four years full circle

Last year at this time I was in England with family I hadn’t seen in some 15 years. Then I went to Sweden, France, Canada, America, back to Canada, to New Zealand and then back to Sweden. It’s been a whirlwind of a year. A year that took my breath away. Changed me. Made me see myself and the world I had been creating around me. And then I learned to breathe again – once I took responsibility for my life … again.

You see, before all that I took time off and went to Southeast Asia for five months. Five months of traveling on trains, boats, buses, vans and planes. Five months of having to think on my feet in foreign lands. Some people thought I went because I had never really traveled like that before. Truth is, I wasn’t getting any better. I was at an impassé. Stuck on auto-pilot. Just coasting. I knew, deep within, that if I didn’t shake up my life my heart and mind wouldn’t make it through the circus.  It was like I could see the exit, but I couldn’t get out.

So five months of chaos and beaches, sun and surf, cheap beer and mosquitoes, scary commutes and corrupt border officials, meeting new people and learning to say thank you in different languages, dancing and scuba, sarongs and hand-washed laundry, hammocks and book exchanges, islands and mountains, McDonalds and Joss and so much more – all of this helped me find myself again. The girl I am now. The girl I became. And I have changed. But that’s not that surprising.

So on this day, this four years after that dark dark day, I can hold my head up high and claim I weathered the storm. A bit battered. In need of a few repairs. But the sun is shining and life goes on. I made it.

So now for the good news.

I met a guy.

I met a guy – I mean, I kind of asked the universe for him to be delivered to me. You know, like wishing upon a star or blowing the seeds off a dandelion. I kind of believe in that shit. So what if I had to go all the way to New Zealand to find him? One surprising thing is that he isn’t a skydiver. Jumpers often ask me, with looks of astonishment on their faces, how on earth we met? It is a curious thing. Then there was the most surprising thing – that I let him into my heart full well knowing that I may not yet be ready, he might have no clue what he’s gotten himself into and he might not be the right guy for me.

But then we had our first fight.

And this guy – who has English as a second language – reached deep within himself to communicate with me and try to sort out how the fight started and what we can do to be better to each other in the future. He was honest. He was forthright. He was patient. He was kind. Slowly he was getting me hooked on him.

Me and David on a camping trip to Milford Sound. He made us breakfast.

Me and David on a camping trip to Milford Sound. He made us breakfast.

And then I had to leave to Sweden.

Work visas are tricky things. The past few years I have spent a lot of time galavanting within foreign lands earning my income as best as I can, but the time always comes when I must leave. Always.

And so I left, but with one difference this time. I’m going back to New Zealand. And maybe it is for a guy. So what? Life can be short. We might not have as much time here as we think. We need to take chances if we’re to get the most out of this crazy life and wonderful planet. So now we count down the days until I go home to the guy who coincidentally holds the same name as the one I remember today. Well-played universe. I see what you did there.

So, my friends, the point is I got my heart back. And I’m gonna use it. And I’m gonna enjoy the change this past year has brought me. Life can change quickly, sometimes without your consent, but other times, and this is when some of the most amazing shit happens, is when you allow yourself to change.

 

the path I travel

IMG_7955 2It’s visceral. But in many ways it’s the truest expression of freedom I can do unhindered. What other way is there to explain it? Meh. Maybe you don’t care. But let me try to explain.

Sometimes it feels so easy and natural, a smooth change from one climate or plane or nation to another, and yet other times claustrophobia and culture shock grab hold deep within rattling levels of consciousness I could never have known existed. And then I’m gasping with some imaginary asthma, wondering where my protective bubble has gone. Why do I have to do things the way I do things? Why do I suddenly feel so alone? Where is my safety net? My security? My home? It’s not always like this. But sometimes it is. And occasionally I stand there wondering where I have exactly gone with my life. Why have I switched countries again? Forced myself to make new friends again? Get used to a new way of life again? Really, I wonder, what’s in it for me?

What’s in it for me?

When the bubble disappears and I’m left vulnerable and naked with complete realization of where I am and who I am, it’s the ensuing moments when a new understanding begins to ooze in through my skin – seeping like primordial sludge – that I awaken and feel an abstruse sense of freedom. It’s this moment. It’s this feeling that I love. To know I can change. To know I can learn. To know that nothing holds me down or keeps me in place. To travel. To venture. To journey. To go where my heart desires and my dreams foresee. To meet new and interesting people and explore new and far away lands. But really, what I really love – is to learn a different way to live. That’s what’s in it for me.

