By Jan Frazier
Our rating: ★★★★★ 5 out of 5
Published by Weiser Books
THIS BOOK IS PROBABLY THE BEST description ever written of enlightenment and its effects on a person’s life. We know this is ridiculously high praise, but we mean it. At the age of 50, Jan Frazier noticed that her habitual intense fear had stopped. Over the next eighteen months she recorded additional changes in her feelings, mental state, and relationships with other people. Jan’s awakening turned out to be permanent. Jan writes extremely well, and her prose sometimes reaches sublime heights. We give this book our highest recommendation.
Something happened today that I never would have thought possible. I went for my mammogram and wasn’t terrified.
Really, the significant thing came last night. I was lying in bed, thinking ahead to today, dreading the trip to Jamaica Plain. Anticipating the hyperventilating in the waiting room, the hideous anxiety.
I was lying there thinking about all this, when all of a sudden I had this thought to say a little prayer, to ask for help. I said, Could I maybe do this tomorrow without being terrified?
Who was I asking? I don't know really.
But the moment I had that thought, I felt something happen, like something physical was lifted off of me. I felt dancing around my head, as if somebody were whirling around me in circles, clapping hands, laughing. Rejoicing.
I sat up. And I knew—I just knew—that it would come true: I would have my mammogram without fear. I didn't know how I could be so sure … it was weird, especially given my history … but there was no doubt in my mind. At the same time, this sureness wasn't coming from some precognition about the outcome of the mammogram. That is, the absence of fear did not come from my somehow “knowing,” in advance, that the radiologist would pronounce my breasts healthy. It was more like this: If it turned out the news was bad, I would start to deal with it then—not prematurely, before the mammogram even happened, the way I'd always done before.
Fearlessness is a flimsy commodity if it depends upon a known outcome.
Also, I knew that if it turned out I did have cancer, I would have the inner resources to deal with it. That was new. I knew I would be okay in the most fundamental sense—even if my breasts were not okay.
Peter came into the room while I was sitting on the bed taking this in. I told him what had happened, said that I knew it sounded crazy, but somehow I was certain the mammogram experience was going to be very different from what it had been every other time. He didn't know what to make of it, any better than I did.
I really was not afraid today. I couldn't get over it. After the films were taken and then the waiting began, I watched myself sit comfortably in the waiting room, reading my magazine, paying attention to what it said, instead of how it always was in the past, looking at the pages but not really seeing them. Each time the nurse came to the doorway with a clipboard to call some woman's name (her turn to take the walk down the hall to the radiologist's office), I watched my heart not crawl up my throat. I watched myself not get paranoid when women who had had their films taken after mine were called in to see the radiologist before I was called in. Did it mean the radiologist was leaving me till last—putting off the bad-news case till the goodnews cases got dispensed with? In the past, this scenario playing in my head would have cranked my anxiety up right off the chart: the grim pronouncement (I'm afraid that …), the lengthy explanation of possible treatments, prognosis, false reassurance. But though I knew this could be a possible explanation for why others were being called in before me, I didn't dwell upon it, and it didn't make me anxious.
I even made reassuring little jokes to the other women waiting, the ones with the facial expressions I knew I'd always worn in the past. I felt incredibly lighthearted. It just blew me away. I felt like I was somebody else. I made periodic forays out of my body to spend a few moments in the empty chair opposite mine, to look at myself sitting over there so calm, when once there had been a nurse kneeling in front of me, gently waving an ammonia gauze back and forth under my nose to keep me from passing out. I sat there noticing how utterly at ease I was. I was at least as baffled as I was relieved.
It wasn't that I toughed it out, faked it, bore up, managed the anxiety, talked myself through it. It was that there wasn't anything to deal with. It was as if a switch had been thrown—a switch I had never known existed. I had never realized there was an option to be unafraid.
When the nurse called my name, my heart did not do what it's done every other year: hurl itself like a wild animal against my cage of ribs, such commotion I could barely hear the radiologist's voice say, Your breasts are fine, unchanged since last year.
I’m learning how to let fear go from my life. It's like the plug has been pulled under it, and it's running out, so fast now I'll soon be able to retrieve it by memory only. It's starting to feel like this isn't only about the mammogram. It seems to be fear in general that is leaving me.
I used to think the reason I'd like to stop letting fear run my life was that it felt so bad to be afraid, and also that it was pointless— possibly wasted, if the feared thing never did materialize.
But now that fear has packed its miserable bags and is running out the door, making slamming noises to call attention to itself, I begin to see how much room fear has occupied. What opportunity opens up! It's like somebody just opened windows I didn't even know were there, only what's truer is this: it's as if the windows have been torn from the wood that held them, and the walls taken down too, and the whole bloody house: just wind now, everywhere. Just light.
