I turned onto the private drive of the Dorland Artists Colony, checked in with Janice the caretaker, and pulled up to my cabin, home for the next week. It was my first writer’s residency and I was excited, but I was also a bit concerned: this was so far from everything. I wasn’t used to huge spaces without houses or people.
I grabbed my bags and went in. Through the front window of the cabin, a panoramic view of the Temecula Valley unfurled like a painted backdrop. The afternoon wind tore over the hills and sent a rocking chair on the front porch reeling as if it held a ghost in the midst of a panic attack. The refrigerator motor sounded like someone moaning.
I stashed groceries in cabinets, unpacked my suitcase, and explored the living space, opening drawers, peering into cabinets, scanning book titles on shelves. A white three-ring binder with the words, “Important: Read me,” Sharpied on the cover sat on the kitchen table. I read about spiders (“Turn over your shoes before putting them on; recluse spiders like dark places”) and safety (“If there’s danger, sound the air horn”).
Danger? What sort of danger? I had journeyed to this 300-acre nature preserve seventy-three miles north of Mexico to write and chill out, not to test my courage.
I searched for the air horn—not that I knew what one looked like. There was nothing like that here, so I texted Janice, the caretaker who lived over the hill, seemingly too far to help in any tangible way, should I ever need her.
She texted back and said the air horn for my cabin must be broken and to use my car horn if I needed help.
But what if I can’t get to my car because the danger is inside of the cabin? I almost asked but didn’t because I didn’t want to appear like the wuss I was turning out to be.
At the huge wooden desk by the front window I organized my folders, papers, and pens. Before I left home, I made a list of what I hoped to work on: a TV pilot, a novel beginning, a short story or two—certainly not too much for a week, right? My accordion file containing these projects sat on the floor beside the desk and a roll of newsprint leaned beside it in case I wanted to tack it to the wall and outline a story—or draw.
A bulbous CD player occupied the corner of the desk. I hit “play.” My favorite classical song came on, “No. 1 in G-major,” performed by Yo-Yo Ma on cello. A good sign.
I pulled a short story from the file and futzed a bit, but the information binder and those lines about the airhorn and spiders yanked my attention. Stop it. You’re in the country. Nothing to fear. I had lived in the suburbs too long.
When I was a student at Goddard College in the Green Mountains of Vermont and people visited from Boston or New York, they found the quiet unnerving. Crickets freaked them out. They worried wild boars, bears, even groundhogs might attack them.
“This is Vermont, not the Yukon,” I teased.
But now I understood only too well that while our worries about nature—and about most everything else—border the irrational, worries are very real to the worrier.
Going outside and learning the lay of the land might help quell these worries. But the sun was setting. Too late for a hike. I’d tour the property in the morning.
The cabin filled with the aroma of garlic sauteéing in olive oil. I ate at the kitchen table, cleaned up, and worked on a short story. As the sun set over distant hills, an orchestra of creature sounds filled the air—crickets’ rhythmic chirping, cicadas’ radio static buzz, owls’ elusive hoots.
The sounds were reassuring, yet I was nervous about what came next. I wasn’t typically afraid of the dark, yet I had also never been so alone. Who would hear me if I screamed? In the coastal area where I lived, the houses were so close together all you had to do was yell the word, “fire” and neighbors would come running.
I pulled down blinds on eight windows and went to pull down the blind on the glass front door, but there was none. I fetched the sarong I always brought along for such emergencies, tore off pieces of duct tape, and affixed it to the window. I felt silly, especially when I knelt on the floor and taped newsprint along the bottom of the door where the sarong left off. I mean, who was going to get down that low to watch me—the little red fox sighted on the grounds?
Most of my friends would never notice the lack of window covering on a door. Yet I’ve always remembered my older half-brother who, when he visited, refused to sit with his back to the window unless the drapes were drawn because he felt like a target.
My night-blooming fear confounded me. I had hitchhiked alone through New England, camped in the woods of Pennsylvania, Maine, Colorado, and California, tromped trails in the Green Mountains of Vermont. Times may have been different then, but not so different. That young woman was afraid of so little. She challenged her fears. What changed?
The peeper. That’s what changed. A few years back a peeper prowled my beach cottage and our eyes met through a window.
I had peeper PTSD.
I was new to the neighborhood and we didn’t yet have curtains. At night, passers-by received a fishbowl view of what was going on inside my house. A month after we moved in, around midnight, I heard the squeak of shoes stepping along the walkway between the houses. Through a window in the second bedroom, a man’s bloodshot blue eyes met mine. I gasped and backed into the darkness of the room while he evaporated into the dark around the side of the house. I rushed about, making sure doors were locked and windows latched. When I looked out again, he was back, this time peering through the kitchen window, hands clasped behind his back as if window shopping. The next day I bought blinds and opaque curtains and have shut them at night ever since.
. . .
