Our theme for the month of October is “the elements.”
Please welcome today’s guest writer, Hannah Brenton. Hannah graduated in 2013 with an elementary education major. She currently lives in Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania where she is completing her masters in higher education and working as a resident director at Geneva College. In her free time, she stays young playing intramural ultimate frisbee, baking snickerdoodles for her residents, and exploring the hills of western Pennsylvania.
I’m afraid of a lot of things: Bears, snakes, transition, commitment, pain. I also love a lot of things: exploring the outdoors, visiting new places, and building relationships with intricate people. All my life, I’ve clasped hands with fear and love through experiences in beautiful places with beautiful people. My childhood years took place in New Zealand where my dad served as a pastor. If you’ve visited the country or seen Lord of the Rings, you can fathom the loveliness that envelops this place. My memories are snapshots of fear imbuing my experiences of New Zealand’s natural elements.
I skip across a dock on Wellington Harbor, glancing through the slatted boards at the dark depths beneath my feet. A twinge in my belly halts my care-free skip. I imagine free falling into the giant abyss and becoming morning tea for the large teeth awaiting beneath. At five years old, this feeling of fear is new and all-consuming. Mom senses my change in temperament and reaches for my hand. The next day, she enrolls me in swimming lessons.
My instructor is Fabrice, a gentle, kind French man who wears only speedos. His class meets in a hotel swimming pool, and I am his only student. In his smooth, French voice, Fabrice brings confidence and strength to my little body.
“Blow bubbles, Hannah. Kick, Hannah, kick.”
I glide across the dimly lit pool, feeling safe, assured. After a few weeks of lessons, Fabrice says he is moving away.
I transfer to another instructor’s class. This class is large and impersonal. My little body does not feel so confident or strong here. I am a slow swimmer, and my new instructor is impatient. He yanks me out of the water so the faster, stronger, more confident swimmers can glide by.
He drops me back in the water, and I drop out of the class.
In middle school, I return to New Zealand with my family. One weekend, my dad, younger brother, and I embark on a hike up the densely forested Mount Te Kinga. We scale the rough terrain, following the contours of the overgrown path. I feel strong and adventurous, bush-whacking my way up the muddy mountainside. Three-quarters up the incline, Dad, several steps ahead of my brother and me, abruptly halts. Three words slip calmly from his lips,
“Hannah. Tom. Run.”
We bolt down that mountain with Dad steps behind, hoping to outrun whatever is in pursuit of us. Losing my footing, I slip into a cavern of mud. I emerge under the shadow of a confused Park Ranger.
“Why are you running?”
Mud-splattered, I spit,
“A boar? You mean a pig?”
“There aren’t any pigs on this mountain.”
Dad and Tom catch up to me, and we sheepishly inch toward our parked car. The Park Ranger smirks,
“You stay safe out there, okay?”
Twenty minutes later, echoes of a rifle shot confirm our paranoia.
225 kilometers from Mount Te Kinga rests the Franz Josef Glacier. Tears well in my eyes when we arrive at its base. Years of climate change have taken a toll on this giant ice cube. It is beautiful yet significantly smaller in size than the photo in my guidebook. I mourn human overconsumption of resources that led to its degradation.
My family rides a helicopter over the glacier to view it from all angles. I push my lament and fear for the glacier’s future to the side and hope this one fueled ride won’t determine its fate.
Each sparkle of reflected light dances across my eyes, and I breathe in the crisp glacial air through the helicopter’s foggy windows. The glacier’s immensity pulls us closer. Only the sheer force of the machine’s propeller against the wind keeps us a safe distance from its solid, icy exterior.
When the ride is over, I ask my mom if she enjoyed the view.
“Hannah, I spent the whole ride praying that the currents wouldn’t pull us in.”
“So what did you see?”
“Not much. My eyes were closed.”
My family visits Rangitoto Island off the coast of Auckland. 550 years have passed since its last eruption, and this volcano is not expected to become active again in the near future. We ride a ferry to the island and roam through the rough black lava stones on the path to the top.
I stare deep into the crater, the powerful underbelly of this island. My entire body shivers with an irrational fear. I know the volcano won’t erupt while I am here, but the potential freaks me out. I stand among the remnants of its fire, unscathed. Yet I feel so small, insignificant, and fragile amid the rough stones cast out in its wrath.
Descending from the crater, I pause to touch a lush green fern sprouting through a break in the black lava stones. A permanent resident of this island, this fern is strong and significant. It abides and grows in spite of the fear that infuses its soil.
Perhaps one day, I’ll compete in a triathlon and glide like a fish through the water.
Perhaps one day, I’ll hike alone and not startle at every rustling leaf or snapping twig.
Perhaps one day, I’ll paraglide off a mountain into the changing winds.
Perhaps one day, I’ll carry the ring to Mount Doom. Or at least build a campfire.
Perhaps one day, I will grow through the fear that currently constrains my experience.
Perhaps one day, I will abide in the elemental beauty with strength and significance.