Wax on, wax off

Quitting your job, moving to the Tanzanian bush, falling in love and becoming a freelance writer, has a way of messing with your writing schedule. Despite hundreds of drafts, I haven’t really posted anything for a while.

I kept looking at my list, searching for fears I’d recently overcome, or at least encountered, and despite having more than my fair share of material, I just couldn’t bring myself to write about any of it.

Although I’ve been writing every day, I started to worry I’d made a terrible mistake in quitting my job. Suddenly, paying my mortgage, buying groceries and paying for my health insurance dominated my financial concerns—things I barely thought about a year ago. The book I started writing had little more than a page or two added over the past several months, and my attempts to break into the luxury travel industry have proven much harder than I anticipated.

While my personal life has become blissfully amazing and fulfilling, my professional life has morphed into a cautionary tale conservative parents tell their creatively ambitious children: Don’t quit your day job. At least, that’s how it feels.

After enjoying over 14 years of success in my career, and being a financially independent woman, I’d always been proud of what I’d accomplished—even if it meant I’d done it at the expense of my youth and dreams. Although fear of failure is always right below the surface, I knew it was a real possibility. Yet, I never truly believed it would happen to me. And maybe it hasn’t.

The fears and barriers that once stood in my way, have changed; I’ve changed. 

I first realized this when I was sitting atop a table drinking sparkling wine out of a tin can at a salon in San Francisco. I was about to tackle item #24 on my list, and get a wax before vacation. While I was understandably a bit anxious, and unsure of what to expect (there’s only so much obsessive Googling can reveal), this “fear” I’d held on to so dearly for so many years, just didn’t seem that important anymore.

Watching my esthetician pour the warm wax over my legs, I was mesmerized by the transformation. The wax went on, and in an instant, it was off again, with a new surface revealed underneath.

Wax on, wax off.

It was that easy. Sure, it stung for a moment, but by the time I finished another sip of bubbly, I’d forgotten all about it.

I realized at that moment, that many of the fears I’ve held on to for so long—ones I thought were a permanent fixture in my life—could disappear, just as easily as they appeared. Or faster, even.

For example, I’d forgotten that living abroad was even on my list until I perused the list sitting in my hut, with a shitty internet connection, in the dark, in the middle of the Serengeti.

Wax on, wax off.

In fact, nearly everything on that list no longer scares me—with the notable exception still being #2; sing karaoke. So, what does this mean, exactly? Am I no longer afraid of anything? Uh, no. But, I’m pretty sure it does mean that I’ve realized my fears don’t own me. I own them, and they’ll only hold power over me if I want them to.

I get it now. My fears were (and still are) there for a purpose. They’re meant to protect me from venturing into uncertain waters until I’m ready. They challenge me to question myself constantly. They keep me in check. Having these fears doesn’t mean I shouldn’t face them, just that I’ve built them up in my mind as a defense mechanism until I no longer need them to feel safe.

Every day will bring new challenges and delights, and every day is just as fleeting as those moments on the waxing table. I can focus on the pain, or enjoy the champagne. 

Right now, I’m enjoying the champagne.

 

 

Ultimate Frisbee & Fear In the Serengeti

Stationed hundreds, maybe thousands, of miles (ahem, kilometers) from modern conveniences, there’s a seemingly endless onslaught of opportunities for chaos and peril. Crouched in the grass, or hiding in plain sight behind an acacia tree, danger literally awaits me at every step.

Yet, none of that really scares me. I mean, not more than it would any normal human not habituated to seeing larger than life animals at your door every morning. (Which describes pretty much everyone at my camp, but me.)

When I finally decided to quit my job and pursue my volunteer and travel aspirations, I thought I’d brushed with the worst fears I could imagine. The loss of income, stability, and tenure were hard to stomach. Even if I knew all those things would never make me happy, they were still a comfort, and comfort is fear’s best friend. It disguises itself as something warm and loving, and when someone starts to get a case of wanderlust, the loss of comfort can easily reign terror upon its victim, often squashing any aspirations they may have had for life beyond a cube and a bi-weekly paycheck.

Somehow, I made it past that stage. I recently resigned from my job, and was given an incredible opportunity to pursue what I can only call the opportunity of a lifetime. Writing. For a conservation group. In Africa. In the Serengeti.

This is the stuff of books and movies. This is the life I’d always lusted for, but never thought I’d have the courage to pursue.

