Roads

When I was a teenager — when I was the only one of my friends with a car, albeit a bedraggled former rental car with terrible brakes and not even a tape player — I would drive my friends through the South Shore, finding random roads and seeing where’d they go.

Depending on the night, we could get as far as the Cape, before eventually finding a route we knew would bring us home. We didn’t have so much as a road atlas in my car. Just blind faith that eventually we’d find 3, or 93 — or a gas station attendant that could get us to where we needed to go.

It felt like everyone around us was showing their rebellion by throwing parties that we were never invited to. We hit the road instead, wandering the roads, straying and getting lost, never doubting we’d find our way back.

When we moved up to New Hampshire, I’d load up the car with some of the same friends and explore.

It was like moving up to just past the border opened all of northern New England for us. Our phones now had GPS, so in some ways it became a little less risky, a little less daring. We always knew how to get back. But the thrill was in the unknown roads, unknown towns, of going forward and seeing what was just past the bend.

A few years later, when I moved up just a little more north — when everything blew up and everything was a perfect storm of wrong — I’d load the car up with nothing more than myself and my worries and dread, and venture out. No GPS, no destination. Just backroads, wandering, that delicate time like a gentle plea with God — please, please, just let everything turn out okay — and eventually finding familiar roads again.

That was probably the most assuring part during those darker days of wanderlust. Not the new roads, the passing scenery, but knowing eventually I’d stumble across something I already knew. Eventually, I’d realize how connected everything is. That all this unknown would link up with the known. I wouldn’t just find my way home; I’d recognize how each road, each piece, would fit together. That you’d need this street, this bend, to get to this other road — and, likewise, you’d need this dark time to get to something better.

Chapters are ending. No, not just ending. Chapters have ended. Past tense. Some with the whisper of a page turn. Some with the slam of the book. But, either way, there is finality. There has been a shift in eras. No turning back.

Through situations beyond my control — or, perhaps, some that could’ve been through my control, but the results would’ve been the same — I find myself with a completely different work schedule. I lost a third of my classes within a two-week span. A shift that I had planned to slowly implement over multiple years ended up happening in a month. And I’m still getting used to it.

I can’t shake the feeling that this will not be the only shake up in my professional life. That more change is on the horizon. My hunches are usually correct, so long as I’m not confusing intuition for anxiety. But there’s nothing I can do but wait it out and see if there’s another chapter ending, and with what intensity it will end, and what the new chapter will bring.

“I feel slightly outside of time and space.”

It’s a cold and rainy Saturday when I admit this to my husband. He’s feeling the same way.

So many new chapters beginning. So new that it feels insulting to say they’re part of the same book. I feel like a Keane song — everybody’s changing and I don’t feel the same.

Perhaps that’s the biggest juggling act for me these days, what can give me these moments where I don’t feel entirely in the present moment. It’s not just the outside world, the changing scenery, work schedule, set of circumstances. It’s internal. I’ve been evolving, finding that stronger sense of self, of self-identity — learning to be my own person, to want what I want and not what I think I’m supposed to want. I’ve shaken off a lot of old hang ups and outdated ways of thinking. I’ve embraced this new version of me, a version the younger incarnations would never recognize. It’s a balancing act, to hold your new self in high regard but also hold space for the fact that you don’t feel the same — and, in not feeling the same, you feel a little off-kilter.

The sign of genius is the ability to hold two opposing thoughts at the same time. Sometimes I try to joke off contradictory emotions, tell myself I’m just a fricken genius for feeling them. Sometimes the joke works. Sometimes the joke falls flat.

There’s a line from an Ingrid Michaelson song — “Here we go… into the dark and wonderful unknown. Let us go. Let us go.

The dark and wonderful unknown. If there’s ever been a better phrase for this new phase. All these new streets that I’m — that we’re — driving down, no map, no GPS (and, honestly, the gas station attendants in this scenario aren’t exactly sure how to get back to the highway, either). There are moments I’m thrilled. Moments I’m a little spooked. Moments I’m outright scared. Moments I’m excited, moments I’m stressed, and moments where I wonder if I’ve bitten off more than I can chew (and moments where I deliberately chow down if only to prove there’s no such thing as “biting off more than I can chew” for me).

And moments I’m elevated and elated. Moments I look around and can barely grasp how lucky I am. Moments where I cannot wrap my head properly around the sheer happiness, sheer joy, sheer adventure. Moments that make me step back and go, “This is why it’s all worth it.” Moments that remind me how alive the world is around me. Remind me that the fear is nothing more than the nerves before jumping out of the plane, working parachute strapped to your back. Jumping from the rig, knowing no matter what happens, the cord’s got you, and you’re going to be okay.

Here we go, dancing in this house that we have never known.

