Many years ago, I decided it was time to jettison the Bucket List mentality. Instead of being aspirational -- creating goals I wished to achieve -- its net effect, I realized, was to take me out of the present and always keep me in planning mode. There was always someplace else to go or be, someone else to meet, something else to see, another experience to have. The moment I released my Bucket List, I began enjoying my life much much more. Because I am now happier to be exactly wherever I am.
So, no, I still haven't made it to Africa -- which found its way onto my Bucket List in childhood. But instead of bemoaning that, I am happy to be right here. Yesterday morning at breakfast, I listened to a woman tell her dining partner about the first time she saw the ocean. She was an adult at the time -- and the experience of seeing blue water extend out to the horizon took her breath away. She never forgot it.
Today, as I write this, I am looking out over the Atlantic Ocean. This morning I watched the sun rise through the clouds as I walked along the beach. I have had the immense good fortune to spend a lot of time on a lot of oceans. I grew up on the beach, and have since visited beaches on the Atlantic, Pacific, Mediterranean, and Caribbean. Are there beaches I would love to see? I've never been to Bali or Bora Bora or New Zealand or the Maldives. All places I have heard are spectacularly beautiful. But instead of thinking about beaches I haven't seen, I get to be right here, right now, in immense gratitude for my life as it is.
That said, this past Sunday I DID get to experience something that HAS been on my Bucket List for at least three decades. The funny thing was that, because I have changed my thinking about Bucket Lists, I decided to use the fulfillment of a lifelong dream as an opportunity to approach it with more presence and gratitude and consciousness. To take away expectation of outcome, and just let whatever was going to happen happen. As a result, I had an experience that I will always remember.
What did I get to do? I got to fly in a commercial flight simulator and take off, fly, and land a commercial aircraft at JFK in virtual reality!!!
For as long as I can remember, I have been fascinated with airplanes. Perhaps its because we were forever dropping my parents off or up at the airport. They sent me postcards from their seats on AIR-UM-PLANES, as I called them, and I developed a fascination for these metal birds that took people I loved to faraway places. Then when I began to fly with them, I loved the journeys myself.
As a little girl, I began reading all about planes. When I heard that they were building a two-story AIR-UM-PLANE, I couldn't stop talking about it. So my father found a way to book us a flight home from a trip to Hawaii on one of the first 747s. But my most memorable childhood flight experience was getting to be the "co-pilot" on a small plane from Hilo to Kona. I got to learn how to ascend and descend and turn. It was awesome! The pilot doubled as a reporter, and he wondered if it would be okay if we flew over the volcano to check on the lava flow. My parents agreed, and I remember, as we dipped down toward the mouth of the volcano, being able to feel the heat! I thought it was so cool! But when I turned around, my parents were both blanched white with fear. People often ask me what scared my father. That dip into that volcano sure did!
I have always wanted to learn how to fly. And yet, at times during my adult years, I have sometimes struggled with fears of flying. It has always seemed so paradoxical to me that someone who loves to fly so much has experienced fear precisely of something she loves. Paradoxical, that is, until I understood more about the nature of our spiritual journeys, on which fear has a knack of morphing itself into whatever serves as a red herring to deter us from loving what we love with our whole hearts. So, to be able to learn about flying the way pilots learn -- in a flight simulator -- became a life goal. I knew a few people who had done it -- they had won the experience in auctions or worked for airlines -- and they said it was amazing.
Then, when I was planning a work trip to Orlando, my college friend Sean Crotty reached out to me and told me that he was doing the pilot training in the Airbus 320 simulators for Jet Blue -- and did I want to see one? Did I want to see one? OMG! Of course! But what I really wanted to do was to learn. To ask all the questions I have wanted to ask a pilot. Sean agreed, and on Sunday night, we met for dinner and then went on to the sim.
Because I had left my Bucket List behind, I have to say that, as awesomely cool as our time together in the simulator was, our dinner was just as cool. Sean is one of the best storytellers I have ever met -- and I've had the privilege to meet a few. On top of that, he has flown into (himself!) 100 countries -- and he has the heart of an adventurer. He shared some stories I will never ever forget, including one about our college years that gave me a gift I didn't even know I was seeking. So, by the time we got to the sim, I was already glowing with gratitude.
We got to the gorgeous Jet Blue facility around 9PM, and headed up to the sim -- a pod that looks like something out of Star Wars.
The moment we walked into our simulator, I felt like a kid in a candy shop. I was finally going to get to learn what happens in a cockpit!! So I began asking a million questions, and Sean graciously answered them all. But what I wasn't expecting was the rest. The moment the visuals popped onto the screen, they were SO realistic. We were at the gate at JFK, with all the fuel trucks and luggage carts going by. It was amazing!
We headed out onto the runway. It was dusk, with the unmistakable silhouette of the Manhattan skyline glowing in the distance. It was gorgeous. And then we prepared to take off.
Sean told me what to do and I followed his instructions, and soon we were in the air. We headed north, and I could see all the places I know so well -- the Bronx, Westchester, the White Plains airport -- before banking over the Hudson. My task was to maintain altitude and follow the river, before turning to set up to land.
