When I first started flight instructing, I found the things I taught the best were the things I struggled with the most to learn. In all my other endeavors in life, I’ve also found the same. I can talk to people about how to travel like I do, because I remember when it was uncomfortable to do so. I can tell you how to row, because I had to teach myself. I can tell you how to live with grief as a black smear on your soul, because I had to learn in order to survive. I can tell you about how to listen to the birds, because there was once a day when I did not.
I always did struggle, however, with trying to describe to someone how to be happy. I have always been a fundamentally happy person. A happy baby, a smiling child, a joyous adult. Even when grief touched me with its darkness, I surprised it by embracing it. I surprised myself. I became defiantly happy. I would not let sorrow get me with its seeping cold grayness. I would not let it obscure my vision like mist. I would live, and I would live hard. And I did. And I made my brother very proud. He would not have wanted me to collapse into darkness. I did what he wanted – I took my wounded soul and I showed it the world. I showed it 5,000 miles of water. I wouldn’t say it healed, but I got to know that scar. Now it is like a tattoo on my heart.
A new tattoo is a funny thing. The first morning you wake up with it you have to check to see if it is really there; either yesterday’s events were a dream, or the marking slid off into the night onto the bedsheets. No, it is still there, bright and fresh and as forever as when it first appeared yesterday. You know it will never go away, but there’s a little piece of you that thinks, “Give it a week, then it’s really permanent.” Like death somehow takes a while to sink in, like a person in the ground for a week is more dead than the person that died today. That tattoo is there today, and it will be there next week, too. And it will be there forever.
Now, I do not know what my heart would look like without that scar. I cannot imagine a life where my brother is alive. If he showed up today I would break into a thousand pieces – pieces I had carefully glued together after he left. I have built a wall of gratitude and simple joys to ward off the heaviness of sorrow. But now, that wall is under strain and showing cracks. Darkness pushes in from the outside and seeps in like the plague that tortures our planet. It shows me places where the wall was weak all along. And like before, I have to learn to live, to survive. This time, though, I don’t have the adrenaline of a fresh wound to carry me through. I have only the lessons I have learned from last time. This time, I have to climb out of the hole with my own strength. And here is where I remember that the easiest things to teach are the things I struggle with myself. And here is where I see that I can grow, and I can become stronger, and I can help others. I cannot tell you how to climb out of a well if I have never been to the bottom of it myself.
Everything that is happening in the world seems so unprecedented and frightening with its uncertainty. There is a universal anxiety in the air. People are struggling with daily tasks, daily maintenance on the body and the mind. More cars it seems are broken down on the side of the road. Hospitals are overflowing. The stink of the very real possibility of an intubated end to one’s life is in the air. People seem almost on the edge of crying all the time. The stress of the virus and the racial unrest and the political infrastructure and the hate and the misunderstandings all have come to a head, and we all feel it. We all wear it on our hearts. We see it on each other’s faces. We all know we need to be strong. But being strong isn’t exactly what you think it is. It isn’t being instantly better at doing things. In the words of one of my closest friends,
“You don’t have to be strong to do things. You have to do things to do things.”
You have to do some slogging through the mire. But even while you are doing that, you can notice all the different shades of the muck. You thought it was just black, but there are interesting shades of brown and streaks of green algae. You can feel the burn in your legs as you trudge through the thick resistance, and that sensation reminds you that you are alive. You can look behind you and see your footprints filling up with water. You can listen to the squelch, and for a moment you can remember what it was like to play in a rain puddle. If you find the energy to look up, you can notice the swamp that you are in. You can notice the sun coming in through the thick foliage. You can notice the trees with draping moss. Slogging through the mire, you can still look around you and see. Driving down the highway to whatever dreaded thing you must do, you can still notice the flock of sparrows alighting on a tree in a perfect improvised dance. Despite everything, that was beautiful, and you can allow yourself a smile. Because even if your world is ending, the world is not. The birds still sing with the same unbridled joy every morning. And if you’re still alive to notice it – you’re doing okay.
There is a world unlike what we have created – the world of money and jobs and insurance and the complex structure of society – there is a world that was there all along, and always will be, with or without you or me. And that world is ours, not for the taking, but ours for the noticing and the listening to and the protecting. If we have made a world that kills us, this is the world that heals us.
“If it is your nature
to be happy
you will swim away along the soft trails
for hours, your imagination
And if your spirit
carries within it
that is heavier than lead –
if it’s all you can do
to keep on trudging –
there is still
somewhere deep within you
a beast shouting that the earth
is exactly what it wanted –
each pond with its blazing lilies
is a prayer heard and answered
whether or not
you have ever dared to be happy,
whether or not
you have ever dared to pray.”
