Fear and Loathing in the Redwoods

As fear goes, I’m kinda like the proverbial drunk who’s so out of it, you try to shake him sober only to watch him ooze over the park bench and fall into the bushes….

I was so afraid for so long, I must have blown out my fear receptors because now it is really hard to scare myself.

But, there is one thing that can cause an immediate, visceral, and uncontrollable fear: the anguish that something has happened to my baby. My baby is now sixteen, and the fears are much bigger and more extensive. It’s too raw to think about them. Must avoid the thought.

So, I will share with you a future fear…it’s coming…I can hear the soundtrack of the movie Jaws when I think about its imminent arrival as it circles the dark and turbulent blue waters of my consciousness, waiting, waiting for me–its prey–to give off that irrepressible vibe of abject panic and frenetic activity before it rushes at me and devours me in one giant chomp.

It is the Women Writing in the Redwoods weekend retreat run by San Francisco Writers Conference, and it’s coming to get me on Thursday, April 3rd.

For some reason, the part of me who is brave, daring and flippant got her hand on the controls when the real me was asleep, paying bills, or otherwise, keeping order, and found, registered for and paid $567 to attend a weekend conference at a Pema Osel Ling Tibetan Buddhist Retreat Center in Corralitos, California. The whole thing looks very innocent and has that friendly lassitude we expect in California conferences. Jeans and those Eat Pray Love neck scarf thingies will be in order and there will be me, I can see it now, not quite right, evidently out of sync. I’m sure I’ll have the wrong jeans, wrong shoes, the wrong ideas and stick out like a sore thumb. Unfortunately, even though I’m short and should be able to blend in without notice, my face reflects exactly what I think, I squirm, I have the look of someone with much on her mind, and I’m sure if there’s a way to give detention or laps, I’m in for an extra dose of each of those.

And then there’s the part who doesn’t know anyone at all at this conference…terrifying…DEEP breath, and that I have to share a room with strangers. (Eew…strangers. I haven’t shared a room with strangers since…my freshman year of college.) I have visions of myself lying there in the dark with my eyes as wide as a bushbaby’s as the unfamiliar night noises of people I scarcely know fill my ears and I try to pretend that this jungle isn’t so overwhelmingly personal, fetid and cacophonous.

I’m afraid I’ll be vulnerable. I’m afraid we’ll all be vulnerable. What if we’re all vulnerable all weekend long? Oh God (I’m not taking his name in vain just getting on his list for immediate intervention) What if there is crying? What if there’s not enough personal space or the food is gross or the toilets aren’t private enough or the Wi-Fi fails and I can’t upload my blog posts to the A to Z challenge? 

Worst of all, what if I go, go authentically, and for three days, no one likes me, no one smiles at me and I’m away from my safe people and safe places? What if I have to sit with that?


I can hear my highly capable friend Whitney (who has already dispensed invaluable advice on how to room with strangers…dress in the bathroom…cope with the weird) say to “put on your big girl panties and suck it up,” but she is so much braver than I.

Worse still, I outgrew my big girl panties and nothing fits. I’m between sizes. Will Depends work? 

I’m making back up plans. I’ll bring my black Ford Transit dorkin’ van, a mattress pad and sleeping bag, my pillow, my teddy bear and my collection of English schoolgirl stories. I’ll wear a t-shirt the first day that says “Born Freak” and use the scarfy thing to wipe my nose as I scuff about in my desert boots. I’m terrible with women with whom I seem to raise the hackle and the claw: I am the prior victim of much female bullying. In all ways, I’ll stand out as different, outside, awkward and if I’m lucky, there’ll be at least one friendly misfit in that crowd of forty women, if God is willing. Oh God, I hope you’re willing.

22 Replies to “Fear and Loathing in the Redwoods”

  1. I so relate to this! I experienced a similar panic attack before attending the Utah Writer’s Project so many years ago. Just keep breathing; everything is going to be okay. I know what being an outsider feels like, and yet, I know most of the women I know are seeking acceptance, and will be relieved to find someone else willing to admit the fear. Envious! Wish I were going with you. THAT would be a blast!

  2. I too understand. I am going to a conference the week after yours, and in some respects it will be similar. I am however, attending with a friend. I’m already stressing over the clothes. I don’t know what to wear, nothing seems to fit and I can’t write, maybe, and…maybe none of that matters. I’m going with a friend. We have a long car ride together. So even if the conference is a bust, that is still a gift to me. I’ll be thinking of you my friend! You’ll wow them though, just as you have wowed so many of us.

