Facing Fear on a Winter Journey

Tonight Richard and I are home, sitting in our own living room with a fire crackling in the woodstove and the winter wind whistling around the house. A week ago we left for Austin, Texas, via a short visit in Northwest Arkansas, a circuit of a trip that took us roughly 2,600 miles in seven days (three of which we spent in place in Austin). On our first day, we set out on the heels of an ice storm that buried much of our route across New Mexico, Oklahoma, and northern Arkansas. We had some trepidation about the road conditions, but it was sunny here in the Southern Rockies, the roads were clear and the peaks white with new snow, so off we went. (That’s Colorado 69 headed south down the Wet Mountain Valley about an hour south of home, with the Sangre de Cristo Range rising above.)

By the end of that long day, we had left the gorgeous sun and crisp white snow of Colorado far behind for ice fog and almost two feet of wet snow in north-central Oklahoma. The next day we drove into rain and then slushy roads and more rain and finally sun. By the time we got to the edge of the Ozarks in Fayetteville, Arkansas, where Richard’s 93-year-old mother, and his sister, niece, and family live, we were more than ready to not drive in winter weather for a while.

We had less than 48 hours with Richard’s family, but we made the most of it. (That’s Richard and his mom, Miss Alice, above, laughing over some old family photos.) We visited with Miss Alice; we stayed with Richard’s sister, Letitia, and one night spent an entire dinner recounting the gory details of Richard’s journey with brain cancer so far, which Tish and her friend Juana swore was riveting. (Aren’t they kind?) We met our great-nephew Oliver, the 13-month-old son of Tish’s daughter Carolyn. Oliver is, as advertised, personable and cute, and he was fascinated by his great-uncle Richard’s juggling.


We got back on the road again last Thursday morning, bound for Austin, in another round of miserable weather. We set out in fog over new snow, and that deteriorated to fog and rain and then just rain and rain and rain and rain. Navigating a couple of hundred miles of I-35 in the rain along with a parade of huge trucks and crazy commuter traffic is not my idea of fun. (That’s the foggy woods of the Boston Mountains, south of Fayetteville, above–very moody, and not the best driving conditions. But it wasn’t snowing.)

We spent three days in Austin for the Story Circle “Stories from the Heart” national conference on writing memoir. I taught a writing workshop on “Difficult Memories: Writing the Hard Stuff” to an audience of about 60 writers from all over the country, and took part in a lively panel on publishing with editor and blogger Helen Ginger, blogger-publishers Kendra Bonnett and Matilda Butler, memoirist Linda Wisniewski, and poet and memoirist Laurie Wagner Buyer, and was inspired by actress and memoirist Heather Summerhayes Cariou. (That’s me at the conference above, in a photo shot by Story Circle Vice President Martha Meacham. The fiddler on the wall behind me is musician Johnny Gimble of the Texas Playboys. I’m just there for scale.) We had lunch with Theresa May, the wildly creative editor-in-chief of University of Texas Press, who published Walking Nature Home. (That’s Theresa below, explaining her sculptural story-dolls.)

And then we drove the thousand-plus miles home trying to avoid the latest winter snowstorm, which dumped nearly a foot of white stuff on the mountains surrounding our little valley yesterday. We had blue skies with interesting cloudscapes across much of West Texas (the cirrus clouds aiming toward us in the photo below are an indication of the storm on its way), and this morning we drove back into snow. Still, we’re home, the fire in the stove is making the house toasty, and we’re glad to be here.

Where does the fear in the title come in? Not the drive, though the conditions were sometimes challenging from my perspective in the passenger seat. (Yes, Richard drove the entire way. I couldn’t pry him out of the driver’s seat; he claims that driving is relaxing. As compared to what? I wondered more than once.) Not from the larger and longer cancer journey Richard and I have been navigating. 

Nope, the fear I confronted came up out of nowhere as I was working through a writing exercise in my own “Writing the Hard Stuff
” workshop along with my students. I looked into the metaphorical suitcase that contains the also metaphorical baggage I carry around and found that the heaviest thing in that suitcase was fear. That wasn’t so surprising, since there’s a lot of scary stuff in my life right now: Richard’s brain cancer, our finances, my work, the economy, global warming, and so on. As I described the fear I found in the huge Black Watch plaid suitcase that contains my baggage, I recognized it as an entirely different sort of fear, and one I never thought I’d be troubled by: Fear of success.

I cogitated about it during the remainder of the conference, and on yesterday’s marathon 700-mile-drive out-flanking the snowstorm. This afternoon, as we navigated the storm’s aftermath (that’s a snowy New Mexico landscape above), I tried to explain the fear that I saw to Richard. What it comes down to amazes me in that I’m a successful writer: I’m widely and well published, including twelve books and hundreds of articles and essays in magazines and newspapers running the gamut from Audubon and Popular Mechanics, to the Los Angeles Times and High Country News. But I still struggle to earn a comfortable living from my work. What’s in my way? It seems that I sabotage myself with a deep-seated fear that greater success will force me to “grow up” and be someone I’m not, someone who is too busy to cultivate a kitchen garden and make her own yogurt, someone who doesn’t have time to talk to the magpies in the yard or greet the sunrise and sunset, someone who has to have her makeup done and teeth whitened, someone who won’t enjoy just sitting side by side with the man she loves and watching miles of snowy landscape pass by. Does that sound silly? 

Perhaps. But that’s the fear I recognized while participating in my own workshop. I’m afraid to write what’s in my heart, afraid that voicing it will shift my life in such profound ways that I won’t have have time and space to be ordinary, every day, plain-old me, the me who loves life and all the lives we share it with. 

Now I’ve got to face that fear. For me, that means writing it out. I’ll keep you posted on what I find.