected, but I never gave up my friendship and continued to see him as a friend, but at his house after school, where his Mom readily accepted me as the white girl her son was friends with.

    I am grateful for my Granddaughters growing up that like you, we live in a very multicultrual country and times are changing slowly towards prejudicism, but they are at least changing.

    Brougham, Ontario, Canada

  2. Hi Oriah - power to you pen with the fiction - if it's what you want to do make it top priority and over come your resistance to the unknown - the extract you blogged must have struck a chord with many - how often have we wanted to walk away - but never quite done it - always an excuse.
    Dakota is growing up in Toronto - we were there last July from England - we only had to open a street map and passers by stopped to help - what nice people.
    David M

  3. I have watched the demon of fear control my mother's life for as long as I've known her. Recognizing it's familiarity in my own, I made a determination to manage it before it wrote the remaining chapters of mine. It is amazing how real the ILLUSIONS are! It requires a daily awareness and purposing to keep a clear, realistic and free spirit. Fear has significantly limited my ability to achieve both tangible success and spiritual rest. And I did not want to waste anymore time or opportunities to engage and build relationships with others no matter how brief or long our encounters may be. I stay away from the notion of "conquering" because it is rooted so deep.

    So, I suppose I am Re-starting without fear :-)

    Oriah, thank you for a beautiful reminder! What better way than the purest innocence of a child...


  4. Your comments about Dakota being so comfortable in her own skin, with her own self, resonated with me, not because that is the way I felt as a child, but precisely because it was not how I felt. I was very foreign to myself. I am just now, at age 50, beginning to understand that there is a depth to myself that I have not accessed. Stacie, Bel Air, MD USA

  5. Oriah...as usual you go deep into the reservoirs of my well...how well do these false realities that our families sometimes unknowingly pass on through their fears because it was not popular to face them weighed a heavy price if undetected. Everytime I looked into the faces of my beautiful multiculture children I am grateful of my choices, even moreso now that I have fearless grandchildren whereby I would have to literally teach racism if it were to exist within their nature...how refreshing to see what a New Generation looks like...thank-you God that I lived to see this day! Sacredflower / Greensboro, NC

  6. It's funny as I was reading this , I got the idea that perhaps the little girl was a part of you, or perhaps even a future self...I know I'm out there but as you were describing her,I really felt as though you were meeting a part of yourself...I am also 55 years of age and at this time in my life the questions you ask , all resonate deeply with me. As I see it... asking questions is one of the most precious attributes of a child....Perhaps she was you....grinning Jessie

  7. I loved this story because it is what I hope to see in my granddaughter who is only 17 months old now. I am 58 and was born and raised in the South with racism all around me. I remember the fear I felt as a small child, and as I grew older I was taught in Catholic school that racism was wrong. It felt wrong to me even then. When I was about 6 ot 7 yrs old there was a "chain gang" working on our street digging ditches. It was hot outside, and so I went up to each man, most were black men, and I took drink orders of milk or water that I brought back to them. I felt really good about my efforts buy my mother thought I had taken too big a risk. Afterall they were convicts. Maybe the risk was too great but the smile of appreciation on the face of one very large black man drinking a glass of milk left a life long impression on me. May we all overcome racism and other forms of hate in our lifetimes.

  8. I was fortunate to have been raised by grandparents who were very open and not racist at all. I had a black doll which my grandparents who raised me gave me. But I was raised with overprotection and fear. I always heard be careful, dont do that that wont make any money you cant be a couneslour you will burn out etc.
    but they always trusted people and I always have. . I work as a youth services librarian we have a group of homeless kids from 17-22. I lent a kid my shovel so he could make money to go west virginia to police academy. People thought it was a risk and I would not get my shovel. that is a small risk compared to many but I want to take those risks I want to believe in the good in people. If I did not live with my grandmother I would probably have brought a couple of them home. That would be a risk but sometimes we need a second chance. some of these kids need someone to step out on limb for them. I wish I was in the postion to do so.

  9. I would like to subscribe to your blog but there is no email subscription option. It would be nice if you could add one. Thank you.

