On our way to the Stories From the Heart Conference in Austin, Texas, in February, Richard and I drove nearly 1,500 miles through snowstorms, hail, sleet, and pounding rain, from our home in the southern Rocky Mountains across the Great Plains to the Arkansas Ozarks and then south to Austin, the edge of the Texas Hill Country. Along the way we talked from time to time about the larger and longer journey with Richard's brain cancer we've been navigating. Both journeys had their scary times, but neither is responsible for the clutch of fear that inspired the title of this post.
That fear came up–seemingly out of nowhere–as I was working through my own writing exercise with the participants in my "Writing the Hard Stuff" workshop at Stories from the Heart. In the exercise, I asked the group to look into the metaphorical suitcase that contains the also-metaphorical baggage we each carry around and identify the heaviest item in there. As they thought and wrote, I opened my laptop and looked into my own suitcase (for the record, it's a huge soft-sided case of the sort popular in the 1970s, in black watch plaid accessorized with tasteful green textured vinyl). It wasn't hard to distinguish the heaviest thing in my suitcase: fear. 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 though, I was shocked. It was an entirely different sort of fear, and one I never thought I'd be troubled by, fear of success.
I cogitated about that fear during the remainder of the conference, and all along the thousand-plus mile drive home, including one marathon 700-mile day where we pressed on long after we were worn out in order to out-flanked a huge snowstorm blowing past us. As we navigated the storm's aftermath on the last day of the drive (that's a snowy New Mexico landscape above–those cholla cactus look pretty cold in their white blankets!), I tried to explain the fear that I saw to Richard. "I'm afraid of succeeding," I said.
He looked at me, puzzled. He's watched me work hard over several decades to establish a career as a freelance writer. "I know, it sounds weird," I continued, trying to articulate what I felt inside.
What it boils down to is this: 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 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.
What fears lurk in the suitcase–or knapsack, purse, or briefcase–that holds your baggage. If you take them out and look at them in the light, what do they have to say to you? What would you say to them?
Write it all out. Like me, you may find your load–and your life–lighter afterward.