Fear and Bravery: Best Friends

It’s been almost a month since I had a snake in my garage. I spent two weeks in Florida and saw five different groups of friends (incredible), and near the end I had a couple of days to myself. Of course it was on one of my solo days that a sixish-foot long snake slithered into my garage.

The garage door was open because I was bringing the garbage bins inside. As I rolled up from the curb I saw the big, black snake enter the garage. That would have been bad enough, but then a scarier thing: he disappeared. I mean I know he was in there—I saw him—but then he was gone. If I hadn’t seen him enter I wouldn’t have known he was there. It’s tricky to wrap a head around.

If I didn’t know he was there I wouldn’t have had anything to fear, except we all seem hard-wired to fear what we don’t know, so does that mean fear is our default setting? It wrinkles my face to think about it, and I’m almost forty now so I’ll pass on unnecessary wrinkling, thank you very much. {It reminds me of this post I wrote a few months about the magic show that blew my mind.}

Snakes are not my favorite. I’ll gladly take a rodent or spider over a snake. I get that prickly-all-over feeling when even a small, non-poisonous snake crosses my path. My breath hushes for things that might be snakes, things like sticks, dried roots or palm fronds. Hell, I’ve leaped for objects slightly more nefarious than a straw wrapper. (Ok. I’ve jumped over a straw wrapper.)

In college I dated a guy who had a pet Python. I didn’t believe him at first, and the first time I went to his room (at approximately four in the morning) “to see his snake” I jumped on the radiator and split my jeans when his laundry bag bucked. The following summer I shared a house with that snake, and in lieu of passing by the snake’s area of the house (behind a glassed in fireplace, but still….) in the middle of the night to reach the bathroom I opted to go out the back door and pee in the yard.

When Lucky and I lived in Marin County we stayed in the Terra Linda section of San Rafael, which is a dead-end neighborhood with trails on three sides. Steep switchbacks from just behind my house lead to a ridgeline fire-road, and from there we could connect to the rest of the county on a pretty elaborate trail system.

I moved into my Terra Linda apartment in January, and I was thrilled to discover that in the rainy months I had the local trails to myself. Up there Lucky could go off leash. Up there I could sing, scream, cry. If it was sunny I journaled; if it was raining I let the rain wash my face. Up there on that ridge I experienced all of the elements and with them a broad range of emotion. It was a good year, but not an easy year. Hell: it was a damn tough year. It was one of those years I’m glad I had because I’m better/stronger/wiser for it, but I’d pull the comforter over my head if I had to do it again.

Winter ended and the weather (and my mood) improved. I was able to ditch the rain boots that went up to my knee and the raincoat that went down to my knees. I no longer had to wrap my iPod in a Ziploc. I graduated from the sad songs I’d listened to all winter to my go-to spring soundtrack: reggae. {Amen.}

I showed some skin, earned sunburned shoulders and a few freckles. I packed water for the dog and myself. It shocked me that even in the nice weather people weren’t showing up on “my trail.” I supposed they were sticking to the well-worn trails around Mount Tamalpais, to trails with reviews in guidebooks and maps both to and of the trail.

It was true: with the sun and light came the tall grass, and the trail behind my house became overgrown and hard to see. It’s not exactly a destination hike. It’s not in the guidebooks, but some of the best things aren’t. There’s a single (4-star) yelp review for the area, and a few listings on various websites, but none list the trail I started on as a launching point which little more than a game-trail. I get it. It makes sense to favor instead the wider trails with gates, trash cans, posted rules and parking areas. This was fine by me; I knew “my” trail’s bends by heart and didn’t need to a map to find my way to the ridge. I liked the fact that 90% of the time I was the only one there.

One day some non-English speaking Japanese folks were leaving the trailhead as I arrived, saying things I couldn’t understand. They made zigzagging motions with their hands and I though they meant the switchbacks so I gave them thumbs up and nodded like a lunatic. They were dressed in loafers and church clothes and eventually they walked away. I figured they’d decided their footwear wasn’t going to cut it on the steep trail.

A couple of days later I was heading up the hill and a woman above me on the train waved her wide-brimmed hat and walking stick in the air. I paused the Madonna song I’d just queued up for the uphill grind and removed my headphones from my ears. “Are you okay?” I asked, “Do you need water?”