There’s a freedom in realizing you can’t predict a single thing around you. That all your expectations and plans have already proved irrelevant, so you might as well toss the syllabus out the window and just see what comes next. If the car soars down the road, it soars down the road. If it skids, it skids. I might hit my desired destination or I might hit a telephone pole. Either way, the horizon is calling me, and I know I must go (and I know I’ll eventually get there in one piece).

The dark and wonderful unknown. Let us go. Let us go.

In some ways this has always been the way I’ve lived my life. Even before the ’99 Cavalier came into my possession and I loaded it up with my friends. Let me go down this unknown road and find where it goes. Let me go on this adventure and see if I emerge with my shield or on it. I need to know where this path leads, even if I have to venture into unknown territory.

If I’m being honest with myself, I’ve always bristled at only having the same paths to travel down. I’ve never been content with the predictable. I long ago decided that “finding yourself” meant stepping into the new and uncomfortable — putting yourself in different context after different context and seeing what parts about you overlapped. What emerges, what struggles, what shines. Embracing the sheer fluidity and evolution of our identity, while learning that the core of our souls will remain constant.

And maybe that’s it: wander far and wide until everything is stripped away — every conditioned response, every demon, every temporary reaction — until there is just you and your soul, meeting candidly for the first time.

“Let’s go on a drive.”

Those are magical words to me. We’ll load up the truck — our brand new Ford pick up, with just my husband and me — and drive off.

Where we live feels like the periphery for everything else. Do we want to turn right and navigate the small towns? Left and go into the city? Do we want to hit the highway, the backroads — do we want to go to Boston? Vermont? Maine? It’s like just standing in one spot fills us to the brim with possibility.

There’s GPS available on the truck’s console screen. And maybe that’s a good thing — knowing there’s a safety net, something to turn to when you get so undoubtedly lost and need something to bring you back. Maybe we don’t have to go barreling down the road just on blind faith. Maybe it’s a good thing to have that provision. Kind of like it’s good that your co-pilot understands the importance of safety, to have at least a map on hand (especially when you’ve tossed your proverbial syllabus out the window).

At this point, all these backroads are familiar enough. They’re not the vast expanse of unknown like they were when we first moved here. I can now piece together what roads link up with what, as they stretch out from town, to town, to town.

And yet I still want to travel down them. The passing scenery, the warm sun against the leaves — the gentle reassurance that I know how these roads bend and curve, that they’ll link up with roads that I know will bring me home.

Jumper

Don’t look down. Stare straight ahead. Clear your mind and do it.

I remember saying that to myself after failing the prelim jump for the airbag jump at Attitash. I had looked down, psyched myself out, and jumped feet first instead of flipping onto my back. I said it to myself when I first learned drops in aerial, when I’d clutch the silk tight and refuse to let go, every inch of me screaming, “You’ll die if you do this.”

Don’t look down. Stare straight ahead. Clear your mind and do it.

It’s a cold, windy day on the structure. The other jumpers are bantering in French. I’m the sole English-only speaker on the rig. I’m trying to focus on the cadence of French Canadian dialogue, the rolling hills around me, the peaceful highway to the right of me.

Don’t look down. Stare straight ahead. Clear your mind and do it.

The man strapping us into our harnesses switches to English when he realizes I don’t speak French. The people around me shift in how they speak, too. We get to talking about jumping and sky diving and adrenaline and nerves. For most of us, it’s our first time. We all have that giddy energy, the kind that deliberately forces the rise in adrenaline towards a specific path: excited. Certainly not anxious. Certainly not.

I’m third to last, which gives me way too much time to ponder. As the numbers dwindle, the conversations get a little more intimate. Like the last people on a sinking ship, absorbing as much humanity as they can before it’s their time.

Don’t look down. Stare straight ahead. Clear your mind and do it.

When it’s my turn, they ask if I want to dip into the water. I’m shivering, but I agree. I’d rather be even colder until I can change my clothes than regret not adding that in.

I think I’m ready, but I realize how unprepared I actually am when I’m strapped in. I shuffle to the edge. Now I understand: this is why people chicken out at the last minute, why my friend’s girlfriend had to be literally tossed off the edge when she did it.

Don’t look down. Stare straight ahead. Clear your mind and do it.

I’m the only one who gets an English countdown. I attempt a jump, but it ends up looking more like a lean. Doesn’t matter. Either way, I’m off the rig. Canada’s highest jump. No going back now.

I think of all the times I’ve wondered what it would be like to jump from something really high up. Not just a cliff by the water or the airbag jump at a ski resort. Hundreds and hundreds of feet up. Now I know — I know the gut-dropping shock and the sensation like you are now above the laws of physics.

That is, until cord catches you. I hit the water — my forearms and forehead submerge, the water shockingly warm — and flip back up.

I yell more on the flip than I did on the jump. I go parallel with the water before falling again. At this point, it all feels like old hat. Which is funny — didn’t feel like old hat 30 seconds ago.