But they ask. Doesn’t it get hard moving all the time? Don’t you miss home? Your friends? Your family? Doesn’t it get hard leaving all the time? Saying good-bye?

Yes. And no.

It does get hard to leave. And it does get hard to keep starting over. But I’ve stopped looking at it that way. Perhaps, I tell myself, I have developed a different way to live. Perhaps I am never leaving or arriving. Perhaps I am on a continuous journey. Yes. I’ll keep it simple. And all the people I meet along the way – I’m not saying good-bye, rather it’s “See you later.” Somewhere down the line in my journeys our paths may cross again. And if they don’t, that’s OK, because at least they crossed.

It’s not always hard though. Once the choice is made and the first step taken, I look forward. The ball has been set in motion. It’s a force. A current. Who would ever want to stop such a process?

But rarely do people ask if it’s exciting and enjoyable and life-altering and … visceral? Probably because they don’t want to hear the answer. They already know the answer.

I remember when I was 17 and all I could think was – there has to be more to life than Thunder Bay. Everyday before school I would repeat this mantra and it was the only thing that got me out of bed. And finally, at 19, I got my shot to leave.

This isn’t about why I left my hometown, though I’m sure that large step did help me realize that there was more out there that I wanted to see. And that I had the balls to go after the life I wanted. Yup. There is more to life than Thunder Bay. But don’t get me wrong. I still love my hometown, but it holds no more mystery for me.

Why I travel and move – it’s the most exciting life I can live in the way I want to live. It fulfills me in many many ways. It’s risky and challenging. But if it wasn’t challenging I would’t feel so fulfilled. It’s full of opportunity and discovery. Everything is always new and exciting – even when it’s the same old same old. Will I ever settle down somewhere? If that means buying a house or having a home base, then yes. I do want this sometime, but not just yet. And even then I’m still going to travel. I’ll just always have somewhere to go home to. And that’ll be another challenge. 

My freedom is the most valuable thing I have. I would give up everything for it. I would fight for it. I would die for it. I know security is an illusion. I know life can change quickly. I know we might not have as much time as we think. I know the bubble doesn’t last forever. So I choose to live the way I do. It’s visceral. That’s the only way I can explain it.

some thoughts on death in skydiving

This post has been nearly two months in the making. Two months of mulling. Two months of reflecting on what I really think about death in this sport. It’s not that I feel obligated to write this post, it’s that I can’t sleep well at night anymore knowing i haven’t written anything about it. Knowing I haven’t said anything about it. Knowing I haven’t fermented any conclusions from my vast experience of “death” these past few weeks and years. Since my friend Stephanie went in skydiving a few months ago I haven’t really been able to stop thinking of the chances of dying in this sport. I mean, we all know there’s that chance, but we skydive anyway. We all know we could get seriously injured, but we skydive anyway. But I think me and most people, before we initiate each jump, have the mindset that we’re gonna live because we’re ready to deal with anything that comes our way. We don’t think about the absolutely absurd or improbable things that could happen. We’re aware they could happen, but we don’t focus on them. We leave them in the corner of our mind as uncertainties, to be dealt with if they improbably arise. But when I think about this last point, I know most people who don’t skydive go about their daily lives with the same assessment. It’s a waste of time and life to worry about every little thing that can go wrong.

I read this amazing article by Chris “Douggs” McDougall about death in the sport and it dawned on me that I’ve gotten really good at dealing with death. Too good. I don’t mean that I don’t think about it, as I previously wrote, what I mean is I’m getting better with loss. Until Max went in just over a week ago. And Jared. Five days before him. It humbled and perplexed me because I wasn’t surprised. I wasn’t upset. I wasn’t too angry. I was too good at dealing with friends dying. These past three years have brought so much loss and at some point I just built it into a fact of life. It’s gonna happen. I’m jaded about it. Of course, these realizations came about a week ago – along with the anger at these last two losses – and shorty thereafter I cried and realized my friend wasn’t coming home. I know I just contradicted myself, but it’s momentary.

