The terrified, wonderful now

Just to be clear: this whole thing is rather terrifying. I might sound all confident and creative and adventurous, but the truth is, there’s a heady current of fear running through my body, flip-flopping around with adrenaline and about twenty other emotions most days. Sure, I’ve told myself (and lots of other people) that I have a solid plan for this year. I’ve reassured myself that — while unconventional, certainly — this is doable, it’s reasonable (or at least, it’s not ridiculously irresponsible), and it’s a risk worth taking. After all, there will probably be no other time in my life when I’m able to do something like this: I don’t have kids, I don’t own a house, I can afford to travel. I’ve saved a little money, and banked a lot of frequent flyer miles. I have a job that (technically) allows me to work from anywhere. I'm extremely fortunate to even be able to make the attempt, I realize. 

But honestly, I have no idea how this is all going to turn out. I don’t know what it’s going to do to my heart to be bouncing repeatedly from place to place; I don’t know what it’s going to do to my business to not be rooted anywhere. I don’t know what it’s going to do to my sanity to keep going through the motions of getting my bearings and establishing new routines and anchor points and rhythms, only to do it all over again in another few weeks.

Alongside the fear, though, and sometimes even in the middle of it, there’s also a kind of pure wild joy, a sudden and repeated realization that I’m actually doing this. 

I once wrote a poem that ended with the line, “the terrified, wonderful now.” The poem itself wasn't anything special, but this line has stuck with me, and lately it’s been on my mind often. Because this is the paradox that I’m feeling at the moment, this rapid rollercoaster of emotions: the swells of shimmering possibility, and the stomach-dropping fears that I’ve gotten it all wrong. Terrifying and wonderful, both.

When I was 18, I took a trip to Europe with my mom. It was one of those educational tours, with a group from my high school art club and a handful of parents; all of us piled onto a large tour bus that chugged across five countries in ten days. We had a funny, sarcastic tour guide named Kristen, who carried a microphone and a tall flag to wave us down if we ever strayed too far from the group. (We were even given those classic, super stylish, matching tour-group visors...but thankfully, not forced to wear them.) Much of that trip is a blur to me now, but I distinctly remember the magic of arriving in Paris after many hours on the bus, climbing the narrow winding staircase to our little hotel room, and throwing open the shutters to an early-evening sky weighted with orange and pink and purple-gray light. I gasped as the Eiffel Tower stared back at me, framed by the city around it, the houses and wires and windows and rooflines all melted together in the falling dusk. Paris!

The next day, like all good tourists, we made our way to the iconic landmark for photos. When it came time to actually go up, though, to take in the view from the observation deck, my mom wavered, giggling nervously, and told me to go ahead — she'd wait for the rest of us at the bottom. With both claustrophobia and a fear of heights stacked against her, the prospect of ascending through a narrow elevator shaft to a tiny, open-air platform on a very tall building was pretty much the last thing she wanted to do. "But, Mom," I pleaded. "We're in Paris! It's the Eiffel Tower!"

She finally gave in. I remember coaxing her into the cramped elevator, the press of bodies, the still but electric air, the shaky ride skyward. I remember her frozen pause as the doors opened and we stepped out into the humming, glassed-in viewing area. (Mom: "Um, maybe this is high enough?" Me: "Come on, the view will be even better, just a little higher! We're so close!") My mother gathered her courage again and decided: Yes. We're in Paris. I can do this. So holding each other's arms tightly, we kept going, threading our way through crowds and climbing up a short flight of grated metal stairs to the tiny, open-air observation deck. The wind was strong and heady, and it seemed to be coming from all directions. The city was spread out below like an exquisite carpet, everything miniature and majestic at once. There is a photo of us snapped in that moment: clutching each other and grinning in the blue air, our clear eyes and flushed faces, Mom's smile a mix of giddy panic and triumph.

I've had similar moments with my mom in a handful of other places, too: bundled up and pressed against her in the large, packed-with-people aerial tram gliding to the top of a snowy ski mountain in Utah. Watching her take a deep breath and then march across the long, swaying, rickety rope bridge stretched over a river in Hawaii. Waiting as she inched her way along the railing of a wooden deck perched atop a churning waterfall in Colorado. When I was younger, I laughed in those moments, shrugging off her seemingly silly hesitations. But now I see that my mother has shown me bravery in the face of fear, countless times. Not only on mountaintops, but in relationships, too; she has looked at the hard thing and done it, because of the beauty on the other side. Terror was there, but wonder won out. She wasn’t going to take somebody else’s word for it. She wanted to see the view from the top. 

And this is what I want, too: I want to see the view from the top. It is not about elevation, necessarily. But it is surely about perspective. It’s about getting out of my element, exploring, and swallowing down the sickening fear...climbing up, and seeking a new view. Doing everything in my power to see what I can see. Because I can, and because the opportunity is before me. But I have to take it — I have to say yes. And then comes the harder part, I think: to keep saying yes, in the actual moments of actual days. Yes, and yes again. Yes to the terrified, wonderful now.

I want to keep feeling the fear and following the wonder, even though this is maddeningly uncomfortable. Choosing to move through the anxiety of unknown outcomes (because, honestly, when are there ever known outcomes?), and through the worry embedded in a crazy idea that involves a good deal of actual risk, because I know there is something wonderful on the other side. I can’t fully explain it, I just know there is. I just know that this is important for me; this quest to cross countries and oceans and deserts, to visit a dozen places, to spend time on the ground with people, to breathe in the same air and culture and languages as those who are rooted in places both foreign and familiar. To be and to know myself less as a guest, and more as a member of a family that is spread far and wide.

Here is something I know to be true: to live on the edge of terrified/wonderful is to feel surely, definitely, exceedingly alive.

And like my mom stepping onto the deck of the Eiffel Tower, windblown and trembling, I want to be the kind of person who listens more to wonder than I do to terror. To lean into it, and keep reminding myself that there is value in stepping out beyond the safety zone; in risking, leaping, creating, going. Deciding that there is power in doing something, instead of doing nothing. Saying yes to the risky idea, because I know I’d regret it if I said no. Believing that there is beauty out there, and that it will change me. Because when it comes right down to it, I know that these growing pains, these risking-pains, will make me more present, more human, more real, more vulnerable, more aware. I am banking on it.

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