Sometimes I wake up around 3 a.m., and for a moment, it feels like I’m swimming to the surface. In that second before reaching the surface, I’m struck by terror, and the waking words in my head are, “I’m so scared.”
This fear feels automatic and unconscious, and I can’t pinpoint the reason for it. I’m not scared of one particular thing. I’m just scared.
I’m so scared.
In those few seconds after waking, I move on, the sudden twinge of terror eclipsed by more pressing things, like heading to the bathroom or rolling over and falling back asleep. But that three-word sentence returns often, always at night: “I’m so scared.”
When I was a child, I sometimes woke up in fear. I feared the ghost in the attic and demons in my toys. I was scared of hell but maybe more afraid of heaven. The usual stuff would also scare me from sleep: imagining my parents dying, or grandparents dying, or my sister or dog dying.
I never feared my own death back then—and maybe that’s the difference now, in my forties, a fear of dying at a low simmer.
A woman from Wisconsin writes about midnight fears. Lorine Niedecker (1903-1970) wrote a poem that starts with this little gem: “What horror to awake at night / and in the dimness see the light. / Time is white / mosquitoes bite / I’ve spent my life on nothing.”
Lorine might have had reason to worry. She spent her life writing compact lines of verse, the kind that tend to get lost amid today’s clutter of garbage-words. Misleading headlines about people doing unconscionable things threaten to crowd out the beauty. You gotta seek it out.
As a child afraid of the dark corners of her bedroom, I’d answer my fears with words — Bible verses. I’d either fall back asleep or ignite a whole new bonfire of fears.
Today my fears are different from back then, more along the lines of Niedecker’s horror: “I’ve spent my life on nothing.” In waking hours, I know that my life’s hodgepodge of mothering and teaching and writing and learning don’t add up to “nothing.” But I’m clear-eyed enough to know that my writing may never see many readers. The book I’ve written, the book I’m working on now, may not find a publisher. This, I realize, is ground zero of “I’m so scared.”
But the Holy Spirit turns my mind to Jacob, that old trickster who conned his father into blessing him. With his father’s blessing, Jacob set out alone and encountered some intriguing night fears of his own. One night he had a terrifying dream of a stairway to heaven; another night was spent wrestling with God.
This wrestling story captures my imagination so that I can almost picture it, his face shiny with sweat. And through gritted teeth he says to his opponent: “I won’t let you go until you bless me.” He got his blessing but walked away with a limp.
In writing this, maybe I’m saying: I’m not letting go until my work is blessed. And I may find myself, late at night, limping to the bathroom. Even in those moments of limpid fear, I’m not giving up just yet.
Time is white.
Mosquitoes do bite.
I’m spending my life on something.