The Year of Bravery: A (Slightly-Less-Than-Comprehensive) Review by Casey Lefante

IMG_2357And so, dear readers, this past December 19 heralded the beginning of my thirty-second year and, with it, the official end of my Year of Bravery. The arrival of this most auspicious day momentarily inspired me to do something immensely brave, like jaywalk on the streets of New Orleans or eat beef at a questionable establishment or quit my job and become a sheep shearer or a cattle rancher or a goat herder. The point is, I gave myself options. Instead of these, though, I opted to spend the day in the lowest and most practical of keys: drinking coffee and eating pumpkin soup with t at my favorite coffee shop, then wandering around the Quarter with a bottle of champagne that one of my students’ parents had given the faculty as a Christmas present in exchange for dealing with moody teenagers five days a week.

It was nice.

At the late hour of 7 pm (a bottle of champagne, y’all; I was sleepy), I cuddled on my couch with the kittens and pondered the end of this brave year in which I had, more than once, been a little scared to challenge myself. 2013 was a jerk in too many ways to too many people about whom I care very deeply. From friends to family to coworkers to people I’ll never meet but only read about on the news, 2013 kicked some asses and definitely took some names. Despite that, I can honestly say that one positive outcome of 2013 is the lessons I learned while forcing myself out of my own comfort zone. And believe me, my comfort zone is hard to vacate. It’s cozy. Warm. It’s stocked with soup, books, Netflix, and blankets. You want to go there now, don’t you? I don’t blame you.

While I shared with you, friends, some of my brave feats—online dating, dentist visiting, bike riding—I also embraced other, smaller acts of bravery throughout the year, things that, for most people, may not even be a big deal. Still, they played huge roles in making me a braver, more independent, and probably overall cooler person to be around. And so I offer to you this final wrap-up, in no particular order, of the silly, the insignificant, the embarrassing, and, at times, the legitimately life-changing acts of bravery that shaped my thirty-first year.

Dance, Dance Revolution

I am probably one of the most uncoordinated people you will ever meet. While lack of coordination and klutziness are charming in Hallmark movies and most Meg Ryan films, I have found this to be a real-life fallacy. In an attempt to become more coordinated as well as a bit fit, I impulsively checked out the dance DVD section at my local Wal-Mart. Toned women in bright pink sports bras flashed white-hot grins, their hands on their protruding hip bones and their eyes on me, silently saying, “Hey, you with the short legs and the funny little walk! Let’s get physical!”

I have a thing against Zumba. It’s not personal; it’s just that I don’t own enough neon-colored spandex. Having nixed the Zumbas, the Richard Simmons, and the dusty Tae-Bo, I settled upon the ever popular Dancing with the Stars collection. The DVD I chose promised to morph my klutzy self into a slick dancing machine with three types of moves: ballroom (partners be damned!), Broadway (jazz hands!) and hip hop (yes, this is the main reason I purchased this particular DVD).

I returned home and decided to hop to it (see what I did there?). Visions of wowing crowds with my spot-on Beyoncé moves popped-and-locked in my head as Kimberly, a spunky blonde wearing Britney’s pink-bra-white-pants outfit from the “Baby, One More Time” video, welcomed me to the video. She started us off slowly, just a couple of steps to the left, then some steps to the right. Quick turn here, quick turn there. This was easy. I mentally patted myself on the back, thinking that all those years of 80’s nights really had paid off.