I’ve heard for a long time that the opposite of love is fear, and now I begin to understand why that is so, because of what I feel rushing into me, as space is being freed up. Love so big it cracks me, floods all my warm places, and all the cool, hard places, made stiff and sterile by fear all my life.
Today I felt loosely tethered to the ordinary. I cried a lot of the morning—softly, intermittently, and the tears were not of sorrow, or loss of any sort, but more of the sort that come from being overwhelmed. Blessings are coming to me now, from the inside, at a quickening pace, and increasingly I look on the world with new eyes. I wish I could say what is happening in me, wish I could get at words for it.
I tried all day to do that, to describe to Peter what is happening to the inside of me, the thing going on in my heart. For a long while this morning I could only try and try and then rest from trying, to convey what is going on in me. It is stretching of a sort, not of muscle but of mind, or maybe I mean of soul.
But really it is the eyes I speak of, the soul’s eyes, the seeing of the world and my place in it and the people I love. And right smack at the center of it all, there is a great void, an empty place taken up all my life by fear, and I can no more tell you why that space is there now than I could tell you why the moon is carved up into a face the way it is.
For the thing that was center stage all my life suddenly, unaccountably, has ducked out, almost when I wasn't looking. And I am stunned by how changed the world appears, and everyone in it. Even so, everything is familiar, as if somehow I knew all this a long time ago.
And so … the slow tears making their irresistible way out of my eyes this morning, and so, perhaps, my exhaustion this evening, from the effort throughout the day to describe my interior reality to Peter.
Why is this happening? All I did was ask for help to go through my mammogram differently this time. The dancing I felt around my head—it was like somebody was twirling, rejoicing, saying, Finally, she asks! Like Dorothy not realizing she had the ticket home right along, the ruby slippers on her feet. All she had to do was use what she already had. But first she had to go through what she had to go through.
Did I have to be afraid, for so long, to finally get to this?
I am tired out from looking for words. I want just now to be done with them, like a child weary of confining clothes.
Strange, so strange, this moment of my life. The thing I am wanting to articulate keeps turning out to be ineffable. Trying to put it into words is like trying to put a jellyfish into a bottle, or like trying to pack all the stars together into a ball a child might fling at this thing that is happening to me, or no—it has already happened.
It … it … oh, what is it? It is all of my reality now, the entire thing, the only thing going on, even with all the other stuff going on inside it. The regular stuff of life, I mean. All of it (even the difficult things, the stuff of being a mother of teenagers, for instance) is like different colors of this thing. Another way to describe it is to say it is like a lens, or maybe an atmosphere. A temperature of the blood?
I have said nothing. I realize that.
What in the name of God is going on? But it's gone on, it's a done deal. I'm given something that won't be taken, not even when I die.
Tears keep coming. Crying seems to communicate it, or maybe what it does is to express it, like what is done to get oil from an olive, or milk from a nipple. My poor human face is kneaded by the tender hands of God, the way a soft tube full of icing is kneaded by a baker, and pretty soon the sweetness rises to the opening that wants nothing so much as to give way to the release, and warm drops like honey roll down my cheekbones to my tongue.
I am myself, as I ever was, but something has happened to me, that is sure. I am being born. I have never been so alive in my life as I am now. I think I will need to leave my body soon, or else explode, blow into bits, crumble in the fingers of God, be lifted in bites to his mouth, be consumed.
I am reduced now to only one thing to say, only one theme, my subject the changed world—but it is not the world that’s changed, it is only the eyes that see it. This is the story of the mind, and its power to generate light, to aim it one way but not the other. Or maybe it is the story of the mind as a lens through which the light of the world enters, and bends, projecting onto the interior screen an understanding of how things are, reality defined. We all carry around our definitions: they are our supplies, a suitcase full of interpretations, little stories we tell ourselves about how the world ticks, what our lives mean, the whys and the wherefores.
All of it has changed for me. I knew it watching the otter move in her liquid way through the liquid world in which I drifted yesterday, in my little boat. My red boat, my oars resting. I knew it when my daughter was in a trauma, a shuddering moment in the life of the heart, and I just sat outside her heart and watched, untraumatized myself. Hunh? How could that be? How did that happen? And without my entering the uproar, I was able to bring enormous resources to bear—myself unwounded—and without my taking hold of her situation, stepping in, she became mighty, let herself be vulnerable in the most blessed of ways, let her heart open to wanting love with her father, from whom she has felt so disconnected. It was a miracle, and the deeper miracle is that I never had to suffer for it.
This page was published on April 10, 2014 and last revised on April 28, 2017.