As I sit here considering a lifetime of choices that eventually led me to this day, alone, working in another country whose language is my unpolished third, I can’t put my finger on when exactly I decided to take this significant plunge. I know that I was always afraid. In high school, I was shy and didn’t consider myself a master of anything (how humble), languages especially, and I considered Spanish lessons to be kind of a roadblock in the way of some subjects that were more natural to me. Thanks to some mentors who had the kindness to encourage me to try, I decided to conquer my fear of languages by, not just learning, but majoring in two of them. I could have studied English or math, but looking back on my studies, I don’t think that anything doles out more clear lessons than a good, hard, terrifying challenge. As a first year student, when I chose Spanish and French as my majors in university, I knew that I would be studying abroad in two countries. I may have even known this earlier, in high school, when my interest in language started to develop. So, yes, sorry Grandma, I have been preparing for a long time to never have a solid home in California. This may be the first time I admit that plan to anyone. I told you last time that I am a huge planner, and you could say that my life has been planned out right down to this very moment for seven years, when I set myself the challenge to learn as many languages as possible. There have been setbacks, of course, and really, really difficult times, but then it wouldn’t be a challenge, would it?
Sometimes, at the culmination of all my daunting plans, fear is overwhelming. Sometimes, loneliness is the entire Atlantic ocean that lies between me and home, filling my lungs slowly and painfully. That’s a usually avoidable hyperbolic sentiment, but nevertheless, it creeps out of corners sometimes. I don’t think I fear the normal things. I don’t fear being alone, because I love myself too much for that (don’t lie, you know this about me.) I don’t fear failure, because there’s not much I’ve done up to this point that could be considered a failure if it all of a sudden disappeared. Sometimes, I worry about not knowing what’s next. I planned to learn some languages, I did that, and now I’d like to study them more closely, and then what? Do I have the ability to teach what I’ve learned to others? Sometimes, I fear taking the easy route and going to business or law school (no offense meant to my law and business friends; I’m sure what I’m doing looks like a stroll in the park to you, and I think your fields are incredibly difficult.) Sometimes, I fear not having it in me to continue this path I’ve chosen, this challenge.
This blog is also one of my fears. I am private, closed off, reserved, cold. In that respect, I am a normal fearer. I fear telling you things about myself that just spill out, things I’d rather keep quiet. Had I been blogging seven years ago, I may have announced, “I’m going to study something I find extremely difficult and then I’m going to move to five different cities in the next few years!” Perhaps the mission would have been a little easier with people to hold me to it. Elizabeth Gilbert (yes, the Eat, Pray, Love author, and I don’t care what you think of the book, because I love it) says it’s important to share our fears, to make them less fearful. She says, in the face of accusations that she should be afraid of failure in the literary world, “I’m afraid of many more things that people can’t even guess at, like seaweed, and other things that are scary.” (See her surprisingly inspiring TED talk here.) She says that, if you trust in what you do in life, you cannot let others make you fear it.
So, I’m getting to a point here, albeit slowly. I didn’t realize I was going to pour out a small container of my life story with it. Many people, upon hearing that I was studying abroad two years ago, told me I was crazy. I don’t know why; I happen to think that study abroad, when done in the right way, away from other Americans and in a new cultural setting, is one of the best inventions of the modern university system. In fact, it’s not really a new invention and has existed ever since world exploration came about. I would not be in existence if various relatives did not decide to explore a new territory in the remote land of Chicago, Illinois. I am grateful for their decision to explore the unknown and must repay the favor by continuing in the travel legacy. If people thought I was insane to spend a year studying in France and Argentina, they really thought I was crazy when I announced that I would be moving to nowhere, France to teach English. Really, people? There are a lot of crazier locations that I could have chosen. Many people told me I would freeze to death. I do own coats, thank you, and I’ve lived here before and lived to tell about it. Many people told me I would be lonely. I’m not really a lonely person, sorry, and I actually usually prefer solitude to social settings. This is what allows me to travel, I think. Though I am alone (obviously, actual people do inhabit this town, but I live away from family and friends), I have not really felt lonely, and there is a difference between the two.
I think Elizabeth Gilbert is spot-on in her assessment of fear. You have to make fear silly. You have to know that if you fail at everything you do, and that if everyone you know moved to a desert island (I always have to remind my students that this is not the same as a dessert island), you could be content with the person that’s left, with the efforts you’ve made. You’ve got to walk up to the seaweed and touch it, to see that it’s just a plant that comes from the sea, to know that it probably traveled hundreds of miles to reach you, and that it’s filled with nutrients. Foreign languages are just a bunch of verbs and nouns and some rules that can be clearly deciphered and studied. They don’t become alive until you swim in them, until you get tangled up in all the seaweed. Eventually, you discover the most beautiful hidden island, and you eat the seaweed, and you realize that fear was a plant all along, and not a monster.
So, for one last metaphor, I present you with some related nonfiction work, you know, in the theme of putting myself out there and embracing my fears.
The top of Granite Chief is a wind tunnel, a blind tornado of ice and snow. I ascended for the first time when I was thirteen, adrenaline rushing right out of my skin and into the frozen air, melting the ice that hit my face. The snow on Granite Chief is unsteady, and there are warning signs everywhere: Unmarked terrain. Ski at your own risk. At the top, the mountain falls away beneath the upper lip, spilling large chunks of snow down the cliff. There’s a rocky crag to one side that holds onto icicles like weapons, little daggers glinting against the blinding snow. There is no way to catch your breath while balancing precariously on the upper ridge, nowhere to go but right where you are, frozen and scared, or forward: down. Until you make the plunge off the unsheltered ledge, you’re certain you’ll never do so alive. At thirteen, and probably every time since then, I closed my eyes and promised to never leave traditional ski area boundaries again. Then, with little skill or technique, I let myself fall off Granite Chief, eyes still closed tight.
There’s always an initial moment of uncertainty in the plunge, small flurries of snow rolling away down the mountain, threatening a spill. You hold your breath—no avalanche yet—and then glide into the easy left-right swish of pole and toe, a pattern you learned just after walking. Confidence grows as you gather speed. You round a bend and a large lake rises before you: desolate in winter, frozen in places, the whole world lit up by white sun reflecting off the water and snow. As you gain confidence, your body inflates with the fresh air and exhilarating speed. You look around at the mountainside at the otherwise unknown lake, at a squirrel darting amongst some lonely underbrush, and you forget the top—the fear. At the bottom of the run, a short five-minute descent that rushes by, you exchange a quick fist-pump with your dad, neither one admitting to the death that hangs off the top of the mountain. You’re both smiling, and you can’t wait to do it again, perhaps after a long rest and some easier stuff. The hard challenge of Granite Chief is worth it every once in a while, bringing you together and reminding you of your strengths, but also of your mortality. If I hadn’t skied Granite Chief at thirteen, I would have forever remained on the mountain below it, the hidden lake left obscured by tree and shadow. Fear, after all, is just a ledge that screens a great, endless world. At thirteen, I remember looking back at the top of Granite Chief as my dad headed for the lodge: some snow rumbled and dropped, and then birds took off into the sky.