I grew up with gates. On a ranch, a gate determines boundaries. It keeps livestock in its proper area and trespassers at bay.
You always leave a gate the way you find it. If it’s open, leave it open. If it’s closed, leave it closed. If it’s locked and you unlock it, lock it back exactly the same way. Never, ever stand on it.
I started riding with my dad on the ranch around the age of five. Inevitably we’d pull up to a gate to be opened. Usually it needed to be unlocked as well. A heavy ring of twenty keys or more would be passed to my hands, the one key specific for that job set apart for my fingers to grasp. I’d hold it tightly, hustling from the cab of the pick up to the padlock at the gate.
Forever imprinted upon me are those fumbling gate-opening moments. The truck idling, dad at the wheel, eyes upon me, watching, waiting, as I went about the business of opening. Keys into padlocks, thick iron chains unwrapping. Did the gate open in or out? Every opening process was a mini, on-stage execution, keenly observed by my father. Ever the dutiful pleaser, I longed to be quick and successful.
The worst scenario (the one I tried earnestly to avoid) would be if the truck had to go into park and dad had to climb out to help. Not that he was impatient walking over to me in his hay-covered jeans. But if he was beside me at the gate, time was up, and I had failed.
Sometimes it was simply my own nerves keeping me from being able to get the lock open, or from figuring out how to unwrap the chain. These pressures to perform were mostly imposed upon myself, and they created a bit of gate phobia lasting long into adulthood.
This past December I found myself riding shotgun with my dad again. This time I was 43, not five. But when we came to that first gate, the familiar angst rumbled around in my stomach. It’d been years since I’d unlocked a gate on the ranch, but once again, all eyes were on me, waiting. The only thing I could do was my best. Though it may sound absurd to think one would need a pep talk to open a gate, there I was, bolstering myself with “Don’t worry, you’ve got this.”
Sure enough, the first gate was easy. Whew! Dad drove through, and I closed it with ease behind him. I was soon to learn that there were new gates since I’d been gone. In the course of our round-trip excursion, I probably opened and closed gates 15 times. In each instance of pulling up to the barrier, I felt the tinge of tension. And each time I climbed out, unlocking and locking, I experienced a small success.
That day, no one knew my scary gatekeeping secret. Little did the Bohemian realize that as he snapped photos, he was documenting me in breakthrough moments. Yesterday I came across some of the shots he took of me at the gateways, and I thought to share them here as a testament to conquering fears.
This is simple evidence of just how powerful our minds can be, to either lock up in fear, or to open and walk through. Close, open. Lock, unlock. No hurry, no worry.
In the words of Napoleon Hill, “Whatever the mind of (hu)man can conceive and believe it can achieve.”
It took me 40 years, but I think I’ve finally got the gates.
Gifted to me by my friend, The Artist, it chronicles the experience of a woman (and she insists she is quite ordinary) who had a sudden shift in consciousness. She claims that her entire life changed, deep to the core of every moment. That she went from being a woman living in extreme anxiety around repeated cancer scares, to someone that began existing in a state of great peace. That the fear simply went away. And what filled the empty once occupied by fear, was an infinite well of love.
Her book describes this experience, not as one that had a beginning and an end. Not one that had a peak of sorts and then faded. It explains that this shift within her was so authentic and profound that it sustained, no matter the circumstance, no matter the calendar days that passed.
What she tells is that she was a simple woman, filled with lots of fear. She did nothing special except that one night, filled with anxiousness for the next cancer test, she decided to ask. Asking no one deity in particular, she was not religious. She just asked something – that thing that was bigger than herself – if she could stop being afraid. And what she reports is that the fear did indeed go away. Not for a night or a week, but permanently. Frazier’s account describes her journey through this experience, all the while insisting that this awakening is possible for every person.
She recalls a time in life before this shift, when she could simply not believe that she would ever awaken to any kind of divine state. That she could read of masters living in this way, but that it was not accessible to her.
