I cried the first time I flew on a plane by myself. I was 20. Back then, I was embarrassed that I someone “my age” was scared to get on a plane alone, but now I really get it. I mean, who really knows who they are or where they are going in their 20s. It’s age of not believing—not believing in yourself, not believing in what happens on the other side of something new, not believing in anything.
I was one of those fortunately unfortunate 20 year olds who just hadn’t really experienced much. That’s not to say I hadn’t done anything. I was married. I had just completed my bachelor’s degree. We were signing papers to buy our first house. I had done things, but none of them had been soul stretching. I had never been uncomfortable. I was always exactly on the path I intended and in control of what I expected to happen next. Safe.
And that’s why I was blubbering my way to my seat in 24B on my way to Boston. I was scared. Not of flying or traveling, but of being on my own. I was scared of relying on myself. That’s what your 20s are about, right?
That flight was one of many first things I did on my own that pretty much scared the crap out of me. The first time I visited a foreign country? Terrifying! The first time I took an infant on a long haul flight? Chilling! The first time I traveled cross country with four little kids by myself? They prescribed Xanax for stuff like that.
It wasn’t that traveling, with or without kids, was so alarming. It’s not. In fact, it can be practically mundane if you get good at it. It wasn’t the traveling that scared me. I was scared of life, of living well and finding my way in the world all at once.
Traveling became the conduit by which I figured out who I was. It was my training ground, my nursery. I grew from infant to adult with a passport in one hand and frequent flyer number in the other. Every trip was logged as a milestone in my baby book. I lovingly charted those moments in a secret spot in my soul like a parent marks the height and date on a doorpost.
Poets would call this irony, but I actually had infant children who grew physically alongside me as I grew emotionally. Most of the trips we took together, my babies and me. With each trip, I gained confidence, not just as a traveler, but as a person. Traveling was so unnatural for me that it flung me past my comfort zone. And that’s exactly why I kept doing it. I needed to get uncomfortable. I needed to be challenged. I needed to grow.
And grow I did, in confidence, in savvy, in plain good sense, and in self-awareness. I traveled and travel did everything it has always promised in every cliché. I read all the pages, not just one and I learned, really learned. Travel around the world really was the shortest way to find myself. There I was, the person I was meant to be when the fear and the doubt and self-deprecation were trodden behind me in the many, many miles.
That’s when things started to change. The concept of traveling, actual physical traveling, which had once been so frightening that it had caused tears, was now something altogether different. It was safe.
Safety is one of those deceptive concepts that promises one thing and delivers another. Safety, when it sounds like complacency or stagnancy is a very, very scary place to be.
Traveling was so comfortable for me that I decided just to stick with it, even though I had outgrown it. Let me be clear: I don’t think it’s ever possible to outgrow travel. The benefits of travel are a constantly renewing resource. It is possible to outgrow travel as a way of life. Check any Millennial’s Pinterest board and you’ll be convinced that travel is synonymous with living on the edge and living life to the fullest.
Let me be the cautionary tale that travel can be an epic cover to pretend to be living meaningfully, when you are really living safely.
For me, there is no way around the bitter truth that a travel lifestyle had become the pit of complacency. I was like that 25 year old who has a decent job and four year degree to fall back on, but doesn’t want to move out because having someone else pay your bills and do your laundry is great.
I needed to let go of what I had known, leave behind a place where I was comfortable and embark on a journey that gave me a little knocking in my knees and some tears in my eyes. I needed another journey that would catapult me past my comfort zone.
It was time to get scared again.
This is where the story takes on a familiar poetic ring. Two roads diverged in a yellow wood, and I, I took a sharp left turn and headed off to a whole ‘nother woods altogether. That woods was grad school, which is every bit as terrifying and exhilarating as climbing on a plane to an unknown land. Maybe more so, because they give you grades in grad school, a big fat evaluation on whether you are actually hacking it in the world or not. As a sidebar, if you want to be equal parts humbled and horrified, burst through the doors of middle age as a brand new grad student.
Grad school was every bit the growing experience for me that travel had been. It stretched me. It challenged me. It flung me so far past my comfort zone that I knew something great had to come along with it. I grew and discovered new things about the world and myself. And I really learned, proving simultaneously that you don’t have to change locations to travel and that you actually can teach an old dog new tricks.
One of those new tricks has introduced me to the world of applied behavior analysis. On my professional license it says Board Certified Behavior Analyst, but I really think it should read “Professional Hope-er.” My new day to day job allows me to meet a family who has been impacted by a diagnosis of autism and join hands with them to march away from the fear that autism can provide and towards the hope that is waiting in the future. Many times, I meet families when they are at their lowest, when they are mired in the magnitude that comes with hearing the word ‘autism” and your child’s precious name in the same sentence. My greatest treasure is to lay down with them in that muck and make a plan for finding a way out. It is a heart-wrenching, holy work that rivals any beauty in the physical world. Go ahead and show me any Instagram photo of any stunning site in any country in the world and I will match you beauty for beauty in that moment when a non-verbal child says “Mommy” for the first time.
With the ink dried on that hard earned diploma, I found myself with space to think about travel again. In true full circle fashion, I am back in a place of relative unease with regards to actual physical travel. The thought of diving into passports and trip prep is met with uncertainty, even fear. Maybe I’ve changed in such a way that travel, a concept that had once happily consumed my life, no longer fits?
Like that pair of skinny jeans that I hopefully keep in the back of my closet, I have wanted to pull out my suitcase, suck in my breath, and see if my new life, filled with new purpose and passion still fit that old life that had once held the same promise. When you reinvent yourself, does that mean that you leave everything that happened before behind in a pile of refuse? Even the good stuff? Even the stuff that built you into the person you have become? Does the metaphor of the caterpillar and the butterfly hold true—that you have to consume the person that you were in order to become who you were meant to be?
I’ve always clung to the metaphor of the butterfly, particularly in times of growth. Growth is almost always painful and we need something beautiful, like the idea that our past is being consumed to make room for the future to keep us pushing forward. But, then what? What happens after the growing? When you have dared to pick up the cookie that says “eat me” and your entire being has expanded such that you are bursting at the boundaries of your old world.
After the transformation, when the dust settles and you see yourself as something altogether new, the metaphor of the butterfly, like most metaphors, starts to break down. It’s such a limiting concept, the idea that to have one wonderful thing you must give up the other. Why not both? Or more precisely, why not give yourself permission to allow your world and your view of it to expand as you rack up experience and immersion and engagement?
Like metaphors, travel clichés also break down. “Travel makes the world smaller”, says the seemingly seasoned traveler with worn suitcases and knowing, but naïve glint in their eye.
“Ah,” replies the seasoned life-liver, “the world well-traveled may seem smaller, but true challenge is in ensuring that the way in which you inhabit that world must always be expanding.”