Gimme a Smile: Some things are scary

By Peggy McKee Barnhill

When I was a kid, I enjoyed a little picture book, “Some Things are Scary,” by Florence Parry Heide, illustrated by Robert Osborn. In it, terrified children encounter one scary thing after another. We see that “seeing something on your plate you know you’re not going to like is scary,” or “reaching under your bed for your shoes and grabbing something — you don’t know what is scary,” or my personal favorite, “smelling a flower and finding a bee was smelling it first is scary.” The book doesn’t attempt to reassure the reader that these things really aren’t scary or not to worry. It merely acknowledges that some things are scary.

I can relate.

If I was going to write my own edition of the book, it might go:

— Sleeping when you keep having that same scary dream is scary. I have a recurring dream that features masses of sea creatures teeming underwater, both seen and unseen. Sometimes they’re in the ocean, sometimes in a swimming pool, always in motion. They never lunge at me like a great white shark — they simply swim back and forth, over and under each other, silently filling the waters below me. It’s terrifying.

— High places are scary. Don’t get me wrong, I love the view. I force my eyes open to gaze at it while holding my breath and gripping on to something, anything, that gives me a sense of being on solid ground so my jelly legs won’t give way beneath me. Breathtaking!

— The sound of my voice is scary. I’m innately a shy person, so speaking up makes me nervous. My face goes red and my heart flutters like a flag on the Fourth of July. It’s the age-old fear that I’ll say something stupid and look like a fool. Must be why I’m a writer. I get a chance for a do-over before my words ever go out into the world.

Fast forward to these past two pandemic years. We’ve been bombarded by scary things. We need a whole new revision of the book. Today’s version might read:

— Giving someone you love a hug is scary.

— Talking to your friend in the same room is scary.

— Going to church to sing hymns is scary.

— Going to school with a mask on is scary.

— Going to school without a mask on is scary.

And the list goes on. It’s been a scary two years, during which we’ve been afraid of deadly germs floating in the air, unseen but frightening just like the sea creatures in my recurring dream. Hopefully we’re coming out of this scary time, but we might all be a little more anxious and germaphobic than usual for a while. So, I have a few words of unsolicited advice:

If someone puts their hands over their face in horror when you reach out to shake their hand, don’t take it personally. It’s not you that repulses them, it’s the thought that you might give them a disease with your touch. Face it—they don’t want your cooties.

If you see someone still wearing a mask when you’ve taken yours off months ago, cut them some slack. They might have an underlying condition that makes them extra susceptible to disease, or they might have a big chin pimple they don’t want you to see. It’s really none of your business. Don’t comment on the mask.

If your friend declines a dinner invitation, don’t be offended. Maybe they’re not ready to be back out in the world just yet. Your cooking might have nothing to do with it. Then again…

Stepping back into our old way of life is scary. Give yourself and those around you some grace as the world opens back up again. If you need reassurance, you can count on the immortal words of Florence Parry Heide: “Scary things are scary.”

• Peggy McKee Barnhill is a wife, mother, and author who writes cozy mysteries under the pen name “Greta McKennan.” She likes to look at the bright side of life. “Gimme a Smile” appears monthly in the Empire.

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