Happy New Fears!

My normal New Year’s Eve routine in Minnesota is to go for a walk around the closest lake around midnight. Like a wino-in-training, I bring a bottle of booze in a brown paper bag (champagne, for I am a classy wino) and at midnight, pop the cork and swig a few gulps to celebrate. I don’t drink much–just a little to make me feel festive. I often meet joggers, other New Year’s Eve walkers like myself, sometimes people scurrying to and from a party. It’s a good tradition as long as the weather isn’t ten below.

(One year, I did my NYE stroll at almost twenty below windchill and it sucks. Never again. Tradition is not worth dying of exposure.)

I intended to skip this tradition for 2015 New Year’s Eve, as I would be vacationing in northern California. I love it there! I love redwood forests, the heavily oxygenated air, the sheer grandeur, the intense spirituality I feel. There’s a spectacular ocean  nearby, to remind you of your smallness and your beauty as a mammal. The small towns dotting Sonoma and Napa valley. Traveling between them on those twisty inland roads, I feel alive and in love with the world.

I was shocked when Ann, my vacation buddy and best friend, asked me earnestly, “What about your New Year’s Eve tradition? Instead of a lake, do you want to go for a midnight walk through a redwood forest instead?”


Of course not.

That would be terrifying.

Due to exceptionally poor planning (and the fact that I can get lost anywhere, anytime, despite holding the Google Maps app four inches from my face) I’ve been lost in a redwood forest after dark. I remember running full speed down a cedar chip path–completely blind to anything physically in front of me–using the visible stars above the tree tops to guide my full-speed run.


The fact that she even made this suggestion intrigued me. Why would she think that we could do this? We have done brave (and stupid) things in the past, but this…this was…

The park would be closed! It would be dangerous! Everyone knows the forests are full of people-hungry mountain lions and other creature thingees, not to mention serial killers preying on adventurers, and possibly those fast-running zombies. Nobody can be sure. Also, science can’t tell us with any certainty that redwood trees do not come alive after dark and chew people into splinters. Redwoods would be too damn smart to leave witnesses behind.

So, no.

The very idea horrified me.

And yet.

What struck me about her suggestion is how instantly–instantly–my “no” wall went up without any real consideration.

Fear does that.

Fear makes me say no.

Well, let me take more ownership for that statement. I say no when I am afraid.

I feel like I’ve been saying no a lot.

I’ve had some new fears crop up in the past year, fears I don’t love. Fears about aging, dying, and what happens after that. I consider myself a fairly jolly sort of fellow, so new, emerging fears aren’t something I want to welcome. But what do we do when mom can’t live on her own? What if all my professional knowledge is outdated and I become a relic at work? I’m trying to be a good cat owner, but what if my little dude is unhappy and it’s my fault?

Fear is crippling. Or, it can be.

I spoke with a friend recently, a man who has stepped up to some massive responsibilities in life. He’s now twenty-eight and the “fun part” of adult responsibilities has been replaced with the “adult responsibilities” part of adult responsibilities. In near panic, he confided his terror at others depending on him so fully. The mistakes he now makes impact other peoples’ lives. What if he can’t give to his family the way they need him to be strong?

What he could no longer see with clarity–perhaps always easier to see from an outsider perspective–is that his new fears emerged because he dared to pursue a life dream. He dares to pursue something worthy, something amazing, and guess what? That comes with a price tag. Sometimes that price tag is fear. His fear was normal, justified even. And yet, fear was beginning to suck the joy out of an amazing experience.

I get it.

The older I get, the more fears swarm me. Will my teeth last until I’m eighty? Do I want to live to be eighty anyway? What if Trump is elected? Good god. These fears might be justified. Maybe not. I know there are strategies I can employ to reduce and minimize fear. But fear is fear, a house guest sometimes sitting at your dining room table before you even hear the front door close.

After much internal debate, I said yes to Ann’s suggestion.

On New Year’s Eve, we visited a redwood forest close to midnight.

Despite the jaguars, the serial killers, carnivorous redwood trees, and fast-running zombies, we pulled into the completely deserted parking lot. We could see headlights on the lonely road leading to this parking long–another car coming toward us.

“Headlights,” Ann hissed at me, as if the approaching vehicle could hear us as well as see us.

I shut them off.

“Engine! Kill the engine!”

We sat in utter darkness, in silence, waiting for the other car. Before it reached us, it turned around and drove away. While busy sighing with relief and laughing at our guilty reactions, we also realized that without that car–those people–we were truly on our own.

Armed with only our cell phone flashlights, we walked into the forest. Ann grabbed my upper arm. We walked in silence.

Into the dark, dark forest.

Although mountain lions mostly feed at dusk and dawn (a factoid people must learn if they accidentally end up in a forest close to dusk) and generally avoid people if possible, we now sauntered into their forest during their custodial time period.

What shocked me most of all was how impossibly dark it was. We could see a meager three or four feet before us, but beyond that, infinity beckoned. Straight in front of us–a black hole. Above us, thousands and thousands of stars. We gaped in silence, staring straight up.

After we had gone less than a half-mile deep, we decided to turn off the cell phone flashlights and experience the dark.

I have never known a darkness like this.

All of my terrors emerged, all the fear. Staring straight up, I felt insignificant and alone, worried about death and worried about never having lived at all. I felt the very realistic mountain lion fear, and the slightly-unrealistic carnivorous redwood tree fear. I felt fear that the strongest light source seemed to be millions and millions of miles away. The stars would not hear our screams if we were ripped to death by a family of hungry jaguars who could not believe their good fortune human meals were delivered to their front door.

The fear was paralyzing.

Then I realized something. I wasn’t alone.

My best friend gripped my upper arm, fingers wrapped around me like a wrench.

I wasn’t alone.

I think the worst thing about fear is assuming I must face this alone, that no one will understand fear’s impact on my self-confidence or they won’t “get” that sometimes even irrational fears take over, silly as they are.

But I wasn’t alone.

Staring at the stars, being gripped by my best friend, I felt a surge of peace co-exist with fear.

I’m not alone.

I basked in this sensation, stored it for when I need courage again. I may not be able to entirely stop fear. I may have to welcome a few fears into my life. But I don’t have to face them alone.

I turned to Ann and said, “Had enough time in the forest?”

She said, “Let’s get the fuck out of here.”

Confronting fear is good. So is eating chocolate in your northern California cabin next to a New Year’s fire.




4 Responses to “Happy New Fears!”

  1. Jaycee Edward Says:

    Fast running zombies are called “zoombies,” fyi. And to help quiet at least one of your fears, they make false teeth these days. Can’t help you with the Trump fear. Think most of us are a bit terrified of that, to be honest.

  2. Joe Says:

    I’ll remember this.
    “I’m not alone”
    Thank you.

  3. CJane Elliott Says:

    I love this! Such vivid writing, I was right there with you (and Ann). Happy New Year, fears and all.

  4. Jonathan Says:

    I second CJane’s emotion! Your gift for putting me right in the middle of the situation with you is astonishingly beautiful. Thank you for sharing! :)

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