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Posts tagged ‘Twenty-something’

Free Falling from 10,000 Feet

With one foot planted firmly out of a plane, your toes curled tightly over the edge of said plane, and that same knee floating freely in the air, you don’t have much choice but to jump. My instructor informed me earlier that day that when you’re more than 10,000 feet in the air and the wind storms loudly in through the open door, “no” sounds strangely like “go.” Perched high above the earth, the word “no” flooded my thoughts and echoed off my skull. Every inch of my body tensed with fear. Standing at the threshold, I couldn’t, for the life of me, remember why I wanted to do this.

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Taking the first step

Mike and I arrived at Pine Hill Airport at noon, ready to skydive for the first time in our lives. It had been my idea — a birthday gift I bought for him that excited me just as much as it did him.  We went through an hour of training, where one of the instructors explained to us how you should contort your body for the fall, where your hands should be placed, how far you should arch your back, etc. He took us inside the plane and demonstrated how the jump would occur, though I’m not positive why he bothered. When you’re faced with the actual reality of jumping out of a plane, everything you’ve ever been taught about proper technique quickly flees the scene, leaving you only with an overwhelming feeling of trepidation. Out of everything our instructor told us, the only thing I could remember was the reminder to breathe. That I could do. So as we ascended in the plane, I focused only on inhaling and exhaling and trying not to throw up.

Another instructor, Matt, was chosen to jump tandem with me, and for this, I was grateful. Out of the four of us in the plane: Mike, Matt, me, and Mike’s instructor (whose name I don’t recall), Matt was the only one talking. He talked about himself, asked about us, and did his damnedest to distract us. On the video he shot of us, Mike and I have looks of terror etched into our smiles. At one point, Mike’s instructor exclaimed, “Who the hell would jump out of a perfectly good plane?!” The devious smile on his face revealed his sarcasm, but the statement lightened the mood, though it didn’t manage to diminish our fear.

On our stomachs, Mike and I had two bears strapped to us — and no, not for us to hug as we cried on the way down. Western New York Skydiving partners with Canopies for Kids, an organization that provides bears to kids in hospitals. The idea is to sponsor a bear with a donation, and  then take it with you on your jump. Afterward, each bear is donated to children at Roswell Park Cancer Institute, along with a personalized note from the person who jumped with the bear that explains how the recipient now gets to cuddle with the bravest bear in the world. The goal is to give them a little courage while they are battling their illness, and naturally, I jumped (pun intended) at the opportunity to bring one of these brave bears with me.

http://www.canopiesforkids.com/

Back in the days when I had my own teddy bears, I consistently told my parents that one day, I would go skydiving; I would go bungee jumping; I would travel the world; and yes, I would even go backpacking through the Amazon. None of us were quite sure where this sense of adventure stemmed from — perhaps my brother who enjoyed launching dirt bikes high in the air while performing a multitude of tricks and racing his Mustang as quickly as possible down the drag strip without blowing the engine. During those early years, we had been close, and I idolized his need for speed.

But skydiving is a different kind of adventure. My brother loved — and still loves — everything fast and powerful, but he has never once expressed a desire to launch himself out of the plane from 10,000 feet in the air or trek through terrain filled with tarantulas and snakes and other deadly beasts. Why these adventures have always appealed to me, I’ve never fully understood. Regardless, I decided it was time to check things off my bucket list. I’d like to make a side note here, just to mention that I fully understand why people hate the concept of a bucket list. Number one, it’s a bit morbid: You create a list of feats you want to accomplish before you kick. the. bucket. The whole paradigm is framed by a person’s imminent death; the idea that you are going to die, and should thus create a list of things you should do before one foot gets sucked into the grave. Horrifying, right? Besides, shouldn’t we all be living our lives with care and caution, thinking about how we want to construction our futures?

The answer to that last question is yes. And no. I would argue that we should be consistently thinking about how we want to construct our lives, but maybe not with the care and caution that one would imagine. When you focus only on where you want to be, it detracts from the moment you’re in. This mentality glorifies living for tomorrow. And that is precisely why I love the concept of a bucket list: It is the opposite of this. Given that you actually start checking items off, having a bucket list inspires you to accomplish big ticket items. It encourages you to do the things today that you will be grateful for tomorrow, as opposed to focusing solely on the promise of tomorrow. When you remind yourself that life is short, you unleash a whole new way of living that is much more present-minded.

One of my friends from college, Melanie, went skydiving months before I worked up the courage to actually do it myself. She posted pictures online shortly after her experience. As she rapidly fell from the sky, the skin on her face tight against the force of the wind, a wide smile spread across her lips. As I mused about how happy she looked, I came across a picture where she held the palm of her hand out in front of her. Four little words stood out in bold, black ink: Courage to let go.