Max. My buddy who let me stay on his couch for the past two months. Who I dropped off at the airport just a few weeks ago.  I didn’t really know Jared, but he was part of my DZ. But Max. Max was my friend. He was my confident. He was my right ear. Yes. I can handle loss easily, but what humbles me and makes me cry is that Max didn’t have to die and yet he chose to live the life he lived and he chose to do the things he did. How can I fault life when it was his own choice? Death isn’t about me and my loss. It’s about life and what we gained from the experience.

The part of me that has gotten good at dealing with death quickly wipes away the tears and smiles at the good times we had. At the funny things he did. At the great life he lived. And I’m left with a feeling that he and the many others who went before are just beyond the veil at a raging party waiting for the rest of us to join them. And they’re telling their great stories of all the times they came so close to death. And then they’re telling their last story – of how they came to be at the party.

I have lost so many friends to this sport it’s unreal. But only a few of them would I consider close friends. Regardless, though, I didn’t really think going into skydiving when I was 21 that I would experience so much death and loss. Nor did I realize that at some point along the journey that loss would transform into a realization of what life really is. The deaths of my friends has given me a grand life experience. What I learned is we might not have as much time as we think. That there are no do-overs. That every moment is precious and worth the effort. To not take yourself so seriously. That everything will work out at some point, so don’t stress about it. That people who are in your life are in your life by choice. That we all must die at some point, and some are in quite a rush to get there. But mostly, and this is the important part, I learned that we all have a part to play in this life and if you can focus more on what part we play, rather than how well we play it, you might feel a whole lot better about this experience we know as life. Play safe, my friends. I’ll get to the party eventually, but I’m not quite finished enjoying the one we got here.

three years later

I’ve been aware of this day approaching for the past two months. Obviously. Sometimes I can’t get it out of my head. But it’s not like it’s a dark cloud that blocks the sun. I suppose it’s more like a translucent balloon – cloudy enough to mar the sun, but not so dense as to conceal it. I miss Dave everyday. I don’t need a specific date to realize he’s gone. And yet I almost looked forward to June 10th’s arrival this year. Almost.

It dawned on me whilst I was scuba diving and enjoying myself on an Indonesian island that I had come so far. I’ve pushed myself through so many life changes and overcome so many fears. I’ve been fulfilling some of my life-long dreams because I know – you might not have as much time as you think.

In the time since he passed beyond this world I forged ahead blindly, trusting that if I watched the signs of the world I would end up where I needed to be. It would’ve been easy to be that tragic figure who blames everything in her life on the death of her boyfriend. But my good friend Mali’s voice kept sounding in my head. “Don’t let this define you.” And then I would remember the promise Dave made me make to him, that should he die, I had to move on right away. And then I’d picture those tragic people and I knew I didn’t want to end up like that.

If I can make it through another June 10th having done something new and exciting with my life it means I’m moving on. If I can keep my chin up. If I can smile at men. Heck, if I can even let them sweet talk me, it means I’m no longer living in the grief world. That’s a dark world. But at some point I had to cross a line where my life with Dave became a part of my past, no matter how guilty that made me feel.

I know this seems so easy. It seems so realistic. But if you’ve never been through grief, you will never truly understand how self-preserving your mind can be.

But so here I am. Happy-ish. Optimistic. I have a good life. I’m on a great adventure. And while I still tear-up when I think of that man, I’m still ecstatic about the chapter he added to my life. My past life. Damn, he was a great guy. And damn, I’m lucky to have had his love. I still love him. All but for that terrible event three years ago – which really confused my feelings for him for a little while.

So much can happen in three years. And when people tell me they like how I live my life I want to tell them how hard it was to get here – but I can’t. That’s subjective. I mean, when I was obliged to start this new life of mine three years ago I figured, how much worse could it really get? So I started living the life I wanted to live and trusted in myself to do whatever was necessary to get through – even if that meant quitting jobs, living in bunkhouses, switching countries or travelling the world. Uncertainty can be hard for many people, I thrive on it, but I know what it really is.

That bubble’s gotta pop sometime. I wonder where I’ll be when I can finally see the sun.

