Fear vs. awe

When the lights went out, we watched Bozo the Clown shrink to a tiny dot on the television before he disappeared entirely. It was early November, 1965, and a power glitch in Canada had thrown much of the Northeast off the grid.bozo

I was seven, home alone with my four-year-old sister. It was early evening and we could see perfectly well by the light that came in from outside. Nonetheless, perhaps knowing that the sun was setting and fearing worse to come, I was frozen to my spot on the sofa.

I sent my sister out to the kitchen to find a flashlight and she dutifully trotted off. Soothed by its presence, however unnecessary, I was able to follow her back to the kitchen where we stood at the open door to wait for my mother to return.

While my initial response to the power outage was debilitating, I have a warm, visceral memory of the sky that night. It was beautiful; dusky pink and vast. I imagine the scene as a filmmaker might: two little girls holding hands, staring at the sky, as the camera pulls back and frames them in the doorway.

The upset I experienced that night was real, but I recall it in an abstract way. When I tell the story, I don’t relive the feeling.

There was another time, as an adult, that I responded to fear by freezing.

My husband grew up reading Babar the elephant books and always envisioned flying off in a hot air balloon with his own Celeste. It was never a fantasy of mine, but when I gave him a hot air balloon ride as a birthday present it was understood that I would play the part of Celeste.

Hot air balloons typically fly at dawn or dusk. I booked our outing for an early morning, in Rhode Island. I was a bit nervous, but nothing unusual given that anxiety precedes me everywhere. And my husband’s excitement was so palpable that it distracted me from my own misgivings.

We watched the crew lay the balloon out on the ground, attach it to the basket, and inflate it with air. When it was suitably robust, they turned the burner on to heat the air and slowly it rose, pulling the basket upright. We clambered in, the pilot shot more flame into the balloon, and up we went.

I immediately regretted agreeing to participate. The further away the ground got, the whiter my knuckles. My husband tried to put his arm around me and I hissed, “Don’t touch me,” convinced that any movement, however slight, would send me hurtling to my death.

After a while, when the cars were as small as they were going to get and we had floated along without incident, I began to breathe. I even relaxed enough to turn my head to marvel at the beauty of the scenery.

hot air balloon

We have lots of photographic evidence of that outing, and in many of the pictures I’m smiling. I also remember that after we landed and scrambled out of our wicker conveyance, I was giddy with exhilaration. But for all that, my strongest emotional memory of that day is not my awe at the wonder of it all, but how terrified I was as the balloon lifted into the air.

So why do some emotions live on in memory while others don’t? Perhaps when I was a child, even though I was scared, I knew I wasn’t in mortal danger from the power failure. There have, however, been deadly hot air balloon accidents, so that particular fear was not, in fact, entirely unfounded.

Today, if I want to remember what the world looks like from a hot air balloon, I pull out the photo album. If I want to remember the beauty of the sky the night the lights went out in ‘65, all I have to do is close my eyes.

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