I can relate. Reading her words I reflect on this in my own life. I dwell with my beliefs. Just take a look at my own mind and how it can so instantly jump to “Nahhhh. Not me. I could never really be completely free of fear. I’m not one of those special human beings that could live in a state of grace, 24/7, no matter the outer circumstances. That is a state beyond me. Impossible for what I am capable.”
I realize these thoughts play quietly in the deep recesses. Strong enough to make a song, but sounding low enough that I do not notice them, though they hum assumptions that color my days.
How curious to simply listen to this song. Question it. Feel the freedom of even just considering singing a different tune.
Where else am I closing doors where I could be swinging them full open?
Here’s to the profound – found – in the every day.
“…The main thing is the experience deep in that has nothing to do with what’s going on around me. Trying to describe it is like trying to speak a language I don’t know: I’m new in this country. But also, it’s hard to put words to, because if I were to just say it like it is, say the way it feels, I fear I would sound immoderate, unseemly. And yet the experience inside is so incredible, it is for that very reason I am compelled to describe it. It is so very important. It is, in fact, the reason we live at all. Not a reason: the reason.
How can I keep quiet about this, self-conscious though it make me?
It’s the joy I refer to. The no-good-reason joy. It’s love that I feel-enormous love, vast, undirected love. Undiluted, unfunneled love. I know of no other way to say it.
I feel large, huge, vast, like what is in me pumps out into the world around me and fills it. Infects it.
It isn’t happiness. It isn’t directed at one particular person or place or idea.
But this isn’t what is most startling. It is the power that has opened to me, because of giving in to this force of love. I feel an enormous power inside-like I’m capable of more than I used to be.
God, I swear this is the best kept secret. Everybody can do it. I know this. I could have done it all my life.
It’s like I read once: The universe exists so God can hide and we can go looking for God. One big game. But the whole time, all we have to do is look. Right there. Right here: in this kitchen, where I sit in my wet socks, my coffee cup beside me, my boots on the floor, snow and mud melting out of the their treads onto the linoleum…”
Still turning over yesterday’s Food for Thought post in my mind (the one in which Jeb suggests that fear resides in the side of his brain that isn’t ‘right’), I was inspired to jump into the firing line of that synapse circuitry and have a little adventure.
It was Saturday night after all, and what’s a mom to do when she’s got her seven-year old and a hankering for a thrill? A walk in the dark by flashlight seemed fitting. So despite his reservations (and zero hesitation on requesting to the entire dinner party, as we were leaving, “can someone please give us a ride home?”) I stuck a flashlight in Jeb’s hand and steered him with great confidence into the moonless night.
We had about a mile between the dinner party and our house. One long, dirt road (often traversed by wild pigs) and a quiet, two-lane, paved road that would lead us to our awaiting abode.
Jeb had been all protest at the party- “Mom, we have to walk by the cemetery!” (Ok, it’s true, we did) – but once we set foot into the stillness of the night, he was as silent as the air that hung warmly all around us. I didn’t mention the potential of wild pigs (a greater reservation of mine than the cemetery spirits) and he hadn’t considered them.
We walked side by side on the gravel road, our flashlights each casting blue-white beams before us. There was no wind, just summer quiet, the starlight above us, and the sound of stones rolling quietly beneath our footsteps.
Just trying to hold his own – manage his own inner fears – I could sense that Jeb wanted silence. Me, on the other hand, I was thinking that a little chattiness would alert any unsuspecting, protective mama pig that humans were approaching.
I rambled. “Imagine the Polynesians traveling at night in the ocean like this, Jeb. They didn’t have light, no flashlights, no batteries. There weren’t even landmarks to guide their way. Just ocean water all around them and the stars up above.”
“They could use a map.”
“They didn’t even have maps then. This was a time before there were maps. The stars were their map.”
There is tall grass on either side of us, bordering the dirt road we walk upon. Wild pastures stretch out beyond in both directions. Not far behind us in the brush I hear a faint sound of something rustling. Maybe an actual sound from a mammal. It’s quiet, I’m not sure. My body perks, electric, all senses keen. A primal response.
