When I was a child, I was afraid of everything, all the time. My Top Five Fears were:
- Nuclear war with Russia
- My parents getting divorced or something happening to my sisters
- Getting an incurable disease
- Auditioning for the plays I loved to do
To cope with these fears, I:
- Cultivated a life-long battle with insomnia by staying awake all night, kneeling beneath my bedroom window, watching the sky for signs of a missile attack.
- Obsessed over every word, fight, emotion and unspoken dynamic in my family. I bossed around my sisters, which they LOVED (sarcasm).
- Went into hysterics every time there was a thunderstorm. I lived in Indiana, so this was an every-other-day occurrence.
- Compulsively watched every Made-for-TV, Disease-of-the-Week movie about kids dying from illness.
- Forced myself to audition through uncontrollable nerves that prevented me from landing the roles I wanted.
On the slightly healthier side, I had a mantra I repeated whenever I was terrified to go through an experience. I would imagine myself as an adult and say to myself: When I’m 23, I won’t be afraid of this. When I’m 35, I won’t be afraid of this. For some reason, knowing that I would someday outgrow the fear helped me to move through it in the present.
My entire life has been an exercise in overcoming fear. Nearly every relationship I’ve formed, trip I’ve taken, audition I’ve shown up for, conversation I’ve had, and new experience I’ve tried, has been dearly fought for through a fog of fear. I’ve been pleased to discover that, indeed, as an adult I haven’t been so afraid of the things I feared as a child. I’ve also learned that repetition and practice is my best ally and the foundation of confidence.
For the past year, I’ve walked through much of what many people are starting to experience now: health challenges, job loss, housing loss, no regular income for a year (and still none), fear, uncertainty, and social isolation—all while navigating crippling grief and heartbreak. None of my financial, housing or social challenges have resolved yet, although I’m deeply grateful for the return of my health. I was hoping to turn a corner soon but may have to exercise patience even longer than I was expecting, as jobs continue to fall through and social opportunities decline. It has been surreal to witness the current climate with a feeling of familiarity instead of novelty. To that end, I’d like to share some of the things that have been helpful to me, with the hope that they will be helpful to others as well.
I believe that learning to face and manage fear is our hardest but most important task:
- Feel fear whenever it arises, without resisting or ignoring it.
- Acknowledge it and allow it to move through and out of your body.
- Become an Observer. Step outside of the paradigm of fear, realizing that it is not you, and that it can be experienced without it having to mean anything.
- Get present. Feel your breath moving in and out of your body. Get in touch with your senses. Recognize that, in this moment, you are almost certainly okay. This is true even within difficult moments, if you take them one at a time.
- Connect your Mind and Body. Our feeling of separation from the Whole is what causes most of our suffering and this is true when our bodies feel disconnected as well. When we walk around with racing brains and numb bodies, it’s a recipe for fear to take charge.
My Favorite Ways to Ground & Connect:
Meditation. If you do nothing else for yourself, even 10 minutes of meditation per day will change your life. When we become still, we discover that we are not our bodies, our relationships, our jobs, our finances, our successes, our failures, our environment, or our politics. We simply are…something much greater and deeper than any of those things. We step outside of identification with the personality. Connecting with the Source of who we really are is the beginning of the end of fear. Here’s a meditation practice for Inner Peace.
Nature. Getting outside is truly the best medicine. In a world that moves fast and revolves around technology, nature has a different rhythm. It is slow, cyclical, seasonal. Things come and go, rise and fall. Connecting to nature’s rhythms can provide immediate relief from fear, anxiety and depression, and give us the fortitude to move ahead.
Yoga / Walking / Dancing. Any exercise that connects the two halves of the brain, drops you into your body and releases endorphins is a fantastic way to combat fear. When I couldn’t do any exercise at all, I missed it terribly, but the benefits were still there when I remembered to align with my breath and inner spaciousness. My favorite at-home classes are Yoga with Adriene.
Breathwork. Most people are breathing shallowly, from their chest, or unconsciously holding their breath. Deep, diaphragmatic breathing and pranayama techniques strengthens and settles the nervous system, boosts immunity, processes old trauma, releases stuck emotion, and helps us to stay mindful of the present moment. I’ve even used this on an airplane during bad turbulence and it worked. Here’s a great series to learn some basic breathing techniques.
Tapping. EFT Tapping provides almost instant relief from anxiety, spinning thoughts, fear, and physical pain. It’s been proven to be as effective as acupuncture and can be done safely and easily by anyone, anywhere, of any age. My favorite Tapping coach is Nick Ortner.
