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Facing fear helps get life in gear

I am supposed to be writing a column, but I'm not because I am frozen with fear — afraid that THIS TIME the blank computer screen will win our weekly war, because THIS TIME I won't think of a thing to say.

Fear. I know her in many of her incarnations. Fear of writing. Fear of spiders. Fear of flying. Fear of wearing dorky pants to a party. Fear of letting people down. Fear of change. Can't say I really like fear. At best she's an uneasy companion, good for providing me with a few laughs once things settle down. But sometimes she is just plain sinister, as I saw (once again) the year we lived in the state of New York.

We lived in a smalI WASPY village called Tuxedo Park, just off Route 17 on the way to the Catskills. It is surrounded by a gray stone wall, and the only way you can get inside is if you live there or know someone who does.

We lived there because my husband worked in New York City. The Park, as it is called by the residents, is 45 miles northwest of the city. Not a great commute, but not a bad one either — especially by East Coast standards. We landed in the Park because we have friends who live there, and they were good enough to find us a place to rent.

We arrived one evening in August, and I will never forget how exotic the village seemed to me in the dying summer sunlight, with its formal houses skirted by manicured green lawns that ran deep into dark woods filled with fireflies and the perfect music of cicadas.

Oh, it was such an unlikely spot for someone like me to land — a Utah County Mormon girl with serious populist leanings, a member of a huge and mostly blue-collar extended family, the daughter of a tiara-toting rodeo queen. I soon earned a reputation in the village as the woman with "five children and no help." The guard at the gate assumed I was a nanny, and I never said anything to correct his misperception.

By day, I sat in sandboxes with real nannies from Western places like Rock Springs, Wyo., who were wild with homesickness, disappointed as they were by the false promise of the East. The nannies and I wore boots and blue jeans and talked. Or, I should say, they talked while I listened to stories of affluent employers who expected them to be at once invisible and omnipresent. Meanwhile, babies crawled over us like puppies.

When night came, I put on hose and heels and went to functions where I talked with the nannies' female employers. Or, I should say, they talked while I listened to stories about sullen young Western girls who didn't appreciate the opportunities being given them. They told me these stories while casually dangling wine glasses from their hands and fingering strands of even pearls wrapped around their lovely white necks.

It was an odd time for me. I felt like someone with walking pneumonia, only in my case it was walking multiple-personality. I was two people inhabiting two worlds, the Upstairs one and the Downstairs one.

One of the things both the Upstairs and the Downstairs people said to me was how safe they felt in the Park. So I began to wonder what it was that felt threatening to people. Big, bad New York City maybe? But that was miles, as well as light years, away from Tuxedo Park.

Then one day, I heard two women talking — country club women who filled their days with rounds of golf and rubbers of bridge — and they were discussing the shady characters who hung out in front of the little pharmacy in Sloatsburg, a tiny working-class town down the road from the Park. Both women quickly agreed they were lucky to live behind iron gates that kept THAT element out.

Well, I knew exactly who these ladies were talking about. I'd seen them myself. They were ordinary teenage boys, trying to look a little bit bad in baggy pants. The kind of neighborhood kids who show up at our house these days and try to flatter me into feeding them by calling me the "Bish's Dish," because my husband is the bishop.

Suddenly, I understood what the fear was all about there in the Park. It was a fear of the people you choose to shut out because they are somehow unacceptable. And living behind a gate — any kind of gate — only intensifies that fear, because it is so very easy to be afraid of the thing we never face.

"We must travel in the direction of our fear," John Berryman once said. If we do, we stop being afraid of things like blank screens and spiders and people who don't deserve our suspicion.

One last thing, and then I really must write a column: Calling me the Bish's Dish? It works.

Just thought you should know.