I just finished Chery Strayed’s “Wild,” sitting in the park, as Vasia sleeps on a blanket she laid out. It’s the day after her eighth birthday. We were walking through the park when she stopped. “Let’s stay here, mom. It feels good here. Feel the breeze?” She smiled her two rows of teeth smile.
This morning I woke up scared. Thinking about money, the lack of it. The many times I’ve been here. In this place. Money on its way but not here yet. Jobs lined up but not here yet. How many times I’ve been here since leaving my job two years and three months ago.
I woke up so scared it made me cranky and irritable. I stayed in bed and read. The sheets pulled up to my chin as if that could or would protect me. Ease my worries. If only it were that easy.
I dragged myself up just before noon after reading and napping off and on the entire morning. I made us some food and we came to the park, where Vasia ran to the playground while I sat on the grass and prayed. To God, the spirits, anyone, everyone, everything that would listen. Told them I was scared. Here again. I needed a sign.
I can’t count how many times I’ve been here, wondering if I should go back to a 9-5. To get some financial stability. To fix my credit. Again. Start paying off these loans and bills that loom over me like vicious black clouds. Every time I get here, I’m reminded. The universe sends me a sign, a reminder, of why I quit my job in the first place. Why I do the work I do. Why I teach and write. Why I chose this life, with its grind, its constant grind.
Today the message was sent to me via the memoir Wild. For some reason I knew I had to finish the book today. Had to.
At first I was just trying to run from this fear that was weighing on me like a wet towel on my face. I’ve always escaped in books, words, stories. Maybe that’s why I’ve read so many. Maybe that’s why I’ve read so many while writing my memoir. No, there’s no maybe there. I know that’s why. Or at least part of the reason.
But the more I read, the less I could escape, especially when Cheryl wrote about fear and how she’d told herself so many times throughout her 1100+ mile hike, “I’m not afraid. I’m not afraid.” Over and over until she believed it.
“And you weren’t afraid, right? Isn’t that what you told yourself?”
“It is what I told myself,” I said. “Except every once in a while,” I added. “When I was.”
I wrote the words “on fear” at the top of the page. I thought about an email I received a few weeks ago from one of my Writing Our Lives students. She revealed all the trouble she’s been having, the depression she’s battled throughout her life. A blog I wrote triggered something that made her share. Confess. She said she hopes to one day have the courage to do what I do, to write these stories about her life. The memories that haunt her. She called me fearless.
I wonder if she realizes that I’m afraid much of the time. Sometimes the fear is almost tangible. Like a relentless ghost that walks with me. Next to me. Sometimes it’s not so present. It walks a little ways away. But it’s always there. Always.
I don’t think fear is the problem though.
When I quit my job a few years ago, I didn’t think I had a choice. It was time. I’d done everything I needed to do there. Rebuilt the website. Co-authored a book. It was simply time to move on. And, the truth was, I wasn’t happy. I wasn’t fulfilled. I needed a change. And that change didn’t consist of me getting another nine to five doing the same kind of work. No, the change meant going in another direction. One I’d been going in for some time. Since I’d gotten my first teaching gig when Vasialys was a year old. Since I’d taught my first writing class at a high school in the South Bronx. Since I’d taught that writing workshop through the Association for Hispanic Arts in El Barrio. I was going to be a teaching artist.
I’d been having some pretty vivid dreams. My unhappiness was staring at me dead-on. But I was too scared to do anything about it. How was I going to pay the rent? The bills? Feed Vasia? Do everything for her? How was I going to live?
One night I had a dream, no, a nightmare, that shook me. I woke up crying. Bawling. It was my body shaking that woke me. My face and pillow were wet with my tears. My chest was heaving. It was time.
I walked right into the CEO’s office that morning. Told her I needed to talk. “Later,” she said. I closed the door behind me. “No, now. I need to talk now.” I resigned. Gave three months notice.
I had nothing lined up. I didn’t even know how I was going to enter the teaching artist world. I just knew I had to quit that day. I couldn’t wait any longer.
I was putting fire under my own ass.
I almost fell apart when I went into my office. What the fuck are you doing? Are you crazy? You just quit your fuckin’ job, yo!
I went back to that place so many times over those next three months. Scared shitless. Questioning everything. My decisions. My cojones. (Yes, I have balls. They’re inside me. They’re called ovaries!) Shit, I was back at that same place this morning. I did it anyway. I kept moving. Believing. I let my heart lead.
I met with everyone I knew in the industry. Reached out to people I knew since college who worked in schools. I sent emails. I made calls. I hustled. By the time the three months was up, I had three teaching gigs and a residency. It was on.
Still, there are times, like this morning, where the grind of it all weighs. The space between jobs where the money is running out and I’m scared. I look at my little girl and I worry. How am I going to keep her safe? And then I remember. I am reminded.
Thank you, I thought over and over again. Thank you. Not just for the long walk, but for everything I could feel finally gathered up inside of me; for everything the trail had taught me and everything I couldn’t yet know…
It was all unknown to me then, as I sat on that white bench on the day I finished the hike. Everything except the fact that I didn’t have to know. That it was enough to trust that what I’d done was true. To understand its meaning without yet being able to say precisely what it was… To believe that I didn’t need to reach with my bare hands anymore. To know that seeing the fish beneath the surface of the water was enough. That it was everything. It was my life—like all lives, mysterious and irrevocable and sacred. So very close, so very present, so very belonging to me.
How wild it was, to let it be.
And so it was that Wild reminded me to be present. Renewed my faith. Reminded me that fear is a part of the path. It’s my reaction to it that matters. That has always mattered.
You can let fear either catalyze you or paralyze you. You choose.
I choose to use it as a catalyst. I’ve learned that when I’m afraid of something, that means something is there. Something profound. Something that needs to be mined. Faced. Challenged. Gone in on. So, yes, I’m afraid. I chose this life. I chose to do this work. I can’t stop, won’t stop now because I’m afraid. The universe has not failed me. Money always comes. It’s not the end all be all. I will continue to do the work because it’s what I do. It’s what I’ve always done. Word.
Having nothing more than those two pennies was both horrible and just the slightest bit funny, the way being flat broke at times seemed to me. As I stood there gazing at Elk Lake, it occurred to me for the first time that growing up poor had come in handy. I probably wouldn’t have been fearless enough to go on such a trip with so little money if I hadn’t grown up without it. I’d always thought of my family’s economic standing in terms of what I didn’t get: camp and lessons and travel and college tuition and the inexplicable ease that comes when you’ve got access to a credit card that someone else is paying off. But now I could see the line between this and that—between a childhood in which I saw my mother and stepfather forging ahead over and over again with two pennies in their pocket and my own general sense that I could do it too.