Every morning I watch the seagulls fly over the canal from the deck of my new home, a houseboat in the centre of Amsterdam. They are experts at catching an updraft, familiar with every twist and turn of the waterways, expending energy only when needed.
Unlike the seagulls though, I am bewildered by my new surroundings. I feel like a fledgling pulsing between fascination and a desperate need to return to the nest. Moving countries can do that to you, especially if you’ve spent the last 6 years living in the Australian wilderness with only forest for company.
When I was young, I dreamt I could fly too. I soared high above mountains and through valleys. I wasn’t a bird in my dreams. I was me, flying. It felt completely natural and it was exhilarating. I haven’t experienced anything quite like it since. It coincided with a childhood exploring the woods surrounding my home, boundless and free of self-doubt.
I don’t remember when I stopped dreaming about flying. All I know is, at some point I abandoned my desire to fly for the security of solid ground. I wanted vulnerability without risk, the aliveness of flight but with control over the outcome. “I’ll tell them how I feel about them only if I get a hint about how they feel first”.
I died a thousand deaths in that lonely place. The more excuses I found to say no, the fewer reasons I found to say yes, in time, I forgot how to fly. And yet, the desire to be airborne never let me go.
My former forest home was an attempt to satisfy that yearning, to recapture the freedom of my husband’s and my country childhoods for ourselves and for our daughter. We were both tired of our clipped wings and our city cage. We flew to the country to live life on our own terms. My husband would commute to the city for work each week for a year until we could transition fully into our new life as organic farmers.
Fast forward five years and we were still transitioning. We were naïve to think a small family farm could pay a substantial mortgage. My husband spent even more time away. Working the farm took everything we had with no time or energy left to enjoy the lifestyle we moved there for. We were living separate lives. The way I saw it, I was at home keeping the hearth fires burning and he was out in the world making things happen.
I was that caged bird again, feeling undervalued and a prisoner of circumstance. My migraine condition became chronic and my mental health deteriorated. Resentment and envy took up residence in me. One of the worst things about chronic pain, is not so much the pain itself, or how it can hold you hostage from life, it’s the slow erosion of hope into the black hole of the ego that will eat you alive if you let it, tricking you into a false sense of security about your alienation.
Rock bottom came on day three of another vomiting migraine. I remember being on the cold bathroom floor. There was nothing left of me. I was too exhausted to cry but tears still ran down my face. At the end of day three I’m only ever left with surrender. All my resistance has been flushed away with the last of my bile.
But then it got nasty, I spiralled down into that final pit of self loathing, the one that swallows me just before I give in.
“What if I die of a stroke and my daughter finds my body?”
“I’m going to get early dementia because of all of the pain medication and nerve damage.”
“I’m a total fraud because all of the spiritual things I’ve been writing about amount to nothing when I’m dry retching and begging for my Mummy, why can’t I just fucking surrender because I know that’s all I have to do.”
This time though, instead of curling myself up into a ball to smother the pain I decided to try and untangle myself from the berating voice that seemed to feed it. It was difficult because the pain and the voice and my awareness of it were all in my head wrestling with each other. I became still so I could be aware of the voice and not engage in an argument with it. I had tried this before with limited success but this time it was different. This time I felt an overwhelming sense of compassion for that voice, for myself.
After a few moments I saw in my minds eye what looked like the shrouded faces of animals – a bear, a short beaked bird and then a human face I didn’t recognise. Migraines can be halucinagenic sometimes so this didn’t surprise or scare me. That’s also when I began to notice a separation between myself and the voice.
Silently and with my heart I asked the voice in my head ‘What is bothering you?’
‘I’m tired, I’ve reached my threshold. I can’t stop, everything will fall apart if I stop.’
‘Everything will be ok, what if we take a break, just a small one? Shall we go for a walk?’
The voice said yes and immediately I was airborne. I flew out my bedroom window into the forest behind the house. I could see and hear the leaves crunching under my feet, even though my feet were no where to be seen. I was suspended in body and mind. My head filled with a deep sense of peace, an absence of thought I had never experienced before. Then all of a sudden I was back in my bed and soon after the migraine itself was gone.
I didn’t understand what it meant at the time. I felt confused and wondered whether it happened at all. It always takes a day or two for my neurons to start firing properly again after a long migraine episode. It wasn’t until I was standing in my kitchen one night a week later that it made any sense to me. I remember feeling so alone and angry. I contracted into such a tight mental ball, I could feel my shell disintegrating. Then I felt that separation from myself again, from the voice in my head that blamed my circumstances for everything.
In that moment I saw the envy and resentment for what they really were, clues about how to break free from the mental cage I had created. Even though I had escaped the confines of my city life, I had taken the cage with me in my head. Once filled with flights of fancy, my mind had become obsessed with finding evidence for why those desires could never be.
I found a false sense of security in being the wind beneath every one else’s wings, facilitating their full self expression and not my own. I was afraid of finding my own wings and of where they might take me. Blaming circumstance had been a good excuse to say no, to stay trapped, powerless and tame. Now it was time to relearn how to fly.
It was difficult to leave the farm and return to the city. I’ve never felt more connected to myself and to the world around me than in that wild place. I also knew I could no longer deny being the wind beneath my own wings.
Moving was the easy part. Now that I’m here, there are more difficult conversations to be had and relationships to be renegotiated as I find a new balance between the needs of my family and myself. There will be more mornings like this morning full of family conflict over new boundaries, where all I want to do is walk out the door and just keep going. But there’s a difference between flying and fleeing. These conflicts, like my migraines, are communiqués from my soul, reminding me that relearning to fly is a work in progress.
If you’ve ever watched a bird landing on water you’ll know they are just as at home on the earth as they are in air. Their re entry is seemless. It briefly disrupts the status quo. There are ripples. Calm returns. Life goes on.
I don’t know if I’ll dream about flying again. I hope I do. In the meantime, I’m going to get airborne here on Earth. That means dismantling the mental stories I cage myself with regardless of my physical circumstances. Only then can I find the wings I was born with. And even though the fear of what might be is still so real, I have to know. Otherwise those things unknown will always remain longed for still. Like my wings, the updraft has been there all along. All I have to do is dare to claim it.