Then the situation escalated. Kimberly clearly did not care that most people would be performing this dance in a living room, and, if she did, she must have assumed living rooms do not include furniture. She was all over the place, Kimberly, and in my competitive efforts to keep up I knocked into most of my earthly possessions. During one particularly complicated turn, in which I was supposed to hop, kick, and pivot, I tripped over my own feet and landed on the couch, alarming one of the cats and catapulting a pillow across the room. Undaunted, I tried to effortlessly reenter the routine. A kick here, a jump there, a complicated ass-bumping move that almost sprained something, and I was back on the couch. Maybe if I watch her do it first, I reasoned, but the more I watched the more I realized that this was not something in which I possess any reasonable skill. I then proceeded to watch, from the safety of my couch, the other two routines. Yes, I was painfully aware that this was not the point of the DVD, but I watched anyway with a sick sort of fascination. The Broadway routine looked like something that, were it presented at an actual Broadway play, would be booed off stage immediately, and the ballroom dance looked incredibly awkward with the absence of both a partner and a ball gown. Before I knew it, I had watched the entire set of routines and eaten a bowl of popcorn in the process. I’d like to say that the reason I didn’t really take to the dancing was because of the music. Maybe if they had owned the rights to some Usher, for instance, I could have broken it down. More likely, though, that would not have made much difference.

When I performed in school plays, I was the kid who the director constantly told to just smile big and look good from the waist up so no one would notice my feet. When attending school dances, I perfected the white girl “raise your hands in the air” dance which has still served me well to this day at most weddings. As I watched the video, I decided that I didn’t quite need to know how to dance in order to enjoy dancing. As for the fitness side of it, there were other things I could do, as long as I conquered my fear of public exertion. Which, friends, leads me to:

Run, Baby, Run

Or, perhaps more accurately, “wog, baby, wog.” When t and I decided to take up a walking/jogging routine over the summer, we thought we were being terribly clever by combining the two into one name. Turns out wogging is actually a thing. Potential patent disappointments aside, it’s a very real fact that I have long possessed a weird fear of running/jogging/briskly walking in public. I’m more than willing to admit that this probably results from my own unfair tendency to quietly mock the way some people look when they work out. The instant karma for this, apparently, is a complex about how I look when I am physically active, which then results in my not going out to exercise for fear that others will look at me and think, “Whoah, she is really flailing out there. Is she about to pass out? She’s about to pass out. She is flailing and she is about to pass out.”

What I have learned from finally forcing myself to just start jogging is that no one is looking at me. It’s an incredibly egocentric view, actually, to assume that everyone is noticing what I am doing and how pathetically I am jogging. It’s a view that I recognize as incredibly childish and silly, and it’s a view that I am proud to say whittles away the more I go out. I’m finally past the point where I have to silently tell myself, “jog, jog, jog!” while passing people, and I’m entering the stage where I can concentrate on more important things, such as gasping for oxygen and not passing out.

Rub-a-Dub-Dub, I Unclogged a Tub

Not much to say here except that, yeah, I unclogged a tub all by myself, which involved buying plumber chemicals which freaks me out because I’m always worried I’m going to burn off my skin or something, but I did it and the tub unclogged and I had a brief moment where I felt like a legitimate adult.

I Ain’t ‘Fraid of No Ghosts

Actually, this isn’t entirely true. Ghosts ain’t no joke, but I don’t believe they exist to torment us. I do, however, believe in the potential for spirits to inhabit spaces, a concept that one could argue is proven on Ghost Hunters and mocked on Ghost Adventurers, a show I first discovered with two good friends, homemade pizza, and several bottles of wine. It should be named Ghost Dudes because it follows a trio of bros who sleep in supposedly haunted places and “interact” with ghosts. While Ghost Hunters actually attempts paranormal research, Ghost Dudes (I’m calling it that now; it’s a thing, go with it) creates drama where it doesn’t exist simply by yelling things into the camera like, “Dude, something touched me,” or, “Dude, did you hear that? Dude.” On one of the more hard-hitting episodes, the bros attempt to contact a mariachi spirit by reenacting a fiesta. This results in the bros running in circles, acting like Mexican stereotypes, and inviting the spirits to join them. This is my experience with ghosts, which might explain why I didn’t stress too much about joining my sister and her friend on a haunted evening at the Myrtles Plantation in St. Francisville, Louisiana.

“You don’t screw around with that shit,” t said when I told her about my plan.

