“Shining a Light in the Darkness of Fear,” column for Aug. 11, 2015

Few things are both as beautiful and terrifying as the flash of lightning and the roll of thunder.

I’m sitting at a window on a hillside overlooking Monterey Bay, watching a storm light up the night sky bright as day.

I wish you could see it.

Such storms were a rare treat in the years when I lived here. I feel lucky to catch one while I’m visiting. Unfortunately, this one is mostly dry lightning with only a few drops of the desperately-needed rain that drought-weary Californians are praying for.

I love lightning. I just hope it doesn’t set fire to the forest.

In 1987, a fire believed started by an illegal campfire came roaring through this forest, destroying more than 30 homes, including every house on this street, except the one in which I’m storm watching tonight.

It belonged to my husband’s family. They were evacuated along with some 100 others. No lives were lost, only things.
Some things were irreplaceable _ photos, paintings, family heirlooms _ but still, they were only things. In time, houses would be rebuilt. The forest would grow back, denser than before. Life would go on.

If you’re one of the thousands of tourists who take the famed 17 Mile Drive into Pebble Beach each year and stop at the Huckleberry Hill overlook to snap “selfies,” you’d never guess the place where you’re standing was once an inferno.

No signs of that blaze remain. But the memories surrounding it linger _ especially for those who lost their homes, or feared they would lose their lives. Fear and loss leave heavy footprints that fade with time but never quite go away.

I watch the storm for its beauty, to see the play of light and hear the clap of thunder and feel the power of nature rumble under my feet. But I also watch for danger, scanning the forest, praying not to see a sudden burst of flames.

If you live long enough, you learn to spot danger. The smell of a gas leak from the kitchen. The sudden spike in a baby’s temperature. The mole on your arm that never changed until now. The ad on TV that lists possible deadly side effects for the drug you’ve been taking.

We live in a sea of flashing red lights all shouting, “Danger!”

Responsible adults (parents, teachers and even newspaper columnists) watch for those red lights and try to heed them wisely, taking action as need be without overreacting.

Seeing and heeding aren’t a problem for me. I’ve been a mother (now a grandmother) more than half my life. I can spot threats in things that will never raise an eyebrow with Homeland Security. But learning to see danger has also taught me not to live in fear.

When my first husband was diagnosed with cancer and given six months to live, I woke each morning and fell asleep at night fearing that he would die. Then one day I had this revelation: Sooner or later, we all die. We don’t get much choice about that. The choice we are given is how we live.

Somehow, from that point on, I stopped fearing death and began to be thankful moment by moment for the gift of life.

Four years later, when he died, there were no regrets. We had lived well in the time we were given, grateful and unafraid.

My grandmother used to say that most of what we fear will never come to pass; and if it does, being afraid won’t stop it.

What I fear most is that being afraid will blind me to beauty, numb me to joy and rob me of the life I’m meant to live.

I want to thrill at lightning and not worry about fire. I want to say yes to adventure no matter how much it hurts my knees. (At best, it will be fun and at worst, it will make a good story.) I want to be alive while I’m alive. What else is living for?

It’s a choice we make moment by moment. For this moment, in my heart, the storm of fear has passed. Clouds are parting. Stars are winking. And a long-legged moon is walking across the bay.

I hope you can see it.


  1. Chris Lewke says

    I always read your column, but this one hit home.. I have it tacked up on my bulletin board .. I needed a reminder quite desperately to focus on life and not fear from perhaps too many troubles all at one time – as sometimes happens!- including a husband who has serious medical problems and a recent extended stay in the hospital…. Thank you!

  2. Oh, how I try to live with this attitude! Every day I attempt to make a fresh start, to live with purpose, and to find beauty in the life God gave me. But I’m also overwhelmed with the task God gave me (raising my granddaughters) and I long for a life without such enormous responsibility. Maybe it’s based on past experience, but I spend too much time watching for the fire and not enjoying the beauty in the lightning. As usual, you have written in such a way as to inspire me to try harder today!

  3. Patti Peters says

    Sharon, thank you for the beautiful reminder. We lived in Monterey, son born there in 1979 (at Ft. Ord). I can see from your words the view of the bay, it takes me back. Son and I spent hours on the beaches of the area. My late husband loved to take early morning pics of the bay, and I still have them hanging on my Ohio walls. I love your columns, you speak of the basic, every day things people should focus on. Thank you for your words.

  4. I noticed this article was dated August, 11, 2015 my sister, Susan’s birthday. She passed away 10 years ago and was not given the chance to live. Her daughter, Julie, was 17. There are so many things I regret. Sometimes, I ask God if I can just have 5 minutes with her. Somehow I know she is shining down on us from heaven and that will have to do.

    Just as I read this article, it started pouring rain in Colorado Springs, CO. When it rains here there is thunder, hail and lightening to go with it sometimes. I never complain as I will dance in the rain if I have too. When we lived in Corpus Christi, TX, it was hot all the time. There were droughts. Everything turned from green to brown. When it rained, it was a blessing.

    I appreciated your column and do plan to live and appreciate each moment. Always in a positive light.

    Thank you,
    Juliann McPadden

  5. In October, 2007, we landed in Los Angeles for a visit with my brother. Leaving the airport property, I told my hubby that it looked like if someone would toss a match out a car window, the whole place would go up in flames. And a couple of days later we witnessed the horrible fires coming across the mountains. Until that time, I couldn’t visualize how fire could spread so quickly in that area. We saw the fires, drove through the smoke, felt the ashes, & found a silt covering on my brother’s furniture. It made me painfully aware of the danger of your California wildfires.

    I too have found myself being a little more fearful in recent times. Very seldom do I do “mall shopping” without the thought of “what if…” coming to my mind. I no longer like to be in large crowds. And that makes me angry, that because of some horrible person, we no longer feel safe. I try to put my fears behind me…

  6. Reminds me of one of Dylan’s that I try to live by “he not busy living is busy dying. ..”

  7. Alice Marie - from Tennessee says

    Hello, After a long pause for this Southerner who still makes friends “standing in line and especially in morgue like, Doctors Waiting Rooms”. At the advanced age of 94 it’s perfectly acceptable. So are run on sentences. So much to say and time goes so fast. I never miss your “letters”! Surely, you wrote “Shinning a Light in the Darkness” for me. Now, how do I make room on my fridge to keep it close. Despite aching knees I am still in love with life. My love to you and yours. That should cover many more “Friends”!

  8. A beautiful column about lightening , fire and about nature which plays its role at all places like
    life and death of houses ,trees and some day it takes away even people whom we loved and
    it makes us think why we are afraid .Today I went to see a movie in the theater and I feared what would happen if somebody come there with gun ? Still I went and nothing happened . But somebody else was not that lucky and she did not come back because somebody stupid went there to kill himself but before doing that he killed two more people who wanted to live ,they were not even sick . Thanks for another column reminding us to live this very moment .

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