Scaredy Squirrel is paralyzed by fear of what lies beyond his familiar tree-world (for example, germs, tarantulas, sharks, and Green Martians), so he rarely ventures forth, with a routine typified by "Wake up. Eat a nut. Look at view. Eat a nut. Look at view. Eat a nut. Look at view. Go to Sleep." He keeps his emergency kit, stocked with sardines, bug spray, a hard hat, and parachute, close by. He formulates an emergency plan with the following steps: "Panic. Run. Get kit. Put on kit. Consult Exit Plan. Exit tree (if there is absolutely, definitely, truly no other option)."
It's easy to relate to Scaredy Squirrel and his longing for sameness, safety, and simplicity. As a family we can appreciate the comfortable predictability of Wake up. Make lunches. Eat oatmeal. Get dressed. Go to school and work. Come home. Make dinner. Eat Dinner. Do homework. Engage bedtime routine. Go to sleep. Throw in a few piano lessons, squabbles, dinners out or with friends, playdates, meetings, colds or allergies, and family outings, and we've got just about as much adventure as we can handle most of the time. Our life insurance policies and some extra flashlights and water bottles squirreled away in our dilapidated garage provide an additional sense of security.
The more we maintain routine, though, the more the notion of Unexpected Occurrences keeps me awake at night. Not taking risks can feel like a habit that needs breaking.
Tonight I listened to author Dave Eggers speak at a local college's Writers' Symposium, and he touched on our human fear of the unknown. He referred to What is the What, an autobiography/novel he wrote with Sudanese Lost Boy Valentino Achak Deng, and the legend of the "what." According to Dinka creation myth, God created men and women and then offered them material sustenance in the form of cattle or the vague promise of "the what," or, what God has in store. The Dinka chose cattle, and with it all the ramifications of reliance on tangible "knowns," including drought and famine. The Dinka come to regret their reluctance to opt for the "what," which afforded other tribes the gifts of ingenuity, invention, and resourcefulness. Like Pandora's box and the forbidden fruit, the "what" represents human passion and possibilities: the good, bad, and ugly.
But the unknowns are scary, and they drive us to prefer even unsavory knowns. Eggers went on to describe a scene from his novel You Shall Know Our Velocity, in which one of the main characters, on a global journey with a friend, recalls his anxiety in the still quiet atop the Atlas Mountains as compared with how he felt running through the dangerous alleys below:
You know, though, the worst thing was being on top of that mountain, and having the thought that I wanted to be back below, being chased through those streets...while up on that mountain listening to nothing, waiting and hearing nothing, and getting cold, I wanted to be back down in those alleys. I wanted something to happen so my choices would be fewer, so my map would have a route straight through, in red. I wanted limitations, boundaries, to ease the burden, because the agony, Jack, when we were up there in the dark, was in the silence! All I ever wanted was to know what to do.Eggers recognizes a human preference for the daily struggle over confrontation with the big questions. We add to our emergency kits, practice playing dead, worry about what we know we should worry about, and focus on keeping our tree-worlds safe and predictable. When a possible change doesn't come to fruition, I can even find myself exulting in the relief of choices being fewer.
Last summer, we stood by in admiration and bit of mourning when my brother and his wife and four children moved out of our neighborhood and to the US Virgin Islands for a new job and lifestyle. These days I often feel like a distant relative of the young woman who up and moved to Africa to teach for year. But it's Leap Year, and it's time to consider some change.
Scaredy Squirrel, like my brother, finds reason to jump from his familiar abode in the climax of our book. Scaredy is without his emergency kit and fails to enact crucial components of his emergency plan. Nevertheless, it's that unexpected plunge from his faithful nut tree which allows him to discover that he is...a FLYING SQUIRREL! Still he finds it necessary to play dead for a good two hours afterwards to let his new reality sink in. It turns out even good, exciting change can be stunning.
In the end, Scaredy Squirrel's routine is revised to include a daily "jump into the unknown."
So this is my Leap Year resolution: to embrace the plunge, icy and breathtaking and terrifying as it may be.
How will you leap this year?