For months, I anxiously awaited word from my contact at the organization. My corporate sensibilities prevented me from having much patience (something I’m still working on), and in the span of a few months, I lost a fair amount of sleep, and gained a few grey hairs awaiting his reply. And then, it happened.

I bought my ticket, and in just over two weeks I was on a plane to Tanzania. It wasn’t until my layover in Amsterdam that I knew if anyone even knew I was arriving, let alone be there to collect me from the airstrip. Talk about uncertainty.

Was I nervous? Absolutely. But scared? No, not really.

In the week I’ve been here, I’ve  been within a stone’s throw of some of the world’s most dangerous animals. Hippos, hyenas, lions, and elephants. And probably, a good lot more hiding in the grass. Yet, while I still maintain a healthy respect, and thus, caution, for these incredible creatures, they have yet to truly frighten me.

I even survived a spur of the moment cocktail party, hosted by my organization last Thursday. I woke up Friday morning feeling quite proud of myself. I’d quit my job, managed to get myself all the way to Tanzania to write for a well-respected conservation organization, dined with wild animals, even camped in the Serengeti with lions and elephants roaming around nearby, and not felt that horrible knot in my stomach I’d become so accustomed to over the past several years. I’d conquered so many of my fears, I wondered if I had any left!

I thought I’d finally won. I finally made it.

Of course, I was wrong. There were still a few things that terrified me, and I was about to face them head-on, no helmet. After arriving back to the camp after the cocktail party the next day, I was greeted by one of the camp staff. We exchanged pleasantries, and before I retired to my cabin, he suddenly lit up with excitement. “We have frisbee tonight, don’t forget!”

I’d heard about this from someone else, but didn’t worry too much about it at the time. Now, after seeing how much like a family everyone is here, I knew this was not a polite suggestion. I had to go. That familiar knot returned tenfold.

Whenever I try to tell someone I’m an introvert, I usually get a few eye-rolls. My closest friends, of course, know this to be true. I could go weeks without speaking to another soul if I could help it. Lonely? Perhaps. But it removed the possibility that I’d have to interact with others socially, which is something I have yet to master without major anxiety.

I can endure it in small bits, and truly have improved over the years. But, there are some things that still freak me the fuck out. And, apparently, playing ultimate frisbee with a gang of strangers, in 90 degree heat, at mile-high elevation was just beyond my progress.

I’m not a religious woman, but that afternoon, I begged whatever power that would hear me, to find a way to get me out of this. I don’t know why, but the prospect of getting competitive with strangers, playing a game I’d never played, just about did me in.

I sat in my cabin, watching the time go by, feeling a slight relief as each minute passed, as the closer to sunset it was, the less likely it was this slow torture would be carried out.

Then, a knock at my door confirmed my sentence, and soon I was sitting in the back of a Land Rover with three other women from camp, en route to certain doom, desperately trying to feign a smile to match the excitement of everyone else.

I made it through about 10 minutes of warm up before I couldn’t take it anymore. I don’t know exactly what did it, but that social anxiety I could easily control in a bar or out for dinner with friends, was suddenly exploding in my gut and I just shut down. It was awful.

And, of course, just quitting wasn’t really an option. Without me, the teams were now unequal, and no one could seem to accept the idea that someone simply wanted to watch, rather than play. For an excruciating five minutes (which felt like hours), I was forced to justify myself repeatedly. And, what justification did I have, really? I couldn’t say, “Oh, sorry, I become paralyzed with fear in certain social situations, and apparently, this is one of them. I’ll just be sitting over here rocking and singing to myself. Don’t mind me one bit.”

I could hear the feeble excuses coming out of my mouth, and nobody was buying it. But, like that survival instinct I would expect to have if confronted with an elephant at my doorstep (which has happened), it wasn’t anything I could help. So, I did the next best thing. I delayed my torture. “I’ll play next time, I promise!”

It turns out, they play every Friday. Well, shit.

Elephants, it appears, are the least of my challenges.

A Censor’s Reflection

My first thought as I started to draft this post was, I can’t write this. What if someone reads it and it changes what they think about me? What if it’s terrible? What if do it wrong? At first blush, much of this could be considered simple fear, which I have in abundance these days. But something told me that wasn’t quite it. At least, not all of it.

After starting this blog over two years ago, I’m still plagued by the same fears. Which, naturally made me wonder what I’ve been doing all this time? Have I really made any progress? Was I challenging myself enough? While I’m proud of what I’ve accomplished thus far, a recent post by Chris Guillebeau quickly reminded me that I’ve been slacking off.