Before I turned in my first night at Dorland, I switched off all the lights except for one in the front corner of the 600-square-foot cabin. I never left lights on at home; one light would not make not a bit of difference in staying safe. But here I was compelled to leave the light on before I retreated to the bedroom where I drifted to sleep listening to bushes scratching the windows.
In the morning, I pulled open all the blinds and tore the sarong off the door. The hot air balloons Temecula is famous for drifted into the ether. I grabbed my camera and shot a dozen photos. The tea kettle shrieked. I sipped a cup of Earl Grey as I dressed for a hike, shook out my shoes, and headed for the trail.
I was light on my feet, happy to be outside, until I came upon a sign that said, “Watch for snakes.” I considered turning back, but instead I shuffled my feet so creatures slithering about would feel the vibration and slither in the opposite direction.
Back at the cabin, I tried to focus on work: I fiddled with my story and got out the TV pilot. That night, once again, I taped up the sarong and left a light on before I turned in.
Going on my third day, it was apparent that apart from writing, I had some serious work to do on myself. Namely my fear of the dark. It wasn’t just a generalized fear of the dark—I wasn’t afraid at home. It was a fear of darkness in the solitude of the cabin on this secluded nature preserve. No husband, no son, no cats, no neighbors. I googled “fear of the dark” and learned it wasn’t such an unusual fear. It had a name: nyctophobia, which mostly afflicted children and also some adults.
While I didn’t have extreme symptoms, I did relate to one: “the inability to function normally at night.” Did covering a window with a sarong fit that definition?
My problem also had to do with privacy. I didn’t want to be observed by any random hiker or person moseying about. But who was going to see me out here? Hikers didn’t hike at night and the Temecula crime log reported all was fine. (Yes, before I came, I researched to make sure there weren’t reports of assaults or stalkers on the mountain.)
On my internet search about fear of the dark, I learned the fear harkened back to our ancestors when there was good reason to be afraid because there was a lot out there to get you. Into the 1900s, people believed the nighttime air was bad for you, full of toxins and horrible vapors, and you were well-advised to keep your windows latched.
When one fear takes hold, more fears arise like yeast bubbles in bread dough. There had to be something more than the dark scaring me. I had the solitude I craved but now that I had it, I wanted to run from it, chase it away by turning on lights, reading books, going online. I could be using all this negative energy to write. Maybe all worries reduced down to the fear of death. I often thought of colleague Deborah Prussell at work on her first novel when she died unexpectedly in her forties.
What if the fear of not using my time well while I was here and going home without achieving what I came to do was really the fear of what if my life amounts to nothing? Most artists want to leave their mark, affect people, make a difference, have their work remain long after they’re gone.
I was once so afraid of bees I threw a phonebook at a bee lost in my kitchen. Out flew the phonebook, bee, and entire plate of glass. A few years later, I spent a summer in West Virginia in a cabin where bees lived in the wall. I forced myself not to flee and got over my fear, and now I had to stifle my urge to flee and do some internal work.
On my third night at Dorland, instead of turning on the lights as the sky grew dim, I lit two tea light candles. From the front porch, a view of the valley splayed out around me. The sky transitioned from orange to periwinkle. Contrails appeared. Brilliance and color drained from the sky. As the sky grew dark, the desolate chirp of crickets replaced the Western bluebirds and the hummingbirds with their clicking song that serenaded me during the day. Across the valley lights flickered like tiny candles.
Rather than turn on lamps, I soaked in the darkness of the bedroom, bathroom, living room/kitchen combo. Darkness wasn’t bad—it was only the absence of light.
My fourth morning, I reread “Approach to the Night,” a photocopy of a typewritten page of prose thumbtacked to the wall beside the desk, signed by a founder of Dorland, Barbara Horton, dated Feb. 18, 2001.
“…Much human effort has gone into the banishment of night from our lives. … Suppose we allowed the softening color of the world around us to soften our physical tensions as evening takes over? … The sunset brings contemplation as the light mellows into the soft blues of restoration and renewal. This is the hour of dusk therapy—if we allow it to be … The dark of night is a fact of life, which we have treated almost as an enemy…”
During my remaining nights, I greeted nightfall in this same way, letting the sky shift to black before turning on lights. I looked forward to the transitioning hour, followed by twilight, and then night. I turned on fewer lights and I turned them on later.
I didn’t make nearly enough progress on my projects, but the week had been more about coming to terms with solitude and the dark. On my last night, instead of lighting candles, I went out onto the porch as the sunset glow faded. The sky brightened before darkening to indigo. Across the valley below, tungsten lights freckled the land. White puffs of cloud turned gray and smudged the navy sky. Headlights snaked along route 79 at the bottom of the hill.
A fingernail of moon appeared, accompanied by a smattering of stars. I gazed up at the constellations. When the sky was as dark as it was going to get, I waited a little longer, then went inside, turned on a light and pulled down the blinds. And instead of hanging a sarong over the front door, I left it bare. The night had become an unexpected friend.