Opting for a storybook life instead of a cautionary tale

"I don't want my girls to grow up scared."

It was this realization that sent Patty Chang Anker finally, cautiously, at age 39, up the steps of a high dive at her local pool, onto the wobbly wheels of a bicycle and into the waves of the Atlantic Ocean on a boogie board. (Not all on the same day.)

Anker was raised to proceed with caution. "When my friends were out climbing trees and skinning knees, I was in the library reading about Laura Ingalls climbing trees and skinning knees," she writes in her upcoming book, "Some Nerve: Lessons Learned While Becoming Brave" (Riverhead Books).

She spent her first four decades in safe pursuits and was well on her way to providing her daughters, now 12 and 7, a similarly circumspect existence.

"Be careful!" she would call out. "It's a parking lot! A busy street! Those are train tracks! You could choke, you could fall, you could get electrocuted! Don't knock into things! Look where you're going!"

She jokes that she might as well have stood on a street corner with a megaphone, shouting, "The end is near."

Then, one day, a new friend casually invited her to the beach. And Anker, ignoring her "Greek Chorus of Perpetual Doubt," casually said yes.

Seven minutes into the ride, she came clean.

"I don't know how to ride a bike," she told her new pal. "I've never gone camping. I'm scared of the ocean. And rivers. And most things in nature, to be honest. I don't even know how to dive into a swimming pool. Or do a handstand.

"I'm so afraid of getting hurt or looking stupid," she admitted, "that I don't try things."

Then came the epiphany — about her daughters mostly, but also about how small her world had become.

"Anxiety narrows the meaning of your life," Anker told me during a phone chat. "So the question became, 'What can I do about it?'"

She joined Toastmasters, embarked on obstacle courses, took self-defense classes. She started a blog, "Facing Forty Upside Down."

Not easy for the gal whose internal dialogue, upon being invited to the beach that momentous day, went like this: My husband worked long hours at a law firm and hadn't breathed fresh air in a decade. My Chinese immigrant parents would not approve. Had they sacrificed everything for their eldest child to squander her education and leave her job to stay home with children, and then have her put those children in camp, and leave laundry in the hamper, so she could go sit in the sun?

"I had to lower the volume of other people's voices and raise the volume of my own voice," Anker said. "It was a lightning bolt in my life to come out from under the voices of my parents, my bosses, my small children and actually hear my own voice."

She learned to bike and dive and surf and face her darkest fears, including death. And she watched her relationships flourish.

"It has made every single relationship more real," she says. "I've been able to bring more of my true self to every interaction, and that fundamentally changes everything. The biggest, brightest aura you're ever going to give the world happens when you accomplish something you've never done before."

Her story reminds me of a quote that may or may not be from Chinese philosopher Laotzu. (I read it on Facebook.)

"If you do not change direction, you may end up where you are heading."

How many of us, I wonder, like where we're heading? How many of us have the courage, like Anker, to change direction?

In her book, Anker quotes writing coach Lawrence Block: "Someone once told me that fear and courage are like lightning and thunder. They both start out at the same time, but the fear travels faster and arrives sooner. If we just wait a moment, the requisite courage will be along shortly."

She draws on Block's wisdom when her old fear arises.

And when his words aren't enough? She listens to her older daughter.

"As Gigi advised when I balked at the top of a spiral water slide, 'Say wheee!'" Anker writes. "'Wheee!' makes everything less scary."

Twitter @heidistevens13

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