Somewhere between early September and late October, last year, something in my life shifted. Imperceptibly, at first, but I must have made a wish, or something, that changed the degree of an internal guidance system, just enough, to land me, in a basket on a dirt track next to a paintball course, a long, long way from my home. There was no plan or predetermined outcome to get me to this place. There was, however, the knowledge that something had to change… or more importantly, someone… and that someone was me.
I had spent years fighting to feel safe at home and then feel secure in venturing forward and in September of last year I was on the brink of stability, after years of chaos that major life upheavals bring. I had fought for this moment — to be strong enough and wise enough and forgiving enough to use the “hard stuff” as a firm foundation upon which to build my future. Inspired by my attendance at a hot air balloon festival, I wrote a blog post about my desire to rise and launch myself, more fully, into life (…read it here). The new life in front of me would be navigated based upon a plan that started with a career shift. An exploration that had me, first, on staff for the Boulder-based Emerging Women conference in October, then has landed me for a weekend getaway, 8 months later, back in Denver, getting ready to take off in a hot air balloon.
For now, how I arrived at this moment is not as important as how I am in this moment. I am a little sleepy, as I had to be here at 5:45 am to take part in the flight preparations. I am calm, mainly because the weather is calm. And, other than that, I am simply willing to see where the wind takes me, literally, because I never expected that I would be there as part of a “we”, traveling with someone special who had come into my life, at that same time, out of the blue. Today was not about expectation, though, it was about experiencing something new and the only experience that carried high expectations were the ones I had of the pilot.
Booked through FairWinds Balloon Flights, also out of Boulder, Colorado, we were in a group of 6 passengers that were to be taken up in “Crystal Blue” – a beautiful aircraft commanded by a guy named Toby who had 30 years experience. Also a corporate leadership trainer, he stepped us through the hands-on process of helping his crew inflate and launch the balloon that had all the “bells and whistles”. These enhancements included turning vents that allowed him a degree of control over our direction and a “quick deflate” mechanism that would allow for a quicker turnaround time once we were back on the ground. The on-the-job training, that was rapid fire and perfectly choreographed, gave way, instantly, to an intermittent burn and gentle turn the moment we left the ground.
At the start of our flight, Toby said that to enjoy ballooning you had to be “tolerant of ambiguity” as he could not determine the direction we would go, nor the speed at which we got there. The sensation of being carried was both remarkable and reverent. I could see roads that we did not have to follow. I could see cars and houses and industry that did not add to the noise. I could see the process of everyone having to go somewhere, fast, while feeling content in what felt a lack of progress going nowhere, but up.
This tolerance of ambiguity was in sharp contrast to the certainty of the mountain range that embraced us. No matter where we were, or how high, I could feel the presence of the structure that had always been there and they were a stunning backdrop for the entire experience. It did not matter whether we were on the ground or in the air, our view of them did not change. They were that big. And that commanding. They towered before us, unmoved. Their view of us, filtered on this day through numerous fires in the area, is certainly not as beautiful as ours is, of them.
I looked down at the homes drifting by below me and they all looked the same from above. Stark and dark, they were obviously not created to be admired from this angle. They were surrounded by man-made mountainous landfills and business and recreational areas that fuel competition and drive our economy. From the street, these homes are beautiful additions to the landscape and many of them are held up as a symbol of success. As an interior designer, I spend my days helping people create unique interiors that support and tell the story of their lives in beautiful and practical ways but that type of work is, ironically, invisible from here.
It would be easy to crash land in self pity and wonder if what I do matters. But I know it does because as wonderful as this moment-to-moment drift is, our lives take place on the ground. Even for the pilot, he can only stay aloft for about 2 hours before running out of fuel and then, only when the weather permits. He has a “real” job so that he can do this in his spare time. As a single mother, interior designer, volunteer advocate and aspiring author I often feel I have no spare time and so these slices of time to simply honor “me” are a breath of fresh air — they are the fuel that lifts me up and allows me to take in what I need to give out.
I am a mother. Of all those I listed above, I can’t think of a role that carries more responsibility or expectation, all day, every day. I have had to be a mountain of strength for my children as we have had to go with the flow of unscheduled life changes and I always knew, somehow, that no matter where we were, if I was good, they were good. I was their home when our addresses were temporary. I was the hands-on consistency and the day-to-day grind that would ground them and give them long term stability. And in holding up for my 4 children, I held myself to a standard that lifted us all. Yet, in all of the driving and striving on their behalf, I personally felt adrift.