  10. I read somewhere that there are only two driving forces, love and fear. How much we are ruled - and even more our rulers are ruled - by fear. Here in the UK parents are no longer allowed to take their chidren's friends to school events without police clearance: and they are not allowed to be with their own children in play parks (lest they start abusing other children there!) How do we move to a culture of trust, of love? I guess we have to start with ourselves.

  11. I just love the simplicity of your story and how you have the pen power to make us feel we are there - as well as the hope it displays. My partner of 20 years and I are a gay, middle-aged, English-speaking, Jewish couple - whose 9 year old son goes to a Christian English/Afrikaans school and we still (in this day and age) feel that fear of some harboring prejudice. Luckily we are comfortable in our skins and make no apology for who we are - as a result, we believe that being who we are has given many permission to also be honest with who they are (to us) ... whatever that may be - black, straight, happy, sad, lonely, successful, etc ... the friends we are blessed with proves it.

  12. Thanks so much for all the thoughtful comments. As to Sherri's request, I thought you had to bit subscribe and then set it up under one of the accounts. Is there another way to do this? I will look into it next week and see.

  13. Oriah, thank you for your story during a very "wakeful" moment. So refreshing to hear the beautiful kick start Dakota has at age 4 to feel so open, trusting of the world around her. If there is no "time" as we know it, for time is an illusion, and we are all connected, we are all one .... then Dakota is all of us:living our lives with openness, asking the questions and trusting the answers/help will come and most of all: the ability, even as adults, to start again, to lead with our hearts,no fear, and with joy and wonder see the world through the eyes of a child.

    Stephanie Needham
    Salmon Arm, British Columbia

  14. Oriah, it is my hope that we not only raise our children and grandchildren to be open but that we raise ourselves to be exactly what we aspire for them. Having grown up in an area of many prejudices and hearing those same closed and or closed mind utterings almost daily I strive to unravel the ball of yarn in my life that leaves lint, stray string and knots hoping to create a lovely garment - one size fits all. Thanks for sharing - it is only by noticing that we accept the seed of change. Pattie

  15. I have been thinking about that little girl here and there (and of course your words) and I have been wondering why does it leave such a sense of peace...that image of her asking you for assistance.... and then finally this morning it clicked for me: there is immense peace in letting go of our conditioned, attached fears. the possibilities are endless. thank you.

  16. Dearest Oriah, About 3 yrs. ago my dreams haunted me with ill felt feelings of a particular incident when I was growing up. My dreams were haunting so much so, I sought a recommended thearpist - whom I adore. She gave me your book, "Dance", her own addition with all its hi-lited places for me to read. I was honored she would share her own book and this lady has a similar voice to yours in more ways than one.
    Anyways, I have read everything you've written, that I can find, and you have given me hope I apparently have sought my whole life. I'm 54 now, and have purchased several copies of "Dance" to give to gals of various ages and are just struggling to "dare to dance".
    Your writtings are so heart felt and your words have allowed me more meaning of myself. If that makes sense.
    Anyways, this particular writing takes me back to so many memories as a child. We grew up in Ohio and people of colour went to school on the other side of town. We were courious my brother and I. My parents were horably racist. My father had this adorable man come to our house to build a fire place in our living room. My brother and I hid behind furniture to watch him and we would go off to talk about him. We loved his color and the fact that the bottom of his hands were lighter in color and I so wanted my hair to be qinky. Yes, we were scolded when caught.

    It's amazing the fear inside my parents or those who are racist in nature. They're truly afraid to think or deal with anything/anyone outside their selfish world.

    Thank you Oriah for your writings!!