Chanting. Chanting a Sanskrit mantra along with music is a powerful way to focus one’s mind and energy. In Kundalini Yoga, one aims to chant for at least 11 minutes; I can promise that you will feel differently when you end than when you began. I had chants playing on repeat during my hospital stay, through the late hours when I couldn’t sleep, and it was incredibly comforting. My favorite music for chanting is White Sun.
Journaling. Many years ago, I began doing Morning Pages, which is at least three pages of stream-of-consciousness writing first thing in the morning. This practice has brought me more clarity than almost anything else I do. It’s a great place to dump the fear so that it leaves your head and doesn’t dump onto other people instead. Here’s the explanation of Morning Pages from Julia Cameron.
I can honestly affirm that walking through fear builds strength, resilience, confidence and compassion. There are many gifts to be found within this tumultuous time. We humans have been and will continue to be challenged for as long as we inhabit the earth. The only difference now is that we are much more connected through technology and so everything can appear to be worse or more overwhelming (which, objectively, it is not). I make a habit of limiting my news and social media intake and try to observe the fear, non-judgmentally, instead of participating in it. This is a choice that each of us has the power to exercise and it’s a choice that uplifts the collective instead of taking us all down in a toilet-paper frenzy.
My almost-three-year-old niece has an adventurous spirit and often says to me, “Don’t worry, Aw Daw (Aunt Dawn), I save the day!” And then she’ll repeat her own mantra: I Am Brave and Strong. I love to witness how she has already outgrown so many of her early fears and I hope that her spirit stays wild and free as she walks through this world. We are all brave and strong; let’s keep reminding each other of that.
I had never read this poem until a few days ago and it moved me so much. I’m not there yet, ready to say I’ll take it all, but I’m trying to be. Grieving a loss is never as quick as I wish it could be, and that’s also part of the loss…getting the wind knocked out of you, getting stopped in your tracks, losing your momentum, losing your faith…one has to come to acceptance not only of the loss itself but of the time that is lost in grieving the loss.
If this were an occasional part of life, I might feel more tolerance for it, but my entire life has felt like a long series of losses and failures. Just as I regain my footing, another one comes. I struggle to write that without it sounding like a pity-party but it’s the truth of how I feel. Part of the grief I have to navigate, every time, is the feeling of never being able to find stable ground. It’s tough to confront that feeling without it seeming, after a while, to be an indicator that I just don’t know how to do this Life thing. But I’m still here, for some reason, so how am I going to keep going?
I do believe that the quality of the energy I send out has something to do with it. If I’ve spent most of my life feeling like most everything I try fails and most everything I offer is rejected, it’s hard to channel a different kind of energy. That’s enough of a challenge to last me the rest of the my life, probably. But I also believe that we have to be where we are, now.
This week I’ve been dog-sitting out at a house in the middle of the woods. Every day I walk the dog on a pine needle-strewn path through the trees, and something about it gave me permission to just acknowledge that I am really fucking sad right now, and have been for a while. I’ve been doing everything I can to move out of this place but I needed to stop for a minute and realize that it’s not going to happen fast. Taking the pressure off myself to bounce back by a certain time actually made me feel better. I need to stay out of wallowing-mode but allowing myself to be where I am also enabled some kind of spaciousness to happen as well.
Spring is coming, slowly, and we know that the season always brings new life, fresh growth, and the promise of another chance. Unlike nature, though, I don’t know what that looks like for myself. Sometimes I don’t even believe in possibility at all. So I will do my best, from where I am, to just rest with an open palm.
This week I learned that the legendary Marta Becket passed away in January. I had no idea. I visited her opera house for the first time on Christmas Eve but her impact on my life hit back around 2009-2010.
I was divorced and had left my beloved Santa Monica for a studio in Koreatown with an actual paper-thin Murphy bed that folded down from the wall and was possibly the kind of bed you get in hell. I hated my new neighborhood, I was free but alone, I was nursing yet another heartbreak and creatively things couldn’t have been bleaker. I used to sit in the generic apartment-furnished armchair, staring out at the brick building next door, where people would literally scream out of their windows at all hours for reasons unknown. Because they could, I guess.
My mom told me about this amazing documentary she’d seen called Amargosa and I immediately ordered it from Netflix. On DVD. When I saw it, I was deeply moved by Marta’s story – one of a frustrated artist who took a giant leap into the unknown to create something that didn’t make any sense at the time. She left her metropolitan New York world behind to settle in Death Valley and refurbish a dilapidated performance hall, where she danced to a crowd that she literally painted on the walls – because there was no audience – until National Geographic discovered her.
