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Places That Scare Us

“Yes, it looks bleak. But you are still alive now. You are alive with all the others, in this present moment. And because the truth is speaking in the work, it unlocks the heart. And there’s such a feeling and experience of adventure. It’s like a trumpet call to a great adventure.” Joanna Macy

Halloween and All Souls Day are here but I’ve been thinking about the places and things that frighten me for some time. From ongoing drought to the rising cost of living, to the continuing effects of the pandemic and beyond, so many things in our daily lives can lead to overwhelm and fear. Observing my cat, Teekeh, I notice how she’s ready to jump or leave the room over the seemingly simplest things–the movement of a chair or the sound of air blowing through the heating vents. It seems we humans are not too much different in reaction when things frighten us.

Out for a walk recently, I noticed how a neighbor down the road wove a giant spiderweb helter-skelter through the redwoods, playfully adding to the Halloween atmosphere. Perhaps it’s a good idea, to look at what webs of fear we’ve wrapped around events and people in our lives and how these hinder our thought and movement. Kay Ryan in her poem, “Spiderwebs” writes, “It isn’t, / ever delicate, / to live.” How do we live courageously and open-heartedly alongside events and people that can cause fear and create the conditions that expand a greater experience of life’s regenerative qualities rather than responding defensively, running away, or shrinking back into ourselves? 

When I was in grad school, once each year a dance was held where those attending invented and wore costumes expressing a suppressed desire. Expanding on and playing with this idea a bit, creating a Halloween costume to express an inner fear could be an interesting way to observe a fear we have and what it is has to say to us through the shape, textures, and colors we choose. If creating and wearing the actual costume isn’t possible, we could draw or imagine what it might look like. Then stand at the mirror and have a conversation with the fear. Some things that frighten us we might not be able to do much about. But we could try befriending the fear in conversation, it could be interesting see how we feel in our gut when we see ourselves in the costume, or when we look at it, and what that reaction might have to tell us.

Currently contemplating the need to move from a place I’ve called home for many decades, I’m experiencing an ongoing feeling of uncertainty about where the right place will be. In any one day, I might find myself imagining living in four different locations! I’m hoping to find a place to call home that will carry me deeper into the the rhythm of my life’s heart, and to recognize it when that place tells me “This is it.” Making a wise choice about this move seems challenging when the future itself is uncertain because of ongoing droughts and fires in the West. John O’ Donohue, in his book, Anam Cara, writes, “Wisdom is the way that you learn to decipher the unknown; and the unknown is our closest companion. So wisdom is the art of being courageous and generous with the unknown, of being able to decipher and recognize its treasures…Wisdom, then is the art of balancing the known with the unknown, the suffering with the joy; it is a way of linking the whole of life together in a new and deeper unity.” Finding balance is extremely challenging as it involves not solely one’s own life, but balance within the culture we live in as well as with aiming to live in balance with the natural environment that is increasingly changing and growing more vulnerable. How do we find the balance?

Occasionally, insight arrives in a moment. Other times discernment emerges slowly after long periods of contemplation. I’ve not yet arrived at the insight into what the right move to a new home will be, but talking to my uncertainty makes living with it more bearable. The conversation isn’t necessarily long, but I’ve been taking a few moments every morning to talk to it. I might not be actually feeling concerned about the uncertainty at the moment, but I speak to the emotion anyway because at some point during the day it surfaces. Often I don’t know what to say to this emotion other than something like, “I’m here for you,” or, “I know the uncertainty is uncomfortable. Things are unfolding, even now, though you don’t see it.” Then, I stand there for a few moments, looking into the sky, gazing at the redwood trees’ sturdy height, noticing how despite drought, smoke, or many inches of rain in one day, the trees carry on. Daily, trees live with the uncertainty of drought. But they carry on as best they can despite the challenges. Aware of the wider rhythms of nature, I’m held inside an affirmation that I, too, can carry on. “Stay open,” I say to my uncertainty and then turn to go on with my day.

There are a lot of colorful fears sitting around in the environment and in our brains like pumpkins in an October field. Caught inside the maze of thoughts we can circle around them, playing our fears over and over in the mind causing us to lose the enjoyment of being present in the life given to us each day. These thoughts could become frightening jack-o-‘lanterns if we decide to carve them up in a way that allows us to scare ourselves. Alternatively, we can talk to our fears, set them out in the light and familiarize ourselves with their story, allowing them to simply remain pumpkins without need to take on a sinister appearance of a jack-o-‘lantern. Alternatively, we can transform our fears–turn them in to nourishing soup, delicious muffins, or pies through creative acts such as art, music or story.

In his poem, “My Courageous Life,” David Whyte writes,

My courageous life
wants to be 
my foundation,
showing me
day after day
even against my will
how to undo myself,
how to surpass myself,
how to laugh as I go 
in the face 
of danger,
how to invite
the right kind 
of perilous
love,
how to find 
a way 
to die
of generosity.

We like to feel comfort. We want to feel like we’re riding on the Yusuf Islam (Cat Steven’s) “Peace Train.” We like to know where we’re going and to have clear answers to difficult questions. But these don’t always come readily and there may be no easy answers, as Sami Yusuf expresses in in his song, “Make Me Strong.” Some answers require sacrifice or enormous change. Our joy, uncertainty and despair are connected to the experiences of the world that is both in and around us, both human and nonhuman. Compassionate conversations with difficult emotions we experience is a way to be generous with ourselves, and can also be a way to find laughter as we go, even while facing danger. As Joanna Macy describes how she works with her difficult emotions, “…it’s been central to my life and my work to make friends with our despair, to make friends with our pain for the world. And thereby to dignify it and honour it. That is very freeing for people.”

2 thoughts on “Places That Scare Us”

  1. “There are a lot of colorful fears sitting around in the environment and in our brains like pumpkins in an October field. Caught inside the maze of thoughts we can circle around them, playing our fears over and over in the mind causing us to lose the enjoyment of being present in the life given to us each day. These thoughts could become frightening jack-o-‘lanterns if we decide to carve them up in a way that allows us to scare ourselves.” YES YES YES. What a fabulous image, because I feel like I’m doing so much to scare myself these days. Loved this blog.

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