I’m like a little kid by the time the boat takes me and drops me off at the dock. Darting up the stairs two at a time and skipping when I reach the top, giddy. I practically shout out to Isaac, “And THIS is why I do stuff like this!!”

Stuff like this. Stuff that surges the adrenaline and makes me panic at the last minute and makes me go, “Why the hell did I sign up for this? Why the hell do I do these things that I do to myself!?”

The stuff that makes me giddy, reminds me how wonderful it is to be alive, to be able to experience such things. Stuff that reminds me to look straight ahead, clear your mind, and be bold enough to do the jump, even if it looks more like a lean into the unknown.

Onward.

Evolution

Sunday afternoon. It’s the first cool, crisp, sunny day in a long, long time. My neighborhood stretches out before me, the clouds wisping in slight arches, making the world feel circular, make me feel like I’m watching what’s in front of me through a fish-eye lens. Or maybe it’s the strange stirring in my soul that creates the illusion.

My hand is intertwined with my husband’s; we’re taking a quick stroll during a small pocket of free time in what is turning into a busy Sunday, a stroll that started by my husband getting up from the couch and going, “The weather’s nice. Let’s go for a walk.” A man who understands how much I need to be on the move in some way, how tough it is to be cooped up.

The world in front of me feels new. In a way, it is: it’s been a over a month of downpours and thunderstorms and oppressive humidity. This sudden calmness feels like someone switched out the movie, and now I’m witnessing a completely different scene.

“Everything feels so different,” I say, “even from just a year ago.

…but it’s a good different. This is a good evolution.” Continue reading

Forty-Eight

“You always make me so nervous when you hike like that.”

I had some pretty strict rules when I started hiking solo.  I could only hike well-worn, well-known paths, and always south of the Whites.  The rationale there was I’d be less likely to get lost, and, on the off-chance that I did get lost, I wouldn’t be in that much trouble.

It was an objective understanding of my inexperience.  I’d been hiking since I was a child – since I was a baby in a backpack carrier, technically – but I can name a whopping total of two trails that I ever traversed as a child, and never to summit.  Granted, I did those two trails many, many, many times, to the point that the sound of the water over the rocks on the Falling Waters trail is distinct from others, and the sound carries me home like a reverse Siren.

I’d only done a handful of hikes when I lived in Boston as an adult, and only a handful more after moving to Nashua.  And the last thing I needed was to be yet another poor sap who gets lost in the White Mountains and perishes.

But eventually those rules started eroding.  With more experience under my belt, I started going for the more obscure trails, the less-populated trails – but still south of the White Mountains, in case I got lost.  And then it was trails along the southern perimeter of the Whites – again, if I got lost, I could venture south, and be in relative safety.  And then it was trails within the Whites – but only the popular ones, the easy ones, the ones that you make you feel like a runner at the beginning of the race who was put in the wrong pace group and now you’re spending the first few miles weaving around the crowds.

It was only a matter of time before I’d want to start scaling the 4,000-footers – New Hampshire’s notorious set of 48 mountains, ranging (no pun intended) from the relatively moderate to the potentially deadly.

There was a part of me that smirked at the decision.  Hiking, camping, the wonderful outdoors, those were all things from my childhood that I kept sacred.  And my parents had scaled all 48 mountains, joining the 4,000-footer club as a result.

I had spent so much of my life making sure I never repeated the same mistakes they made, and here I was about to follow in their footsteps – almost literally. Continue reading

Prodigal

Sometimes the best way to define something is through the negative.

Sometimes the best way to know what something is, is to know what it isn’t. You can learn every standard definition but sometimes the only way to really understand something is to figure out exactly where the borders are and skim your fingers along the edges.

Sometimes to really know what something is, you have understand what it’s not. It’s something I’ve been using for my own self growth and have been slipping it into my classes as food for thought. Receptivity is not passivity. Neutrality is not pretending your emotions don’t exist. Rewiring is not forced change.

(I wonder how many of my students know that the majority of what I pass on to them are things I had just figured out for myself. The lamp illuminating the next step forward is just an extension of my own arm.) Continue reading

Sideways

Perhaps it’s because I grew up next to the ocean, but it’s always been something I’ve known.

In the event of a riptide, don’t fight it. Don’t try to swim against it. Swim parallel to the shore until you’re out of it, then take a diagonal path back to dry land.

Granted, my hometown is nestled in a cove within a cove — by the time the water came to us, the mighty Atlantic had been tamed into gently lapping ripples. You could get bigger waves a few towns over in Nantasket, but not by much. Continue reading

What’s Next.

“Well, always busy, busy, huh!” she says. I choose to take this as a compliment. “So, what’s next?”

The question feels like a tag-along echo, in some ways.  Acquaintances catching up on the year so far have asked it.  Close friends have asked it.  Family has asked it.  I ask it.  Constantly, I ask it.

What’s next. Continue reading