Julia Scott

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Under One Roof: How COVID-19 Turned My Apartment Building Into a Community

Thursday, April 16th, 2020

I live in a tall condo building with hundreds of neighbours in Oakland, California. The San Francisco Bay Area has been under lockdown for five weeks now, though many of us have already lost count.

These are long days. Sometimes I forget to eat. I sit in front of my laptop at my kitchen table — which is also my dining room table — and mark time by counting the number of delivery vans in the driveway from Amazon. Everyone in my building is ordering in and no one is venturing out.

And I’ve started to wonder: how are we all coping? How has the coronavirus changed our lives so far, and how will it change us as a building? As neighbours?

We live solitary lives behind our 119 doors. And yet we’ve never had more in common. The threat we face from outside is invisible, terrifying and real. And all of a sudden, we’ve come to depend on each other to stay healthy. One person’s COVID-19 exposure could endanger others in proximity. We all need to protect each other at the same time.

Possibly no one in the building understands the threat better than Katie Stephenson. She’s a pediatrics resident at a local hospital, and she lives on the second floor. She regularly works 12-hour shifts at the hospital, where she sees children who have been admitted because their parents are afraid they might have COVID-19.

‘I just assume that I’ve been exposed’

When she comes home from work, the first thing she does is strip off her scrubs and take a long shower with a lot of soap. “Because it’s not only just the germs, but it’s also the sweat and everything from being in the hospital and trying to sleep on the little cots there, and being exposed to all the coughing,” she says.

Katie is not just trying to stay clean. She’s trying to protect our neighbours from the coronavirus — since she thinks it’s only a matter of time before she becomes infected herself.

I just assume that I’ve been exposed, or that I’ll be exposed again. So my mission is just to keep my germs confined to my little space and not let them get out,” she shrugs.

Kate Stephenson at work at Oakland Medical Center.

The prospect of infection doesn’t scare her. But she knows she could infect our neighbour Judy Rosenberg, a woman in her 70s who lives just two doors down. Judy is an improvisational pianist who keeps a concert piano in her living room. She doesn’t find herself wanting to play that much these days, though.

“I just feel an overriding sadness, and I have felt depression in my life. The amount of deaths per day is just staggering to me,” she says. “I’m in my early 70s and nothing like this has ever happened to my generation. Even 9/11 was horrible … but it was an event; it came and it went.

“This is of a different character, and this has a quality of war to it,” she adds.

Judy’s days revolve around not getting sick; the outcome would likely be far worse for her than for Katie. She still goes out every day with a mask on for walks and groceries, but she’s shut in the rest of the day, emailing friends and reading spy novels to pass the time. She tries not to watch the news.

Katie and Judy’s lives have little in common, but it struck me that — now more than ever — what we do to protect each other makes a stark difference — maybe even between life and death.

Our land-based cruise ship

Gina Belleci and her girlfriend Jessica Holt, my neighbours on the sixth floor, made their unit into a shared office space after the lockdown. They settled into a routine, dropping food off for Gina’s mom once a week to keep her from being exposed in the grocery aisles. They also took care of their neighbours, shopping for an elderly friend on the eighth floor who really should not leave the building.

But as the news worsened and the disease’s virulence became more widely understood, they made the difficult decision to clear out of our building and go live with Gina’s mom. They were worried that living with 180 people gave them more potential exposure to COVID-19, and they feared transmitting it to Gina’s mom on those weekly visits.

“I either need to choose being with my mom, or we need to really commit to this land-based cruise ship we live on, which is so big and has so many people coming in and out. And quite frankly, I don’t know that anything’s being cleaned above and beyond,” says Gina.

“Land-based cruise ship.” I hadn’t quite thought of it that way, but there is a concern here about sanitation. Our building’s maintenance man has gone home, and there is no cleaning going on. All of the building’s common touch points could now be vectors for infection. Elevator buttons. Door knobs. I’ve taken to wearing gloves just to go downstairs. When people see me inside an elevator they’re waiting for, they give a tight smile and wait for the next one. Even the mailroom has started to feel a little snug.

But a lot of nice little things have happened in my building, too. Several neighbours left notes on the bulletin board in the lobby, offering to help anyone who needs it. On

e person organized the entire seventh floor into a group text, so that when someone’s leaving for a grocery run, they can take requests and minimize the number of trips from the building.

We’re also connecting in new ways. My sixth-floor neighbour Guillaume Chartier, a fellow Montrealer, dropped off a slice of homemade lemon meringue pie after I interviewed him for this story. I had my first real conversation with my third-floor neighbour Ernesto Victoria, who has lived above me for five years but with whom I’ve mostly exchanged only pleasantries.

And after a few people started meeting on the roof to watch the sunset, it turned into a socially-distant Friday happy hour where everyone brings their own drink and stands at least two metres apart.

This pandemic has changed our world, but it has also changed our building. I’ve met more neighbours in the last week than I’ve gotten to know in the past five years. I already feel better knowing I have so many people to talk to who are facing the same situation — the same questions — as I am. We may all be behind our doors for now, but we really are in this together.

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Shut In Together: 119 Neighbors and Me in an Oakland Condo

Tuesday, March 31st, 2020

I have a confession. I don’t know most of my neighbors. I don’t even know the names of everyone on my floor. I live in a tall condo building in Oakland, with a towering view of Piedmont and the surrounding neighborhoods. It’s the kind of building where you can nod to a neighbor for years, without thinking about the interaction.

No more. Because right now, almost all of us are home together. Thinking about, or trying not to think about, the virus. Our lives intersect in new ways. Our interactions will follow suit.

COVID-19 has transformed my world. My one-bedroom is now my office, tiny gym and portal to the friends I miss hugging and to my parents, who are holed up in the North Bay and haven’t set foot outside since shelter-in-place orders took effect.

In recent days, I’ve struggled with my emotions and video chatted with my therapist. I’ve had good days when I am overwhelmed with gladness to be part of a team at KQED whose coverage of this pandemic, deemed an “essential service,” has become more essential than ever.

I’m not the only one in my building who’s struggling to find our way in a new landscape with no view of the horizon. The coronavirus is an unspoken part of every interaction. And the fear is there, too. We fear getting each other sick, and we fear what might happen to us if we were to fall ill. My 119-unit building has about 180 residents. For the next few weeks or months, we’ll almost all be living and working here in our little units, separated by a concrete wall and under one roof. I started wondering: How are we all coping so far?

Our ‘Land-Based Cruise Ship’

 

I put up a note on the bulletin board in the mail room, asking my neighbors to reach out and tell me their stories. The first one who did was Gina Belleci, who lives on the sixth floor. She and her girlfriend, Jessica Holt, have been sheltering together since Gina’s startup sent everyone home. She now telecommutes from a small table wedged next to the kitchen, while Jessica works with her laptop propped up on a dresser in the bedroom.

Gina says some of her days are spent in “silent panic” mode. Other times, she feels optimistic. Gina and Jessica take care of their neighbors. Lately they’ve been handing out toilet paper and grocery shopping for an elderly friend on the eighth floor, who really should not leave the building.

“I think we just really need to band together. And these small, tiny ways really add up,” said Gina. ”It’s generosity breeds generosity. I feel really excited to be part of this building to see what happens here.”

Jessica is a freelance theater director, and she told me that her prospects have become extremely uncertain, very quickly. All of her upcoming theater productions have been canceled, and the same is true industry-wide.

