There is a disease becoming increasingly rampant amongst our society which rivals COVID-19, it is a creation born of tension and anxiety brewed in a pandemic and matured amongst isolation: a powerfully overwhelming negativity. This pervasive mood is wildly contagious and has felt the need to not only manifest itself within people but to use its host to attempt to impose itself on others who are otherwise seemingly unaffected or only mildly symptomatic.
My pandemic experience has been nothing short of unique, like a rollercoaster in an unlit room, being unable to anticipate the upcoming highs, lows and loop-the-loops. There were moments of great triumph as well as abject failures, resulting in this chapter of my life undefinable as good or bad but one maybe better described as outright bizarre.
My pandemic experience has been rife with soul-searching, struggles with loss of identity and an inner turmoil. You can read through my two previous posts addressing these experiences specifically, Career-Killing Covid-19 Coronavirus and Hindsight 2020 & the Bitter Taste of 2021, and you will likely feel the low-hanging storm clouds that have plagued me for the past 15 months. As the uncertainty of my flying future hung over me from the beginning of my furlough, I set into motion a plan I had thankfully orchestrated prior to my unexpected layoff; which, after 10 months of hard work, resulted in the agricultural pilot position I am in today.
Like a pilgriming monk looking to a higher power for purpose and peace, I looked to agriculture. The intensity of the work, and the beautiful simplicity of the goal to help farmers protect their yield to feed the people; I looked for reason in those loud, monstrous airplanes off the beaten path, and away from the society I felt excluded from at the loss of my illustrious airline position. I oft quote M.W. Bourne in his book Border Pilot and I will once more, as I believe he perfectly captured the emotional load and escape to be found in aerial application:
"And when I strapped myself into that life, I knew that I was seeking more than my need to fully experience flight, I was seeking something that I once thought could be found in books, in classrooms, in intellectual discussions with other seekers.
But I willfully abandoned all those conventional avenues into personal insight. I chose instead to crawl into those shaking airplanes in the hope that somehow this would enable me to bring order to my mind."
There was undeniable pain at losing my position with Jazz and the mourning process was and still is grueling and complex, but something else was reborn within the loss, some form of reinvigorated personal autonomy.
I had been pushing, questing, fighting for an expedited return to the place that allowed me the opportunity to fall in love with flying, and this, to be able to someday fly a widebody at our flag carrier. I remember very specifically while having dinner in Switzerland, as I dined on exquisite steak with my Captain and mentor on the Twin Otter, I failed to hold back the tears from streaming down my face. I broke down explaining the stress I was experiencing, trying to salvage my budding career by desperately striving to secure that seniority number which would define the future options of my career. I remember, even more powerfully, the sympathetic man trying to instill in me the importance of that moment, so early in my career, being overseas and relatively independent in our operation, enjoying a nice dinner in a place we may never revisit, and it was accomplished without seniority. I remained inconsolable, because of the limits of my life experience and maturity level; I could only compare my career path to those of my age-group, many of which were starting their careers at the regional airlines as fresh college graduates at the time, and I so terribly lagged behind having "only" discovered my passion for flying at 23 years old, and no amount of international layovers were ever going to allow me to go back in time and catch up to those who had gotten ahead of me, at my age, in seniority.
In a telling development, years later, when the chance was presented to continue on to a larger airline, I declined the opportunity. My experience was now considerably different then it had been, and I now know that I would struggle to find fulfilment or avoid feeling lost within such an enormous operation as well as growing increasingly restless flying longer legs. When I came to the conclusion that Air Canada was not the right fit for me, the reception of that decision surprised me.
People were angry.
I don't mean curious, or questioning or intrigued, or even looking to debate. I mean MAD.
This is fascinating because my decision had no impact on their lives. It is even more fascinating in the context of what I am currently experiencing, with my potential departure from the airlines all together, even if just temporary. This time their displeasure is magnified by this pervasive negativity I was talking about, this ungraspable tension born of the misery of Covid.
