Felice Shapiro - I Landed the PlaneWithin the first hour of meeting the man I ended up marrying five years ago, we shared stories about the top things we love to make time for in our lives. You know: our hobbies, favorite sports, our love of reading and travel and even our politics. This ritual discovery dance is an automatic for most people meeting for the first time (maybe not the politics piece). When there’s a basic attraction, it is only “normal” to be a “tad” hopeful that this person’s interests are intriguing enough to stimulate more discoveries and open the pathway to a what’s next.

So, as the guy with the twinkly blue eyes, the heart lifting smile and the laugh of an optimist began to share his stories, I was leaning in with anticipatory curiosity. And then I heard those words from his lips–“I love to fly–I’ve been a pilot since my early twenties. I spend a lot of my free time in the air.” My heart started skipping and my pulse accelerated; I saw the color red, as in RED stop sign, RED Flag, and my inside voice was screaming, “no way – I don’t do small planes, I don’t even like big ones.” As the warning lights flashed the risk/reward ratio of continuing to talk to this man shifted. Suffice it to say, this was not a turn-on.

It’s not that I don’t fly but after the kids lost their dad, I became much more anxious about flying. I preferred to fly with my kids, as I had become hyperaware of avoiding situations that would leave them orphaned. And, I had decided that flying was risky and it had become increasingly nerve-wracking.

Despite my anxiety about flying, I would not describe myself as “unadventurous” but moreover, at times courageous and often a risk-taker. I’m a big skier; long-distance road biker and (here comes the real risk taking aspect of my personality), I cook without using recipes. I am a serotonin junkie relying heavily on daily cardio workouts that elevate my spirits and my soul. Natural elevation is my thing, not a mechanical lift-off.

The red flag moment passed and I married the pilot with the twinkling eyes. And in the process of merging our lives I really wanted to participate in his “passion” for flying. I got permission from the kids– they thought the whole flying thing was very cool and they were sure he would keep me safe. I wanted to love flying – I had told myself it was a privilege to be above the clouds – romantic to have the man you love pilot you– this would be liberating and magical. And then I got in the plane – many times I might add. Sweating with heart racing I would count to five hundred during lift-off – fixate on the control panel full of lights and confusion and hold my breath as we headed up and up – never quickly enough for me. I would pay attention to all the sounds, listening for problems but knowing full well I had no idea what a problem would sound like. “Please engines, just keep going, don’t conk out!”

I thought the more I went up with him the more comfortable I would become – NOT! Then I got the “talk.” My girlfriends decided I needed to learn how to land the plane in case of emergency. They were sure it would calm me if I felt more in control. Maybe I could begin to enjoy flying if I understood what was going on. They were right. I had gotten in the habit of pretending I was somewhere else when we were flying — that I wasn’t in the plane. I no longer even tried to sit up front in the co-pilot’s seat; I was happier in the back. During the rides, I would sing at the top of my lungs then immerse myself in writing – anything to distract myself as we flew – but always fearful and excessively relieved at touch down.

His annual flying conference was on the calendar; they offered a “companion course” on landing a plane – classroom instruction and actual flying time. I told him I needed to take the course if I wanted to keep traveling with him. Hey, if he keeled over mid-flight how would I get us down on the ground “safely?” Plus he loves me to join him and I wanted to be with him too. Maybe more knowledge would lead to greater comfort.

So, this past weekend I took the proverbial leap. I took a “crash” (ha, ha) course on how to land a plane in case of emergency. And guess what…I landed that sucker (three times)! I tackled my fear, walked through the anxiety wall, grabbed that pulsating monster by the neck and hugged it so tightly it dissolved into fluff. Yeah! It was awesome! Liberation!


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