As a mental health counselor, Melanie has seen what stress and anxiety can do to a person. In school, she helped run a club called Active Minds that aimed to break down stereotypes surrounding mental health. She volunteered for the Walk to Save Lives, a fundraiser that raised awareness about suicide and created a forum for survivors to share their stories. So when Melanie wrote, “Courage to let go,” on her hand, it had more depth than just letting go of gravity or letting go of the plane. Melanie’s simple reminder was that letting go of the emotions and fears that paralyze us is one of the most courageous acts that a person can accomplish. Whether it be preconceived notions we have about ourselves that make us insecure, traumatic experiences that have changed us, or mistakes that have haunted us, the most liberating act one can do is to simply let go.

In the end, the treasure of life is missed by those who hold on and gained by those who let go. -Lao Tzu #quote:

Easier said than done, no? For me, losing myself in these huge life experiences is a way of doing just that: letting go. Letting go of stress. Letting go of anxiety. Letting go of poor self-esteem. Letting go of societal standards and norms. Letting go of regrets, what-ifs, the should-ofs, could-ofs, would-ofs. Because when you are crashing to earth at 120 miles per hours, the last thing you’re worried about is how is you look or what people are thinking about you or that time five years ago when you should have said a few words to change a situation. None of that matters when you’re in free fall.

Free fall: Noun-The condition of unrestrained motion in a gravitational field; see also: motion. Motion: Noun-An act, process, or instance of changing place. By definition, free falling implies change. You fall from one spot to another, creating motion. What that definition fails to tell you is how liberating movement feels. Once I got over my fear of stepping through the plane’s threshold, I free fell for 36 seconds before Matt pulled the parachute. For 36 seconds, I did backflips and wrestled with a sinking sensation in my stomach that, contrary to popular belief, felt completely liberating. It wasn’t the kind of sinking feeling that comes from being upset or scared, but rather the sensation of butterflies you get before a first kiss or that little flutter in your stomach when you first lay eyes on the Roman baths or the Royal Palace or a beautiful sunset in foreign country.

After about 20 seconds, I was allowed to spread my arms wide against the wind, to show my own wise words: Carpe diem, Latin for “Seize the day.” That was my response to “Courage to let go.” Because that’s what letting go is all about: seizing the day.

 

Once our parachute sprung open and we jolted to a slower pace, Matt and I drifted toward earth like the leaves of a dandelion, swaying against the wind. From 6,000 feet, the view is incredible, stretching all the way from Albion, where we departed from, to Niagara Falls and Grand Island. The verdant trees created a thin canopy over countless houses and businesses. Through clusters of clouds, the sun shined dimly over the city, lightly highlighting the skyline.

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When we extended our legs in front of us for landing and my feet felt the earth once more, I radiated with life in a way that I never had before. I felt alive. Unhindered. Free. And for me, that freedom is worth all the strength it takes to get over my fears and tackle insane feats. So, my question for you, dear readers, is what will you do today that scares you?

DCIM101GOPRO

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The Choices We Make and the Choices That Make Us

Lately, I have been thinking a lot about the consequences of decisions, no doubt a result of listening to the rantings of a psychic who spoke in sweeping tones about “destiny” and “energy” and willing the universe to work in your favor. I’m not saying that I believe in psychics or that I think anyone on the planet can accurately predict the future, but I went out of boredom as something to do on a Saturday afternoon, and also because part of me hoped that maybe, just maybe, she might shed some insight on an altogether confusing phase in my life.

In short, she told me that the two years since graduation from the University of Rochester are wide open, and that they will become solely what I make of them. After that, she said, I will go through a three-year period where my life is etched directly into the stars that shine above us, meaning that the universe will have a bigger influence on my life than I will.

What. A. Scary. Thought.

I have always held that my life is what I make of it and that my choices lead to my destiny, not vice versa. It is a great comfort to believe that I hold the future in my own hands and that I, alone, can make my life into something great; but it also creates a persistent sense of pressure and stress. If my choices mold my life, then the wrong choices must hinder my life in unfathomable ways. Believing that I, alone, control my destiny often leads to me overanalyzing each and every decision I make or have made. So, the more I thought about what the psychic said, the more reassured I felt. Maybe, just maybe, I should give the universe a little more credit. Maybe my wrong decisions will eventually lead me exactly where I’m supposed to be. Maybe, just maybe, my wrong decisions aren’t so wrong after all.

Among those decisions I’ve contemplated, two stand out: firstly, my decision to end a three-year relationship with someone whom I love very deeply. He was a key part of my life and someone I shared thousands of precious memories with, from vacations to late-night talks to watching his team win the Super Bowl to sharing my travel stories to slow dancing at our family members’ weddings to having bonfires in his backyard. We also shared not-so-pleasant memories like the loss of loved ones and fights that weighed heavily on both of our hearts. We were together three years, and he knew me better than anyone. In the end, I grew unhappy because of physical distance and because of how much we both had to sacrifice to bridge that distance—it wasn’t fair to either of us. Bouncing back and forth between towns drained us, and though we discussed it, the likelihood of us ending up in the same town seemed a distant possibility at best. Nine months have passed since the breakup, and not a day goes by where he doesn’t cross my mind or I don’t wonder if I made the right choice.

