“I do not want to get to the end of my life and find that I just lived the length of it. I want to have lived the width of it as well.” ~Diane Ackerman
I’m in the business of watching people take risks. I observe them tackling challenges, fear, and discomfort, and sometimes, “making firsts” in their life.
I observe a lot as a flight attendant, and sometimes wonder if my official title should rather be “Human Observer,” or “Social Experimenter.” It feels more accurate, or at least it’s the part that I typically enjoy the most. I’m also what’s called a “Death Doula” and hospice volunteer, both of which I consider to be more of a passion rather than a kind of “job” or “position.”
I not only enjoy observing and assisting people through their living process, but also through their dying process. That includes everything in between. My interest in humans isn’t just with the young (who the media unfortunately tells us are the only “relevant ones”), but I rather have a special spot in my heart for the old and the dying.
I experienced a rather benign interaction a couple of weeks ago, walking to my gate in the Salt Lake City Airport at the beginning of my work trip. As I was passing the TSA security area, a hunched elderly woman, slightly ahead of me, dropped all of her belongings. Her belongings included a small rollaboard and a large tote purse. Her bags were ripping at the seams with the items I’m sure she diligently chose ahead of time.
My husband, who also happens to be a “Human Observer” with the same Human Observing company, was walking with me. The timing aligned perfectly—she dropped her bags, resulting in several items spilling out, and we, following right behind her, were ready to help pick up the pieces.
It was just the interaction I needed at that time.
As with any job, position, or career, it’s easy to feel “burnt out,” rundown, or simply uninspired, given the right circumstances. No matter how exciting your job or life may seem to other people, it’s your “normal,” but likewise, it’s your individual responsibility to keep that flame of inspiration burning.
A similar idea can be true for what may seem like a “boring” life or “boring” job: it may be your ultimate passion and inspiration. Either way, life and circumstances ebb and flow. Sometimes you just need to get out of your own head and stop thinking about the same day-in, day-out rudimentary topics of your life.
At the time, I had been feeling fairly lackluster. I’d been working more than normal and had barely had time to myself to contemplate and be introspective (which I desperately need on a regular basis), let alone time to even be home. This interaction changed things for me in that moment and has stuck with me since.
It was clear that she was traveling solo. I helped pick up her dropped rollaboard luggage as my husband started helping with her tote bag. I noticed that some of the items that dropped from her bags were French language and culture-related books. She was disorganized, no rhyme or reason for any items’ place, and you could tell she used every inch of space possible.
“I’m going to Paris for a month, and I’ve never traveled before! This is everything I’m bringing!” She exclaimed, her smiling face closely looking up at me. I’ll never forget her look—that wrinkled, rough face with a peeling nose, disheveled short hair, and haphazardly put-together outfit. She was ecstatic, and it almost seemed as if she had been waiting to tell someone—anyone—about what adventures she was about to embark upon.
As my husband worked on putting some items back in order, quietly talking to himself (“these will just fall out again if we don’t put them here”), I told her how excited I was for her and how amazing it is that she is doing this—going for it. Her excitement radiated onto me, and I couldn’t help but feel absolutely elated for her.
We exchanged some additional niceties, and we helped her find her departure gate. For the next several minutes after parting ways, I had the biggest, dumbest smile stuck on my face.
I would have loved to have been a fly on the wall (plane “wall” or otherwise) throughout her journey—to see her sense of wonder and curiosity with everyone and everything she was to encounter. I think about her now, conscious of the fact that she’s exactly halfway into her journey.
This entire interaction then made me wonder, “What was it in her life that served as the catalyst for this decision of hers?” What made her decide, “Yep, this is the time. I’m just going to go for it. What have I got to lose?” She didn’t look like your stereotypical “adventurer.” She wasn’t trying to be anyone but herself.
In a modern world where the young, adventurous ones are on Tik Tok, YouTube, or Instagram, it was refreshing to see a normal, mature person just going for it. I see and experience examples of this kind of thing on a regular basis, but I guess I just wish that perhaps someone from a younger generation who may be insecure about the direction of their life could experience these things with me.
As much as I’ve experienced those who are brave and taking up hobbies or doing things that inspire them, I’ve also seen the opposite: those who are afraid of the new. It seems as if people get settled in their ways and end up saying to themselves, “Welp, this is it. This is my life now.”
But why do we do that? It seems so counterintuitive to how life should be: full of exploration and wonder. I don’t think this is a particularly new or modern concept. I don’t think it’s because of social media that more mature folks aren’t taking risks or taking up hobbies they genuinely enjoy.
This is not to say that I think everyone should get on a plane and go to Paris. Traveling isn’t inspiring for everyone. For some, perhaps the exhaustion or the stress outweigh any benefit. To each their own. Perhaps your version of exploring curiosity or wonder is creating a garden, deciding to read more, finally getting into stand-up comedy, going outside more, or digging into that sourdough bread kit.
Deciding to lead a life full of exploration and wonder doesn’t need to fit a particular theme. It’s getting out there (or… staying in there) and doing what inspires you. It’s doing it for you—no one else. And sometimes it may take a catalyst against your will to make something happen.
I can’t assume that it was something perceived as “negative” that happened to our Parisian friend that made her, for the first time ever, embark on a month-long trip across the world. But I find it fun to explore the possibilities.
Many may also say they have a fear of “failure,” but what are we defining as “failure?” Does “failure” even exist if you’re actively enjoying yourself and not doing it for anyone else? You’re never too old to find inspiration—whether it be through a hobby, an activity, or through others. Our lives and deaths are constantly in cycle. That cycle is always in motion. You’ve got to keep moving.
I think Ms. Paris, who I admire so, knew this. We didn’t need to have this particular conversation for me to know that.
About Vanessa Fawver
Vanessa Fawver works professionally as a flight attendant for a major US-based airline. She enjoys exploring life experiences through writing and emotions through acting and improvisation. She has a strong humanitarian side, servicing others through her volunteer work with the dying as well as with “Best Friends” animal sanctuary in Utah. Feel free to follow her work on Elephant Journal and Medium.