I get the Post-A-Day prompts that WordPress kindly provides. Sometimes, I’ll even use one and write something, like this post on hope, … because it’s not every day that I live through something just ridiculous enough to write about. But more often than not, I read it, think for 10 seconds about whether or not anything immediately comes to mind, and then end up not writing anything. [I recognize this is a) not “good” brainstorming or b) the point of the Post-A-Day challenge].
However, today’s prompt is this: Describe the biggest risk you’ve ever taken (and what happened).
Instant lightbulb. This seems like something I can write about. Write A LOT about, actually.
Taking risks is one of the best things you can do for yourself. Not stupid-jump-off-cliffs-or-other-types-of-possible-bodily-harm kinds of risks. But rather, the I’m-not-sure-how-this-is-going-to-work-out, totally-out-of-my-comfort-zone kinds of risks that mean you’re taking a chance on you, your abilities, and the possibilities around the corner. Some of the best things happen when you get out of your own way. That’s the lesson I started learning five years ago, when I took the biggest risk of my life.
College graduation was looming. And somewhere in my brain – addled by 21.5 credits, including an internship an hour away – I thought/panicked, “why don’t they make college seniors take 3 credits dedicated to finding a job, because I have no idea what I’m going to do next?!?”
There were vague thoughts about the Peace Corps and/or grad school, even while knowing I wasn’t financially solvent enough to pull either of them off. I was also stoically ignoring how a four-year relationship might factor in to my plans, while knowing plenty of people had assumptions about that, boyfriend included.
I knew that the thought of going directly into adulthood and cubicle life terrified me. It seemed like a trap. What if I just continued to delay my dreams to beyond a point where they were feasible? I wanted adventure. I wanted to be outside of my comfort zone. I wanted to travel. [Actually, five years later … I still want these things. Good to know I’m consistent.]
Call it serendipity, or call it fate; or even call it divine intervention, but something happened in the midst of my slow meltdown. That last spring semester, I met with someone on campus with regards to something else entirely, and she put a piece of paper in my hands that changed my life.
It started off innocuously enough. She – like so many others – asked about my post-graduation plans. I made a joke about getting someone to pay me to travel. Or, more seriously, doing some sort of program which would help me get a visa to live and work abroad for a bit.
She said, “Have you heard of BUNAC?”
You see, this is the story of how I moved to Scotland when I was 22.
At the time, students and recent graduates could apply, via BUNAC, for a “work in Britain” visa that was good for six months, and basically let you be anything but a sports star or a performer. For a couple hundred dollars in visa fees, a couple thousand dollars in my bank account, and a round-trip ticket, the United Kingdom would welcome my extended, working holiday.*
It was a huge opportunity, but also a huge risk. The dollar:pound exchange rate was crap, and I was moving to Edinburgh, where the cost of living would easily be double that of the college town I had been living in. I was also resigning myself to temporary or service work, versus taking what would likely be a higher-paying “real” job (with benefits) if I stayed. Plus, I’d basically need to start over again, when my visa was up. I’d be returning to the ‘States – maybe to Minnesota, maybe elsewhere. But without a car, or a job, or anything other than my experience to stand on. And then there was that relationship.
Going meant that we could either continue on, long-distance, and further delay the question of where our futures lay, or break up. In hindsight, an older and wiser me thinks that we were probably doomed by other things beyond me leaving the country for six months or more. But breaking up wasn’t a decision made lightly, or easily.
So I worked my tail off, and annoyed the crap out of my family with my single-minded and occasionally short-sighted planning. [Dear family, have I recently told you how much I love you? Because I do.] And, at the end of September, I flew to Edinburgh. I had three nights booked at a hostel, and directions to the BUNAC office. The rest … it was yet to be determined.
In the end, I managed to do all sorts of things. Some of them, seem very typically “Bethany” – even in the re-telling. For example, two weeks in I lost my wallet on the bus, only to have it returned to me, intact, by a very nice constable at the Lothian & Borders Police Station … thanks to an office temp recruiter whose card was in said wallet, and who kindly provided my phone number when they called her.
For work, I temped in various offices, but mostly in the HR office of a special health board of the NHS – where I met lovely people who called me “Beth” and thought me grand, even if I did have a funny accent. I also bartended on the weekends and amassed enough cocktail napkins with phone numbers to make some sort of modern art installation.
My life outside of work? … Well, they don’t tell you that you’ll end being a bit of a cultural ambassador, willing or not. I’ll paraphrase Bill Bryson and say that being abroad made me feel more patriotically American than I had in the preceding 22 years. But it wasn’t just inquisitive Scots and fellow travelers that I met. I also met two of the dearest people in my life. One also hails from Minnesota… funny that I should have to travel Scotland to find her. Thank goodness she’s here to keep me sane. And one, who hails from Zimbabwe, but with dashes of Hong Kong.. and Australia … and England thrown in. Emails that are at turns funny, sad, inspiring and encouraging, imported candy goods that aren’t found in our own lands, and books fly across the Atlantic regularly.
Scotland made me learn to love tea, the train system, and various peculiar turns of phrase. And speaking of love, I dated a very pretty, very tattooed soccer player. It started out not unlike every teen movie you’ve ever seen about the popular jock and the really nerdy girl. For my ego’s sake, that might have been cool, but the best part was that he was one of the kindest men I have ever met. Still.
I traveled. To Glasgow. To St. Andrews. To see Loch Ness. Up the climb to Arthur’s Seat (more than once). Through the alleys and closes of Edinburgh.
Six months were too short, and yet … just right, because it made me live every minute – in a way that I fear I forget about when I stand still for too long.
Going was a huge risk. Back-packing through the Highlands, and then through seven other countries in five weeks before returning to the States when my visa was up compounded that risk. I wouldn’t trade a minute of it. I won’t lie – coming home was hard. But what was that experience for, if I didn’t learn what I was capable of?
Taking a risk can reveal our hidden strength … to ourselves. That’s not to say that taking a risk won’t test our weaknesses either – because they really do. However, taking risks means never having to wonder “what if?” I’ll take the struggle for the certainty.
*The program converted to a slightly more stringent internship program in 2008 due to some changes in British law.