“This is all I’ve really practiced as a trade, as a craft, my entire life,” she told me. “I’m not going to lie — the other night, I sort of threw myself into a little heap. And I and I keep saying, well, we’re going to get through this. There will come a time when we return to normal. But will we? Will we ever be able to return to normal? I don’t know.”

They told me that they’ve made the difficult decision to leave. Gina’s 74-year-old mother lives in Antioch and doesn’t have anyone to take care of her. They worry that the longer they spend in a building with 180-odd people, the likelier they are to pick up the coronavirus and bring it back to Gina’s mother.

“I either need to choose being with her, to be able to go get things for her just to keep her in the house, or we need to really commit to this land-based cruise ship we live on — which is so big and has so many people coming in and out,” said Gina.

So they’ve packed their suitcases for a month and said goodbye to their neighbors.

She’s right about the sanitation issue. Our building’s maintenance man has gone home, and there is no cleaning regime, which I suspect is true of many large apartment buildings here in the Bay Area.

In a building like mine, where space is limited, it’s nice to be able to open your door and have a conversation with someone you meet by the elevators or in the mailroom. But each of those touch points now could be vectors for infection. Elevator buttons. Door knobs. I’ve taken to wearing gloves just to go downstairs or when I’m in the laundry room. When people see you inside an elevator they’re waiting for, they give a tight smile and wait for the next one. Even the mailroom has started to feel a little snug. People don’t linger to enjoy those conversations anymore.

So it was a pleasure to receive a text from my neighbor Dina Mackin on the third floor. “Want to meet up on the roof to see the sunset?” it read.

Dina Mackin.

When I got there, Dina had a glass of rosé in her hand and was standing in front of a darkening view of West Oakland and in the distance, the Golden Gate Bridge. “This is what I have to do every day to keep my sanity,” she said. “The beauty of just seeing something so simple that happens every single day, that marks the passing of time. You just appreciate it more and more. And this is the time to appreciate it.”

As she spoke, I realized that I hadn’t been outside in two days. This was the first time I’d tasted fresh air. When days start to run together, watching the sunset is an important form of closure. Even better to watch it with a neighbor.

Dina agreed. “This is one of the few things we’re still able to do,” she said.

On the Front Lines

 

Katie Stephenson, my neighbor on the second floor, cannot shelter in place because she is a second-year pediatrics resident at Kaiser Permanente Oakland Medical Center. I barely see her as she darts in and out to shower, sleep and drink some coffee before heading back out to the hospital for another 12-hour shift.

I spoke to her on an evening she had just tested negative for COVID-19. She had a post-allergy season cough so her doctor sent her to have a test. But she assumes that it’s only a matter of time before she does get the coronavirus, so she’s careful to limit her contacts within the building.

“My mission is just to keep my germs confined to my little space and not let them get out,” she said. “But I also think that if I’m one of the people who gets COVID-19, that I would do fine — most people my age, if we’re healthy, we do fine. I think a lot of people in my residency program, myself included, are very likely to get it and are very likely to do fine.”

Katie has been on the pediatrics ward for the past three weeks. She sees children who have been admitted because their parents are afraid they might have COVID-19. All medical staff must wear personal protective equipment — essentially hazmat suits — and masks around the children, which is profoundly unsettling.

“There are nurses wearing the suits, and there’s multiple doctors coming in wearing the suits. It’s scary,” she said. She tries to defuse the fear by making her young patients smile. “I have some stickers that my mom sent for St. Patrick’s Day. They’re all green. And so I have been bringing in stickers and putting them on my suit. Or I’ll draw like a smiley face, to be a big yellow smiley-face person.”

Katie’s supervisor has told her group that they’re running a marathon, and so far they’ve only run half a mile. They need to remember to pace themselves. Luckily, Katie is an actual marathon runner — she’s done three of them — so she knows when to push herself. Her freezer is stuffed with homemade dinners prepared by her mother — a source of comfort at the end of another long day.

My neighbor Alexa Eurich is also running a marathon of sorts. Somehow, she’s had to find a way to teach her combined classroom of kindergarten and first grade students from her apartment on the fourth floor. Eurich has taught at Aurora School in Oakland for 15 years. The school closed down so quickly that no one had time to grab enough teaching supplies for a month, let alone the rest of the school year.

“When you hear about teaching kindergarten remotely, you just have to laugh … because how is that even humanly possible?” she said. “It’s been very hard not knowing, because I’ve felt competent at my job for a very long time.”

Alexa has 16 kids in her classroom. She manages to video chat with four of them each day, in addition to checking in regularly with teachers and parents. She’s trying to keep up with the lessons her kids were learning two weeks ago, but she has to improvise with whatever books the students have around the house. They have to be trained to talk to her through a computer screen. It can be hard to connect.

“I know without a doubt that the best way we humans learn is through a relationship. And not being with them physically when they’re at this developmental stage is very trying to the relationship,” she said.

It’s also been trying for her. Because she is in remote meetings all day, her husband has to stay in the bedroom for hours at a time.

“I’ve been working from, like, six o’clock in the morning to about six o’clock at night,” she said. “And I am still in love with teaching. I love my job. But I’m not in love with this job right now. I have to learn how to do it in a way that feels wrong to me.”

Staying Sane Inside Four Walls

 

I asked my neighbors what they are doing to stay sane amid deeply uncertain circumstances. My neighbor Guillaume Chartier and his husband Grant Eshoo have been baking lemon meringue pie and watching “Star Trek: The Next Generation” after they have finished the day’s work at their improvised desks in the living room. (Guillaume is an animator, and Grant works for Alameda County).

They chose to re-watch Star Trek for its nostalgia, but are finding that it holds surprising relevance to our present moment on Earth.

“There was an episode where they were facing a lethal epidemic and they had to take measures to contain it,” said Guillaume. Of course, they succeeded — thanks to Dr. Beverly Crusher.

“It displays a very earnest, optimistic outlook on humankind. And we’re just the kind of nerds that we enjoy watching it together,” he added with a laugh. “It’s all imaginary settings, but it touches on very current real human conditions and phenomena.”

My second-floor neighbor Judith Rosenberg is in her mid-70s. She reckons she now spends 90% of her time indoors, except for a brisk daily walk or to pick up groceries. She escapes into serial mysteries and spy novels by authors like John le Carré and Charles Cumming. She also emails with her friends, which alleviates some of the “overriding sadness” she has started to feel.

“I have felt depression in my life. I’ve felt all sorts of emotions, but I don’t get sad very much. This is a deep sadness,” she said.

Her other great comfort is music. Judy has a gleaming concert piano in her apartment. Her specialty is musical improvisation.

“I feel a certain life force when I’m playing,” she told me. “When I sit down to play, there’s something about that experience that makes me feel more alive in a way. And it is a great gift.”

Ernesto Victoria at home. (Julia Scott)

My third-floor neighbor Ernesto Victoria is also in his 70s. He isn’t much of a worrier, but he did get concerned a few weeks ago when he developed a cough. His doctor assessed his symptoms and ruled out the coronavirus. Still, the cough has been hard to shake.

“I get a little scared from time to time, I have to be honest with you,” he said. “The other day, the symptoms were really bothering me. And I just got really emotional.”

He pulled out his computer and started writing memories of his childhood in Mexico and of growing up with his seven siblings.

