What I Know About Being Afraid (or, Mars in Retrograde)

There is something I know about fear.

One of my greatest gripes about personal blogging is that I think we, public journalers, myself included, tend to speak in absolutes. We repeat our mantras over and over again as if they are carved into our bones. As if we never forget them.

We forget them all of the time.

In this week’s episode of This American Life, Ira Glass said:

We have this idea that when we discover the truth, it hits us all at once. You know; we see what’s real and what’s not in a flash of understanding. In fact, the thing we call an experience like that is the moment of truth. That’s what we say: a moment of truth. We do not say the dragged out year and a half of the truth. That’s how it goes sometimes. Sometimes you come to accept the truth slowly. In stages. Sometimes we have reasons to hold on to a lie. We’re not ready to let go of the world the lies preserves. The people the lie keeps to us. And we release the lie from our hand one finger at a time.

It’s true.

Not just for the hard lessons of falling out of love, as covered in the episode.

But for the hard lessons of living by love, as e.e. cummings invites, though the stars walk backwards.

And it has everything to do with living in fear.

(And the stars, by the way, do walk backwards. That’s retrograde.)

There is something I know about being afraid. I have learned it over and over again, and I wish that I could carve it into my bones.

Mars rose in the east, bright and red. If felt so close, closer than the moon, and on it, Curiosity.

We snuck into Goblin Valley and as the sky darkened. The park was closing, but we were arriving. Venturing out into the forest of hoodoos and sand. We were looking for Goblin’s Lair. An appropriate adventure for the cover of darkness, don’t you think?

When I was little, I was afraid of the dark.

I imagined werewolves outside of my bedroom windows. I locked and unlocked and locked and unlocked and locked the front door, side door, every window in the house.

But I didn’t like being afraid. No one likes being afraid.

I didn’t like cowering in my bed imagining robbers and murders and the vampire that lived in my closet and the crocodile under my bed.

So, I started my nights by sitting cross-legged on my bed with the lights out. I stared out into the dark corners of the room as my eyes adjusted, thinking: I am not afraid. There is nothing there. I am not afraid.

It wasn’t until I was 21 and looking up at the Southern Cross for the first time that my fear of the dark really disappeared.

Though my soul may set in darkness, it will rise in perfect light;

I have loved the stars too fondly to be fearful of the night.

– Sarah Williams, “The Old Astronomer”

We didn’t find Goblin’s Lair that night, but we did get lost. Lost in the dark, squinting into the west trying too find landmarks, anything, that would lead us back to the car.

The Big Dipper above our heads.

Have you ever noticed that running in the dark feels like flying?

Mars in retrograde at our backs.

We made it back to the car, hours later than we intended. (I sent a silent thanks to Mars and on it, Curiosity.)

The next morning, we went back for Goblin’s Lair. We found it, eventually.

From above, it’s a wide hole in the ground hidden in a forest of hoodoo pillars, a labyrinth of sandstone and silt.

A large outcropping. Four lengths of webbing wrapped around an soft, sandstone anchor.

Keese sets up the ropes as I slip into an unfamiliar harness. I’m hot and sweaty and starting to shake.

The rappel is 90ft from lip to floor. I haven’t rappelled since college. The grigri is different from the grigri and belay devices I’m familiar with, but the figure eight seems far too simple to be safe.

I’m shaking.

He ropes himself in. He shows me how to use the belay device).

I say: “I’m afraid of heights. You may have to talk me through this.”

He says: “I’m not going to be able to talk you through this.”

My mouth goes dry and he descends over the lip, and did I mention I am shaking?

In New Zealand, a friend and I decided to go bungy jumping. I didn’t care how far the fall, so I let him pick. Michael chose the Nevis, a 134 meter drop into a dingy brown gully.

I didn’t know I was afraid of heights until we took the rickety cart out to the jumping station. The clear plastic floor made my head spin.

When I jumped, there was no rush of adrenaline. No intoxicating rush of endorphins. There was no sensation of flight. There was only fear.

I’ve been well aware of the fear ever since. I know it like an old regret, worrying at the edges of my consciousness.

“Off rappel!” Keese must have called. I heard him, but didn’t register the words.

I had no choice now. My friend was already in the hole. I could probably find my way out of the labyrinth by myself, but it wouldn’t be fun. SoI clipped myself in, locking the carabiner and checking it twice, three, four times.

I didn’t look down until I was over the lip and the rope took my weight. I didn’t look down until I was away from the wall and dangling free, suspended in a cave. And then…

Look down. Look around. And I’m in a beautiful cave, descending from the sky. Hikers on the floor gaped up at me. It felt like flying.

P1010298
Photos in this post were taken by Keese Lane.

There is something I have learned about fear.

Move towards it.

Back towards it.

Don’t look down until you’re over the lip towards it.

Step forward and make small talk towards it.

Stand up and give your speech towards it.

Look down, look up, look around towards it.

After 9/11, my father called me into his bedroom. He must have had a long day, because he was already in bed with the lights off.

We lived in suburban Massachusetts at the time. I went to school in Rhode Island, but he worked in Boston. I’m sure it was a long, frightening day for him.

He asked if I still wanted to travel, to fly with him, just the two of us, like we had done for years. He asked if I was afraid.

I said I was afraid, but that I still wanted to fly.

He said, Good, then said a line I would hear repeated over and over. From him, from others, from the television in the coming days: “If you stop, then they win.”

I thought they meant terrorists, but I learned that they really meant fear.

If you stop, then fear wins.

The nameless terrors in the night, the anxiety that stops your breath and races your heart.

Someone asked me recently if I had learned to avoid the things that made me afraid and anxious.

I laughed.

That’s not how it works.

Go towards it.

Not always. Some days, many days, I curl into my safe places and I read my safe books and drink my safe tea and whisper my safe words into the leaves of my precious plants.

I may stay for days, weeks in a place of comfort without shame or apology. I do it so that I may have the strength to stretch out my hand to grasp fear’s arm.

Fear is there to pull me up over the rocks. Fear is there as I back over the edge, refusing to look down. And, beautifully, fear is there to watch me fly.

In Philip Pullman’s trilogy, His Dark Materials, our heroes journey into the underworld. There, they meet their deaths–invisible specters that are with us from the moment we are born, morose shades who accompany us to our end.

I imagine my fear a little like that, a minor and malicious specter. And I turn to it, my specter, and I reach out to touch it, and I choose flight.

Not all of the time. But as often as I can.

Please. Even if you have to back over the edge. Even if you refuse to look down.

(Even stars walk backwards. Even planets move in retrograde.)

Choose to fly.

I won’t be able to talk you through it.

But I believe in you.

∆∆

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