    1. Crystal, you write like angels sing, with purity, candor and a little snark (I’ve heard angels get cranky being good all the time.) I feel better that I put this out there because now I’m hearing about all the women in this group who I admire and who have managed to make it work. And worse case, I’ll hide out in my dorkin’ van and withdraw with Susan Cain’s book Quiet.

      Thanks for reading.

  3. I can relate as well…I feel your fear. I usually want to know all the details and do not like surprises sprung on me. I want to know the layout, the schedule, etc…but more times than not, it all turns out to be better than I imagined and I am irritated with myself for getting so worked up beforehand.

    1. Beth, I’m trying not to micromanage, trying to rock this prayer scarf I picked up today in San Francisco. I’m just going to surrender and then write about it like I’m a war correspondent.

      I’m actually really excited. Somehow, by getting all the fear out there in advance, I think I can do this.

      Thanks for reading my piece.

  4. Way to put it all out there! 🙂 Here’s a thought…what if you show up at the conference and in the “getting to know you” part (which, inevitably, there always is), SAY ALL THIS?? I guarantee you, practically everyone sitting in the room feels something similar to this, and you will immediately create common ground with all of them! 🙂 Best of luck, and have fun!!

    1. Hey Iris, I like this idea. I may have to try it and if I do, I’ll say, “My friend Iris who is working on a piece of YA fiction suggested I spill my beans and see if y’all feel the same way.” If delivered with a grin, it just might work. Thanks for reading and the idea too.

  5. I feel the same way at the web conferences I attend every year. I’m painfully shy. People just assume I’m unfriendly and I get labeled as “intimidating.” —And these are conferences where I actually know many people.

    This wonderful post tells me that you’ll be just fine and that I’m missing out on the real fun. And as for A to Z, write them and schedule them in advance. (That’s not cheating.)

    1. Laura, if I ever see you at a conference, I will walk right up and introduce myself and save you the trouble. Have had all the same problems of being deemed unfriendly. It’s worse if you are known as competent as people then expect you to do worry of the outreach.

      Great idea about scheduling those posts in advance. Thanks.

  6. You know what impresses me? First, you are choosing to be vulnerable. You’re not armored up in black leather with radical hair, jutting chin, and the I-hate-life-and-you attitude. You are choosing be your own self and trust God to see you through. Brava!

    Second, you paid serious money to attend. You mean it about becoming a better writer. Even if the conference isn’t everything you expect, what you will learn will be a lot.

    Third, you admit that women are intimidating. Oh, we sure are! And isn’t this sad? You can change the hostility, one relationship at a time, trusting God to show you one kindred spirit.. And remember too, that most writers are introverts and are just as scared as you.

    You already know we want to hear all about it. 🙂

    1. Laura, thank you. I did the black leather jacket, spiked hair thing as you know and it just brought more misunderstanding.

      Have I mentioned that while my scriptural knowledge is limited, God and I are tight?

      I love your idea of changing hostility one relationship at a time because that has worked for me well in the past. Don’t imagine I’ll ever have the charisma to zap a whole room into liking me, but one-on-one, I might have a shot at common understanding. I think I’ll dub this The Hile Principle.

  7. Tonia, aren’t future fears the worse? Because they haven’t happened yet they are bigger than King Kong. Thank you for writing this. We all relate to these feelings. I so hope that you find your fears are actually little spider monkeys (unless you are afraid of them). Maybe, by reading this, I might find the courage to take a few more risks of my own. And, God willing, maybe in one of them I will find that face that looks at me with understanding and the acceptance I so long for.

    1. Linda, you’re right about this one. The main fear is in the anticipation. Generally, once I get to the barrier, I’ll kick through it. One of my favorite things is to share impressions later with people I first met in those deeply angst ridden moments. It almost always turns out we’re more human than I expected.

      And I wish you all success with your risks too. : )

      1. Believe me! I have reason to know what damage happens when I let my courage out.

        As a teen I stood up at a church meeting where they were kicking out all the people who had not attended for the last 6 months and asked who had visited them. Being told that no one had I then said something like, “I think we need to look further into this. It isn’t the wood that falls off a tree that kills the tree. It is the rot that is happening within. Shouldn’t we be looking into our church and trying to find out why so many people are leaving?”

        Yikes! It is no wonder my dad thought of me as a “sassy brat”.

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