The story of a woman without an opportunity to create the kind of work she wanted to, stepping off the grid to start living a different kind of story, spoke volumes to me. I felt the stirrings of something akin to that for myself or the idea, at least, that something else might be possible. As soon as I finished the documentary I rushed to find out if Marta was still alive and performing. She was, but she was heading into her final performances of the The Sitting Down Show because she could no longer dance and was ready to retire. I was determined to be there but a winter storm hit; those isolated Valley roads were flooded, nearly impassable, and phone lines were down. The Amargosa website warned of treacherous travel and I sadly abandoned the idea.
Several years passed. I sort of forgot about visiting the opera house although Marta remained an inspiration to me. I thought of her often, whenever I floundered around wondering what the hell I was doing in Hollywood. Every time the thought arose that I should create my own work, forge my own path, I would beat it down with resistance but then Marta would be there, like a beacon in the background. More time passed. I saw Diane Bell’s first film, Obselidia, and its scenes at the Amargosa Opera House reminded me that Marta’s legacy was still there…waiting.
Cut to December, 2016. Bone weary, shattered, burned out in every possible way…I’m in the middle of packing up my life in a limited number of boxes that I can snail-mail home to Boston. I’m finally calling it quits. A friend has come to stay and this is my camping/hiking/national park exploring friend. The one who will join me on any wilderness adventure. Each time we meet, we excitedly plan where to go next. We know we have a short window this time. We’re both exhausted. It needs to be a place we can drive to in a day and one that won’t be closed from all of the snow. Then it hits me: Death Valley. All those years in California and I still hadn’t been. They were at the tail end of a winter storm and about to get hit with some epic flooding but we had just the right amount of time to miss the worst.
We hit the road late on Christmas Eve day and drove like demons to make the show. The opera house had confirmed via e-mail and phone that there was a dancer who was going to perform that night. Then there wasn’t because she’d been injured. Then there was because they were mistaken or at any rate she was still going to perform. We didn’t have time for any pit stops. We ate snacks in the car. The two-lane road out to Death Valley Junction was pitch black with no cell service, my aging car was insistently fogging up in the rain and we’d hit huge pockets of flooding that were impossible to see ahead of time. We nearly missed the opera house because the valley was so dark but we swerved in and I jumped out to tell them we were there. There was no time for a bathroom or food or even to buy our tickets. Marta’s personal assistant was manning the door. She said to go over to the hotel afterwards to pay for our seats but, for now, to enjoy the show.
The opera house was toasty from the wood-burning stove and I couldn’t get over the rough wood floors or the detailed murals. It was beautiful. The assistant spoke to the small audience of tourists, telling us that Marta still lived on the grounds and that she was too ill to come over but that she knew we were there and that “she is happy” we were. A young Dominican dancer had been tapped by Marta to perform. She explained in broken English how grateful she was because, in her home country, the opportunity to dance was non-existent. She danced a short program from Marta’s past, including some of Marta’s own choreography. She wore Marta’s costumes – delightfully out-of-style – and there were long pauses while she changed. A little dog in the audience quietly growled whenever a new costume appeared. The ballerina danced in front of scenery that Marta painted. The faded red curtain opened and closed jerkily. The dancer’s pointe shoes were worn to shreds. The entire experience felt like pure anthropology and I held both joy and sorrow in my heart.
Afterwards we walked over to the hotel and someone opened a vacant room for me so I could finally use a bathroom. The room was scrubbed clean but old and in some disrepair. We wandered around the hotel filled with Marta’s photos and memorabilia. We were left to ourselves in the vacant gift shop. The lobby had a Christmas tree, a cat lounging on a desk, and a guy playing the guitar for his friends. Finally an employee appeared at the front desk and seemed pleasantly surprised that we had stuck around to pay for our tickets. We were starving but there was still no cell service. I asked the employee if she could give us directions to a restaurant somewhere and she told us that the hotel’s cafe was serving a complimentary Christmas Eve dinner, courtesy of Marta.
I think walking into that cafe on Christmas Eve was the moment when, on a micro level, I started to heal from the burn-out of the previous few years. People from all over the world were gathered at the counter and tables. The employees were warm and welcoming and explained the menu. When they found out we were Vegetarians they said, “Don’t worry, we’ll take care of you.” Even now, I cry when I think of it. To be in a place that meant so much to me as an artist, to be exploring a part of our American wilderness, to be surrounded by fellow travelers on a holiday eve…it was pure gratitude. Pure joy. I was remembering the core of who I was – the things I actually care about, the values that actually mean something to me. It wasn’t about booking a guest star or walking the red carpet or getting the next audition. It was about being in the world. Being present. Being loved.
Marta Becket changed my life because she lived hers with full authenticity. She surrendered to her art and allowed it to move her where it wished instead of trying to control or resist the outcome. She taught me that it’s not only possible to forge my own path – it’s desirable. I am forever grateful for her life and work.