“But it’s my year of bravery,” I said. “This is, like, one of the ultimate brave things.”

“Brave? You want brave, date another gay boy,” she cried. “Don’t get killed by a ghost!”

Several stories comprise the Myrtles legend, but one of the most famous is that of a slave girl named Chloe. After Chloe was banished from caring for the children (different legends cite different reasons, but most agree on an affair with Woodruff, the plantation’s owner), she developed a plan to regain a position in the house so she wouldn’t be banished to field work. According to legend, Chloe baked a birthday cake laced with crushed oleander flowers. Her plan was to make the children just a little bit sick so that she would be allowed back in to take care of them and hopefully gain the master’s favor by having “miraculously” cured the children. Unfortunately, the plan backfired; the children died, and the other slaves, in an attempt to save themselves from being considered accomplices, hung Chloe from a tree.

This is, more or less, the legend I grew up with, and it’s the legend that our tour guide fed to us as we toured the plantation home. We took two tours, a History Tour and a Mystery Tour. The tour guide for both was the same, a tall, stocky man who, during the Mystery Tour, dimmed all the lights, wore a hat, and spoke in a spooky voice. That, my friends, was the basic difference in the tours. He also informed us that, should we feel a cold breeze nearby, we should stand still because it might be a spirit. This intrigued me. Like I said before, I don’t necessarily think ghosts are vengeful, but I do think there could be spirits among us. As I stood in a corner of the parlor, listening to the tour guide freak out some girls from Shreveport, I actually felt something cold near my feet, and the thought crossed through my mind. Maybe I shouldn’t be so skeptical. Maybe a spirit is communicating with me. Hey, spirit! What’s happenin’? A cool, swift breeze steadily hit my ankles. I looked down, not sure what I expected to see, and encountered the source of the chill.

An air conditioning vent.

It was, quite frankly, disappointing. Even in the midst of all my skepticism, I had kind of hoped that I would experience something: a glow in the mirror, a shadow on a staircase, a knock on a window. As it turned out, the scariest two things we encountered were a clap of thunder that caused the three of us to scream, and the free “continental” breakfast. I use the term “continental” pretty loosely, as the soggy eggs looked like they might kill us, the biscuits doubled as hockey pucks, and the sausage shone with a greenish tint. As we stared at our breakfast, each concocting separate plans for where we would go for a real meal, the Shreveport girls told another couple about their latest trip to New Orleans, where they saw “real, live naked people, y’all! On the street.”

Am I saying there are no spirits on the property? Not at all. Am I saying that, should a person’s primary memories of a haunted plantation be a clap of thunder, a dissatisfying breakfast, and some girls who saw naked people, then that haunted plantation is probably not as haunted as people might think? Maybe. But I guess the biggest, most significant point of all is that I did something I never thought I’d be able to do, and I bonded with my older sister in the process. If we had both been abducted by ghosts or repossessed then this probably wouldn’t have as warm-and-fuzzy of an ending, but fortunately things didn’t turn out that way. Instead, we laughed and joked and enjoyed an incredibly good night’s sleep. If I had it all to do over again, I’d still do it, especially if we skipped out for a Waffle House breakfast.

Be More Like Princess Margaret…

…who, according to t, was a tart. My dear best friend, being the vivacious young islander that she is, constantly encourages me to be, quote, “more of a trollop.” Trollop isn’t really in my nature, though, so we reached a compromise and decided that I could bravely tackle the art of flirtation. Apparently, this also includes letting a gentleman know when you are interested in him. This sort of thing throws me into a panic. I don’t know how Princess Margaret entrapped her men, but I would bet she didn’t bake. That’s my plan, though, so I’ve set out to show my interest in boys with the age-old tactic of food. You might be thinking, “Casey, just kiss them instead.” Yes, this would be a good tactic, true, but baby steps, people. Baby steps.

