I've come to realize that my life is in large part ruled by fear. I am afraid of making decisions (of just putting pen to paper, say) and thus engaging the possibility of mistake. But that's just minor. The same fearful inertia keeps me from jumping fully into a project at work, or hanging a picture on a wall in our new house. My mind starts going down the path of what-if, calculating an itinerary to some terrible destination. I'm exaggerating, sort of. Our move to Versailles, though, was a case in point: it made perfect sense for years before I was willing to actually follow through, and throughout the whole six months of the move I was terrified. A month after moving day, I'm only now settling into some kind of normal. I can't judge heights and I don't trust safety nets.
When I graduated from college, I fell into a depression. I was a perfect student, and so terrified of making mistakes that it is a wonder I learned anything at all. I found a good job, stepped into real life, and stumbled. I remember sitting alone on the couch in my first apartment and staring at the floor during one long evening, overwhelmed by the inertia of fear and the feeling of desperately wanting to escape myself.
It was around this time that I met my husband, and he took on the often thankless job of getting me to stop taking myself so seriously. He's done good work, mostly, but I imagine the fear as a hard surface around me, like granite. He chips at it from the outside and I chip at it from the inside. Slowly familiar features appear in the stone relief -- that's me. But granite isn't a substance which holds much definition or expression.
When I started climbing back into something that felt like equilibrium in the second half of the year after graduation, I made a little sign to put on my bathroom mirror. "Love Not Fear" I wrote in neatly scripted letters on a piece of construction paper. I taped it up with scotch tape, and there it was for me to grasp at mentally, every morning when I woke up and every night before I went to sleep.
Today when I think of the things I haven't dared and the decisions I haven't made (and thus made by default) I wonder how much I put love first. I've got more perspective now, and the mineral shell is thinner after decades of chipping away, but the fear still drives me, as if it were the only mechanism through which I could exert some sort of control in my life.
This weekend we took out our bicycles and explored the Grand Parc, the park behind the garden of the Château of Versailles. No landscapes are more ordered than a jardin à la française. The Grand Canal stretches out its four arms to balance Trianon and forest, Apollo and the setting sun. Stretching out from the Grand Canal in three directions, the Grand Parc is criss-crossed by aligned allées of trees: Linden trees, to be precise. They've been in bloom the last month, with an unexpectedly heady perfume that's entered both my apartment and my subconscious (there's one tree outside our kitchen window). The trees (these same trees? Perhaps not) were planted in Louis' time, symbols, I assume, of order and rationality emanating from the center of power. They continue in straight lines, turning abruptly at the stone walls that delimit the park, lending majesty to both cobblestone paths and dirt tracks. This is the eternal French countryside, idealized; I imagine I'm in the Gers, perfectly willing to lose myself in the giant trompe l'oeil.
I feel... safe. Further removed from the fear. The order does this for me, one tree after another, the reassuring predictability.
Louis XIV fixed with force the borders of modern-day France. Vauban built the fortifications: the garden walls. France with its "natural boundaries" of mountain and sea, became the ideal of a 17th-century French garden -- with a despotic ruler, yes, but a certain predictability of perspective. Beyond the walls, the chaos of war; land to clear (pillage and burn), trees to plant. In perfect alignment, of course.
Why, exactly, do I find this comforting?
Well: Vauban's forts are tourist attractions; my kids run and climb around Saint-Martin-de-Ré every summer. The gates of the Grand Parc are wide open (to bicycles and pedestrians; cars pay extra), and the Grand Canal has its own rowboat rental. The boats and bicycles and cars are in a landscape that has changed little since 1715: there are paintings in the Grand Trianon to prove it. The linden trees are just taller now.
Of all that Louis XIV built, the beauty remained. The fear disappeared.