Following Atticus: Forty-Eight High Peaks, One Little Dog, and an Extraordinary Friendship by Tom Ryan is published by William Morrow. It tells the story of my adventures with Atticus M. Finch, a little dog of some distinction. You can also find our column in the NorthCountry News.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Taking Center Stage

Recently, my friend Wendy and I were corresponding about my fear of public speaking and she asked me if I was ready for Wednesday night’s event where there will be seven hundred people in attendance – weather permitting.  She wanted to know what I will do to get ready to step out of my comfort zone. 

The answer’s simple.  I choose to bring my comfort zone with me.  Yes, I have a fear of public speaking, and most would never know it, but no matter how calm and relaxed I look it simmers just beneath the surface.  (I’ve read that President Kennedy had the same fear and often vomited before his speeches.)  My way to deal with it is to face it.  I think it’s a rush to face a fear and each time I do; I get that much stronger. 

Before an event, I get the lay of the venue and try to have it set up so that Atticus and Will are being put in a position to succeed.  Charlotte Canelli at the Morrill Memorial Library in Norwood has been a pleasure to work with. We've kept in touch about what will work best for taking care of Atticus and Will, and that’s a load off of my mind. 

But that still leaves me to standing on the stage with Atticus by my side (and Will waiting in the wings with his personal protectors Laura Bachofner and Marybeth Cauffman) in the spotlight in the middle of my fear.  It reminds me of how I feel on a hike along a narrow ledge where another fear – heights! – heckles me.  I freeze, then say “f--- it!” and I take a leap of faith realizing that others before me have done it and haven’t plunged to their death, so I can handle it, as well.

So I will go out on stage, look up into the lights, down into fourteen hundred eyes, and I will leap.  Inside I’ll laugh and feel the thrill of excitement and think of something Joseph Campbell said when Bill Moyers asked him about the meaning of life.  What Campbell said was that people aren’t looking for the meaning of life, they’re looking for the experience of being alive.  Fears are part of that experience.  It makes our breath more valuable, creates a sense of being mindful and aware, all time slows down, all time speeds up – and all becomes timeless. 

I equate a lot of my life to the hikes Atticus and I take.  I used to be afraid of hiking in the dark and felt like a child who was frightened to take my head out from beneath the sheets.  Now, however, we hike often at night.  A week ago, when Will woke us up in the middle of the night by going to the bathroom and then falling in it on the kitchen floor, he called to me and woke me up out of my sleep.  I picked his little body up as he shook and cried; he was soaked in his own urine, stained with his shit.  I took my shirt off, pulled him close to my chest so he could whimper against my heart and know that everything was going to be okay, and I held him like that while I drew his bath.

After he was clean and wrapped in a towel, I cleaned the mess on the kitchen floor, lit a candle, and then steam mopped the floor.  After an episode like this one, which happens in the middle of the night from time to time, Will sleeps soundly and won’t budge until late morning. But after rushing in for the rescue and helping my little friend, I often have a difficult time getting back to sleep.  After I shower, I sometimes read in bed. Other times I get up and write letters to friends.  But on this night, with Atticus wide awake and sitting up on the bed with a look of expectation, I agreed with him, got dressed, grabbed my pack, and by 3:00 am we were parked at the trailhead of the Old Path, on our way into the dark woods headed for South Doublehead, and then North.

The night fear stood on the edge of my periphery just to remind me it’s there, but I remind myself that fear of the dark, much like a fear of public speaking, is nothing but ghosts.  And the truth is, I’m not afraid of ghosts.  

We slowly marched up the trail, and when it became steep, we still moved withpurpose and took breaks when we needed them.  Upon reaching the saddle between the two humps, a place where we’ve run into moose, bear, and a porcupine during past night hikes, the stars could be seen through the short trees and off of the backside of the mountain.  I turned off my headlamp and could see the moonbeams filtering through the trees. 

We climbed to the top the ledges just shy of the South Doublehead summit and emerged from the woods into a brilliant night, frozen but clear.  Beneath us, Jackson Village seemed tiny.  To the northwest Mount Washington caught the light of the full moon and stood there like a stunning bride – all of that white against the dark night.  I picked up Atticus and kept my headlamp off, and we looked towards our largest peak, the one the Abenaki referred to as Agiocochook (Home of the Great Spirit), and I smiled.  Such a gift to see the glow of this giant mountain looking at us as we looked at her while the rest of the world slept. 

We eventually made our way to the cairn at the summit of South Doublehead many warm memories linger for me from the various hikes we’ve made both during the daylight and at night, then doubled back to the saddle.  There were no moose or bear to be seen, but there were hoof prints in the snow going to the back of the saddle.  Then it was up into the shadows with my headlamp cutting through a tunnel of darkness before we came to the vacant and locked cabin on the top of North Doublehead.  We took the path behind it and looked at the stars hanging above Maine.  After a few minutes, we walked down the old ski slope and back to the car.