“Maybe there was this thought, you know, of, ‘If I die, I want my daughters to see this,’ ” he laughed. “I was just feeling sentimental and emotional.”

Ernesto loves swimming, biking and hiking. With his pool closed and his favorite biking and hiking trails off limits, his daily pleasures include video chats with faraway friends.

“It is so good to see a face and to talk. It’s the joy of talking with somebody after being sequestered for so long,” he said.

A lot of nice little things have happened in my building over the past two weeks. I was happy when Ernesto accepted my offer to shop for him sometime soon. Someone on the third floor left a message on the bulletin board offering to help anyone who needs it. Another neighbor organized the entire seventh floor into a group text, so that when someone’s leaving for a grocery run, they can take requests and minimize the number of trips from the building.

I know this virus will escalate in the next few weeks. The news will get scarier. But I’ve met more neighbors in the last week than I’ve gotten to know in the past five years. I already feel better knowing I have so many people to talk to who are facing the same situation, the same questions, as I am. We may all be behind our doors for now, but we really are in this together.

 

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The Panic Button

Tuesday, October 1st, 2019

When I think about how we come to fear, I think about a photograph my parents took of me as an 11-year-old. I’m in their bedroom, perched on the edge of their bed. It’s plenty warm in the house, but I’m dressed for subzero temperatures. I have on layers of clothes underneath my wool winter coat. I wear a bright pink ear-warmer headband above my ponytail and glasses, through which I stare out at the camera with a baleful expression. I am clutching a fire extinguisher.

I remember that my parents thought I looked adorable in my getup as I prepared myself for a notable first: They were leaving me alone, without a babysitter, to go out with their friends for the night.

They naturally assumed I would eat the dinner they’d prepared, watch some TV and go to bed. I naturally assumed that something would cause the house to catch fire and, despite my attempt at heroics with the fire extinguisher, I would end up in the snow outside, watching it burn.

I spent much of that evening on their bed, waiting for them to come home, the fire extinguisher propped up on a pillow next to me. Every so often I’d peer into the snowy street to see whether any strangers were approaching our front steps. I scurried upstairs and downstairs, my heart pounding, as I listened for sounds that seemed out of place — anything that could be construed as the first signs of a burglar who, I was sure, would choose this exact evening to try to break in. Whenever the refrigerator switched on or a truck rattled by, I jumped.

To say I was a needlessly fearful child is accurate, but it also diminishes the reality of my dread. I was certain that something bad would happen — soon — to me or to the people I loved. When my parents left me at home, I’d tell myself terrible stories that initially seemed plausible, then seemed inevitable, and then didn’t seem like stories at all — panic-inducing scenarios of my parents being assaulted on the street or getting into a car accident. The feelings produced by these fake storylines felt real. I was scared, and therefore I had reason to be. That was the feedback loop.

My mother would try to help me see my fictions for what they were by offering an alternative ending. She would stop what she was doing, sit me down and detail how safely their evening would play out, from dinner at the restaurant to the play they would see afterwards. She would never, to my frustration, commit to a curfew.

Frequently, she reassured me by pointing out the little doorbell installed on the left side of her bed. It was round and white to blend in with the rest of the wall and positioned about a foot above the telephone. The panic button, she called it. One push and it called the alarm company. The police would come to the house. Only use it in an absolute emergency.

This only confirmed what I had suspected: I had legitimate reasons to panic. I timed how long it would take me to run down the hallway from my bedroom and push the panic button. Sometimes at night I would creep toward my parents’ room, ease the door open, and tiptoe over to the bed to make sure they were still breathing.

 

The more we know about the world, the more there is to fear. I wish we talked about it more, but it seems that fear is the final taboo. We like to think we should be over our fears by adulthood — that we should be better, more perfect, more evolved. The opposite is true for me, and I’m convinced I’m not alone.

In my opinion, most adults carry around deep, sloshing cisterns of confusion, pain and fear. We move slowly and carefully, lest we spill a drop and expose ourselves. Our fears are among the few things that unite us, yet we suffer them quietly and alone.

“As far back as I can remember, every minute of life has been an emergency in which I was paralyzed with fear,” writes poet and essayist Mary Ruefle in Madness, Rack, and Honey.

Yet why is it that all we hear are stories about people who overcame their fears? Of public speaking. Of snakes. Of air travel. Of failure. Even of death. We celebrate these achievements. We talk about ‘conquering’ our fears as if they are a cancer — and as if there were a cure.

Until recently, all that talk of fear-squashing sounded pretty good to me. At 38, I still have much in common with the child edging toward the panic button. Many nights, I close my eyes and wonder whether this will be it. I live in Oakland, California, so my specific and immediate concern is whether tonight will be the night my apartment building will collapse on top of me. The Hayward Fault runs less than three miles from my home and is notoriously overdue for “The Big One.”

With the recent string of earthquakes in Southern California, it’s become even easier to imagine myself buried under rubble, suffocating, my back broken, unable to call for help. In other, more optimistic scenarios, I emerge from the building into the fresh hellscape of my neighborhood, bleeding and starting to walk toward the hospital.

When I drive across the bridge to San Francisco I am frequently seized by fear. Rather than admire the view, I think about an earthquake buckling the concrete and ripping the steel girders in two, sending my car straight to the bottom of the bay. I try to strategize: Should I bail out of the car while it’s falling? How long would I survive once the car hit the water?

It’s not just earthquakes that keep me up at night. I can’t stop thinking about all the potential ways catastrophic climate change will end life as we know it. But I may not be around long enough to witness that . . . because I also semiregularly convince myself I have a new terminal health condition. I wake up after a night of Googling and my search history is still open: “Early Stage Ovarian Cancer — Three Signs to Look Out For.” “When to Get Tested for Alzheimer’s.”

I am a treat at parties.

Just kidding — I don’t tell anyone I have these thoughts.

What’s worse, my thoughts no longer just poison my mind. I’ve started clenching my jaw in my sleep and had to get a tooth repaired. And this spring, I experienced my first panic attack in 15 years. It was such a nonsequitur that I didn’t even understand what was happening until later. One moment it was a beautiful Saturday, the next I was crumpled over on a bus-stop bench, nauseated, breathless and confused. How odd, I remember thinking. Why can’t I make this stop?

When I have a problem, I usually poll my friends. So I put a message on Facebook, asking them to volunteer some stories about their fears. Implicit in my asking was a hope that they would also tell me how they overcame them. Something I could pilfer and apply to my own life.

Clearly, I didn’t understand fear.

 

One of the people I talked to for this story — we’ll call her Morgan — had a terrible fear of heights. She would go to theme parks with her friends and watch people screaming with joy on the roller coasters, knowing how ill it would make her feel to climb up and strap herself in. She’d force herself to do it anyway. One day, when she was 19, it dawned on her that she could conquer her fear — and impress her motorcycle-loving boyfriend — by learning to fly propeller planes. She found a flying school at a local airport and signed up for 10 lessons on the spot.

“I set out to prove to myself that I could do something that scared the living shit out of me,” she says. “It was stupid and bizarre and harsh.”

Flying was more satisfying than she’d projected. With her instructor beside her in the cockpit, Morgan could force her attention onto the intellectual aspects of gauges and weather and how everything worked. She learned swiftly and built confidence. When her lessons were complete, she even let her instructor persuade her to fly solo. Morgan felt certain she’d be cured.