Secondly, I often contemplate my decision to turn down a dream job with Syracuse Woman Magazine. Just months before I completed my degree at the University of Rochester, I received a call from my former internship advisor who informed me that she was moving on to a new position with Time Warner Cable. She invited me for an interview, and, days later, I was offered the position of managing editor of the magazine. At the time, I was on the cusp of finishing a rigorous graduate program, entering my student loan repayment period, and was only a couple months into my new position at Bryant & Stratton College. To say the least: I was burnt out and had no clue which direction I wanted to go in life. Two factors played into my final decision to turn down the opportunity: my loans and my desire to travel. Had I taken the job, I would have just enough money to pay my loan, rent, and utility bills with little left to spend on food and no money or time left to travel the world.

I spent, and still spend, a great deal of time contemplating these two decisions and trying to chart them on the overall course of my life. My meeting with the psychic has made me realize, however, that very few decisions can be categorized as correct or incorrect, right or wrong. With every decision, you lose something, but you also gain something in exchange, and maybe, just maybe, the important things in life really are written in the stars.

I can tell you with certainty that while I miss my ex, if I had stayed with him, I would not have had time to work on improving myself as a person. I spent so long with him that I was unaccustomed to being alone, and, more importantly, unaccustomed to what it was like to be lonely. I say this without wallowing or pitying myself; as a matter of fact, I say this to mean quite the opposite. I think that loneliness is one of the most humbling of human experiences, and one that we must all embrace. Loneliness reminds us that it is up to us, as individuals, to make ourselves happy. We, alone, must come to terms with our inherent flaws and hypocrisies and learn how to make the most out of our lives. Equally, loneliness gives us a deeper appreciation for relationships, platonic or otherwise. If we never felt alone, we would never know the value of a hug or a squeeze of the hand or a kind word. We would never be able to truly appreciate those late-night conversations or those gentle kisses.

Likewise, the path that stemmed from turning down a dream job has led to treasured memories and moments. If I had taken the job, I would be submerged in the very profession that I find most rewarding: writing. I would be interviewing fascinating and inspiring woman who are leaving their marks on this world, and I would be sharing their stories with the world in a magazine that I coordinate and transform from abstraction to print. But—I would never have been able to afford to travel overseas to visit one of my dearest friends, Crystal. I would never have been able to pay for our adventures around Manchester and to Scotland and Bath and the Lake District. I would never have felt the healing waters of the Roman hot spring or hiked to the top of a mountain where I could see all the way to the North Sea. I would never have been able to knock my student loans down $14,000 or pay off the balance on my car loan. I would never have the money or time to take weekend trips to places like Chicago and New York City, and I would never have been able to share in so many of the beautiful memories I’ve made with my family over this past year.

I can’t say with any degree of certainty that I made the right choices, or that any of my future choices will be “correct.” What I can do is trust the universe enough to know that for every loss, we gain a hidden blessing. I can also say some things in life have the perfect timing, and maybe that is a sign that the universe really does play a bigger role in our lives than we think. It seems to be that no matter what I am struggling with, the right book finds its way into my lap. After my breakup, I happened to come across a copy of Eat, Pray, Love on the free table at work. Given the title, I previously dismissed it as romantic garbage and had no interest in reading it, but when I came across it that day, I thought: Eh, why not? It’s free! A short week later, I finished the book and felt a profound connection with the author, Elizabeth Gilbert. Suddenly, my life was given perspective, and that was exactly what I needed. Like Holden Caulfield, I wished Elizabeth Gilbert was a terrific friend of mine whom I could call up on the phone just so that I could thank her for understanding and for showing me that women are capable of transcending incredible obstacles.

Another example of this occurred during the midst of my post-graduation crisis. I started reading Cheryl Strayed’s Tiny Beautiful Things, a collection of her Dear Sugar advice columns. In the very last column, a twenty-two-year-old reader had written in and asked Strayed what advice she had for her own twenty-something self. Her honest and poignant response seemed to answer my questions:

Don’t lament so much about how your career is going to turn out. You don’t have a career. You have a life. Do the work. Keep the faith. Be true blue. You are a writer because you write. Keep writing and quit your bitching. Your book has a birthday. You don’t know what it is yet (Strayed 351).

Looking back on these experiences, perhaps they were life’s way of comforting me, saying to me, “Listen, Jenna, if you quit your bitching long enough, you’ll realize that it’s all going to work out.” Turning down that job didn’t mean I closed the door on one potential career path; it simply meant that I need to find other ways to practice my craft.

So maybe, just maybe, it’s okay to admit that you don’t know which decision is right for you; and maybe it’s okay that I don’t know either. Maybe, no matter which decision we make, life will help us arrive safely at our destinations in the end. So, in the meanwhile, maybe, just maybe, we should listen to the words of Elizabeth Gilbert and “embrace the glorious mess[es] that [we] are.” Let’s celebrate all the decisions that make us who we are, instead of worrying that we’ve made the wrong ones.

¡Hasta la próxima!