I am squeezing a throw pillow while our car plods over a variegated path, etched to avoid the kind of washout that desert monsoons bring. We lurch over chunked boulders that are there to help with traction, but send the back of our truck dancing. We are ascending mountains without shoulders, the drop-off so steep that I am afraid to shrug. My body is tensed in the way that it is trying to hold us to the road. My breath is clogged in my throat, as if I could cramp any accidents from happening. It feels like each moment is leading us to closer to plummeting miles down. My husband interrupts my panic by remarking at the beauty of our surroundings, which feels like a shocking revelation. I am hating so much of what is happening, of what could happen, that I have missed the remote wilderness surrounding us. I am too busy clinging to the idea that, no matter where we are, there is always something to fear.
When we park two miles away from the Fossil Creek trailhead, I repeat nothing bad will happen today, even though we are hiking an exposed trail in triple digits in search of a body of water—what feels like a great misunderstanding in this Arizona desert.
I have prepared as much as possible—camelbacks for the kids, lifejackets, jugs of extra water, cooling towels, sunscreen, first aid supplies, and carefully planned meals squished into backpacks. But somehow, preparing for this trip did not give me the sense of calm it usually does. I slept little, navigating the list of what-if’s and what I could bring to counter each possibility. Once my feet begin the trek through dirt and loose sand, I feel each second of mental and physical preparation weighing me down. I am already exhausted.
When we reach the first area of rushing water, I cringe. Instead of clearly seeing the stunning blue hues, billowing schools of fish, and pockets of sunlight sparkling the rocks, I note the patterned current and depth of drop-offs so that I can warn my children, so that I can keep them safe.
While they delight and swirl in the current that rips from a waterfall so strong it thunders, I wait for them to get pulled under, or swept long into a series of travertine dams that drop for miles, where I cannot reach or tread. This feeling, that is more than motherhood’s protective clutch, has dropped into my mind as a twenty-four-hour mantra. I have learned how to fear the world’s every sharp edge, the undertow of every breath. And I have let it overtake me.
Simply put, this is not the parent that I want to be. I want to be the model that encourages my children to live fully, in every sense of the word. I want them to experience nature and adventure—as I have. I want them to grow in wonder and to not be afraid of people or new experiences. I want them to feel at home in the world and move through it with open hearts. I do not want them to shy away from taking risks.
Logically, I understand that taking risks is what floods our hearts, and dilates our eyes so that we may take in the full scope of beauty surrounding us. Each rush of adrenaline wakes us up a little bit more, and reminds us of the temporality that is our human existence. But, if left unchecked, those surges of fear can also be what holds us in place, exhausts us, and keep us from growing to see the world for what it is. As one of my favorite writers, Elizabeth Gilbert, says in her book Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear, “It seems to me that the less I fight my fear, the less it fights back. If I can relax, fear relaxes, too.”
I am working relax into the space where I am able to navigate this world and say that I am unapologetically afraid. I am afraid for my children, for their future and well-being. To pretend anything less would be to fight against it and miss the important information, wisdom and innovation hiding inside of my fear. Instead of letting it consume me, I need to work on shaping it into a tool, one that I can learn to use in order to help my children build their own extraordinary lives. One that will help me to jump haphazardly into the miracle that is a waterfall and smile at my children’s laughter over the roar, without worrying about the mountainous road home.
Megan Merchant lives in the tall pines of Prescott, AZ. She is the author of two full-length poetry collections: Gravel Ghosts (Glass Lyre Press, 2016), The Dark’s Humming (2015 Lyrebird Award Winner, Glass Lyre Press, 2017), four chapbooks, and a forthcoming children’s book with Philomel Books. She was awarded the 2016-2017 COG Literary Award, judged by Juan Felipe Herrera, the Poet Laureate of the United States. She is an editor at The Comstock Review and you can find her work at meganmerchant.wix.com/poet.