The day of her solo flight, Morgan tried to stay calm by telling herself the plane was just a machine — a car you drive in the sky. Taking off, she felt the fuselage give a tiny shudder and then she was airborne.

It was magic. She felt like Amelia Earhart. She was the one who had pulled that piece of metal off the ground and was circling in the sky.

Then she realized that she had to land. She tried to squeeze down her mounting panic by recalling her training. Rather than let herself think about crashing, she checked off every step, one by one. In the end, she made a perfect landing.

But Morgan was disinclined to celebrate. The moment she cut the engine, she knew she would never fly a plane again. Her fear of heights had returned in full force. Four decades later, she has come to accept that it will never go away.

People spend their days quietly coping with fear. “When an elevator goes up, my palms start to sweat. I can’t control it. I know it’s totally irrational,” says one man I know who developed some new fears in midlife but doesn’t tell people about them. Let’s call him Roger. He says going above the 20th floor is guaranteed to induce a panic attack.

Roger lives in a town with mercifully few high-rises. When he travels, he always requests a hotel room as low to the ground as possible. He also hates flying. He would rather drive eight hours than take a one-hour flight. He doesn’t know how these fears got started; they just happened. Today he copes with Xanax.

Another friend — I’ll call her Claire — traces her fear of heights to a trip to Italy she took three years ago. She was driving up a winding mountain road toward a cliff town to take in the view. After a lifetime of happily climbing to the tops of European castles, standing at the stomach-churning edges of canyons and exploring California’s mountains by car, something changed. The road was practically cantilevered over the sea. Every time she hit another switchback, it felt like she was about to tip over the edge.

Soon after that, she started to suffer panic attacks on mountain roads. Her palms and feet got clammy and she worried that she wouldn’t be able to hold on to the wheel or hit the brakes in time to save herself.

Then the claustrophobia set in. A year later, while hosting a party at her house, Claire accidentally locked herself in her bathroom. She had to remove the handle and jimmy open the door. She started avoiding bathrooms at cafés, especially the ones with heavy deadbolts. On airplanes she asks a flight attendant to please watch the door — she can’t bear to lock it.

Claire went to a psychologist who prescribed exposure therapy to help her fight her fears. No way was that going to happen, she says, so she, too, uses antianxiety medications. “I’m not over the anxieties, but my response to them is much more muted,” she explains. “As a woman, especially, I don’t want to lose my independence because of fear.”

 

I started out writing about “how we come to fear,” but I actually think it’s more accurate to say that our fears come to us. And if we can’t forestall them, what hope do we have for resisting their influence?

Security expert Gavin de Becker says that’s the wrong question. His book, The Gift of Fear — published in 1997 and still the most popular fear-advice book in a crowded marketplace — argues that fear plays an innate role in keeping us alive. In his professional experience helping people assess threats from co-workers, ex-partners and stalkers, de Becker believes tahat when it comes to predicting violent behavior in particular, fear sends us helpful survival signals that we too often choose to ignore. Instead, we should embrace the fear as a kind of intuition, a guide to predicting that something bad will happen.

But here’s the catch: The helpful kind of fear, he says, is short-lived and rare. And it really only helps us avoid unexpected dangers like an assault, not the things some of us have feared for years, like earthquakes or heights or being trapped in enclosed spaces.

“Real fear is a signal intended to be very brief, a mere servant of intuition,” he writes. “But though few would argue [with the notion] that extended, unanswered fear is destructive, millions choose to live there.”

De Becker distinguishes between useful fear (which manifests when we’re threatened) and useless fear. He points out that in a life-threatening crisis, fear is often the last thing we feel. Claire can attest to this. She has been held up at gunpoint, and she’s been in car accidents. She stays calm and enters a state she calls “taking-care-of-business mode.” I’ve had similar experiences after car accidents. The terrible thing has happened. You accept it immediately and launch into problem-solving. Fear is absent.

“The very fact that you fear something is solid evidence that it is not happening,” de Becker notes in a neat turn of phrase. “If it does happen, we stop fearing it and start to respond to it.”

So, what’s happening to me when I startle awake at night, trembling, my heart pounding so hard that I mistake the sensation for my bed shaking in an earthquake?

According to de Becker, that’s not authentic fear. It’s worry. “Worry is the fear we manufacture,” he says.

When I read those lines, I frowned at the word “manufacture.” I doubt the people I interviewed would say they’ve manufactured the burden of their fears.

But de Becker insists that remaining in a state of fear — like a car alarm that won’t shut off — is a choice, and it is more dangerous than we think, because it often leads to panic. It could even cause more harm than the fear itself.

Too bad fear and worry feel the exact same way in our bodies — like an existential threat.

This makes perfect sense on a physiological level, says journalist Jaimal Yogis, author of The Fear Project. That shot of cortisol that makes me gasp at night is a symptom of the classic fight-or-flight response that Harvard physiologist Walter Cannon first characterized in 1915. We’ve all experienced the rest of them: dilated pupils, tensed muscles, elevated heart rate.

These symptoms are governed by the amygdala, which has been protecting us since early hominids faced down saber-toothed cats and giant hyenas. Unfortunately, our amygdalas have not evolved with the times. I can set mine off reading a scary headline on my smartphone.

“By the time you can say ‘I’m afraid,’ your body is already well into the stress process,” Yogis writes. We have no medium setting built into our bodies for medium-sized scares. It’s just an on/off switch. There’s no going back once you’ve hit the panic button.

Over time, chronic anxiety can translate into devastating physical disorders like pulmonary disease and cardiovascular problems. It can disrupt the central nervous and endocrine systems, flooding the body with stress hormones like cortisol, which in turn contribute to all manner of issues with sleep, weight gain, diabetes and, yes, even teeth-clenching at night.

What of this idea, then, that we can choose a better way? De Becker offers three behavioral tips that underpin his philosophy of grappling with dreaded outcomes.

1) When you feel fear, listen.

2) When you don’t feel fear, don’t manufacture it.

3) If you feel yourself creating worry, explore and discover why.

“Worry will almost always buckle under a vigorous interrogation,” he writes triumphantly, and you can almost see the sheriff’s badge gleaming on his chest.

But the problem with all our fears is that they tell good stories. The plots may vary, but the core message is unsettling. It’s about uncertainty, about our profound lack of control over our lives, on this planet, in this universe. Objectively speaking, potential disasters are everywhere — epidemics, asteroids, drunk drivers. They could strike us down at any time. Our nervous systems keep us aroused, sniffing the air for the next threat. And when you see it that way, it makes sense to stay vigilant for all of them.

“Anxiety, unlike real fear, is always caused by uncertainty,” says de Becker. When we can’t predict something, we can’t prepare for it. We’re forced to admit there’s nothing we can do. Welcome to the human condition.

Sometimes, our fears also depend greatly on context. The Chapman University Survey of American Fears offers a fascinating snapshot of just how much our fears and anxieties can change over time based on the media zeitgeist — and which ones abide, year after year.

In 2016, for instance, three of the 10 most prominent fears Americans cited were terrorism, gun control and Obamacare — all major themes of the presidential campaign.

In 2017, according to the survey, Americans widely feared getting into a nuclear confrontation with North Korea — at a time when the Trump administration’s nuclear brinkmanship and “fire and fury” threats were constantly in the news.

