I love Halloween. The costumed reveling, bowls of candy, jack o’lanterns flickering on stoops. I especially like the way we mark the beginning of this season of slipping into the long winter nights, by striking matches and lighting little lights against the big, big dark outside.
A few years ago I discovered – to my great chagrin – that I’m afraid of the dark. I was at Hedgebrook, a writer’s colony on Whidbey Island in the Puget Sound. Each writer had her own little cottage in the woods. I had a sleeping loft and a wood-burning stove; a lavender and sage scented bathhouse with a claw foot tub was a short walk away. There were blackberry bushes heavy with sweet, dark fruit, a fig tree, an herb garden, and a cat who wove her scent around your ankles when you walked down the path to the main house for supper.
And at night, it was dark.
So dark that when I lay in bed I couldn’t see my hand in front of my face. I felt buried alive, blanketed in darkness thick as mud. Every night my heart thumped like an injured bird in my chest till I managed to finally fall asleep. The dark’s not a crazy thing to fear, evolutionarily speaking. It makes the familiar strange and shadowy. It represents the unknown. Still, I was ashamed of being afraid and determined not to fritter away my time in the woods like some skittish horror movie babysitter. I was going to stand my ground and sock fear in the kisser. I made up my mind I would venture out one night to see the Perseids, an August meteor shower people all over the world have gazed upon for something like 2000 years. The Perseids are actually dust and debris from the tail of a comet that ignite in the earth’s atmosphere when we cross the comet’s orbit each August. The comet itself is as big as the asteroid that killed the dinosaurs; it’s been called the most dangerous object known to humanity because its trajectory brings it so close to earth.
Comets aren’t generally one of the things I’m afraid of. But there are plenty of others.
Apparently the dark, for starters. Then, let’s see – spiders, sharks, saying or doing something really stupid, not publishing my book after all this work, dying alone and penniless. You know, that kind of thing.
That summer at Hedgebrook, I mustered my courage and walked through the inky woods to a meadow nearby where I lay on the grass with some of the other writers-in-residence. For a while, nothing. We talked in voices that sounded small against the buzzing, rustling aliveness of the night. Coyotes yipped in the distance. And then it started. One after another, meteors slid across the upturned bowl of sky like so many struck matches.
I know life will keep offering up scary things. The future is unknowable. We spin on a little planet engulfed in a colossal dark. I’m thinking about that this Halloween. I’m thinking about this book I’m writing and other frightening, wonderful and ordinary things. I’m thinking about the good things that can follow when we step with hearts pounding off our lighted stoops into the woods.