I’d like to raise my children to be fearless. I don’t mean they ought to be free from fear, rather, I wish them to be free of the inhibitions that would keep them from facing their fears. I hope to engender in them the fearlessness to expand their horizons, the wisdom to learn from their mistakes, the confidence to buck foolish trends, the thick skin to slough off ridicule, the introspection to know their own hearts and the strength to speak their minds. That’s not too much to wish for is it, really? I imagine cultivating these intangibles in the fruit of my womb will be no mean feat. William James, the famous American psychologist, wrote, “The world we see that seems so insane is the result of a belief system that is not working. To perceive the world differently, we must be willing to change our belief system, let the past slip away, expand our sense of now, and dissolve the fear in our minds.” Being a proponent of Pragmatism, I also imagine James might have suggested these intangible ideals I hope to instill in my children are only as valuable as they are useful. They must be of real use in real experiences. The truest and most useful lessons in fearlessness I ever learned came to me the summer of 1995. I was twenty four years old and at the threshold of a new sort of life, a life in which the fetters of past hurts and fears would be sloughed off and I’d rise up like a Phoenix. So I hoped. I never expected just how much that summer would change me.
I began my summer of cross country discovery by flying from San Francisco to New York for a sojourn with the sisters of my heart. In New York, I stayed with Jennifer. She was living in a midtown flat owned by a group of nuns and working with the same nuns at a shelter in Spanish Harlem. Jennie shared stories about her service work and we laughed our silly over stories about our time in college and in Spain. She may not have expressed it in such a way, but her streak of fierce internal strength held her in good stead as she made those tentative early steps away from her home and her family post college. I admired her courage. While in New York, I made side trips to Hartsdale and the Bronx to see friends who had known me even longer, from my high school days in Southern Minnesota. Their lives had changed nearly as radically as mine had in the many years since our time in the Midwest, and yet their doors remained open and they continued to welcome me into their lives. They seemed to care deeply about the person I was becoming and encouraged me endlessly. After several days, I left New York via Penn Station, bound for New Jersey, which had become my college roommate’s adopted home. Like me, Beth was still trying to figure out her place in the world and bumbling about just as much as I, but there was something comforting in being able to bumble about together. We rented a car and headed north to find Sasha in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Sasha had begun a graduate program, which seemed to be the most distinctly productive plan any of us had in motion. Her field of study was fascinating, but ended up having very little to do with her future career. It turns out she was in transition as much as the rest of us. While in Cambridge, I visited the Harvard Museum of Natural History. There I found a porcelain pendant in the shape of a butterfly. A talisman of transformation. I bought it. In our rented car, the three of us headed further north up the coast of Maine for an extended weekend retreat. The finest lesson from that first part of my summer was that there is nothing quite so medicinal for one’s transitional spirit as a weekend among one’s dearest sister friends. Their love and friendship bolstered me for the bold journey still to come that summer. Later, I would write to them, “As I drove along the highways and byways, the litany of places and names fell off my tongue, sounding to me almost like prayer. Of course it began with…three names: Jennifer, Beth and Sasha…friendship, love, great healing gasps of laughter, sisters.”
In the month of May of that year, before the trip to the East Coast, I had made the most substantial purchase of my life (discounting my college education). I bought my very first car. I was exceedingly proud of my little white Ford Escort. Her name was Babe. I had envisioned myself driving off into the wide world in a pick-up truck, independent and free, with all my worldly belongings in the back. The fellow who sold Babe to me convinced me that all of my worldly possessions would fit quite nicely into the trunk of the Ford Escort, after all he had once been a traveling drummer for Flock of Seagulls and his drum kit fit in just such a trunk with room to spare. I also outfitted myself with a tent, a sleeping bag, a back pack and a road atlas. I planned to drive Babe cross country, from California to Minnesota and back again, camping and hiking along the way. This was to be a solo trip – on the road, in the wilderness, and on my own. Auntie J and Brother Mine, with whom I lived at the time, were supportive of the trip, but not entirely enthusiastic. Brother Mine had apprehensions about my safety. I resolved to call home daily to allay some fears, both theirs and mine. Of course, one of the most essential preparations for the trip was making a series of mixed tapes titled Tunes to Travel, volumes 1, 2 and 3. Babe and I would need a soundtrack for our journey – U2, BoDeans, Cake, Dave Matthews Band, and Indigo Girls among others. The night before I was scheduled to leave, I wrote in my journal, “Anxious and frightened, excited and expectant.”