“There are SNAKES up here! So many snakes! Snakes everywhere! Do you live here? Hold your dog!She was frantic. I found out she was visiting the area, and had taken it upon herself to go up the ridge without asking her hosts, who were at work. I realized that the Japanese folks’ had probably been warning me about snakes they’d just seen on the trail, and I enthusiastically kept going because I had an imaginary music video to shoot.

The woman with the hat and the stick made her way down to me with reluctant, leery steps. She parted the grass as she went and let me know when she found holes. “For rodents?” I suggested, but she was unwavering, “Snake dens,” she said, “Snakes.”

I know a gopher hole when I see one, but was polite and didn’t say anything.

She looked at me as if I smelled bad.

Once I was up on the ridge, I saw in the distance two older men who’d accessed the fire-road from a neighborhood on the other side of the hill. Both looked like retired park rangers in monochromatic beige and heavy-duty, leather, hiking boots more suited for backpacking than a morning stroll. As we got closer to each other I stopped my singing-dancing-hiking routine, and tried to appear more like a normal person and less like a wannabe gospel-singing, backup dancer for Madonna.

I saw that the men had tucked their pants into their boots, most likely to protect from ticks, and I suddenly felt naked (and idiotic) in my miniature spandex shorts, tank top, running shoes and ankle socks. It was a hot, sunny morning, and truth be told: I was thinking about tan lines. But still.

The guys let me know that all winter the rattlesnakes had been denned up, but now that it was warm and dry they were out. “That hill you just came up is south facing and loaded with snake dens,” they told me, and then they said something else about wearing foot and ankle protection. Maybe something about wearing clothes. I dunno, it’s hard to say because I sort of blacked out for a minute.

Right. Gopher holes.

I don’t have an irrational fear of snakes, but they’re not my favorite. (See above: peeing in the yard.) I was concerned when the snake slithered into my garage in Florida, but I didn’t freak out. I really just wanted to know if the snake was in or out, and in order to know that I’d have to see it leave. I closed the garage door while I was at the pool, and when I got back the snake had looped itself around one of the garage door rails. That poor snake must have been terrified when the door came to life, and somehow it survived getting sliced by it.

I was just  running inside for a quick five-minute changeover, so decided to leave the door open. When I came out the snake was gone from its perch and on the driveway: success. I considered the possibility that snake #1 was hiding in a cardboard box, behind the recycling bin, or around my ski stuff (Everyone has skis and snowshoes in Florida garages, right?), and that the snake on the driveway was snake #2. The theory about two snakes was short-lived, and I quickly aborted any worrying about “maybes” because that’s pretty much the best way for a person to drive herself crazy.

The snake on the driveway had to be the snake that had been in my garage. Period.

During the time I was upstairs changing I posted a photo to Facebook. I guess I did this to garner some support (Facebook speak for sympathy), and also just in case the snake was poisonous and struck my ankle on the way out the door. If that happened I’d need to know what kind it was.

In short: just in case I didn’t answer the phone (ever) my demise could be tracked back to the snake. It seemed practical.

My mother skipped Facebook and sent me a direct text, “I would call 911!” I thought it was pretty crazy dramatic until I read the other Facebook posts and private messages:

Ewwwwww

Eeek! (x3)

That is a big fucking snake.

Run!

What the hell! Put the for sale sign up!!!! (My mother, again. She got six likes for this.)

I’d never sleep in that house again! (private)

The general consensus was “No bueno,” but I wasn’t surprised to see that my friend Karine Aigner went against the grain and said, “Snakes are misunderstood and quite fabulous creatures!” I wanted to talk to Karine about it. She was a Senior Photo Editor at National Geographic, and is now a freelance wildlife photographer. She spent a lot of her childhood overseas, but we had some years growing up together in Connecticut. She was one of my first Facebook friends, and her photos continue to be one of my favorite things in the newsfeed. They’re amazing. She gets up close to lions and tigers, but she also loves high heels and good wine and cheese (on which she could live). You should check out her portfolio HERE.