I have been verbally assaulted by complete strangers at my spraying base when it was mentioned that I had been a former jet pilot, not seeking a return. I have been cussed at, called an idiot, told I was making a mistake. There have been tremendous assumptions made about my life, my spouse, my happiness, and my security. This is also just strangers, with acquaintances, it is infinitely worse. Some hurtful statements refer to my former importance at the airline level. As if I, as a person, no longer mattered without my previous title or uniform.
Or worse; when asked how I was doing by a former colleague, I replied with a smiling thumbs-up selfie in the Ag Cat. The answer? A statement about my bare face (no makeup) and the conclusion he drew was that I must be unhappy, because I wasn't taking the time to be pretty. This, rather then the truth of the matter; that being able to face the world without a mask of conventional beauty was liberating. The corn doesn't care how pretty I am.
While driving through the country to clear my head of this ordeal, I came across a billboard with big bold letters "MOTHER-INDUCED EXECUTIONS" promoting anti-abortion ideology. I pulled over to take a few deep breaths. This seemingly unrelated matter is exactly in the same strain as those strangers coaxing me to aim for a 777. It is a loud-spoken proclamation of how I should lead my life. I've never required an abortion, however, I have been harassed about my decision to be child-free my whole life. This has been a struggle for my entire adulthood, culminating in a confrontation with a neighbor who stopped in to my home specifically to tell me I should be bearing my husband's children as to not waste either his genetics or another woman's opportunity. This continuous reminder of my lack of craving for motherhood or childrearing being unnatural has triggered incredible anxiety, making me feel like a broken or failed woman. No one has ever inquired whether I am financially or emotionally fit to raise a child, or if my career or my husband's would permit it, making their statements clear that I should be bearing children to be in the norm rather then for my own or my marriage's enrichment, to create a soul and see it flourish.
This is where those feelings of shame and guilt for not fitting in with the norm are repeated in society, in aviation. Stepping away from the airlines to pursue a different path within the industry is not the standard, and I am put to shame for it. I have never once preached or pretended that my personal path is the correct one, or that airline flying is not a great career in itself, or even that I am choosing the easier path. I have a plethora of reasons for choosing my own avenue in life, and it is one that is uniquely mine and inapplicable to anyone else. I find it shocking that other human beings would find my personal decisions so disturbing that they feel the need to lash out, to put down or, stranger still, to give me their condolences for finding unconventional happiness. It struck me, suddenly and violently, this judgmental demeanor, this imposing of one's personal beliefs and ideals, is the same base that breeds fear and hate and gives birth to racism and phobias revolving around people's lifestyles.
The philosophy of live and let live is slowly fading away.
With this miasma of pessimism permeating the air, there are a tremendous amount of words and feelings and thoughts dancing in my mind like fallen leaves in a Autumn gale; pure chaos and unpredictable flight paths, colliding and drifting with the purely random nature of the last moment's gust. However, somewhere in the background of these whirling emotions, seeking the answers to great philosophical questions and getting lost in profound introspection, I continue to land amongst lines from Robert Frost's The Road Not Taken.
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood, And sorry I could not travel both And be one traveler, long I stood And looked down one as far as I could To where it bent in the undergrowth; Then took the other, as just as fair, And having perhaps the better claim, Because it was grassy and wanted wear; Though as for that the passing there Had worn them really about the same, And both that morning equally lay In leaves no step had trodden black. Oh, I kept the first for another day! Yet knowing how way leads on to way, I doubted if I should ever come back. I shall be telling this with a sigh Somewhere ages and ages hence: Two roads diverged in a wood, and I— I took the one less traveled by, And that has made all the difference.
I may be wrong in your eyes, but my mistakes are my own to make while the consequences my own to bear. Those who love me will continue to do so whether in gold-striped regalia or in a sweat-soaked helmet, and those who oppose me will continue to expend their energy trying to weigh me down with their expectations. They will succeed in exhausting me, but not in stopping me.
There are a thousand more adventures ahead.
I will choose my own path, even if it is the one less traveled by.