As I began writing all of this, the thought struck me that I have been a mother for half of my life and of course, like always, I became curious about it, exactly. I am nearly 2 months past my 56th birthday and in a quick google for “how many days old”, it was calculated that on July 2, 2018, the date of my balloon flight, I was 20,512 days old. (I know… yikes). The next calculation for my 28 year old daughter indicated that on that same date she was 10,256 days old. My apologies to those who didn’t know there would be math involved, but do the math. The day that I had a panoramic perspective on the whole world around me is the exact day that I had perfect symmetry on my life.
For my first 10,256 days I made decisions that just affected me. For the next 10,256 days I had to make them in relation to another person. A little one. One that relied on me. Learned from me. Leaned on me. Somewhere in those first 10,000 days I lost a sense of myself and, yet, in the last 250 or so, since my last trip to Denver, I have seen “me” rise out of nowhere, reaching up to not just be in background but also a horizon and I no longer can define myself from one singular viewpoint.
I have had to stand and “mama bear” to fight for my children in a way that has become a passion for advocacy — but that is not what MamaBearings is about. It’s about how I found direction in what I learned from my children. It’s about how I continue to strive to course correct with a long-term view of my own integrity and my own strength, while putting out fires and navigating through daily turns of life. I have never found purpose in reaching toward pinnacles of success and achievement because it meant nothing if my “home” with them was in a painful and polluted metaphorical valley.
From this vantage point, I could see the 10,256 days that led toward the day my life shifted, forever. I could also see the 10,256 days that came after that. And I know, for certain, that today signals another shift, even if I don’t know the direction.
As a woman, the day I became a mother I handed over navigation of my life not to my children but to loving. The authority in my life was a boundless love and solid moral compass that others made me question. Without a doubt, though, I was able to hang on to something that was both grounded and uplifting. Mothering didn’t change who I was… it changed what I did. And now, with 1 daughter still at home, I feel lighter and free-er to navigate a little differently. To carry “home” somewhat differently, even if there is nowhere different to go, because home is who we are, wherever we are.
I am a creative person, but I could not have designed the beauty and brilliance of my children… I just had to get out of their way. I can look, with certainty, at my 20,512 days and know that there is nowhere I need to be but here, at home in my heart, to embrace every day in front of me, wherever the wind takes me, getting out of my own way. I will brace for the landings with a handle on the basket and soft knees and know that I can, with a quick burn and slow turn, lift above it all to see the patterns of what is both behind me and before me and wherever I touch down, I will be alright.
These trips to Denver had been about redefining myself as more than “just” a mother. Because I have been a mother for just half of my life. And all the while I was still a girl and a woman and a dancer and writer. I was, for over 20,000 days, an explorer both brave and fearful and willing and stubborn, all at the same time. I did not lose the freedom to be myself just because I added children and so I do not have to give up one thing to have anyone or anything else there, too.
I have learned that no matter who it is with, relationships are like a balloon and its crew in that they are in an ongoing, energetic exchange of freedom and responsibility. The crew cultivates the potential for flight in its everyday tasks and in releasing control of the outcome is rewarded with a flight that carries possibility for an experience that they dare not design for they, surely, would imagine it too small. It is this duty that allows the beauty to unfold.
This day… the balloon flight on July 2… was symbolic of the beauty that was already around me and within me, steadfast, no matter where I have stood or how I have been tossed about. There is nowhere I would rather be than in this moment, in this relationship, with this family, doing this work, for this life, as this “me”.
Progress can be ugly sometimes but a wide angle view of the whole of it helps. Set against the seasonal geometry of a farmer’s field, the view of a balloon as we passed over was a reminder that my life has become a beautiful balance of this duty and beauty. I will use the fire of my passion and the mechanisms of wisdom to simply enhance where I find myself going. I will embrace the work that it takes to rise, knowing that the landing is simply preparation for the next trip. In between I will drift along on the glorious, uncharted, full-of-hot-air, road that is not even there. Because … for at least another 10,000 days, or so, I have nowhere to go but up…