A year ago I was sitting at O’Hare airport waiting to board American Airlines flight #54 to Manchester, England. A riotous storm had just barreled through town so a timely takeoff was unlikely. In order for the airline to claim an on-time departure, we boarded and left the gate at the designated time but sat on the runway for two hours where we were offered granola bars as a distraction before embarking on the eight hour flight.
My mistake was thinking I could be distracted or even relax enough to catch some sleep during the overnight flight. If I had made this trip before or was sharing this adventure with a friend, I might have succeeded. But since I was traveling alone to a foreign country to spend a week with strangers, I felt like I was leaping off a cliff.
Now I have leapt enough times to know I will grow wings on the way to what looks like certain death. I have even written a book about it. (If you are interested in Read It and Leap, email me and I’ll tell you how to get a copy.)
Still, this trip was different.
This was one of those trips that define a life. There was my life before the hiking trip with poet David Whyte and my life after. So in some ways, I was facing the imminent death of life as I knew it. As I flew east into the light throughout the night, I couldn’t close my eyes for fear I might miss the instructions on how to navigate the afterlife.
For most people a European vacation might have happened much earlier in life and involved a backpack and Eurorail pass instead of a two checked bags and a carry on. But I’m a firm believer in reinventing your life at any age and traveling light, despite the checked bags. When the planets align and give you a sign and you happen to have a current passport, you are duty bound to heed the call of the wild.
Instead of attending my high school reunion, I boarded a plane and headed to Melmerby Manor, where twenty members of my new tribe awaited my arrival as if they had been waiting thirty years for our reunion.
Like most true adventures, I really had no idea what was in store for us for the next seven days. I knew there would be hiking. I just hadn’t anticipated five hours of intense hiking in breathtaking locales each day.
I knew there would be poetry. I just didn’t know how incredible it would be to hear it from the source in the land of his ancestors.
I thought there might be rain but was delighted to discover it was sunny every day and stayed light until almost 11pm.
I figured there would be interesting food. I just hadn’t expected the world’s best organic bakery to provide our midday meals and sack lunches for the hikes. Or that sustenance could come as much from conversation while making the evening meals as from the meals themselves.
I knew I would make new friends. I just had no idea how meaningful these bonds would become since opportunities to make new friends aren’t always as prevalent at midlife as they are when we are younger.
One of the great lines in David’s poem Learning to Walk speaks to the fact that at midlife we are “present enough to know true friends when we meet them” and “mature enough to keep them for a lifetime.”
Six of these new friends have agreed to help me write a book about our experience in The Lake District. On one particular hike we lost our way, therefore dubbing ourselves The Lost Ladies of Cumbria. Of course, we eventually found our way back to the rest of the group. In the process we discovered so many parallels between getting lost on the hike and getting lost at midlife, we decided to collect them along with our stories for anyone who might dare to follow in our footsteps.
We all met again this April at the Whidbey Institute on Whidbey Island near Seattle where David hosted a reunion weekend for those who had been on any of his tours over the years. We spent five days getting reacquainted and plotting and planning what is to become The Lost Ladies of Cumbria book, blog, and guides to just about everything. In a very short time, these women have become an essential part of my life.
When you take an educated leap, not only do you grow the wings I mentioned earlier, but you also gain a sense of self that may have become dormant in your everyday life.
For example, who would know I love to travel when my daily commute is five minutes from door to office and an hour to visit friends and family on the weekend?
Who would suspect I’m really quite funny when my day job is advising students on such serious matters as what to be when they grow up and overseeing the daily operations of a new satellite campus?
Who would guess that walking and writing are as essential to my well-being as eating and sleeping?
Who would know that inside you, just like me, there lies “some wild risk about to break again on the world”* given the slightest opportunity?
If you are reading this, I’m counting on you to leap when that opportunity arises.
And then you must tell us about it.
This is how the Midlife MacGyver Movement begins!
*From Learning to Walk by David Whyte.