Image

This photo was taken along the trail across the way from PST autumn 2009.

the return to the dz

airshow and dz 043The e-mails would begin to pick up. The phone calls. Who was heading out already? Who was waiting until they could no longer see their breath? Who were the die-hards and kept visiting all winter long? It was the same every spring. As soon as the snow showed signs of disappearing for good, as soon as the trees showed their buds and the frost looked like it had almost sucked its last breath, as soon as we’d had enough of the endless darkness and the bitter cold, the frozen fingers and running noses, the quivering lips and clenched spines, as soon as we thought we could no longer take any more of winter’s blanketed heaviness – spring would pop its head out of a hole for just a second, an important second, and tell us not to give up hope. She was coming. And in anticipation we pulled out the old phone tree and started looking for people to jump with, people to car-pool with, someone to bring out the firewood, someone with a truck to help with a new mattress or fridge or tv, someone to go in on that bottle of Jäger with, all so we could make sure we were present for opening weekend at our DZ.

Spring is the herald, blowing her pristine horn across the crispy air, telling us to escape from the covers and tough it out, to come and clean out your trailer, dispose of the mice droppings, wipe down the fridge, pull out the linen, dig out the heater and get ready to live a brilliant season again. And so you respond to the e-mails and you pick up the phone, and then voices that were silent for four dire months of lacklustre short days and cold nights come waltzing back into your life. And you’re talking about Florida and Arizona and new jumpsuits and canopies, courses and repacks, parties and boogies, who’s dating who and who sold their gear. You wonder if your rig will be ready in time. If your Cypres was due this winter or next. You call your rigger. You call your packer. Like an electric buzz that gets louder by the second, it begins from a tiny squeak and erupts from there.

103_0912But you know it’s not going to be wonderful just yet. Do you care? The ground will be soggy. You’ll have to push the plane across the landing area. And the mice really did try their best this year. Oh, and the leak in the corner. What a headache that is. And it’s still raining, but you think, at least it’s rain. But you still have to wear your toque, and if it weren’t for the firewood, the evening would’ve been nearly unbearable, if it weren’t for all those faces you haven’t seen for four months. Does it matter you can see your breath? Does it matter the runway is too wet? So you all go open up the hangar. Pull out the fans. Roll out the carpets. Break out the creepers. Find your hoodie you thought you lost. Breathe the free air.

Everything around you is familiar and special. You think of it as yours, but clearly it’s not. You protect it like a child. You defend it’s honour to anyone who declares any short-comings it may have. This DZ, this landing area, this firepit, this trailer park, even the staff – they are yours. They are extensions of your family. And you have a pride for them that you can’t explain. It’s a vein that runs deep, and if it ever were to disappear, well, you just can’t think about that.

Picture 030You know this is why you survive through winter. This is why you own a trailer. This is why you’ve no idea what other people do on weekends. And this is where you’ll be until the trees lose their leaves, the days grow shorter, the wind returns the rosy colour to your cheeks and you look to the sky knowing the first snow is about to fall. But until then, you will skydive. You will laugh with your skydiving family. You will brush off your blood family to hang with your skydiving family. You will jump and jump and jump. And you will look around in pride at everything you have and you will wonder whatever it was you did all winter long.

the winters i remember

From my childhood I remember only the glory of winter. How it came so quick in northwestern Ontario – fall but a month of a tease cutting summer off and ushering in the brisk cold of the upper latitudes. It all happened so quickly. The worst winters were when it didn’t snow. We remember these as dark times. But as long as the snow came we were golden – we were alive – we had a brilliant world in front of us with more opportunity than every-day summer could provide. When we were kids we didn’t care of sun-filled skies or short-wearing weather. All we knew was this was ours – we had such pride for our home. We knew summer would come – but while the cold-weather was here we were going to do the things we could only do with the short hours of daylight we had. These were the glories of winter – snow-forts, gangs and hidden stashes of snowballs, sudden blizzards that white-out the street, snowbanks so high we thought we would surely die should we fall from them, throwing skates over our hockey stick blades to walk to the rink, successfully finding a puck in the snow, cold feet, chapped lips, see-through trees, mom bringing us hot-chocolate, road hockey and pick-up games, jumping from the monkey bars, skidding down tire-tracks on our boots, pulling out the most biggest piece of crusted snow, watching the northern lights, jumping out of bed ready for a snowday, going to the big hill to toboggan, skiing, wishing we had helmets, snow-sculpting contests, winter fairs, trips to the country, hayrides and spending more time running after the wagon, cross-country skiing at the oddest of times, snow-shoe baseball or at least being able to run in them, frost-bitten ears, walking home from grandma’s in the snow, creating the first footprints on freshly fallen snow, having to make our way across a field after more than one foot of snow, not getting a snow day, the Christmas lights coming down, that one last snowfall, the rink melting, hitting rocks with our skis, the first time someone wears shorts. And then one day it’s over. But we were kids. And we knew it would be back. So we tucked away our winter gear and got ready for summer – spring but a month of a tease before it was ushered away by the heat and sunshine – all wasted away at camp on some lake with our cousins and summer-time friends, just like the summer before.

