It was Mary Elder’s first night as a freshman at Cornell, her parents and boyfriend headed back to her tiny hometown of Dublin, New Hampshire. Now the resident adviser was gathering the dorm mates for introductions, where he asked them all to share something about themselves. “I’m from Manhattan,” said one. “I brought a popcorn maker!” offered another. “I’m planning to become a surgeon,” shared a third.
“I’m afraid of a lot of things,” said Elder.
If this were a movie, which since Elder is a screenwriter it could indeed become, her next 32 years would whoosh by in a montage of what might look like fearlessness. Mary moving to Seattle, knowing no one. Mary successfully pitching rooms of Hollywood producers. Mary giving birth, twice, no drugs.
What it wouldn’t show, as she closed in on 50, was Mary increasingly choosing the safe path.
Ignore for a moment that this epiphany came to her on a wilderness snowmobile trip, where path was a generous term. There she lay in her hut, sleepless and freezing at 4am, days before her 50th birthday, obsessing over what she hadn’t yet achieved, and it hit her: “I don’t have to be safe anymore.” As a younger woman she’d been driven to advance her career, to get married, to make a family. “I think I kind of wrapped myself in gauze to make sure I’d be around for all those things,” she said. “All of a sudden, I’ve done them. Now I could do anything.” But not until she faced down the demons that were stopping her.
So she got up, grabbed a yellow pad, and wrote down her fears. Travel to a third-world country in a rough way. Hold a big snake. Without pausing she scribbled them. Take public transportation in the middle of the night. Finish a marathon. It took her 10 minutes. Go rock climbing. Submit poems to The New Yorker. Just writing them made her feel like throwing up, which reminded her: Throw up. (She suspected she wouldn’t need to affect that one herself, as it would probably be the glorious by-product of eat a bug.) When she told her teenage kids, they wanted to guess. “Ride in a small plane,” blurted one. “Get the butt test,” said another, referring to a colonoscopy. Yes and yes.
So: predictable. Looking down the yellow list, she further realized that her fears were categorizable. Gravity was clearly not a pal: See jump into water from a height, downhill ski, go on a roller coaster. There were the mortality-scare fears—said butt test, get a mammogram—neither of which, she confessed with shame, she’s ever had.
I first learned about Elder’s project at her surprise 50th birthday party, as she regaled a group about her very scariest fear: Ride a helicopter. Some responded with affirmations of doom, as in one guy’s enthusiastically grisly account of a friend’s death in a helicopter crash (“Just don’t go over water,” he sensitively advised). Elder has endured so many grim warnings, she thinks that sharing worst-possible scenarios must be hardwired into our caveman brains.
The other common reaction has been degrees of “Is that all?” Play catch? (“When I first tried to catch a ball I was told, ‘Don’t be afraid of the ball.’ Until then I didn’t know it was out to hurt me.”) Go to a dive bar? (“Might be a woman thing.”) Travel to the American South? (“Deliverance,” she smirked.)
“I’ve done every one of your things,” some bragged, as if the fact they had faced her fears was somehow meaningful. (Elder points out that the one exception, write/perform standup monologue, makes literally everyone blanch.) When she hears things like, “My list would have dive off a Hawaiian cliff and compete in the Ironman!,” she just shakes her head. “That’s not a fear list, that’s a bucket list. To that person I say, ‘Okay, but how about you take care of a 100-year-old lady for a week?’ When they say, ‘That’s not my thing,’ she says, ‘Okay then. We’ve found your fear.’ ”
When Chris Rock told an SNL audience that, thanks to 9/11, he wouldn’t go up the Freedom Tower if Scarlett Johansson were “butt naked on the 89th floor in a plate of ribs”—Elder admired the perfect image it delivered of the joy we foreclose when we let fear stop us. By this point she had conquered eat a raw oyster, get arrested for a good cause, and ride a Ferris wheel—the last a fear of the terror of clearing the top, then dropping. As it turned out, clearing the top flooded Elder with euphoria; the strong sense that she was going to be okay. A lark for some, she knew, was for her more like a gateway—and, it was becoming clear, perhaps not the literal point for a woman just starting out on the most harrowing over-the-top-and-down-again decline of all.
Ah, aging. One of the oldest conventions in both screenwriting and mythology, Elder told me, is that of the border guardian: the character who isn’t himself the dragon but who represents the scary test the hero must pass on the way to slay the dragon. The oyster, the mammogram, the Ferris wheel—for Elder all but stepping stones. “It’s my stupid little fears that keep me from doing the big things,” she reflects. “If you can’t deal with the border guardian, you weren’t ready for the dragon. It’s the border guardian that makes you strong.”
This article appeared in the April 2015 issue of Seattle Met magazine.