When Things Fall Together

The ride of my life and embracing the unknown with gratitude

It was my last day in Amsterdam. I sat on a bench, tucked behind a small, round wooden table at a bar called Dapper in the Oud West neighborhood. My phone battery was almost dead, so I paid a Euro to lock it in a charging station and opted to read instead. I opened Didion’s book, The Year of Magical Thinking. I drank the house pilsner. One, two, three. Engrossed in the book, I was nearly finished and determined not to leave the bar until I read the last word. When I finished, I sat still for a moment. Then I used the bathroom and grabbed my phone from the charging locker on the way back to my table.

I checked my email. Holy shit. My friend Sara sent me a link to a New York Times article about a helicopter going down in the East River on Sunday night. The headline read, “Battling the East River Current, Divers Cut Passengers From Helicopter Harnesses.” Five people on a helicopter photo tour over Manhattan died, four men and one woman. The pilot managed to climb out and he survived. It was suspected that the harnesses, which were attached to the passengers and fastened from the back, were to blame for their inability to free themselves from the submerged helicopter.

In December 2017, only three months prior, Sara and I rode in a helicopter over Manhattan — with the doors off, just like those passengers did. Her photographer friend X was visiting from Europe and wanted to fly over the city to capture it from above. He chartered a helicopter from a different company than the one involved in the crash. And we went. Sara, me, X, and his friend, M. We did not have harnesses. We had straightforward seat belts that could be unbuckled from the front if needed. We did not need to. Other than being cold and paranoid about potential frostbite, our ride over Manhattan was carefree. The pilot even requested clearance for us to fly directly over Times Square, which was granted.

Maybe I was testing my own mortality. Maybe I wanted a reminder that nothing matters in the end, except the present. Maybe I wanted to celebrate a year in which I literally started at the bottom and rose and rose and rose until I was here. Maybe it was all of those things.

A week before Sara invited me, I had added Fly over Manhattan in a helicopter to a list of things I wanted to do in New York City. When Sara asked me, she wasn’t sure she wanted to go, but I insisted. When will we have the chance again, I said to her. I borrowed my friend Kat’s puffer coat for the trip and wore more layers than I had donned as a kid bundled up to play in the Michigan snow all afternoon. But once we were up in the air, the euphoria hit and I mostly forgot about the cold.

We flew out of Westchester airport in White Plains. It took 15 minutes to arrive over the Bronx, and then Central Park, and then the Empire State Building. We continued south over the city, past One World Trade and around the Statue of Liberty, and then on to the East River and Downtown Brooklyn. The city was stunning at dusk. The sun reflected onto the panels of glass, mirroring its pink and orange hues. We watched the city light up as the temperature dropped even lower.

I felt small as we hovered over a city of 8.5 million people. I paid a few hundred dollars to do this. It was a risk, I knew that. But it was symbolic, too. Maybe I was testing my own mortality. Maybe I wanted a reminder that nothing matters in the end, except the present. Maybe I wanted to celebrate a year in which I literally started at the bottom and rose and rose and rose until I was here. Maybe it was all of those things.

A 360 still of us flying over NYC

When my marriage ended the January before, nearly a year ago, I walked away with $4,000 that I had made from a freelance project. It was earmarked in the joint account, set aside to pay taxes, but when Ryan told me he wanted a divorce, I went to the bank a few days later, opened my own checking account, and withdrew the money I’d earned, the money I’d need to start a new life. It wasn’t much, but it was enough to move a block away to the new apartment I had found on Craigslist.

I wrestled with an enormous amount of self-doubt, and I was burdened with questions that I had no answer to. Only time could answer those questions. This was a situation I could no longer control, so I decided to lean into what I did not know…

Shortly after I moved in with my roommate, Bailey, in March, she handed me Pema Chödrön’s book, When Things Fall Apart and said, I think you’ll like this. Up until that point, I hadn’t read one book in the past few years. As a kid, I was a voracious reader, and that continued into my teens and young adulthood. But at some point during my marriage, I stopped reading. Pema’s book was an invitation back into reading, and back into my life.

When things fell apart for me, it happened fast. Husband wants a divorce. He’s made his decision. Is there someone else? Does it matter? No. This is happening. It’s real. What about the business we’ve run together for the past six years? If I leave that, what will I do for work? Do I have anything of value to contribute? How will I make money? Where will I live? I don’t want to leave New York. What will my life become?

I wrestled with an enormous amount of self-doubt, and I was burdened with questions that I had no answer to. Only time could answer those questions. This was a situation I could no longer control, so I decided to lean into what I did not know, with encouragement from Pema:

When we think that something is going to bring us pleasure, we don’t know what’s really going to happen. When we think that something is going to give us misery, we don’t know. Letting there be room for not knowing is the most important thing of all.

I’ve joked with friends that my life has fallen together. I would not have chosen for it to happen this way, but we don’t get to choose. I thought about this as I flew over New York City in a helicopter, marveling at the lives we live that feel so self-important and consequential at times, but so small and insignificant in the bigger scheme of things. We are all trying to live into the answers. We are all trying.

I’ve joked with friends that my life has fallen together. I would not have chosen for it to happen this way, but we don’t get to choose.

I sipped my beer and looked around the bar. We are all here, for now. Our lives are falling apart and falling together every day. I packed Didion’s book back into my tote, threw on my coat and scarf, and stepped out into the streets of Amsterdam. I walked the two blocks to where I parked my bike. I undid the lock, brushed the water droplets off of the saddle, and hopped on. I pedaled fast along the bike path as drops of water formed around my eyes, and I wasn’t sure if it was the rain or tears of gratitude for where life has taken me.