On the first night of my trip I found myself camped on the shores of Lake Tahoe. After building a fire, I sat down to write in my journal. A woman of about seventy or so invited me to join her husband and her for hot cocoa and marshmallows at their campfire. They were retired and traveled to state and national parks each summer, sleeping under the topper of their pick-up. They hailed from Tennessee and told me stories about their lives as we sat round the fire – tales of the Depression years and the stilted shack that was the fellow’s childhood home, sided with tarpaper and floorboards so widely spaced that he could look down below and see the hogs rooting around beneath. Their fireside hospitality helped ease my fears at the outset of my adventure. I’d be just fine camping on my own as long as I landed next to folks like these. I met more people like them that summer. There were the two young men from Texas who were moving west with whom I drank Jack Daniels in the Grand Tetons and two young women from Connecticut who I met on a hiking trail in Yellowstone. One of the finest characters I met that summer by far was a cowboy from British Columbia. He was a retired bronco rider from the rodeo circuit camped near a little lake in Montana. He watched as I made a sad little dinner of pancakes over my fire and then invited me to his campsite across the way for steak and coffee. The coffee came with whiskey. I came to discover that he and his family had a ranch in Canada and made their living selling bull semen. He regaled me stories about the glory days of the rodeo, his friend Jerry Jeff Walker, the buckle bunnies and the drinking. I was a big fan of Jerry Jeff that summer and this cowboy captured my imagination.
Even more than the people I met, I was in love with the beauty of the world around me. One day, driving Babe north on highway 189 in Wyoming with the windows open and “Texas Road Song” by Bo Deans playing, I began to giggle. I giggled and giggled and then hollered with joy. One phrase kept running through my mind – the solace of wide open spaces (I had recently read Gretel Erhlich’s book by that title). I stopped along the road and to pick purple wildflowers and pressed them in my journal. That summer also marked my first encounter with the glory of the Boundary Waters. I made a weekend pilgrimage with a young man I rather fancied at the time. We paddled quietly through sun dappled water, the clouds above us forming perfectly horizontal rows along the sky. To one side of me lay the granite shoreline and dense stands of pine jutting out over the water. On the other side was an island of ancient boulders and pines reaching out to meet the tips of the trees from the shoreline. Together the rocks, trees and clouds resembled a gate of sorts, and I said to my friend, “If the entry to the hereafter looks like anything familiar to the human eye, then surely these are gates of heaven.” My friend paddled on a minute or two and said, “Let’s go talk to Peter.” That summer I rambled through New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts and Maine. I roamed from California through Nevada and Utah to Wyoming and Montana and onward through the Dakotas, Minnesota, Iowa, Nebraska, Idaho, Washington and Oregon.
That August, back in San Francisco and packing Babe up for a move north to Washington State, the experiences of the summer played in my mind like a film – footloose and fearless. I wrote to my sister friends what I called my list of blessings, “…family and friends, one in the same…the heady smell of hemp, sun, blue skies and thunder boomers, loons, moss beds, multitudinous stars, moonlight…oceans, rivers, lakes, wind in the tress, campfires, dancing, Irish jigs and accordion music, singing, touching, wildflowers and mountains, cottonwoods and redwoods, homecomings, leave takings and new beginnings.” Worth more than anything else I was gifted that summer was the sense of independence, freedom and strength I felt. My life opened up before me. To be fair, my life has crashed and rallied many times over since that remarkable summer. But somewhere at the very core of me still lies the knowledge of that fearlessness. Always. It comes to me now, in recounting my memories of that summer, that I cannot teach my children fearlessness or freedom or strength. The best Dear Hubby and I can do is afford them as many opportunities as we are able to discover it for themselves.