We headed out over New Jersey while I got the feel of the movement of the plane, and then, suddenly, I was doing it -- I was flying the plane. I looked out over the city to my left and the river below me, and I felt PURE JOY! The freedom, the beauty, the flow of flying in joy. I turned to Sean and said, "This must be addictive. Once you know you can fly, you would never want to stop." To which he replied, "That's why my five years on the ground were so miserable. I love to fly. I have to do this with my life."
I don't think I will EVER forget that feeling. It lasted maybe 10 seconds before I had to focus on setting up my landing back at JFK. It was elation. The incredible elation of feeling winged.
Sean set me up to land at JFK, and I managed to do it (with his help). It was so much fun to begin to understand the terms he was using and the way the instruments worked, and how your eye has to adjust. Then he asked me to taxi to the runway. After what had been a reasonable touch down, all of a sudden I was careening all over the tarmac. Turns out the steering mechanism for the ground is way trickier to maneuver than the one for the air. There's a metaphor in that, isn't there? I pictured all of my fictional passengers behind me grabbing for the now nonexistent barf bags as I tried to steady the plane. What had come so easily in the air was far more difficult on earth. Just as in our spiritual journeys the moments of elation and brief glimpses of awakening and enlightenment can feel so difficult to maintain in our daily lives. . .
Our next "stop" was St Maarten, in the Caribbean. Sean took off first in order to show me what to do to clear the mountains. The runway was much shorter and the mountains very close. Then we set up to land. But I had a million questions and so, somewhere over the Caribbean, Sean decided to reset the computer so that he could show me the answer to my questions "back on the runway". In one instant, we were over the ocean, and in the next, the whole windshield went grey. But in my mind, I was still over the ocean, and I couldn't quite grasp that we were switching realities. Yet another spiritual lesson -- as I realized how easy it is for us to program ourselves to believe whatever reality in which we believe ourselves to be. For a full minute, I kept thinking -- But we have to go back and land the plane! We can't just stay over the ocean.
For the rest of our time together, Sean flew -- or let the autopilot fly, so that I could learn some of the things about aviation that I had always wanted to know. It was amazing to see what these incredible technological wonders can do, and to watch an incredible pilot do what he loves to do -- fly! I loved every minute of it. By the time I left, I was grinning from ear to ear. My Bucket List experience had surpassed my wildest dreams.
But the unexpected gift of coming at this lifelong dream without expectation was that my time flying with Sean shifted my spiritual landscape and expanded my life horizons. First of all, spending four hours with Sean was easily the highlight of my whole week -- and it was a pretty awesome week. In Sean, I recognized a fellow traveler, a listener to his heart, a storyteller in service of Spirit, and a joy journeyer/love practitioner par excellence. I am so grateful to have shared time with him. And honestly, I feel like anyone who flies with a JetBlue pilot who has gotten to be in Sean's presence is flying on the wings of an angel. And as if that wasn't enough, I felt the PURE JOY of flying -- and understood why I have always been drawn to planes, birds, and travel. I got it at a level far beyond the human mind. It sang to my soul!
But my final HUGE takeaway was this: My whole life I have always wanted to learn to fly. And most of what I have wanted to learn to do I have at least tried. But I have never tried this. And for the life of me, I haven't known why. I could cite a handful of compelling reasons: It's expensive. I have a little fear. What's the use of spending the time and money on something that is ultimately frivolous? But I've felt all those things about horses, and I have never regretted any of the tens of thousands of hours or dollars I have spent on my horse life. So, why haven't I learned to fly?
I found my answer to that paradoxical question in what I felt in that moment of pure elation "over the Hudson", during which I caught a glimpse of exactly how the divine shines through our lives: Purely, freely, and so simply, simply sweetly.
In re-feeling that pure, free, sweetly simple moment over this past week, I realize that the beauty of it was that it had NOTHING to do with vocation or skill or purpose or meaning. It just was. In the past, as with my Bucket List, when I have had a feeling, I have tried to quantify it humanly. I have seen an image of a place that has stirred my soul, and I have thought -- I must GO there. I have heard about an amazing experience, and I have thought -- I must DO that. I have heard about a book, and I have thought -- I must READ that. I have leaned about a person, and have thought -- I would love to MEET them. But by coming to this experience precisely now, at a time when I have released that Bucket List approach, I was able to be present to what lies beneath our human wrangling of these intuitive soul messages we are always receiving. I realized that I no longer have to feel compelled to "translate" them into something that makes sense humanly -- a job, a to do, a goal. I just have to keep listening with my heart.
Now I understand that, for all of the spiritual growth I have "accomplished", what I am finally learning is just to soar in that sweet blue of what is true for no other reason than to soar. That is why Sean became a pilot and I didn't. And it is why he still loves loves loves what he does, and why I have dedicated the last half decade of my life to learning to love what I do. When we let ourselves be lifted on the currents of Love, our life soars in that Love. I learned that more beautifully than I could ever have imagined this week.
So, will I learn to fly? Perhaps. But if I do, it will not be for any other reason than because it sings to my heart. And here's the good news: My heart is ready, finally, to soar!