Will was tucked in just as we had left him, just as I knew he would be, and Atticus and I climbed back into bed where we were warm and safe after I had danced with that little fear of mine.  One of the greatest things about entering discomfort by way ofadventure is returning home again where all is appreciated even more. 

We drowsed off.  When we woke up to bright blue skies and the blinding blanket of white in our backyard that full moon, glowing Agiocochook, and the Doubleheads lingered like a dream. 

As we get ready to stand on stage this Wednesday night, we’ll begin by dropping Will of with Tracy at the Ultimutt Cut to have his hair washed and trimmed on Tuesday morning.  Atticus and I will head to a mountain and climb a peak and take it all in and feel the strength, peace, vitality, and tranquility of the mountain.  Of course, it will hurt some because we are both getting back into shape, and I have plenty of weight to lose to catch up to where we were before the cancer came, but it will be good hurt.  I’ll feel my body re-awakening.  On Tuesday night we’ll have a quiet time at home and I’ll pack up.  By the time we leave Wednesday morning, I’ll be excited for our little road trip.  We’ll stop in Medway to visit the graves of Jack and Isabel and introduce them to Will.  I’ll let him get down and dance around where their bodies sleep.    

In my prayers, I’ll tell my father about Tuesday’s hike, about the Wednesday night’s event, and I’ll read aloud to him the latest chapter I’m working on in the next book. He would have loved it all. Who knows, perhaps he is somewhere we he will still be able to enjoy it.  Either way I’ll share it because I know it would mean something to him.

We’ll head to Norwood, take a tour of the library, let Atticus and Will meet some excited librarians, and just before the event starts, we’ll find a private place backstage.  I pull out my iPhone, plug in my ear phones, and listen to music as I do before every event. 

When I step on stage, I’ll be stepping into a new adventure with Atticus, just as I’ve done everything with him over the past dozen years, just as we’ve hiked thousands of mountains, as I fought septic shock, and he fought cancer, we’ve ridden the ups and downs of life’s rollercoaster, and faced storms both actual and metaphorical. I’ll smile and embrace the fear and underneath my breath I’ll think of the “experience of being alive” where fears dance with joy.  Then I’ll leap.  

By all the talking is over, the questions answered, the shaking hands and signing of books complete, and we step out into the cold air, and head to our hotel room, I’ll be spent.  In the morning, we’ll drive back to Jackson and our quiet lives.  We’ll stop, as we always do, at Lake Chocorua to stretch our legs and greet the majestic mountain that always welcomes us back to the region.    

In the days after a big event, I walk around like I’m hung over, even though I don’t drink. I’ll wear my sunglasses, turn off the phone, drink plenty of water, and Atticus and I will find some nice trails to explore where we won’t see another soul. 

It will be a lot like it was when we returned from Doublehead the other night.  The best part of the adventure is the contrast in finding the comfort of home again. 

That is how I deal with my fear of public speaking.  As I always do.


carolyn bonier said...

I have often heard that many of the greatest actors experience intense stage fright. I wonder if that is similar to your fear of public speaking. If you speak as well as you write you have nothing to fear. Also remember that probably most of those 1400 eyes looking at you will be looking with respect and love for you, Atticus and Will. My eyes will be among them silently cheering you on. I just hope that the predicted storm won't interfere with the event!

Anonymous said...

Tom, you are not only a great writer, who writes from the heart, but a wonderful speaker & storyteller, with the greatest sense of humor!
Remember F*** Fear, I borrowed that from you!
Have a great event!

Dawn M. said...

You'll have friendly, eager, familiar faces there in the crowd. And you are always fabulous in choosing what to share. Looking forward to the night. Calming thoughts being sent your way.

Felicia Gervais said...

Hi Tom.. Loved this posting about Will and his mishap; you and Atticus using the opportunity to hike in the dark, you facing your fears in the dark and Wednesday night here in Norwood. You are an inspiration, as are your two dogs. I know you would probably remark that we all are in our own ways and I would probably mostly agree. But you have this talent for sharing your thoughts and feelings in such a lyrical manner that you give me and likely all of us following you "aha" moments whenever I read your posts. "Aha, someone out there feels just like I do about ____. I am not alone in this or that". :-) So thank you. And by the way, I will be in your audience Wednesday night and like everyone else there I am sure, willing you to not only do just fine but to enjoy it too. Those of us who want to be near you, hear your voice, be near Atticus & Will, buy your book so you can autograph it for us will be fully sated by just that. The wisdom and pe
tty you share with us is just icing on the cake. Felicia Gervais from Weston, MA

Tricia J. said...