You are in a room. It has many things in it. What do you choose to describe?
Quarantine thoughts. I had a Covid scare, close contact with someone with a positive test. I moved into a house that stands vacant, a house away from the town, a house built by my great-grandfather’s hands. I brought with me my things, some food, and a thermometer. I tried to ignore phantom soreness in my throat, tried to stop compulsively checking my forehead for a temperature. I tried not to think about dying alone in a hospital, another statistic for the pandemic. I just moved again for the third time in three months. I have no sense of home, a space that is mine. I had just lost at least a week’s worth of wages in a time where I’ve never been more broke. I tried to keep myself together.
There are many things that I am juggling – dealing with just one would be stressful, but dealing with them all at once makes me feel like I am being swamped by the biggest wave, and there is nothing I can do to avoid it. But even if I can’t avoid it, I can do one thing – I can hang on. I can shield my head as I am tossed about and think about what kind of story I’ll have to tell after this wave passes. After this wave passes, all waves that are smaller won’t seem as big anymore. And I will have grown.
I am 25, and this is the time in life where I am becoming solidified. Like a grown bird, I am now showing my adult plumage, and have shed the colors of a juvenile. I can see my age now in the thin face in the mirror, no longer with the round softness of a teen. I can see it in the wiry gray hairs that shine in the light like a beacon for my lifetime. I can see it in my eyes, which have squinted through the wind and the rain and the sun. They carry behind them both a deep sorrow and a laughing joy. I have grown. I will be older soon. I will be older tomorrow. Now is the time to notice the sunrise, now is the time to fully embrace my path. This body will only last me so long. I am grateful for this vessel to live in, to be able to appreciate life and living on this wonderfully strange and unfathomably beautiful planet.
However old you are, tomorrow you will be older. Embrace the youth you have today that you will not have after the earth completes another one of its balletic rotations that we call a day. Tomorrow is not guaranteed, and the past can never be revisited. All you know for sure is that you have today.
That is what I hear when I listen to the birds.
to hurry into the work of my life; I wanted to know,
whoever I was, I was
for a little while.”
P.S. – Update on logistical things and not just poetic musings:
Y’all. I am still trying to wrap my head around what I am doing. I am living a life I dreamed of, and it is not easy. Would it be easier to not live my dream? Absolutely. I would have free time, I would have money, I wouldn’t be so stressed. But I wouldn’t be learning, or growing, or becoming stronger. A friend asked me what I do when I feel overwhelmed about the expedition, which I do at times. I told them I think about the alternative: not doing it. And honestly, if I didn’t have this expedition to plan, I would be planning something else.
When my Pápá and I eat breakfast together, he often turns to me and asks, “What’s our plan?” And then he tells me how when I was very young and visiting him and Mámá, he and I would be the first two awake. While everyone else was still asleep, he would get his coffee and make me cafe au lait and tell me not to tell mom he gave me cafe au lait. Then we would sit on that old blue recliner – me on one side of him, the little dog on the other – and we would plan our day. And I would ask him, “What’s our plan?” Now, nearly twenty years later, he turns to me and asks the same. “You always had to have a plan!” he recalls, his eyes smiling. Now, nearly twenty years later, I am still just the same. Always with a plan.
It keeps me from feeling like I’m marking time. It helps me keep time from slipping away. Even if I’m living somewhere for several years, I have a plan with what I will do with my time there, when I will leave, and where I will leave to. I don’t have my whole life planned – that would be depressing and pointless. I plan enough to get me to the next thing. Then while I’m getting there, the next step will reveal itself, and that is how I find my way.
Okay, I promised real updates and not just poetic musings. Things are going well considering how short of time I’ve had the expedition open to donors and sponsors. I got a really good response from people with merchandise and donations, and a few people bought boat stamps. When I receive their designs, I’ll show them to y’all! I’ve been in contact with some great people in the outdoors industry who have been sending me contacts and reaching out to all the right people for me. I’ve also sent out sponsorship proposals to a lot of different companies great and small, and perhaps those efforts will start to bear fruit. I’ve gotten a lot done in quarantine despite all the time I spend obsessively checking my temperature!
I haven’t been out rowing on the ocean yet, but so far I feel like what I am doing now is harder than being out there. Sitting in front of a computer all day is more torture to me than being behind oars all day. Doing finances, sending emails, organizing paperwork, being an accountant and a nonprofit director are all roles I never wanted – but I knew I had to become. If it were easy, everyone would be doing it. This is the gauntlet. What I’m doing now is why people don’t often do what I’m planning to do. But it’s not impossible. It just takes commitment, and courage, and a big ole deep breath.
Sorry, I can’t do normal updates. It always just morphs into poetic musings.
Well, this is me.