10.19.2006

primal

Two years ago this month, while house-sitting in Homer, Alaska, I woke up at 5am one morning to let an insistent Nyssa out. It had snowed the evening before, and as I walked out on the back porch from my room, I was groggy and more than a little annoyed at her timing. I looked out over the yard as she bounced around in the snow, snuffling about for that elusive perfect deposit-spot. I slowly became aware of strange, dark pockets in the snow crossing the yard. I could not see what they were, blind as I am without glasses, but something inside me snapped, my heart began to pound, my stomach sank, and I fumbled back inside for my glasses. I returned to discover a set of deep booted footprints, thrown into shadowed relief in the bright moonlight. They came out of the woods and towards the house, onto the exposed porch and right up to the window above my bed, where the shade was wide open. They became a tangled mess in the little dust of snow there, then turned and crossed the porch and yard, disappearing again into the woods where they emerged.

The simple intuitive wrongness of the scene now fascinates me. I could not see what the shadows were, or how creepily close they came to where I slept, before I returned with full vision to inspect them. But the fear I felt began in that first moment. I knew something was wrong, before I could see it or identify it. And something was very, very wrong.

A few weeks into our tenure in Fairbanks this year, when the darkness was finally full enough and the bright northern moon had waned a bit, Peter shook me awake at about 3am. I stumbled downstairs and into boots, then out onto the porch. The Northern Lights - which I had never seen in my time in the southern costal climes of Alaska - were out in full glory, dancing green and bright across the sky. Before I had even looked up, I felt an unfamiliar terror building up in my chest. My heart began to pound. I leaned against the cabin wall to stay steady. The lights were incredible and beautiful. The dropped out of the sky, deep green against the black and the stars, a sweeping, undulating sheet of light that spun out, folded in on itself, dropped and pulled back up into the night. They seemed close enough to set the cabin on fire. Although I know what the Aurora are, I have seen pictures and videos of them, read explanations of their cause, know that they are miles and miles above us in the very outer atmospheres of our earth, some deep part of me was profoundly disturbed by this first sighting. So much so that I had trouble sleeping the rest of the night. Yet here is the crux of it: there was nothing to be afraid of, and I knew it.

I do not consider myself a particularly fearful person, on this basic sort of level. My friend Ben and I even had a term for the sort of behavior one engages in, in order to face and conquer those fears: The Glass Elevator Syndrome. It was dubbed so, after the act of repeatedly riding glass elevators while looking straight down, in order to overcome that sinking stomach fear of heights. The sorts of things one might do, in order to display Glass Elevator Syndrome, may include learning to paraglide or BASE Jump to overcome a fear of heights, forcing oneself to get back on a horse after a bad fall, signing up to volunteer at literacy program, a nursing home, a homeless shelter in a bad neighborhood, or to go door-to-door for a volatile political campaign of some sort (imagine the good this would do for a people-pleasing introvert like myself!)

Some fears, like my terror at discovering footprints at my window, or the sudden gasping adrenaline rush I felt the first time I rode over a 7 foot swell in a kayak, the hairs at the back of my neck prickling when Nyssa raises the alarm that someone besides Peter is approaching the cabin after dark, are good and healthy and the sort of instinct that keeps one alert and alive. Others, like my primal reaction (as Peter identified it) to the harmless Aurora, or my near paralyzing fear of going to parties where I don't know a soul, or of having to eat something with too much onion in it - these are fears that, though perhaps born from some legitimate intuition, should be pushed through when one knows the fear is baseless, that the end will be good. I know there are no monsters in the dark corners of the house at night. I go outside to see the Northern Lights, and enjoy them until the cold creeps through my boots.

2 comments:

Kim said...

It's so interesting that you had that sort of startled fear at something so beautiful--it opens all kinds of questions--why do we fear the unknown, even if it is good--crosscultural questions, prejudices, etc.--I'm glad you shared this peculiar experience--it makes the rest of us feel at ease as we think about at our own unexplained fears.

Kim said...

Oh and great quote down on the right by the way--I love MacDonald and especially The Golden Key. How in the world do you survive with so much darkness where you are? I have trouble making it through PA winters!