In 2018, for the first time, five of the top 10 fears were about destruction of our environment: contaminated drinking water; the pollution of oceans, lakes and rivers; bad air; the mass extinction of flora and fauna; and global warming. At least now I know I have company.

What I find most interesting, however, are the three universal fears that climb to the top of the chart every year and sit there, unmoving, like Dante’s shrieking harpies perched in the tortured wood. Two are closely connected: the twin fears of a loved one becoming seriously ill and of a loved one dying.

The third is the consistent number one thing we Americans fear: the behavior of corrupt government officials. Regardless of party affiliation, it seems people most fear government malfeasance.

That may seem odd, but to the worrier, all fears have their own logic. Mine are no exception. The Hayward Fault will definitely erupt . . . sometime. The climate crisis is here, and it’s going to get worse. And everyone dies of something, whether it’s cancer or a wrong turn off a steep mountain road.

How are we supposed to handle ourselves in the meantime? This is as much a question about living, I’ve come to realize, as it is about coping with life’s less appealing features: uncertainty and lack of control.

For me, catastrophizing — thinking about the worst possible thing that could happen and letting my mind deal with the consequences — offers a kind of perverse comfort, the promise of tussling with my fears and shoring up my resilience to suffering. The trouble is, I never actually escape the fear loop. I’m never really reassured. And this minute-by-minute, hour-by-hour anxiety drip becomes its own eternal wellspring. Anyone who has a history of panic attacks will tell you that the fear of having one can be enough to set the next one off.

“In terms of fear of heights or flying, what I actually fear is the feeling of panic, of being trapped and unable to get away, and how I’ll act and feel. Not so much crashing. So that you begin to fear the fear,” says Roger, the man who avoids flights and elevators. Fear will just metabolize itself after a while.

 

I sometimes think about my young self and wonder what happened to me. Why wasn’t I more resilient? Did my parents not cultivate my independence? I’ve started wondering about how much our early development and even our personalities shape our viewpoint when it comes to risk and fear. When I was 11 and facing a night alone, I perceived those parentless hours as a harrowing ordeal. But some other kid might have turned them into an escapade, watching off-limits TV channels and gorging on junk food all night.

I am acquainted with people who go through life assuming that everything will be OK. And even when it won’t, they see no point in worrying about it, because there’s nothing they can do to prevent bad things from happening. My grandmother, for instance, had a favorite expression: “What is, is.” She held tight to those words amid several life-changing setbacks, and lived to age 96. I envied her disposition, but I will never be like her. My version of resilience involves planning for the worst, even though I know it’s an endless iteration.

So I’ve been looking for a third way — a middle path. When someone recommended I read The Places That Scare You, a book of Tibetan Buddhist teachings by Pema Chödrön, I resisted at first, even though I have my own flailing meditation practice. I worried that she would tell me that fear is an illusion or something equally trite.

But unlike Gavin de Becker, Chödrön doesn’t claim we can ditch our long-term fears. She says they’re part of the human condition. Chödrön describes fear as something we learn early and often — it’s a product of circumstances that “harden us” until we become resentful and afraid, she says.

We can ease fear’s grip by opening ourselves up, over time, to what hides beneath: tenderness and vulnerability. She says these two qualities could take us a lot further in life, but most of us have bricked them off and poured concrete over the wall for good measure.

“Tapping into that shaky and tender place has a transformative effect,” she writes. “Being compassionate enough to accommodate our own fears takes courage, of course, and it definitely feels counterintuitive. But it’s what we need to do.”

Rather than waiting for our fears to overtake us on their schedule, she suggests we acknowledge their shrieks and look up at the branches where they perch in our lives every day. That we get to know them.

We’d rather do almost anything else. I know I would. I would rather numb myself watching YouTube far into the early morning hours than spend another night facing whichever fear asserts itself.

Chödrön says that tendency only makes things worse. “Openness doesn’t come from resisting our fears but in getting to know them well,” she writes.

I am trying. Sometimes when I’m fearful now, I let myself acknowledge how it feels — I’m scared. This is scary.

Other times, I try to bring some of my reporter’s persona to the moment and become curious — an approach Chödrön mentions in the book. Asking “What’s really happening here?” and “What’s under this feeling of panic?” can yield results. It’s possible my presumption that I have a terminal disease has something to do with my deeper fear of failing at life, of not having mattered at all. Maybe my horror of earthquakes is tied to a distasteful reality I’d rather avoid: the impermanence of this life I’ve built, and having it taken away from me.

I no longer shake my head at that little girl who sat on the edge of her parents’ bed, sweating in too-much clothing, eyeing the panic button. She had a certain wisdom. Deep down, she sensed a truth her parents couldn’t refute: Life is uncertain and few things are within our control.

Fear seemed like the best way to handle that news at the time. I’m hoping it’s not too late to learn another way.

I also regularly give in to — and I’m not sure Chödrön would approve of this — the exigencies my fears demand. Last year, I purchased two heavy, fully stocked earthquake-emergency backpacks. I stashed them in my car and my apartment. I bought two more for my parents for Christmas. (They were confused.) I also treated myself to a shiny new fire extinguisher, even though my old one was not expired.

The friends I talked to all choose to be out in the world despite their fears. But their lifestyles are limited, and the do’s and don’ts are a process to be managed, constantly. Claire still likes to explore steep mountain roads, but only those with a barrier. She feels sick when she’s obliged to drive over a long bridge, but she can handle it if someone else, like a bus driver, is at the wheel.

Morgan attributes her fear of heights to a childhood wound that never healed. Some things she simply won’t do, like roller coasters and downhill skiing. But she’ll climb a mountain for the beauty. It’s hard to do — sometimes really hard — but there’s simply no other way to enjoy the vista. When I asked her how she overcomes her fear, she gently corrected me.

“I have found of myself that a surrender practice is the best. It’s not a conquering, or a getting over, or a getting away from,” she said. “And climbing a mountain is another form of that surrender practice.”

We can keep ducking our fears, but at a certain point they prevent us from seeing the view. I could leave Oakland, but I love my tranquil apartment, my neighborhood, the white-blossom magnolia tree in the courtyard, and the patio where I can contemplate its flowering while I meditate. So I choose this.

“What has life taught me? I am much less afraid than I ever was in my youth — of everything. That is a fact. At the same time, I feel more afraid than ever. And the two, I can assure you, are not opposed but inextricably linked,” writes Mary Ruefle.

Bad things will happen. To me and to the people I love. To the planet, and the creatures on it that don’t have a voice. I know this to be true. But something good could happen, too: the type of alternative ending my mother tried to teach me to construct. With all my planning and preparing for the worst, I have little space to imagine an actual future. The version of the story in which I go on living — not because of my fears, but despite them.

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On Being Alone

Tuesday, January 1st, 2019

When I was a little girl, I never dreamed of a husband or children. I never pictured a wedding starring me as the bride with white dress and elegant bouquet. I never pictured the groom. I couldn’t see our first dance, the exotic honeymoon. No matter how hard I strained, I could not get excited about the issuance of babies with cute faces and soiled diapers.

Instead, I dreamed of a goat.

It could have been a sheep or a ram. I’m not sure I knew the difference back then, or which image may have lingered in my mind after my mother finished reading me the stories of Heidi in the Swiss Alps and the Three Billy Goats Gruff. But at a certain age — the one where people start to ask you what you want to be when you grow up — the where seemed to be a lot clearer than the what. Whenever I pictured my adult life, I pictured a hillside high above a rural town. On that hillside, a small cabin where I would live. Next to that cabin, a goat.

