It’s a short walk from the house to the car. Under a starry sky, undimmed by neighbor’s lights, it’s quite beautiful, too. I’m almost always up before dawn; sometimes I stay at home and write, other days I go to the office early to catch up at my desk. Today, I pull the front door shut behind me. Norma is still asleep, breathing softly in the darkened house which itself breathes softly in the night, tin roof reflecting the light of the moon, wisps of smoke rising from the chimney, a light breeze playing with the smoke like a sculptor’s busy hand.

The crunching underfoot of the gravel on the path is the only sound I hear as I walk toward the car. That, and the rustling of leaves. Then there’s another sound: was it a twig snapping? I don’t know. We live surrounded by woods, at the end of a dirt road. I’ve seen deer here, and Norma says a family of foxes walked by her one day. People we never see, except friends of course. Once some hunters drove down the road by mistake. But we’ve never come across strangers in the woods. My pal Ed jokes that even the people who know how to find us have a hard time finding us.

Another twig snaps. I look toward the sound and the trees look back at me. I shine my small flashlight into the woods; the thin beam is sucked up by the darkness, like water through a straw. And the mouth of darkness opens. My heart starts to pound. I’m close to the car now, but black has turned to deeper black. There are sounds that make no sense. A shape springs from the earth: human or animal? There’s no way to tell. The darkness is a hand across my eyes. Only a few feet more. There’s nothing to worry about, I tell myself, but it’s the President in me talking, bullshit and a smile. My body knows better, the muscles taut along my arms and legs, ready to punch or kick, or run — but from what? What can hurt me out here? This smell — is it my own fear? Or is it this thing like a harsh wind moving toward me, foul breath and claw. It almost gets me before I slam the door.

Just like last night. And the night before.


If you’re laughing, I don’t blame you. I laugh at myself too, sometimes: nearly forty years old and still afraid of the dark. I didn’t even know I was this afraid until we moved to the country last Summer. Night has a different texture here than in town, where it never really gets dark, where night settles like black lace over the streetlamps and the windows — not like a shroud, not like the long hallway, with the burned-out bulb, that stretches endlessly, impenetrable, a dream of utter darkness. I toss and turn fitfully in that dream, awake in a nightmare I can’t awaken from but stagger through half-awake, startling myself with fantastic images, reptilian horrors, werewolves, witches.

Where does all this crap come from? I don’t go to horror movies. I hardly watch TV. I did the requisite drugs on my way to becoming enlightened, but reality kept its hold on me; I never ended up in a hospital hallway at 2 a.m. with large-fanged monsters feeding on my flesh. Like all responsible adults, I know what the real monsters are: poverty, war, pollution. This is what haunts our gray world, right? With Reagan in the White House, who needs to worry about a devil with horns?

I was a normal kid with the usual childhood fears, to which my parents responded in the usual way — by telling me there was no such thing as a boogeyman, that the grotesqueries I knew were waiting for me at the top of the stairs were all in my imagination. So what happened? Like other normal kids, I pretended I wasn’t really afraid. I mean, what choice was there? To be laughed at by your parents or your friends — who wanted to imagine that? I buried the fear. I drowned out the whisperings with the white noise of busyness and bravado. I grew up. I left those fears behind.

I learned to use words. To hide our fears behind a screen of words is, after all, considered a sign of maturity. Once, I interviewed a spiritual teacher on the subject of relationships. She was eloquent and wise, neglecting only to tell me — I found out later — that she had just split up with her husband. I know other people who seem to tell you everything, yet their words are little fireflies; the greater darkness yawns around and within them. They pretend they left their fears behind, too, but I know better. You can’t hustle a hustler.

When I started to understand how much I’d buried I saw that everyone else had done it, too. We put tremendous energy into denying our fears. Politics, love affairs, guru-tripping — anything but facing the dark. I know the fears seem to be different — of succeeding, or failing, of airplanes, sex, nuclear war, the death of a loved one, a pimple on your cheek. But I wonder, are they really different? Walking to my car at night, am I facing something different than you face when you stare into the shadows of your own life?