  17. i grew up during the terrorist time in Namibia , Africa and have been very influenced by the apartheid regime...yes, we live with FEAR...but what i loved a few years ago was the simplicity of being himself...i had bought a little boy whom i had not met as yet , a present and he phoned me to say thank you...Hi, its Dyllan , i want to thank you for my thermos flask...and i want to say...I LOVE YOU...this phone call brought tears to my eyes as i was on my own and suddenly hearing these words with love and feeling and simplicity, it made me aware in how many ways , we are afraid to just EMBRACE...all of life and be HONEST AND GIVING ..it touched me deeply and gave me hope for the world to live in TRUTH. THANK YOU Oriah for having started this blog...it will inspire me, to share, to write , to be part of your wonderful blog and your thoghts and events...i love it..thank you ..lots of love, laughter and Light to you Marietta

  18. Hello Oriah,
    I enjoyed your post and the interaction you had with Dakota. It is wonderful to see children who are comfortable within themselves, adults too for that matter. When you wrote about being a little girl and your pink purse and the fear that ran through your Nana into you, I saw this happen once with a friend. We were taking a walk. She was holding each of her little boys hands. A dog barked at us and my friend jumped and screamed. I literally saw her fear run down her arms into her boys and then they reacted. We chatted about it as we walked, she has never forgotten that day. So many ways we effect one another, teach one another, pass fear on to one another. It is a good thing to be aware of. It seems easier to instill fear than to undo it, so sad.

    Thank you for sharing your experiences and insights.

  19. Thank you for sharing this beautiful moment, : )

  20. Hi, Oriah
    I felt the little girl's strength and lack of fear as I read your story. It was a wonderful feeling. I grew up in fear and even got locked in a bathroom with my sister at a gas station when I was very little. I did not feel confident that my family would miss us and come looking for me and my sister so I started to cry and scream. We got out of the bathroom and went about our vacation, but that was an experience that stayed with me for a while.
    My dad was very prejudice and my mom wasn't, which helped me see all people as equal. Both my sisters married African American men and my father learned to accept that. Both sisters are very happy and have wonderful children.
    Thank, Oriah.

  21. I too loved your story.. I can say that I am still in touch with my inner child and part of me is very aware not to grow up. I love doing silly stupid things now and then. Not too often, not conciously thought of, just a bubbel of unbridledness that suddenly float up an bursts. Like throwing a snowball or running into a flock of doves. Jumping into a puddle or dancing in de rain. Singing a song really really loudly and asking people to join in. (the people who do not join in are the silly ones)

    I have been wearing my lovely collection of winterhats and get such strange looks sometimes. Often a smile or a double check, sometimes a comment liek, nice hat, it suits you ( not me, though, it would not suit me that would be weird I can see them thinking) But what really irks me, no, it scares me.. is that some people really cannot deal with something that is not ordinary. It seems to baffle them, maybe even frighten them. As if it is an alien invasion and I speak a language they do not understand. I walked into the lift with a woman, she stood in de back as I pressed no 4 and asked if she had to go there to. She nodded, looked me up and down. I wore my uggs, a pair of jeans, a short ruffled skirt a lace top over a turtleneck shirt, my coat a scarf and my hat. As the lift doors opened, she scuttled out, almost fleeing, looked me up and down again and as I caught her gaze she mumbled `nice hat`. She didn`t mean it, that was clear, though she tried very hard to understand it.
    There is nothing to understand, my ears were cold.

  22. Was sent this and thought about your post.

    Productivity guru Merlin Mann interviewed best-selling business author Seth Godin about his new book, called Linchpin, discussing lizard and puppy brains, Bob Dylan, and why the cost of failure is so low that you should ignore your brain's instincts.

    The entire interview is available over at 43 Folders, and it's chock full of interesting conversation about productivity and work (Godin even professes an affinity for Lifehacker), but our favorite discussion focuses on what Mann sums up as "beating back the fear and resistance that drive mediocrity." After focusing on the driving factors that cause us to avoid taking risks (our brains evolved to see failure as a life-or-death concern, which is clearly no longer the case for most "risks"), Godin ends with this nugget:

    The cost of failure is not that a saber-toothed tiger eats you... the cost of failure is nothing. The worst thing that will happen is that you will fail and no one will notice.

    The upshot: Rather than avoiding risks for fear of failure, go for it. Your brain can try telling you that you're risking your life; you're not.

  23. aqs- thanks for this- my bumbling mouse clicks lost the video link - sorry.

  24. dear oriah, ignore my earlier reply and just post this link:

    Seth Godin: Quieting the Lizard Brain

    the above is the link to the video. must watch!

    also it might be more appropriate for your post "resisting what we want."