travel insurance

It’s a necessary part of the budget. Finding the right kind of insurance can be difficult though. I looked and looked and ended up just buying emergency medical insurance, but I have a solid reason for this. First, though, I’m going to explain the kind of insurance available to me. I am by no means an expert. This is what I learnt from a day online researching insurance.

Who do I buy a plan from?

There are different sorts of travel insurance plans available, but before you decide what to buy, you need to know how long you’re going to be gone for. If you leave Canada for longer than 183 days you are no longer covered under your provincial health insurance plan. Travel insurance providers can subsidize medical costs (I think) through the province’s healthcare. Once you’re gone longer than six months, the cost of insurance will increase. You can use a site like www.travelinsurancereview.ca to compare different plans.

For my purposes, I booked a plan for six months with Travel CUTS Bon Voyage that I can upgrade before departure and can extend should I decide to travel for longer. Travel CUTS plans are underwritten by RBC. I used this company before when I travelled to New Zealand. I’ve never had to file a claim, so I don’t know if it’s painless, but I do know that it was cheaper than World Nomads, though World Nomads had a higher limit for lost possessions.

 What kind of plan do I buy?

If you haven’t booked a return ticket, interruption insurance is pointless. Unfortunately, there’s not many plans out there that make this an option. I have a one-way ticket. While Travel CUTS Plan D would have been a good option, it didn’t provide me with 24-hour personal accident insurance. I plan on doing some scuba, hiking and ride an elephant and all of these things could result in injury.

If you have business class or first class tickets, cancellation/interruption insurance would be a good idea. Some plans will include coverage to return home if there is an illness or death in the family. Some will also include a family member flying to be by your side should it be necessary.

Another option is personal effects and baggage coverage. While I think it’s a good idea to have this insurance, I opted out of it. It was $163 cheaper to opt out of this. I figure if my camera, laptop, phone, passport, wallet or entire backpack get stolen – I’m a moron. The option will only cover up to $300 per an item up to a max of $800. While it would be nice to not be out $800, I am convinced that I need to be a careful backpacker and not leave my things lying around or destroy them as I am often quite capable of doing. I know it’s wishful thinking, but this was a personal decision.

Exclusions?

Insurance doesn’t cover everything. For instance, I have rheumatoid arthritis. If I need to see a doctor while I’m away to refill a prescription or because I’m having a flare – it’s not covered under my plan. I would pay out the nose to have my “pre-existing condition” covered. A pre-existing condition can also be something that you haven’t even been diagnosed with yet – but have had symptoms of. While I do plan on seeing a doctor to get my Twinrix shot in April and to get my prescription refilled at some point – I plan on paying out of pocket for these things. This plan is for the emergency I can’t imagine happening.

Some sports are also excluded. Skydiving – my hobby – is not covered. Mountain climbing, scuba – if not rated by a Canadian school or PADI/SSI school, white water rafting and glacier trekking are excluded as well. Be sure to find out which activities are not covered under your plan. Or be prepared to pay the price.

Now what?

Print out all your documents. Scan them. Email them to yourself. Make sure you have some way to access the number you need to call in the event of an emergency. Make sure this number is in your wallet or money belt or where ever someone can find it should you be incapable to help them find it.

Bring a lock to lock your stuff in security lockers (if they got them) and don’t flaunt your iPhone or iPod or any other expensive loot for others to see. While most backpackers/flashpackers will have gadgets and laptops and dSLRs, you’ll also meet the guy who broke his camera, had a drink spilled on his phone or got his computer nicked at some hostel in Hanoi. Just be aware of your surroundings, try not to leave your things unattended and enjoy your trip.