To be fair, I bake for people all the time, which isn’t at all brave. I like to think of myself as a decent baker, so it’s not the act of baking itself that is brave. It’s the act of baking not just for friends or for myself, but specifically because I want to deliver those baked goods to a boy who is cute and who, I figure, will probably appreciate the gifts of delicious treats whether or not he is interested in me. So that’s what I did, and it was amazing. We didn’t go out, we didn’t have a giant discussion on who-is-interested-in-whom. It was simply, “Here are some cookies I baked because I like you and think you are neat,” and then a flirtatious friendship was born. The moral of the story is, if you want to bake something for someone who you like, just do it. If nothing else, that person will be happy to be eating chocolate chip cookies, and you will have the satisfaction of having done something both brave and delicious.

And if that fails, just pull a Princess Margaret and, in the words of the wise islander, “Travel to the Caribbean to enjoy many lovers at once.”

Feel All of the Feels

I’m the sort of person who cries at movies, even if it’s not something sad and especially if it involves animals. Seabiscuit made me weep more than I ever have for a horse, and March of the Penguins broke all my trust in Morgan Freeman. The average time I’ve spent crying during both sad and celebratory scenes in Air Bud is more than a little embarrassing. Those Sarah McLachlan ASPCA commercials throw me into a vortex of depression. I could go on, but I think you probably get the point.

I often try to hide how I am feeling in order to maintain something, whether it be an illusion of control or a peaceful situation. Sometimes, I don’t think I’m worthy of the feelings I am feeling. I might think there are others who have it worse than me or that I have no right to be upset about the things that upset me. What I’ve decided is that this is crazy talk. There will always be someone who has it worse than me. That doesn’t invalidate how I feel. One of my goals this year—and I think I succeeded—was being more honest with others about my feelings. In the past, I’ve been an expert at the silent treatment. Now, I try actually talking things out for a change, and it turns out that this is (almost) always better.

Of course, with this comes the responsibility of not becoming an emotional wreck at inappropriate times. Last year was not an easy one for my family. I visited the hospital way more times than I wanted to in 2013. During one of the first events, as I drove to Children’s Hospital to see my niece, I actually said to myself, out loud, “Be brave, be brave.” For a natural crier, it’s easy to just fall completely apart when things go wrong, especially when you are a natural crier who has vowed to allow herself to feel her feelings. But I forced myself to be brave and not cry in front of my six-year-old niece because, let’s face it: it’s scary enough being in a hospital. You don’t need your unstable aunt crying in front of you. You need that aunt to be cheerful and play Go Fish and bring you Valentine’s Day presents and let you know that everything will be okay. I can feel what I feel, but I also need to keep my shit together for the sake of those around me.

During this and other family emergencies, the part that really forced me into bravery with this was remembering how my family acted when I was in the hospital almost ten years ago, at the start of my own medical trials. I knew my parents were worried, but they made it seem like they had absolutely everything under control. Not once did they have an emotional breakdown in front of me. That doesn’t mean they didn’t have them; rather, it simply meant that they were brave enough to keep a brave face on for me because they knew that would be the only way I could get through it. That, to me, is the ultimate bravery.

In To Kill A Mockingbird, Atticus tells his children, “Courage is not a man with a gun in his hand. It’s knowing you’re licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what. You rarely win, but sometimes you do.” I’m not going to pretend that my year of bravery involved any world-changing acts of courage, but I will say that I took some of what Atticus says to heart. There was, within everything I did, a massive potential to fail. But I tried anyway. And the remarkable thing is that I found that I won many more times than I expected. From the silly to the embarrassing to the heartbreaking, my thirty-first year was, appropriately enough, filled with personal firsts and bests, and it didn’t end there. I’ve proclaimed 32 to be the Year of Affirmation, in which I will affirm myself, my loved ones, total strangers, and the world around me. I don’t know about you, but I’m feeling pretty good about 32. Maybe it just took me a year of being brave to fully appreciate the transformative beauty of a birthday.


About Casey Lefante