The first year I really started writing and publishing my work, I was terrified every moment of every day. But with that, came a feeling of connectedness and life I had never felt before. I could feel the potential and energy within myself, and knew there were no boundaries but those of my own making. Every time I wrote a post, an article or copy, I felt my heart and soul flow through the keys. And, even when I wasn’t happy with the final product, I felt I had accomplished something, and my soul was at rest. The part of me that needed to be expressed had been released, and I had done the best I could.

So, now that I have a lot more time to dedicate to my writing, why am I so restless? Nearly all the barriers that were holding me back in the past were gone. I have more time, confidence and ideas. I’m free.

Except for one last, major, roadblock. Censorship.

I wish I could blame such an ugly thing on someone else, but the truth is, I’m the only one creating these boundaries. By now, everyone that knows me (and a few that don’t) know I’ve dived head-first into this writing thing, so while everyone may not understand exactly where I’m coming from when I write something, they all understand it’s a risk I’ve decided to take in pursuit of something that truly completes me. The only one that doesn’t seem to get it, is me.

About a zillion great and terrifying things have happened over the past month, and I haven’t really written about any of them. Not because they’re not interesting. Not because I can’t think of anything to say. Simply put, I’m just too fucking chicken to say what I really think.

I have no idea if I’d actually offend or surprise or disgust or inspire anyone who chose to read what I think about writing. In fact, I most likely would never know. So why do I care what someone might think?

It’s because that someone is me.

That’s the terrifying thing about self-reflection. Once you wipe away all the bullshit excuses, the only reflection staring back at you is your own. While I might be nervous about how someone might perceive me if I wrote about this or that, the person I was really disappointing by not writing it was myself.

This unease and anxiousness comes from somewhere deep inside my soul, where all my creativity, pain and joy reside. There are ideas trapped in there by this censorship. A short story, a novel and a few articles in a print magazine, at a minimum, just waiting for permission to run free.

As I stare back at myself in the mirror, I realize the only censor I’ve ever had, is myself.

 

Photo courtesy of Sacha Fernandez.

 

 

Atrophy

It’s been a big week for me. I began working from home full time, started a journalism class, interviewed someone, and submitted my work for edits and feedback to my instructor and peers. All things that terrify the ever-living shit out of me.

As someone who calls herself a writer, all of these things should be something met with excitement, not fear, but I guess that’s why I’m doing it. So I can get past the knee-shaking, heart-racing, sweaty-palm, nauseous terror and get to the good stuff.

My biggest lesson this week, is that this will take some time—and patience—before I get comfortable in my new skin. When I woke up Monday morning, without my usual agonizing commute to look forward to, I made myself some coffee and enjoyed the leisurely jaunt to my home office. About 10 steps from the kitchen. I arrived, not in my pajamas, but definitely not business casual attire, and settled in for a good day’s work.

That’s when absolutely nothing happened. For hours.

It was at that moment it occurred to me I may have made a horrible mistake. All these years I’d convinced myself all I needed to really focus on my writing was more time. I had loads of excuses. If I didn’t have that commute, or if I didn’t work such long hours, and on and on.

Well, the truth slapped me right in the kisser Monday morning. Time really had nothing to do with it. I’ve just been lazy. I’m starting to understand what everyone who’s ever given advice about writing always seems to say; that writing is like a muscle—you have to exercise it daily. Otherwise, it will atrophy and eventually wither and die.

That’s how I felt on Monday. I’d neglected my writing for so long, I’m now having to re-learn how to do it. Some things still come naturally, but the raw, personal, honest, and sometimes painful, words seem hard to summon now. That muscle is woefully out of shape, and as I write this, I fear I’ve lost it for good.

When I first started writing, everything I wrote felt important and heartfelt. Even if it wasn’t any good, I knew it had soul, and that’s what mattered to me. Now, while my writing has probably improved technically, I think it’s lost its soul. Even when writing about one of the most upsetting events in recent memory, the robbery of my home last June, I felt hollow and fake. Like I was just scratching the surface, and never quite got to the guts of the experience.

I can feel the right words, the truth, buried somewhere beneath the armor I don every day to shield myself from rejection and disappointment. And, that makes writing this even more difficult. Knowing this isn’t quite right, yet posting it anyway is a risk I’ve never been comfortable with, but even more so now that I have no other excuses but my own fear of commitment to the craft. I’ve been wearing this shield for so long, I’m not sure I know how to function without it.

I guess I’ll find out next Monday.

 

Photo courtesy of Martin Fisch