I am soooooo looking forward to being in the presence of all three of you. You have brought so much joy into my life through your writings and your facebook posts. You probably could just stand there silently for an hour with Will and Atticus by your side and it would be well worth my trip from NH.

Unknown said...

What a wonderful night hike, your reliving it for us makes me feel like I was there...following Atticus & Tom, wondering what happens when you come across a bear or moose like you said. I can feel the compassion when you rescued Will from his midnight accident, He thrives because of Your love and care. Like Carolyn Bonier said all those faces are there because they love the story of Tom & Atticus and the story teller. You could explain how to install a toilet or how to change a tire and everyone would love it. You have the gift of being a story teller and a very funny F*#king guy. I hope you have a safe trip there and back. I'm sure Laura & Marybeth are equally excited to be there for sweet William... WISH I could be there but I will be there in spirit. ONWARD by all means!

GreatAV said...

Just love to hear words spoken by you. They take on so much more of a meaning in their presentation. Good luck Wednesday, and I hope all three of you will enjoy your road trip. <3

Mimi said...

Just remember you will be in a theatre filled with many people who already know your story and who feel like they know you...and who be surrounding you, Atti and Will with love and acceptance. I look forward to hearing all fab out it! Mimi

Jan Reed said...

I love the story of your and Atticus's 3:00 a.m. hike (and of its preliminary.) I love the vision of moonbeams filtering down through the trees. If I were not on the opposite side of the continent, you know I would be in the audience in Norwood and hoping to meet you, Atticus, Will, Laura and Marybeth! I will be there in spirit, and I know your audience is in for a great time!

AnnG said...

Tom what a great story. I hope you Atti and Will have a great event on Wednesday. Wish I could be there.

Unknown said...

Hello Tom, Your writings about the three of your's adventures brings joy in my life; thank you. I am coming from Florida to see/hear you 3 and to introduce you 3 to my son who lives in Boston. I am bringing Gardenias from my garden for Will. I am thinking it might be a new scent adventure for him.( I love that he enjoys smells because 3 1/2 years ago I lost my sense of smell and taste from a traumatic brain injury.)

Sara said...

Thank you for your generosity to share your life with so many of us. It bring clarity to the choices we have all made and those we plan on making in the future. I hope all the positive energy from the audience will reach and relax you because I know so many of us are just appreciative that you are stepping outside of your comfort zone to be there for us.

EndlessLight said...

My own eyes won't be among those in the crowd, but please remember that my heart and spirit will be upholding yours from afar.
Lean into the wind, my friend. Let it blow away fear and doubt.
Thanks for giving me a glimpse of you.

Barbie Perkins-Cooper said...

How I would LOVE to be in the audience, but I will be there in thoughts and spirits. Wishing you the best, along with Atticus and Sweet Will. You all are so blessed, and you share your blessings and wisdom with us. Thank you. Thank you so MUCH!

Holly said...

FEAR can be defined in two diametrically opposed acronyms:
F*%k everything and run; OR
Face everything and react.

I will be in the audience tomorrow as you face everything and react Tom.

Carter W Rae said...

As your journey continues we are enjoying it all with you, Atticus and William .... Looking forward to seeing any post(s) you may share Always fun to read and enjoy !!! Go carefully pack from us :-)

Annie Criscitiello said...

Dearest Tom- Standing Once Again Before One Of The Most Feared Events In Life -Illness- Even More So When It Is Affecting A Loved One - Your Words Of Power Give Me Strength And Purpose To Carry On - Always With Compassion And Peace!

Just for Laughs Team said...


Thank you so much for sharing your story. I have been following along as a fellow hiker for a few years. I never have much to say because you say it all - the White Mountains are a place of wonder, and simplicity is the key to happiness. Hope to be a neighbor in a nearby mountain town someday! And I agree - social media is SUCH a drag to keep up with. I am so happy to welcome the three amigos to my hometown tomorrow. Safe travels and happy unplugging afterward!

Zoe the Therapy Dog said...

Tom, as a retired Speech and English teacher, I can truly appreciate all that you have said here. I am going to link this blog-post on my Facebook page. I think many of my former Speech team members will enjoy what you have to say, your style of writing and your love of Atticus and Will as well. Good luvk tonight, or maybe I should say, 'Break a leg' as they do in theater.

Unknown said...

Tom ,you have so much to teach so many of us and I thank you for overcoming your fear to do that.
I hope Will is enjoying his new blanket. It was just my way of saying thank you to all 3 of you for making the sacrifice of allowing us all into your life. :)