I have a terrible fear of bees. Also wasps, hornets, horseflies. All the bitey insects terrify me, filling me with a hot electric jolt whenever I catch them hovering over my coffee or sneaking out of the cold under my windowpanes. It is the bees, though, that I am most deeply afraid of. I take it out on the wasps, but it is only a displacement of my tremendous fear of the bees.

I do not know when the fear began or why. It wasn't always there. I think sometimes that it started because of the fuss so many people made about them when they buzzed by, or the horror story film strips in grade school that showed detached bee abdomens gormlessly pumping away on the ends of stingers stuck in the arms of human test subjects, or the news reports of killer African bees moving north through the United States and the Reader's Digest story that recounted the viciousness of their collective attacks.

I know that the fear had not yet come to its present fullness when I was ten years old, because that was the summer that I spent a great deal of time in my bedroom taking notes out of old encyclopedias and writing essays on the lives and biology of bees. Now I remember very little about what I learned then aside from their interpretive dancing in figure eights and the unglamorous life paths of the drones. I have never been stung by anything other than a mosquito that I am aware of. Something must have happened to inspire this phobia after that summer, but I don't know what it was.

flower with bee

I took this picture a couple of weeks ago in an alleyway behind my apartment building. There was a small stand of flowers, gangly and loose against a red brick apartment complex. I bent down to inspect their impossibly long stems, testing the stalks between my thumb and index finger for woodiness, and I noticed a couple of bees. One lit on the center of the flower I was holding. I froze in place and stared. Its wings were so still that I could see the dark veins running through them, and its head vibrated as it worked over the stamina. I remembered my camera resting on my hip.

I do not own a telephoto lens, so I had to be close enough to hold the camera only a few inches from the bee. I looked and looked through the lens while I waited for the sudden breeze to stop shaking the flower. The bee was unperturbed by both my watching and the wind. It looked so soft, and for a moment I nearly reached out to touch the vibrating yellow fluff on its back. I remember the feeling of my eyelashes brushing against the viewfinder while I fought back the anxiety that would rather have me staggering wildly away. I am doing this, I am this close, he is beautiful, I thought. The fear felt wild racing inside my brain, and my tongue stuck inside my dry throat.

It amazes me that I was able to crouch there. I was so taken with the bee's still wings and shivering back, the swaying flowers that kept bobbing out of frame, the crunching of gravel under my slowly shifting squat, the scent of distant rain on a cold wind. I allowed my fear to be overtaken by the necessity of a moment that required it. To feel my crouch, to smell that rain, to conquer the flower's pendulate swing, I had to stay, swallow impossibly around a dry tongue, and focus on the happy consequences of following through rather than zigzagging crazily with my arms waving in circles around me.

Someone asked me sometime over the last couple of weeks if there was anything I had learned about myself recently, and I did not know how to answer at the time, but the question has been pulling at the hem of my shirt ever since. I can answer it now.

I am braver than I thought.

I look at this photograph and am confronted with the fact that so much of my life has been ruled by fear. My work life, friendships, romances, family relationships, and creative endeavours have all evolved, in part, around fear-based decision-making. What I will and will not do is often predicated on not much more than the possible eventual threats I forecast. On the other hand, this photograph also reminds me of my lesser and greater acts of bravery over the last few months. I willingly spent time inches from a fearsome bee, I shared the beginning of a short story with fellow writers, I am learning to say no and stand by my decisions, and I am also learning to be honest about who I am and what that means for my past, present, and future.

When I came clean to myself and the world at large about being gender dysphoric/pansexual/gender queer, stumbling through sharp labels that didn't fit, I was so frightened of what I would find in myself and in those close to me. It took me many years to find the courage that would inspire honesty, but when the courage finally came, it seemed to happen in an avalanche all in one moment. Suddenly, there was something I wanted, something I desired enough to need, and I set my feet firmly, focused my attention, and became the thing I needed to be to do what I had to do. That photograph attests to the moment when I found the courage to choose to be a photographer rather than a phobic lunatic running; I am capable of choosing who I am, one who has the courage to meet her desire rather than defensively fight against herself.

Acknowledging my fears and their origins is a scary process, because it brings them out where I can see them. Each one I bring out means that I have one less excuse to retreat and hide from myself and the world. Each one I bring out means that I have given myself more control, and therefore, more responsibility over the conditions of my own life. When I am not frightened by myself, this courage I have discovered is fascinating, like a bug in a jar, or, and I am ashamed at the obviousness of the allusion, like that bee on the flower. I watch myself with trepidation, quite ready to run but desiring more for myself than fleeing would ever allow.

The bee-boy, merops apiater, on sultry thundery days
filled his bosom between his coarse shirt and his skin
with bees -- his every meal wild honey.
- excerpt from "The Part of the Bee's Body Embedded in the Flesh" by Carol Frost

If It Doesn't Belong to You, Leave It Alone