As I learned about the world, and even began to travel a bit to Europe in my early teens, this vision became more specific. The cabin was situated on a hillside in France, in Provence, in a remote valley a short walk from a glittering view of the Mediterranean. I would get to know my neighbors and offer them tea when they passed by my open door. We would speak French together. I would write. Occasionally I would have a male caller, just one. The details of what we would do in the cabin were hazy. The male caller could come and go, but the main thing is that he knew when to go. The goat would be my main companion, and the source of delicious and nutritious milk, just like for Heidi. I would learn to love goat milk. I would relish my solitude.

It may not surprise you to learn that I was an only child. Growing up, this made me different from most of my classmates. They fought for their parents’ attention and had to share a bedroom. I woke up alone. From early on, I had an imaginary friend named Mr. Rice Guy. I wish I could tell you I remember what I imagined he looked like. But I do remember how he made me feel. Being with him was safe and gentle. I think we must have spent endless hours together in my bedroom, on my frizzy green carpet, chattering and playing. Mostly I think I chattered and he listened.

When Mr. Rice Guy wasn’t needed, I spent the bulk of my time inside books. But I also liked to do nothing at all — just look out the window at the alleyway behind my house, and daydream. I had friends over for sleepovers, which was fun because I owned all kinds of games, and you couldn’t play Candy Land or Clue without someone else. But I was always a little glad when they left and I could sink back into the quiet of my room. I didn’t have to share my stuffed animals. This was a perk, but it also meant that some of them went neglected, which I remedied by carrying a different one to bed with me on a rotating basis. I didn’t want them to feel alone, although I rarely did.

Alone. That word seems like a threat, mostly. What do we do with children who misbehave? We send them to their room, alone. Tell them they’re grounded, the punishment being to deprive them of companionship and force them to “think” about what they’ve done. These days, we take away their electronics so they can’t play games, go online or post updates on social media. The message: Time with others is a treat we earn. Being alone is a reprimand.

We find so much comfort in the presence of others, sometimes without realizing it. Even having someone in the next room is a comfort. But when the house is still and there’s nothing else to do, the self confronts. And we would do almost anything to avoid hearing what it has to say.

What lives alongside solitude? Boredom, potentially. Anxiety, often. And the concept of loneliness has an overwhelmingly negative connotation — the absence of others is plain and uninspiring.

“In a real dark night of the soul it is always three o’clock in the morning, day after day,” wrote F. Scott Fitzgerald. Fortunately, we have many tools at hand to prevent us from slipping into a 3 a.m. of the soul: they’re our laptops, iPads, smartphones, books, magazines and TV remotes.

One of my favorite studies about the experience of solitude and loneliness — there is a whole subfield of social psychology devoted to it — took place in Atlanta in 2015. It surveyed 185 adults, aged 20 to 81, to determine their reactions to the experience of momentary solitude: those interstitial parts of the day when there’s downtime with nothing to engage in.

The study’s authors had the idea to analyze not just people’s stated feelings about solitude, but their physiological reactions to being alone. Specifically, they measured levels of cortisol — the “stress hormone,” activated when the body perceives a threat. Seven times a day for ten days, they had participants submit saliva samples — at random moments, when a beeper went off. Sometimes when the beeper went off they were alone, other times they were not.

Overall, cortisol levels were higher when people were alone, as opposed to being with others. Even if they said otherwise in the questionnaire, their bodies were stressed. But there were some interesting variations. People over 51 had a different response; their cortisol levels were lower. In fact, several studies have suggested that as we age, we mind our solitude less, and we may even prefer it — a neat trick as we approach a time of life where we may be facing more of it.

A review of the literature suggests that free will is the decisive factor here. Getting to choose solitude makes a big difference in how we handle it, and whether it contributes to our well-being. Yet there is a fragile line between the solitude that heals and the one that salts the wound. Many other studies have shown how involuntary solitude and isolation can prove not only anxiety-inducing, but dangerous — from a slightly higher risk of heart problems to deep-seated alienation, especially among vulnerable teens.

For me, a great deal has been lost of that little girl who knew how to be alone. Some writers (or future writers) crave a room of their own: I craved a life of my own. Served up in short, bracing doses, I discovered early on that isolation — the extreme version of solitude — can offer me the only hope I can ever have of knowing who I truly am and what I actually want, absent the “shoulds” of the world.

But as an adult, even when I have it, I’ve become used to filling the silence rather than letting it speak to me.

I fall asleep and wake up next to my smartphone. The first thing I do, before I get up to go to the bathroom, is reach for the phone. I look at Google News and let algorithms tell me what to think and care about. I bite my nails without noticing. My habits have become more pronounced amid the ongoing national perma-emergency in our politics. The daily outrage drives the double-time news cycle — confronting me, all of us, every day.

It’s not just my time that’s being nibbled away by my devices, not to mention the whole superstructure of adulthood. It’s my mind. Recently I noticed that I was having trouble generating original thoughts: problematic for a writer. I worry that, at 38, I have become a dullard. That my inner creative world has shrunk to the occasional glimpse from a car’s window while my smartphone chirps directions, always preventing me from exploring an intriguing side road or getting lost.

The impulse to create begins — often terribly and fearfully — in a tunnel of silence,” asserted Adrienne Rich. You can silence your cell phone. But the “fertilizing” quality of silence, as she called it, won’t reach a distracted mind.

Even with all my electronics put away in a drawer, my apartment shouts at me from every corner. CLEAN ME OR YOU WON’T SLEEP WELL TONIGHT, says the carpet. READ ME, YOUR CAREER DEPENDS ON IT, screams my pile of unread magazines. Even with the sound turned off in the movie of our lives, there’s always the director’s commentary. See what happens when you glance at a bookshelf. Or notice the details of your child’s room.

When was the last time I was truly solitary? I couldn’t conjure it. I’m not talking about the default experience of solitude when we’re doing laundry, checking email or driving somewhere with the radio on. Some people harvest solitude for content (for instance, choosing to listen to a podcast) and others for insight (I include meditation here, because although it can be very helpful, it still has intentionality). None of these things are bad ideas — they’re part of everyday life, mine included. But I wanted to explore around the margins, where the instinct to fill time loses its edge. My appetite for solitude may be greater than some others’, but in its ideal form, I don’t seek to harvest it for anything.

Yet I am the first to admit that solitude — what I define as true solitude, the state of being alone without needing to do anything in particular — feels dangerous.

“So afraid one is of loneliness, of seeing to the bottom of the vessel,” wrote Virginia Woolf, who saw the bottom of the vessel more than once. An overwhelming number of writers have detailed the contributions of solitude — and even loneliness — to the creative mind.

“What is needed is this, and this alone: solitude, great inner loneliness. Going into oneself and not meeting anyone for hours — that is what one must arrive at,” wrote Rainer Maria Rilke in 1903, offering advice to Franz Kappus, his tortured young protégé. But even Rilke struggled to enforce his own solitude with the demands of family and the necessities of travel. And that was before YouTube.

