What this sage did not tell us is how to propel our reluctant legs into that first step.
I remember standing in the Resource Center (our fancy term for the library) in high school. I was sitting on the sofa I’d sat on a million times during several years’ worth of Student Council meetings and research paper consultations with my teachers.
I looked down on the computer terminals (and yes, back then they were terminals) where I had struggled to learn basic programming to create a game I knew no one would ever play.
I saw the rows of books I had dug through to write pages on Ibsen, Shakespeare, Beowulf.
I smelled the familiar smell of grape gum and dusty pages.
I drank it all in and, after many years of wishing I could break out of the four walls surrounding me, I did not want to go.
It was one of the last days of my senior year. I was heading to a state college I didn’t want to attend, but one my parents could afford. I was leaving behind a boyfriend, who was headed off to his own college, and friends who were scattering from the East Coast to southern Ohio.
I had been a big fish in a small pond. My peers knew I was smart. That I had a penchant for being funny on stage. That Spanish came easily to me. That my locker had been disorganized since freshman year and four years had not exacted much change on its condition. I knew where they liked to ski. Whose brother was the hottest ticket to prom. That Molly may have had the foulest mouth but Debbie could beat any of us in a burping contest (an unfortunate consequence of all-female schools). That Diane was grounded from here until eternity because of the party she’d had when her parents were out of town months ago. And that if my parents found out I’d been at that party, I’d be grounded from here to eternity also. Thank goodness Diane was no snitch.
I knew that we’d never be caught misbehaving when Sister Donna left the room because her massive thighs rubbed together when she walked, warning the entire classroom of her return at least a good 100 feet out. That Sr. Cheryl could be tough but if I burst into tears during homeroom when the PA announcer asked for prayers for my hospitalized father, she could be counted on to take me somewhere private, give me the pep talk and let me pull myself together. And pray. Oh yes, the Sisters of the Humility of Mary could always be counted on to pray—whether a family member was ill or they were sure the demerit you’d just gotten was a sign your soul was in eternal danger of going astray.
I remember walking my scuffed penny loafers down those Resource Center steps, taking one last whiff of that grape-gum-scented air, giving the empty room a bit of a wave. I opened the door. And hesitated. Go ahead. Move that foot over the threshold, I told myself. And it took all my willpower to do it. After that first step, however, I just kept walking. By the main office, past the senior courtyard and the cafeteria, and out the door. I believe my friend Annie was waiting for me outside in her little red convertible Volkswagen bug. At least I was not yet saying goodbye to her and the good times we had tooling around in that car. We had a round of graduation parties and a summer full of fun before we went our separate ways.
What you don’t realize at 18 is that there will be many first steps. And they don’t necessarily get easier with age. Leaving the rundown house you’ve lived in for your last year of college—and the people in it, who’ve been like family to you for four years. Leaving your first job, your phenom fellow editors and a boss who’s mentored you in a way you don’t yet realize is rare. Leaving your parents’ home after 23 years to move to a bigger city, a new job and adventures you haven’t even dreamed up yet.
Leaving the hospital with your newborn son, wondering how you won’t break him because he’s all of six pounds, six ounces. Leaving the hospice room where your mother will die to return home and take care of your young children. Leaving your father’s hospital room just to take your son down the hall to play chess. And minutes later, taking the first step back into that room after a full-throttle run down the hall because your father passed the moment you crossed the threshold.
Leaving a courtroom after ending the marriage you swore was forever, knowing you entered as a married woman and leave as a divorced one.
Those single steps add up to more than the rest of any thousand-mile journey. They take a courage and stamina we summon up from reserves we didn’t know we had. They lead us into, hopefully, a future that requires growth through painful farewells.
Without the leaving of the safety of our bubbles, we do not discover what we’re truly made of. That the world is a wondrous, but sometimes cruel, place and that we must love it nonetheless—because the other options, fear and loathing, turn people into sad versions of their best selves.
If you are taking a first step today, even contemplating one, I salute you. We’re fellow travelers, you and I.
A lesser known but equally apt quote from Lao Tzu: “When I let go of what I am, I become what I might be.”
There’s a first step in there somewhere.