Lessons from Gaps
On missing flights and catching trapezes
This time last year, outfitted with a backpack and a passport, I boarded a transatlantic flight to Europe by myself from Boston.
Before you read on: This is not a think piece about quitting your day job to travel the world. But I promise it’s just as cheesy.
Anyway, I’d ventured outside the United States only a handful of times when I was younger — with family or classmates or colleagues, for vacations or competitions or conferences. Each of those experiences had been meticulously curated by other amateur tourists; their interchangeable itineraries never seemed to stray too far from some overpriced sightseeing tour peddling crappy souvenirs. So I convinced myself that this trip, which I’d planned and financed myself, would be different. I would grant myself the freedom to wander.
My first stop was Paris. I stayed at a friend’s place in the 7th Arrondissement, a ten-minute walk from the Eiffel Tower. Unable to to utter or understand a word of French, I was slightly terrified of — and equally enamored with — the city and its people. While Olivia attended class, I walked the streets for hours at a time, clumsily stumbling across some of the world’s most revered landmarks.
I made each one my muse as I shamelessly snapped and selfied away: Pont Alexandre III, Jardin des Tuileries, Musée du Louvre, Notre-Dame, Montmartre, and every patisserie along the way. I took a train to Versailles and spent half a day roaming around the estate. I walked all the way to the Latin Quarter and purchased a copy of This Side of Paradise from Shakespeare & Company.
That weekend, we boarded a train to London where Olivia traipsed around with me for a few days before heading back to Paris for class. I spent the next week in much the same fashion as I had Paris. With Google maps as my companion, I clocked 12+ hours each day trekking all over London, diligently Instagramming each step: The Tower of London, Westminster Abbey, Buckingham Palace, Piccadilly Circus, the London Eye. In true Millennial fashion, I walked all the way across Hyde Park to track down the Marble Arch because it’s referenced in that Jeff Buckley song from The O.C. Scrolling through my camera roll the morning I was set to leave, I was supremely pleased with how much I’d seen.
Somewhere between leaving my hotel in South Kensington and pushing through the crowded terminal at Gatwick, my luck completely and entirely ran dry. After experiencing major delays on the Tube, I arrived at check-in roughly 20 minutes too late.
I was expected back at work in New York the next morning, so in order to arrive only one day later, I spent an entire paycheck booking a flight for the following evening. I’m a tad ashamed to admit that I cried in the airport, bleeding even more money to call my mother from a payphone. From there, it was a 45-minute bus ride to another airport, a shuttle to a small town nearby, and then a long, lonely walk down a very dark, very quiet road to my hotel room. It was the cheapest I could find, evidently situated at the edge of the earth. I vaguely remember dragging my carry-on across a footbridge at some point.
The inflated high I’d been riding that morning as my extravagant, careless romp around the EU came to a close was replaced with total indifference. I felt drained in every imaginable way. I ate dinner at an actual table-for-one in the hotel restaurant and moped around in my room, wondering why I felt so remarkably depleted. A missed flight is hardly the end of the world — and if anything, I tend to bounce back too quickly, sometimes to a fault.
I had packed a brand new journal in my backpack, and though I’d recorded a few haphazard words here and there while regrouping on park benches or public transportation, I had largely neglected to write. So, thousands of miles removed from where I was supposed to be, forced into rethinking the decisions I’d made leading up to that miscalculation, I started writing.
For most of the trip, I realized, I had methodically avoided doing any real thinking. Instead, I’d flooded each moment with torrential distraction: all the sights, all the food, all the activities, all the conversations with strangers, all the dumb Snapchat stories. I had volumes and volumes of fun. But inadvertently, I had morphed my adventure into the tourist trap I was trying to flee. I hadn’t taken half a minute to reflect on why I felt the need to be on the other side of the world by myself in the first place — or why I hadn’t rushed to the airport that day.
Then I was gifted this rare, rogue stretch of time. I had absolutely nothing to do and nowhere to go. I cannot overstate just how in-the-middle-of-nowhere I was — geographically and in life. So began the real wandering.
I could have binge-watched Netflix or read a book or answered emails. But instead, I wrote. I tallied up all the things I had going on at that moment, outlined a bunch of goals, and mapped them to a bunch of really, really difficult decisions that I needed to make. I went to the airport hours early the next day and continued writing. Punctuated by pockets of sleep, I wrote on the plane. I landed at JFK groggy and broke, but resolved.
In case my reference to The O.C. didn’t deter you, I’m going to quote an old Coldplay lyric here. I first heard it during the fall semester of my freshman year of college — I had just moved to New York City from a small town, and was somewhere in between honeymoon phase and fish-out-of-water:
“Maybe I’m in the gap between the two trapezes.”
Let me tell you, trapezes are fucking scary. As a kid, I was corralled into performing this particular act of doom every year at summer camp. Basically, you step off a ledge above a giant net, holding onto nothing but a bar at the end of some ropes. Then you swing down in free-fall, until you reach the middle, where there’s supposed to be another trapeze bar waiting for you to grab it. To do that, you have to let go of the one you’re currently holding onto — positioning yourself for a split second in midair, unattached. Lots of physics involved, and plenty of room for error.
A lot of people get scared, so they never let go of the first trapeze. They swing back and forth until eventually they lose all momentum, and they’ve no choice but to fall onto the net below. At summer camp, we naturally split into two groups: those who tried for the second bar, and those who voluntarily fell to the net. I’ll let you guess which group is always more populated.
Periodically I wonder what would have happened if I’d boarded my original flight that day at Gatwick. I might still be in New York, stuck on that first trapeze, losing momentum. I’ve always been fascinated by the concept of historical accidents — total mishaps that have rerouted the course of history — and in the tiny blip of time that is my life, being gifted that stray 24 hours had an improbably huge impact on the next 12 months.
Before I missed that flight, I hadn’t been reaching for the second bar. By pure luck, I sort of just fell. I spent the next three months plainly in midair, grasping at nothing, the following three on the upswing, and finally, I caught that second trapeze. All in all: I left my first “real” job, got blessed by a monk in Thailand, flew over the Burj Khalifa, experienced my first “real” relationship, and participated in my very first hackathon. I cold emailed a startup I had read about, and months later got the opportunity to join as employee #7. I consolidated my life into two suitcases and moved from New York to California, and now I work on a product that I believe in with exceptional people. I’m one of those weirdos who gets excited to go to work every morning.
A few months ago I was leafing through some of the scribbled passages in my now retired journal (I’ve since filled almost three more, cover-to-cover). I was not modest. Unaffected by others’ influence and expectations, I was able to distill my truth in those words; every rambling thought, lofty ambition, ridiculous fear — I held nothing back. I was equally shocked to notice that I’ve accomplished every single goal that I spelled out, except for one.
Anyway, here’s the thing I’ve been trying to say: You’ll get further by wandering than you will by waiting. Gaps are scary, but they’re catalysts to growth. And, perhaps most importantly:
So, checking off that last remaining goal: publish something.
Maybe it’s the distance talking, but I’m immensely grateful for everyone who contributed to my New York adventure: family, friends, mentors, coworkers, roommates, pigeons, cab drivers — you are the giant net below that has afforded me all my foolishness. Thank you.