I realized that I urgently needed to turn off the narrative channel of my daily life. So this summer, I made a little experiment. I would go away on a retreat, disconnect from everything familiar. I would rent a cabin in a part of California that was strange to me, and, to the greatest extent possible, be alone. I didn’t want to go on a meditation retreat with a group of strangers. I wanted to unfurl, alone, without any fixed agenda. I wanted solitude, even if it was attended by troubling doses of boredom and loneliness. And the only way to do that was to remove myself from my “self.” Only then could I hope to access the deeper well of inner silence — true isolation — and explore what it had to offer.

The term “solitude,” though, continued to bother me because it didn’t quite describe what I was missing. A friend of mine came up with the concept of self-visitation: the active work of peeling away those aspects of life that distract one from oneself. It is conscious, methodical subtraction, without any expectation of a payoff or reward. True self-visitation contains no epiphanies; it is simply the communing familiarity of self in space and time.

But with the layers stripped away and no one to step in and tell me how to think or who to be, what version of myself would I be left with? And, whispered a voice I was ignoring, what if she doesn’t have anything interesting left to say?

Looking online, I found a one-room cabin up north in a town I’d never heard of, Forestville. It had no electricity, no Wi-Fi and no indoor plumbing. There was an outhouse and an outdoor sink and shower. Meals could be wrangled on a butane burner. Trying not to think too hard, I booked it for three nights.

As I made ready to leave, I made some other decisions. My phone could come with me in case of emergencies, but would be turned off and locked in the glove compartment of my car. No laptop. No alcohol, no caffeine. No music. And no books — I would need to leave my books at home. The only companion for my mind would be a journal to write in. Not with any writing goal in mind, just to record my thoughts if I wanted to.

“But won’t your mind start to spin when you’re alone?” asked a friend. I shook my head, but I didn’t really know. I would deal with the dark night of the soul if it came to pass, at 3 a.m. if need be.

Another friend looked at me in horror when I told him I wouldn’t be bringing along any reading material. “Not even one book? Can’t you hide one under your floorboard, like a box of crackers in case of emergency?”

I waited until the last minute to pack for my retreat, cramming the morning full of work deadlines. It’s a simple hour and a half to Forestville from where I live in the Bay Area, but I arrived three and a half hours later than expected. I was still checking my phone and answering emails up to the moment I pulled up on a Monday afternoon. My host, the owner of the property, was there to greet me. To get to the cabin, he helped me carry my bags down a long wooded lane, over a soundless creek tamed by the heat. The only other house on the property belonged to him, and I couldn’t see it through the trees once I settled in.

It was even smaller than advertised — just a bed, desk and chair, a side table and a narrow armoire, stuffed with linens. The outhouse was 100 feet away, which I suspected would be interesting at night. No goat, alas.

Looking around, I thought of Henry David Thoreau’s description of looking at his simple cabin, his pond, his woods and his bean field. “I have, as it were, my own sun and moon and stars, and a little world all to myself,” he wrote.

The first thing I did was to take down the heavy mirror behind the bed, which trailed a skein of absconded spiderwebs as it left the wall. I put it on the floor, facing inward. I didn’t want to witness myself witnessing myself. I carefully washed my produce — two apples and two tomatoes — in the outdoor sink that, I discovered, drained straight to the forest floor. I brought them inside and lined them up on a windowsill with my two lemons in a little pattern. There.

I fetched a pot to make hard-boiled eggs over the butane burner and it had two living spiders in it, one of which did not want to leave the pot and merely surfed the water. Suddenly, I felt a sharp sting on my lower back — and immediately decided I had been bitten by a tick carrying Lyme disease, my superparanoia. (It turned out I had no bug bite at all.) I had a brief, panicky moment when a bee buzzed past my ear and the sound made me think I had missed a text on my cell phone. Actual panic — my heart was pounding when I remembered my phone was turned off, in my car.

In brief, I was nearly insensate of the pleasures of my new home that night. I could tell it wouldn’t be a silent retreat. I could be as quiet as I wanted, but I was staying in someone’s rural backyard. I lay on my back far into the night and listened to trucks buzzing by on the main road and a demented dog barking in the distance. Absent other distractions, my mind immediately started to cannibalize what I had last fed it, devouring the finer plot points of Sherlock and replaying the opening bars of Satie’s Gymnopédie No. 1 over and over again. Then I started to catalogue all the ways in which I had caused friends or family members to feel neglected, hurt or let down over the years.

The next morning was so bright and cloudless that when a hawk passed for a moment above where I sat with my journal and morning tea, I wondered who’d turned out the lights. I claimed a wobbly bistro table with peeling green paint on the narrow deck outside my cabin. Twice a day I brushed away the leavings from the redwoods and coast live oaks that hung over the deck. The oaks shed their leaves constantly. I could hear them ding onto the metal roof as I lay in bed.

I walked the property, then took in my private fire pit. It sat in a clearing with six brightly colored Adirondack chairs around it, clearly awaiting the company of friends. I watched some dusty salamanders sun themselves on the circle of rocks and dart across the ash, and wondered if I would make myself a fire, and whether it would be sad to sit in one of those jolly chairs and stare at the flame, alone.

What on earth would I find to fill my days with, my friends wanted to know. It seemed like a strange enough question to me as I sat at my green table, long enough to watch the transit of the sun to what must have been high noon, judging by the heat. I watched two skittering brown squirrels chase back and forth between a pair of elegant oaks on opposite sides of the laneway. The trees had grown toward each other until their branches crossed like broadswords.

In the woods, what you notice fills you to the brim. I could have sat far longer, but there always seemed to be something to do — although nothing that needed doing beyond basic survival. Of course, there was the meal prep and cleanup, the daily troubleshooting — What substitutes for a colander? — the dressing and undressing and showering. The journaling was optional. (I suppose the showering was, too, but I’m not an animal.)

I took strenuous hikes on the Sonoma coast. It transpired that there were many important things to do: to pause, overheated, every few hundred yards on an uphill climb and notice, as I tried to catch my breath, how the spines of sword ferns have a soft coating that belies the brittleness of the leaves. I paused to taste wild blackberries and savor their tartness; to meditate by a creek, and caress the moss next to my feet; to pick a clover from the mounds that grew up around the redwood fairy circles, and chew the stem to enjoy their secret lemon flavor; to observe how the sun filtered through the ferns, stenciling the roseate soil with a living photo negative.

I noticed and did things without noticing or doing things, just because I was curious and it felt good. It turned out that I liked my mind after all.

“The greatest thing in the world is to know how to belong to oneself,” wrote Michel de Montaigne around 1572. When I was on forest time, the world belonged to me. I stopped feeling anxious. The most significant questions pertained to the timing of dinner and bedtime. I learned to gauge how much daylight remained by eyeing the corona of blue in the sky above my cabin clearing, rather than the crepuscular creep along the forest floor. Still I misjudged a couple of times and ended up brushing my teeth and showering after dark, with a flashlight, having a giggle at my own expense.

I wrote without effort, often at night in bed with my journal propped up on my knees, straining with a candle in one hand and a pen in the other. On my last evening, I built a fire and sat next to it, eating my meal. I looked around at the five other empty chairs and did not feel any desire to fill them. “This is as close as I come to feeling holy,” I wrote that night.

But I hadn’t thought about what would come next. Within 45 minutes of leaving Forestville the next day, I had bitten off two nails and was taking mental notes of all the things I needed to accomplish as I zoomed down Highway 101. I had a long and guilty reunion with my laptop that afternoon.

