I know it’s cliche, but I pinkie-swear that I blinked and summer was over. How on earth is that even possible? I spent yesterday helping the kids sort supplies, loading up their backpacks, walking through schedules and selecting outfits in anticipation of their first day of school. Chloe is a sophomore this year and Celie is in seventh grade. Most days it feels like I blinked and their childhood was almost over, too. Where’s the pause button so I can slow this train down and savor these last few precious years?
We treated ourselves to a fun dinner out last night and chatted over fajitas and queso, looking both forward and back. What are they most looking forward to in the coming year? What was their favorite moment of summer? What did they learn about the world and themselves during their break? I adore these conversations and last night solidified something for me: these past few months have been the Summer of Fearlessness. Okay, perhaps not a complete absence of fear. Wouldn’t that be lovely? To wake up each and every morning afraid of not a single damn thing? In my Buddhist faith, I imagine that’s what nirvana will be for me- a complete and persistent absence of any fear.
But we’re all plagued by it. We’re fearful of not being smart enough, or skinny enough, or savvy enough. Fearful of not being well-liked by our peers. Fearful of being rejected. Fearful of failing. I see it in myself, my children, my friends, and the entrepreneurs I consult for each week.
In 2007, I made a promise to myself to begin staring fear right between the eyes. I was (and am) terrified of heights, but I promised myself that I’d push myself past that fear and jump out of a perfectly good airplane. It took me until late December to actually talk myself into, but I did eventually get myself out of that plane. My brother, sister and mother all tumbled out of a plane together at 14,000 feet. It was absolutely exhilarating in ways that I can’t communicate in words. It changed my entire psyche when I realized how little control I truly have over things. I’ve been working towards a level of comfort with that over the last several years. I’ve found it to be an insanely liberating process (though I still have a long way to go…)
I decided to jump again over the Persian Gulf near Dubai in 2009. And again over Pattaya Beach in Thailand in 2010. Some days, when the world seems particularly heavy, I make the hour drive to our local jumpsite and shove myself out of a plane while the kids are at school. It still makes my heart pound and my head spin and my spirit fly free every time I do it. I always emerge acutely aware that I’m actually not in control of very much at all, and yet I feel immensely powerful. It’s an odd juxtaposition, but wildly healthy for me. And it’s an awareness that I want my children to have, too.
So this summer, my fifteen year old daughter and I headed to Uganda. We got ourselves into and out of a few fine messes. I passed out cold on the plane on the way to Brussels and gave Chloe quite a scare. Chloe developed a systemic staph infection and was admitted to a Kampala hospital (and gave me quite a scare). We went on safari and I was chased by a rather displeased baboon. We spent 10 days volunteering in an orphanage and found ourselves trying to talk 128 severely malnourished children out of dry fasting for days because of a covenant they made with God (it’s a loooong story). We both bungee jumped over the Nile River.
Chloe immersed herself in a radically different culture than what she’s known all of her life. She went 3 weeks without hot water. She learned to do dishes and laundry by hand, both without running water. She faced down her fear of needles with a series of vaccinations and IVs and medical tests in that Kampala hospital. She ate essentially nothing but rice + beans for weeks on end. She didn’t put on makeup or straighten her hair. She discovered to use a pit latrine. She learned to live without her cell phone and electricity. She tested her patience thresholds with 40-hour flights and 9-hour drives down rutted red clay roads. She sat with survivors of the LRA rebel army and bore witness to the atrocities they suffered. And she experienced the profound loss of saying goodbye to an orphan she’d come to love. I asked her tonight if she’d do it all again. Her reply? “Yes, next summer.”
My wee Celie has always been a spunky girl. She’s tiny for her age- weighing in at a lean 79 pounds as she chases down her thirteenth birthday. She’s always been the “little one.” The little sister, the littlest one on her sports teams, the tiniest one in class. She packs some serious energy into that petite frame but she still likes to lay in my bed at night before tucking into her own. She takes awesome care of me: wandering into my office to tell me it’s late and I should get some sleep, drawing pictures and slipping them into my luggage when I travel, trying her hand at preparing dinner so that I can enjoy an evening off.
Last summer she attended a surf camp- her first “sleepaway” experience- and fell madly in love with the ocean and all things marine biology. I then discovered a company that invites kids to live on sailboats for 3 weeks at a time in the British Virgin Islands. I was excited to share it with Celie and wondered if perhaps she’d like to attend someday. Though I initially envisioned her at 16 years old adrift on that boat, I decided to surprise her with the trip last Christmas. The minimum age was 12. She was 12. And though my gut (and my husband) told me that I was crazy for sending a twelve year old on international flights alone, nuts for letting her live on a boat during hurricane season and foolish to believe she could live away from all the comforts of home + family for 3 weeks, I decided to push past my fear. Celie pushed past hers, too, and boarded her flight to Tortola in early July.
Over the next few weeks, she’d call home whenever she was in port to share her tales of adventure: hiking island mountains, learning to water ski and kneeboard, swimming through ocean caves, leaping off giant boulders into the waters below, sleeping on the deck of a sailboat beneath the stars. The calls generally went like this:
Me: “CELIE! I’m so glad you called. How is everything?”
Celie: “Mom, it’s amazing. Totally amazing. Like uh-maze-ing. I can’t believe I’m here!”
No hurricanes struck. She didn’t miss her layovers. Her tiny sea plane didn’t crash. Her scuba gear didn’t fail. Her boat didn’t capsize. She didn’t get sick at sea. The other kids weren’t mean. She wasn’t stung by a jellyfish or eaten by a shark. She didn’t fall apart and request an early flight out because she was too homesick. In fact, Celie managed to earn both her PADI open water scuba certification and her IYT sailing certification while away. She swam through the ruins of a sunken ship. She saw a squid and scores of stingrays. Sixteen boats sailed together and Celie was the youngest and smallest of all 160 occupants. And I’m proud as hell to tell you that she held her own (though she was so tiny that they had to acquire special scuba gear to accommodate her!).
I’m officially declaring 2013 the Summer of Less Fear. All of us pushed past our comfort zones and took risks. And our lives are all the richer for it. I’m hoping that we’ll carry what we learned during break into this new school year. Both kids are starting new schools and staring down other types of intimidating challenges, too: learning to drive, applying to colleges, puberty (blech). They’re going to have plenty of opportunity to conquer their fears in the coming year.
As am I. As are you. How will you handle your fear in the coming months?