I asked Karine if she’d be willing to contribute a snake photo to this blog post (that I was supposed to intended to write on the plane ride home three weeks ago…), and she said yes and we decided that “glamour shots” would be better than eating or action shots. (You’re welcome.)The conversation sparked some ideas for future collaboration of my words and her images, and also sparked an interesting dialogue between us.

What does it mean to take chances? What does it mean to do what you love?

My heart definitely beat a little faster with that snake in the garage, but I knew I could handle it. My senses were heightened, but I wasn’t paralyzed. Most of my scariest life’s experiences have been alone, and I’ve learned to trust myself. I’ve learned that when I need to know what to do I should just ask myself; I actually have all of the answers I need. (You do too.)

People tell me I’m brave and adventurous. Some say I’m lucky, and I agree that I am, but most of the people who think I’m “lucky” are the ones who wouldn’t give up their comfortable houses with walk-in closets, commercial gas ranges, linen closets, built-in bookshelves, etc. So I guess I’m lucky that I’m okay being myself even if it’s not always the most comfortable. I much more at ease when I’m taking chances than when I’m not. {Yes, that is my final answer.}

I move about, I quit jobs, I say yes. I talk to strangers. I go places with strangers. I do things I might think better of doing if I thought for an extra minute, but I stop myself from over-thinking and just go. A lot of what I do I do simply for the experience. I don’t do it so I have something to write about, but I often end up with a lot to write about.

I thought about interviewing Karine about her life as a wildlife photographer, but then she told me she’s going to revive her blog so I figured she could tell you herself about her experiences shooting snakes or whatever it is she wants to share with you about her life as a professional photographer.

Here are a few of Karine’s photos of snakes. They are 1) an upright Eastern Diamondback 2) a Burmese Python crossing the road (this is the type I lived with!), 3) a Texas Rat Snake, and 4) a Copperhead in leaves.

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Here’s a blog post of Karine’s from four years ago that’s terrific. It’s called “Far for a Week?” and I think it’s just as timely now as it was then. In fact: It’s timeless.

Karine told me that she hears variations on the things I hear, things like, “I wish I had your job” and “You have an amazing life.” She sure does, but I might add that there’s probably a direct correlation between having an amazing life and living a brave life despite fear. It’s about acknowledging and accepting what might get complicated, but trusting that in the end everything will be okay.

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Because here’s the thing: we’re all afraid. If we say we’re not afraid then we’re lying. Fear is natural. It lets us know when we’ve reached our edge, and if we want to grow and expand we have to go to the edge and at least look over it. Maybe we leap, but maybe we don’t. We owe it to ourselves to at least take a peek at what might be out there.

Dr. Brené Brown (my fave) said, “I drive by big trucks sometimes in Texas and they have that sticker on the back that says, ‘Ain’t Scared’ or something, and I think, Love and light to you. You’re in so much fear. Because when you put ‘Ain’t Scared’ on your car, you’re scared.” She goes on to say, “”We’re all afraid. We just have to get to the point where we understand it doesn’t mean that we can’t also be brave.”

We all have doubts. Every single one of us doubts something. Sometimes it’s big: Should I stay in this relationship? Should I move? Should I find a new career? Sometimes it’s esoteric or abstract: What am I here for? Am I good enough? Do I matter?

It can be exhausting to doubt without an action plan, but without bravery an action plan can be hard to come by. Fear and doubt aren’t mutually exclusive, but they can be best friends.

Speaking of best friends:

Lucky turns twelve on Monday. When we first came to NYC I worried that he’d be freaked out by all the noise. He might’ve been (a little) but he didn’t show it, and he dove nose-first into life as a city dog. He started with the gateway foods: bagels, pizza, tacos and now he’s graduated to guacamole, cole slaw and egg rolls. He sometimes inhales a piece of paper or a bag that used to have food on/in it. His digestive system is ironclad.

Mimi moved into assisted living a week ago and is thriving. Within the first hour she got her nails done. She’s socializing and showering. She’s participating in activities, eating meals with new friends, and inviting people to see her room. It’s amazing. If you’ve followed Mimi’s story here or on Facebook you know that my mother and I’ve been struggling to keep her happy and safe despite worsening dementia. We’ve been struggling to keep ourselves sane in the process, but it’s not a two-person job. There will be more on Mimi to come, but for right now I wanted to let her fan club know that she’s doing great.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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