My reentry was wobbly. As easily as I had settled into my solitude, I felt myself losing the thread. I cried a lot. I had trouble sleeping, trouble working. For a time, I stayed off Google News. In the car, I forced myself to sit in silence and avoid listening to the radio. I meditated in the morning. I lit candles at night. But little by little, I felt my old condition settle in somewhere near my solar plexus: that state of dullness mixed with hypervigilance.

The world felt immense and harmonious when I spent my days hiking in vast places and sleeping in a very small one. But now, with access to everything in the world on my computer, in the Bay Area, and at the supermarket, it felt like I had fewer choices. The air in my lungs felt compressed. I didn’t experience the same sense of possibility.

I had been hoping to portage some elements of my retreat life into my ‘real’ life, but I forgot that the same person — me — is always there, struggling and striving and kicking and generally making a mockery of attempts to honor my goals and stay aligned. I should have read my Montaigne more closely: “Ambition, avarice, irresolution, fear, and lust do not leave us when we change our country. . . . Neither deserts, nor rocky caves, nor hair shirts, nor fastings will free us of them,” he wrote.

It took only three days of self-visitation to remind me that my internal compass still points in the direction of true north, just as it did when I was a child. But how do I keep it in my sights when I’m getting spun in circles? And, when I find it again, how can I follow it without walking out on my life, when there are so many things that deserve my attention — a project that’s due, a friend who’s in pain, this country’s civil rights, our environment?

How can I live in the world, engaged and open-hearted, while cultivating my inner silence and need to withdraw?

Montaigne thought it might be possible to do both. “Real solitude,” he wrote, “may be enjoyed in the midst of cities and the courts of kings; but it is enjoyed more handily alone.” Thoreau returned to society after two years, and when he was at Walden he had frequent visitors — he describes his small cabin filled with up to 30 people at a time. He was no hermit, but walked frequently to town along the railroad tracks and recounts his conversations with all manner of folk who knew the woods.

There is something reassuring about these questions, and the fact that they have been with thoughtful writers for such a long time — Friedrich Nietzsche, Thomas Merton, Annie Dillard, May Sarton, Emily Dickinson, Louise Bogan and hundreds more. They all sought a balance between the version of themselves they gave to the world, with its traumas and distractions, and the need to belong to themselves, cultivate their autonomy and create something original and true. They weren’t just talking about how to write, but self-visitation in the everyday.

My childhood vision has come true. I never did marry or have children, and I have yet to even cohabitate with anyone, although I have had several meaningful relationships. I don’t own a hut on a hillside, but I do have a male caller. He, like me, relishes his solitude and knows how to respect mine. I intend to take a self-visitation retreat every year. In the meantime, I will do my best to keep my door open and, after all the visitors leave, get back to the page, alone.

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Letter of Recommendation: Candle Hour

Sunday, March 18th, 2018

One of my best teenage memories starts with a natural disaster. In January 1998, my parents and I returned to our home in Montreal to find that a giant tree limb had ruptured our living room. What would soon be known as the Great Quebec Ice Storm had struck. It was the most catastrophic in modern Canadian history. Accumulations of freezing rain had cracked our maple tree nearly in half. It shattered our front window, glass fringing the tree limb like a body outline in a murder scene.

Outside, downed power lines sparked like electric snakes. More than a million Quebecers were left without power. Cars were crushed and impaled by fallen limbs. Because the ice could inflict violence at any moment, everyone retreated indoors, making for an oddly quiet state of emergency. Except for the distant beeps of electrical-crew trucks, all you could hear was the crack of trees buckling under the weight of the ice, day and night. Long after the sidewalks were cleared, we tiptoed past the eaves of tall buildings and kept our voices low, steering clear of icicles thick as baseball bats and sharp as spikes, primed to fall at any moment.

For seven days and seven nights, until the power returned, we lived by candlelight. We learned to be mindful of candles: how to stand them up, walk with them, nurture their light. At first it was maddening to cook dinner — to carefully carry a plate of candles to the cupboard, poke around for ingredients, then go off again in search of a knife, taking care not to drip wax into the cutlery drawer. I learned how to brush my teeth and bathe by candlelight; the light bounced off the mirrors, making the bathroom for once the brightest room in the house. In our bedrooms, we piled under blankets and read ourselves to sleep by the flickering flames.

Outside, our neighborhood descended into darkness at twilight, but if I stared hard enough at windows blurred with ice, I could just make out little dancing lights. Decades later, no one in my family remembers what we talked about, or ate, or how we spent our afternoons that week. But we all remember the candles.

The Montreal Ice Storm, 1998. (Archives de Montreal)

I’ve since settled in California, and last January events in the world left me with a hunger for silence. I adopted a strict information diet: no television news or social media. One evening, I didn’t even bother to flick on the lights in my apartment. I walked quietly to the window and watched the last of the day, the darkness swallowing the trees along my street. Instinctively, I went looking for a book of matches in the back of the kitchen junk drawer. Opening a closet, I felt around until I discovered the remnant of a housewarming gift: a milk-white candle. I struck a match and lit the dusty wick. I commandeered a plate from the cupboard and set it on my coffee table. I nestled in a blanket, listening to the wind in the courtyard. Eventually, for the first time in too many days, I found myself surrendering to sleep.

That was the start of a practice I’ve taken to calling Candle Hour. An hour before I go to bed, I turn off all my devices for the night. I hit the lights. I light a candle or two or three — enough to read a book by, or to just sit and stare at the flame, which, by drawing oxygen, reminds me I need to breathe, too. I surround myself with scents and objects I like — some fresh rosemary plucked from a neighbor’s bush, a jar of redwood seed pods. I have a journal ready, but I don’t pressure myself to write in it. Candle Hour doesn’t even need to last a full hour, though; sometimes it lasts far longer. I sit until I feel an uncoupling from the chaos, or until the candle burns all the way down, or sometimes both.

Candle Hour has become a soul-level bulwark against so many different kinds of darkness. I feel myself slipping not just out of my day but out of time itself. I shunt aside outrages and anxieties. I find the less conditional, more indomitable version of myself. It’s that version I send into my dreams.

At night, by candlelight, the world feels enduring, ancient and slow. To sit and stare at a candle is to drop through a portal to a time when firelight was the alpha and omega of our days. We are evolved for the task of living by candlelight and maladapted to living the way we live now. Studies have noted the disruptive effects of nighttime exposure to blue-spectrum light — the sort emanated by our devices — on the human circadian rhythm. The screens trick us into thinking we need to stay alert, because our brains register their wavelength as they would the approach of daylight. But light on the red end of the spectrum sends a much weaker signal. In the long era of fire and candlelight, our bodies were unconfused as they began to uncoil.

Tonight’s candlelight will cast the same glow on my Oakland walls as it did on my parents’ walls in Montreal in 1998. I’ll feel in my bones that the day has passed — as all days, even fearful ones, eventually do. The day’s last act is cast in flickering gold. I’ll watch the flame bob and let my mind wander, until I realize I’m sleepy. After a while, I’ll lean over and blow it out, ready now for darkness — where renewal begins.

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Heavyweight episode: “Julia”

Tuesday, November 8th, 2016

 

What happens when you go back and open the door to a time in your childhood that you tried to forget? Heavyweight host Jonathan Goldstein and I found out together.

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Julia Scott

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