I learned something important about fear this Winter. It was a discovery I’d made before, but forgotten — as, walking to my car, I’ve forgotten it since. How many times do we repeat the same lesson, drive the same nail through the same flesh? We are such strange creatures: able to recall a friend’s phone number or the balance in our checkbook but amnesiacs when it comes to who we are, what’s false and what’s real.

The place we moved to has no toilet, just an outhouse set back in the woods. Add to my list of earthly terrors a dark hole in the ground, six feet deep, Norma says, I say sixty, with who knows how many subterranean tunnels radiating forth to how many vestibules of Hell, and perched atop this throbbing intersection of stink and mystery an improbable box with a hole cut in the top, for sitting on, and shitting in — quickly as you can, it seems to me, for why provoke with my exposed flanks whatever lurks down there, black widow spider or cloven-hoofed prince, surely no friend of mine. How easy it was to break a lifelong habit of reading in the john.

But you get used to most things, don’t you? An uneasy truce prevailed between me and whatever was down there — during the day. At night, however, I rebelled. Like Hemingway said, it is awfully easy to be hard-boiled about everything in the daytime, but at night, it’s another matter. We kept a chamber pot in the house — for the children, I maintained, though I was the only one who ever used it. It was embarrassing, but my fear was greater than my embarrassment. If I didn’t have to go out there at night, I wasn’t going to.

Then, last December, my friend Ray Harold gave me a copy of The Way of the Peaceful Warrior by Dan Millman. The book had touched him deeply, Ray said — indeed, the cover declared that it was “a book that changes lives.” Into what, I wondered. I was a little wary of another spiritual rags-to-riches tale, so obviously derivative of the Carlos Castaneda books — plus, Dan’s teacher had the improbable nickname of Socrates. But Ray was someone I respected; I read the book. I’m glad I did. I can’t wholeheartedly recommend it — the writing is meat-and-potatoes English, without even a sprig of parsley, and Dan, like Carlos, portrays himself as improbably dumb; I mean, if he’s as dull and intransigent as he sounds, how was he ever able to understand all this, let alone write it down?

But something in Dan Millman’s book touched me, too.

Socrates, Dan’s rascally guru of indeterminate age and nationality but a man of great power and, fortunately for Dan, patience, implores our hero to be less wimpy. Give up the “poor me” act, he says. “Anger is one of your main tools to transform old habits and replace them with new ones. . . . Anger can burn away old habits. Fear and sorrow inhibit action; anger generates it. When you learn to make proper use of your anger, you can transmute fear and sorrow to anger, and anger, to action. That’s your body’s secret of internal alchemy.”

The words banged around inside my head for a few days, like a bird that flies in through a window and can’t get out. Then, early one morning when it was still pitch dark, I picked up my little flashlight, like David with his slingshot, and stepped outside to face my Goliath. The bird was free.

I was angry at everything: myself, my parents, their parents. At the way I’d learned to see things. At the mind’s trickery: dividing life into seeming opposites and setting them against each other, making separate what is whole. Thus, I denied the “bad” parts of me — the wildness, the shrill passions, the reptile sex, the claw. Is it any wonder they were out there? I’d orphaned them, but they knew their true mother, and waited for me by the door.

My fury grew, feeding on the airs of every denial, on the heavy airs of a world split in two: man against woman, black against white, rich against poor. We rend asunder and in the twilight between, fear is born. Who’s to blame? Not Reagan. Not my Mom and Dad. Who’s to blame that I live on a spinning world, one half bathed in sunlight, the other plunged in night?

The darkness surrounded me as I made my way toward the woods. The fear was still there, as it would be on nights to come. But so was this new energy, moving me like a storm-whipped sail. What a fine spray! So what if it was “only” anger — it carried me out of my harbor, chased some bad vapors away.

For a dismal moment, the wind died. I stood motionless, a terrified animal again, ready to run. I waited. I waited some more. For what? No one was coming to hurt me, or save me. I could stand there a thousand years. Fuck it, I said. It raised the wind again.

I got to the outhouse — safe and surprised. I smiled. I was aware I hadn’t solved anything: just knowing I’m the one in the projection booth doesn’t keep my eyes off the screen. But something had happened; I’d gotten here. I sat, staring out the door, for a moment relaxed, taking in the brilliant sky, dark and bejewelled. It was a view I hadn’t seen before.

— Sy