I keep walking. Talking.
With my ears reaching toward any sound in the surrounding grasses, I attempt to portray all things casual. “Look at all of the stars tonight. It’s a new moon, so we can really see them.”
Jeb’s still not all that talkative so he only makes some mumbled sound of agreement. And then there is the deep, low grunt that emerges from the shadows some 100 yards or so to the left. It’s sourced from something largish, I can tell, then followed by some smaller sounds – I’m certain it is a mother pig with her young.
“What was that?” Jeb asks.
If I tell the truth I don’t know how he’ll react. We’ve got 3/4 of mile more to go and I don’t want a paranoid traveling companion freaking out at every rustled leaf between here and home. As I search my brain for the right thing to say, work to still my own beating heart, and still keep my senses tuned to whether that sound is now behind us – and staying there – Jeb tries to answer his own question.
“Was that a bunny?”
There must be a god. And this must be a miracle in action. Because my son is intelligent. Why he would even consider that the loud, guttural grunt that sounded like it came from an animal weighing over 150 pounds, was potentially sourced from a small and fluffy creature – typically known to be silent – I have no idea. Perhaps as a survival mechanism, his brain was moving into instant denial, conjuring the exact opposite of anything threatening: a cuddly bunny. It defied logic, as miracles tend to do, and at this moment, I welcomed the supernatural.
But I didn’t want to lie. I just couldn’t bring myself to say, “yes, that was a bunny.” Instead, I skirted. “Hmmm….a bunny? Well, there are some bunnies on Kauai. But I think they used to be pets and then they got loose and would get in people’s gardens – kind of like Peter Rabbit – and eat all of their vegetables. And then they would reproduce and kind of make trouble for all the gardeners….”
And I’m just talking. Trying to use my human words and move my flashlight about on the ground so that mother pig knows, we’re just silly humans out on a little Saturday night adventure and we’re just passing through here on the road, and she doesn’t need to do anything except stay cozy in that tall grass, which is swiftly shrinking further and further behind us in the distance.
We have something in common, she and I. It’s night and we’re with our offspring, just taking in the starlight, wanting to stay safe.
I can see the paved road up just ahead. This section has more houses (well, the cemetery, too) and I know that pigs are much less likely to venture toward the road.
Our conversation moves from bunnies to other topics that I can’t relay in this moment. I don’t recall what words were coming out of my mouth as my mind launched thousands of impulses that coursed through my veins beneath my skin and raced as rapid-fire thoughts. All the while, trying to convey a sense of calm and confidence to my son. Trying to remind myself that all was well, that we were safe.
And we were. We got to the main road just fine. No more pig sounds to be heard. We were already a quarter-mile past the cemetery before Jeb asked “Have we gotten to the cemetery yet?”
All rules were different in the night. We walked down the center of the road along the yellow divider line. A total of three cars passed. And then, eventually, we were home. Mission accomplished – my Saturday night adventure had been had. And we both had faced some fears, hopefully stronger and more courageous because of it.
So, I’m left to ponder Jeb’s thoughts on fear coming from the left side of the brain – his second-grade metaphor essentially suggesting that fear isn’t ‘right’. I don’t think I’ve ever taught him that fear is wrong. But I guess I have conveyed that fear isn’t always right. Or, at least, that it doesn’t always have to have the final say.
We’ve got these brains, you know. They’re old. These lobes that are still evolving. Some of it’s just biology. We’re wired this way. Fear is going to arise.
What makes someone courageous is not that they don’t have fear. It’s that they have the fear but choose to move through it, face it, and go forward anyway. I think that’s what sets the heroes apart from all the rest of us. They don’t freeze in their fear. They transcend that ‘old mammalian brain’ and find the gold on the other side.
Jeb and I, we didn’t slay any monstrous dragons. But we conjured some courage. Walked in darkness, side by side. Our gold? Some starlight. A warm, still night. Some new circuit routes paved.