August 13, 2018 § Leave a comment
By Ryan McDonald
We wish to never find ourselves realizing how far we’ve fallen, how messed up or off-course our lives have somehow come to be, but at one point or another it seems that this moment of sudden awareness inevitably comes. Steven Church confesses to such in the very first sentence of his latest essay collection, I’m Just Getting to the Disturbing Part: On Work, Fear, and Fatherhood, professing “this is what things have come to.” It is a first impression to the reader that shouldn’t be read as sensational, but rather the opposite for it touches on something universal. Church reveals a common truth: things in the past have disturbed us—this is what things have come to—and so will parts of the future—I’m justgetting to the disturbing part.
In this book, Church dives deep into a lifetime of fear, from his emotion-laden twenties—the anxiety-riddled years of trying to figure out adulthood—up to his forties, now a father of two, questioning what and how he should teach his kids to fear. At the heart of Church’s compelling inquiry and intimate storytelling is a confounding but relatable paradox: though fears come and go, change or fester—no matter how common or grand those fears are—fear itself will never disappear from our lives.
In the opening essay, “Deep Down in the Country Boy Mine,” Church unpacks one of the greatest fears he felt as a young adult, that he “might be making some really bad decisions.” It was 1995 and wanting “to be a mountain man, a pioneer of sorts”—an ambition shared by many foolish young men wishing to be the next Hemingway or Kerouac—the twenty-something Church abandons the path his BA in philosophy, scholarship offers for graduate school, and steady relationship with his girlfriend seemed set to put him on. Instead, he took up a job in Breckenridge, Colorado working as a tour guide and general laborer at a tourist trap named the Country Boy Mine. But nobody goes down into a mine with the intent of staying.
Church grapples with this stereotypical masculine pursuit of rugged individualism and grapples as well with how quickly he discovered it to be a hollow myth, made worse by the stress of his long distance relationship. Like a miner digging into and chipping away at the ground, “Deep Down into the Country Boy Mine” takes on a fractured form with Church’s frequent use of footnotes visually representing his deviating, conflicted young self and subheadings that chronicle his journey to and within interiors both physical and metaphorical. In doing so, Church also tries to write back to a whole, reflecting the eventual decision “to return to her, the choice of sweet dependence.”
Fear can turn our minds over and over, get us stuck, but Church’s narrative seamlessly guides readers to each next page, as time keeps moving and we keep getting older. Church became a husband, moved to a college town where drunk students often confused his apartment for their own, and he and his wife welcomed their first-born into the world. In the essay “Bright Orange Fear,” Church’s wife frantically rushes inside from the front yard to tell an unknowing Church that she had seen across the street what looked like someone getting stuffed into the trunk of a brown Honda Accord. (It turned out to be teenagers fooling around.) In this essay, Church takes count of all the fears he’d been accumulating up to that point in life. He attempts to orient himself as a husband and father in a post 9/11 world filled with dangers far and near (“It’s all about fear”), most not yet on his two-year-old son’s radar: “But what about brown Accords? What about the rattle of a doorknob at 3:00 in the morning? What about right outside our doors?”
Oddly, I found myself comforted by this book. When I read it, I was in my second month of unemployment, having just finished graduate school, with student loan payments looming over my head. Like Church in his twenties, I felt an uneasy fear: how even when you know things will work out, the question of what-if provides a pervasive gloom (What if I don’t find a job in time and get buried in debt? What if I had chosen a different path than this? What if I become a burden to those I care about and who care about me?) But I didn’t mind the notion put forth by Church that even as trouble sorts itself out (as it did for me; I got a job), I’d just find new fears. It helped to see this. We’re always learning how to adjust to the fears at hand.
It is fitting then that Church ends I’m Just Getting to the Disturbing Part: On Work, Fear, and Fatherhood with a one-paragraph flash essay, “Overpass Into Fog,” in which he writes in the present tense of an unexpectedly profound car ride to his daughter’s daycare:
I can stay suspended in the present on the overpass into fog, the memory of our conversation on cursing, my daughter’s gambol around goddamnit lingering in the penumbral past, as I sail off blindly into the deep abyss of being a divorced father of two children, catching mere glimpses of clear thoughts through windows in the haze; and perhaps such suspension will help me remember that it’s important not to pass over such moments, to stay in the vehicle of metaphor, moving forward, even if you can’t see the edges or the end, even if the concrete seems to disappear into gray ether, into a terrifying and ecstatic final separation.
Here—pinned to what things had come to, a liminal instant in time, somewhere along the way to the disturbing part—Church leaves the reader with both hands on the steering wheel and a foot on the gas pedal, a controlled forward momentum, suggesting that our fears and the future are at least navigable for as long as we keep driving.
Ryan McDonald is a writer who grew up in Massachusetts and now lives in Northern Virginia. He teaches at George Mason University. His essays have been published in the Normal School Online, the Rumpus, Catapult and forthcoming in 1966. He is currently working on a collection of essays about commodities and the way they affect our lives globally, locally, and personally