Recently, my friend Wendy and I were corresponding about my fear of public speaking and she asked me if I was ready for Wednesday night’s event where there will be seven hundred people in attendance – weather permitting. She wanted to know what I will do to get ready to step out of my comfort zone.
The answer’s simple. I choose to bring my comfort zone with me. Yes, I have a fear of public speaking, and most would never know it, but no matter how calm and relaxed I look it simmers just beneath the surface. (I’ve read that President Kennedy had the same fear and often vomited before his speeches.) My way to deal with it is to face it. I think it’s a rush to face a fear and each time I do; I get that much stronger.
Before an event, I get the lay of the venue and try to have it set up so that Atticus and Will are being put in a position to succeed. Charlotte Canelli at the Morrill Memorial Library in Norwood has been a pleasure to work with. We've kept in touch about what will work best for taking care of Atticus and Will, and that’s a load off of my mind.
But that still leaves me to standing on the stage with Atticus by my side (and Will waiting in the wings with his personal protectors Laura Bachofner and Marybeth Cauffman) in the spotlight in the middle of my fear. It reminds me of how I feel on a hike along a narrow ledge where another fear – heights! – heckles me. I freeze, then say “f--- it!” and I take a leap of faith realizing that others before me have done it and haven’t plunged to their death, so I can handle it, as well.
So I will go out on stage, look up into the lights, down into fourteen hundred eyes, and I will leap. Inside I’ll laugh and feel the thrill of excitement and think of something Joseph Campbell said when Bill Moyers asked him about the meaning of life. What Campbell said was that people aren’t looking for the meaning of life, they’re looking for the experience of being alive. Fears are part of that experience. It makes our breath more valuable, creates a sense of being mindful and aware, all time slows down, all time speeds up – and all becomes timeless.
I equate a lot of my life to the hikes Atticus and I take. I used to be afraid of hiking in the dark and felt like a child who was frightened to take my head out from beneath the sheets. Now, however, we hike often at night. A week ago, when Will woke us up in the middle of the night by going to the bathroom and then falling in it on the kitchen floor, he called to me and woke me up out of my sleep. I picked his little body up as he shook and cried; he was soaked in his own urine, stained with his shit. I took my shirt off, pulled him close to my chest so he could whimper against my heart and know that everything was going to be okay, and I held him like that while I drew his bath.
After he was clean and wrapped in a towel, I cleaned the mess on the kitchen floor, lit a candle, and then steam mopped the floor. After an episode like this one, which happens in the middle of the night from time to time, Will sleeps soundly and won’t budge until late morning. But after rushing in for the rescue and helping my little friend, I often have a difficult time getting back to sleep. After I shower, I sometimes read in bed. Other times I get up and write letters to friends. But on this night, with Atticus wide awake and sitting up on the bed with a look of expectation, I agreed with him, got dressed, grabbed my pack, and by 3:00 am we were parked at the trailhead of the Old Path, on our way into the dark woods headed for South Doublehead, and then North.
The night fear stood on the edge of my periphery just to remind me it’s there, but I remind myself that fear of the dark, much like a fear of public speaking, is nothing but ghosts. And the truth is, I’m not afraid of ghosts.
We slowly marched up the trail, and when it became steep, we still moved withpurpose and took breaks when we needed them. Upon reaching the saddle between the two humps, a place where we’ve run into moose, bear, and a porcupine during past night hikes, the stars could be seen through the short trees and off of the backside of the mountain. I turned off my headlamp and could see the moonbeams filtering through the trees.
We climbed to the top the ledges just shy of the South Doublehead summit and emerged from the woods into a brilliant night, frozen but clear. Beneath us, Jackson Village seemed tiny. To the northwest Mount Washington caught the light of the full moon and stood there like a stunning bride – all of that white against the dark night. I picked up Atticus and kept my headlamp off, and we looked towards our largest peak, the one the Abenaki referred to as Agiocochook (Home of the Great Spirit), and I smiled. Such a gift to see the glow of this giant mountain looking at us as we looked at her while the rest of the world slept.
We eventually made our way to the cairn at the summit of South Doublehead many warm memories linger for me from the various hikes we’ve made both during the daylight and at night, then doubled back to the saddle. There were no moose or bear to be seen, but there were hoof prints in the snow going to the back of the saddle. Then it was up into the shadows with my headlamp cutting through a tunnel of darkness before we came to the vacant and locked cabin on the top of North Doublehead. We took the path behind it and looked at the stars hanging above Maine. After a few minutes, we walked down the old ski slope and back to the car.
Will was tucked in just as we had left him, just as I knew he would be, and Atticus and I climbed back into bed where we were warm and safe after I had danced with that little fear of mine. One of the greatest things about entering discomfort by way ofadventure is returning home again where all is appreciated even more.
We drowsed off. When we woke up to bright blue skies and the blinding blanket of white in our backyard that full moon, glowing Agiocochook, and the Doubleheads lingered like a dream.
As we get ready to stand on stage this Wednesday night, we’ll begin by dropping Will of with Tracy at the Ultimutt Cut to have his hair washed and trimmed on Tuesday morning. Atticus and I will head to a mountain and climb a peak and take it all in and feel the strength, peace, vitality, and tranquility of the mountain. Of course, it will hurt some because we are both getting back into shape, and I have plenty of weight to lose to catch up to where we were before the cancer came, but it will be good hurt. I’ll feel my body re-awakening. On Tuesday night we’ll have a quiet time at home and I’ll pack up. By the time we leave Wednesday morning, I’ll be excited for our little road trip. We’ll stop in Medway to visit the graves of Jack and Isabel and introduce them to Will. I’ll let him get down and dance around where their bodies sleep.
In my prayers, I’ll tell my father about Tuesday’s hike, about the Wednesday night’s event, and I’ll read aloud to him the latest chapter I’m working on in the next book. He would have loved it all. Who knows, perhaps he is somewhere we he will still be able to enjoy it. Either way I’ll share it because I know it would mean something to him.
We’ll head to Norwood, take a tour of the library, let Atticus and Will meet some excited librarians, and just before the event starts, we’ll find a private place backstage. I pull out my iPhone, plug in my ear phones, and listen to music as I do before every event.
When I step on stage, I’ll be stepping into a new adventure with Atticus, just as I’ve done everything with him over the past dozen years, just as we’ve hiked thousands of mountains, as I fought septic shock, and he fought cancer, we’ve ridden the ups and downs of life’s rollercoaster, and faced storms both actual and metaphorical. I’ll smile and embrace the fear and underneath my breath I’ll think of the “experience of being alive” where fears dance with joy. Then I’ll leap.
By all the talking is over, the questions answered, the shaking hands and signing of books complete, and we step out into the cold air, and head to our hotel room, I’ll be spent. In the morning, we’ll drive back to Jackson and our quiet lives. We’ll stop, as we always do, at Lake Chocorua to stretch our legs and greet the majestic mountain that always welcomes us back to the region.
In the days after a big event, I walk around like I’m hung over, even though I don’t drink. I’ll wear my sunglasses, turn off the phone, drink plenty of water, and Atticus and I will find some nice trails to explore where we won’t see another soul.
It will be a lot like it was when we returned from Doublehead the other night. The best part of the adventure is the contrast in finding the comfort of home again.
That is how I deal with my fear of public speaking. As I always do.