On a June night during high school, I’d left the house late at night, and walked to the elementary school field down the street. I laid down on the grass chilled by the night air, looked up, and thought of nothing.
Even with the streetlights I could see the stars. It wasn’t a special night for any particular reason, but I’ve always remembered it.
It’s always intrigued me how some moments stand out more than others, where time suddenly pauses, the world surrounding me falls, then sucks me into a moment where nothing matters.
In November of 2013 - in a moment like this, a sudden break of time - I was being thrown around in a massive body of water, unable to control myself. In that moment, when my body was subject to frigid and unfamiliar waters, I realized I was meant to be scared. And I wanted to be scared again.
I was in Wales, on a weekend trip away from my study abroad semester in London, trying the unfamiliar sport called coasteering; it’s distinctive to the west coast of the UK. Before my departure, I’d been looking forward to the outing for weeks, but last minute my travel companions bailed, and I was still in desperate need of a break from the city.
By the end of November, I was feeling zombie-ish and homesick. I decided I still wanted to go on the trip, and as I left for the Paddington station, my flatmates and friends carried on to our routine pub where a nice pint of cider waited for them. I boarded the train to Fishguard and less than 24 hours later, I was sealed into a wetsuit, swirled by tempestuous Welsh aqua.
In London, a bustling city, I felt alone. But just hours later, I felt a rush - a rush for less control. The lack of control gave me a sense of why we exist, why we do things we’re scared of. Nearly a year to the date of that moment, I’m tempted to feel that addicting mixture of thrill and fear all over again.
I was a twenty-year old college student from upstate New York. I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life (still don’t), didn’t know what coasteering was (did they make up that word?), didn’t know how wetsuits worked, and I didn’t know any of the other people who were also jumping off cliffs beside me. It was the most fun I’d had in weeks.
When there was a lull in the waves, everything became quiet and the laughter of my new friends and the sounds of the ocean dimmed. I didn’t think about the future, or how I got to that exact place. All I could think about was how far out that water went. It was a gray day, very dark and cold. But the water was powerful and beautifully independent. A sharp, slippery mass of rock surrounded me, on my left and right. Open water was directly ahead of me, and a slim water pathway was behind me.
The stillness ended and another wave crashed into me. I was still wading, waiting for the others to jump off the cliff we’d just climbed. I’d never done anything so cool before. Cliff jumping. Coasteering. It sounded so National Geographic. I was excited to be doing something so wild. I wanted to be good at it, didn’t want to slip on the rock and fall, didn’t want to keep going under water. But the waves were making that difficult.
Fighting with the life jacket that had turned me into a human buoy, I tried to gain some balance so my head could comfortably rest above water. But it wasn’t working and just for a second, I relaxed every muscle in my body.
And I started to laugh.
I didn’t even think about this then, but it didn’t matter what I was going to do in life, how many friends I had, or what my next career move would be. It didn’t matter because in that crashing water I felt a sort of peace like I’ve never felt before.
I was so out of control, that it felt unnatural to try avoid it.
Whatever path we take, it is one that will lead to a series of failures. Failure is inevitable. But failure (in school, relationships, jobs) is bound to come our way as a part of life's deal. It’s the series of crashing waves when everything seems placid.
Within the hour, our group had climbed over one of those sharp cliffs onto an enormous hill, sprinkled with prickly plants and muddy grass, which would eventually lead to our van. On the side of the road we peeled off the wetsuits that had kept us warm for hours, and smiled at looks of curiosity from on-goers in cars passing by.
A day later I was on the same train platform that had brought me there, waiting to embark back to London. I was with nine of my newest friends (coincidentally, also from upstate New York).
Whether it’s back in Welsh water, Turkish caves or on New York streets, adventure is always calling, along with the risk of failure and the thrill of success. I’ll just make sure to laugh a little sooner next time.
This article first appeared on the CAPA International Education World Blog, January 2015.