Last Friday I got on a plane and flew to Chicago meet my foundation partner and dear, dear friend Juliann. We had what amounted to a day and a half together. But, as is usual for us, our time seemed to expand into something far bigger.
Juliann and I have known each other for only a year and a half. We’ve only seen each other in person three times. However, she has very quickly become one of my closest friends. We met because our daughters share a genetic mutation—SCN8A. We were quickly drawn together because of our shared desire to advocate for our daughters and other children like them—as well as our common “no bullshit” approach to most everything in life.
Juli is one of the strongest, funniest, most honest people I’ve ever met. And being her friend has changed me. Being her friend has helped me want to be more myself, more of the best parts of myself—so much so that, at times, it is a wee bit frightening. I love that Juliann frightens me in this way because I know it means she is helping me grow. You see, I have this fundamental belief that one of the ways you know you are on the right track in this world has to do with fear. We all know that feeling when those little beeping sensors inside of us start going off—not the ones that tell us we are truly afraid in a real and logical way, but the ones that flicker when we start down a new and unknown path. Those sensors remind us we are really alive.
Being with Juliann never fails to challenge me in this way—to push me out of my comfort zone in exciting ways. She has always had a clear sense of the ways in which I need to be pushed.
And she waltzed into my life when I needed that more than ever.
You see, I am naturally an extrovert, but for the last five years I have found myself having to live as an introvert. For five years I have rarely interacted with other adults who weren’t working with my daughter in some capacity. My life has been rather consumed with doing the right and logical things—being the attentive mother whose life has had to be organized in 15-minute increments between meds, and therapies, and tube-feeds. This has had the result that I live in my head a lot—like basically all the time. It’s been great for my writing…but not so much for my ability to comfortably interact socially with most people. It has meant at any given moment I talk too much or too little. That I’m too serious or too silly. That I read too much between the lines or am unable to take a hint.
It has also meant that I can be more sincere and vulnerable than is convenient (for me or others).
But it has also left a space for people to see me—really see me—if they care to. And this has meant that in the last few years I have formed some really intense connections with people who’ve shifted my world’s orbit in really important ways.
Juliann is one of these people. And I am so, so thankful that this is the case—perhaps more so than ever after getting on a Ferris wheel with her this weekend.
So…I have a bit of a thing about symbolism. I think that there are things in our lives that happen that are signs that we should not ignore. As we go through life I think there are meaningful patterns that emerge. I believe that you know these signs when you see them, but they don’t always make sense. The meaning may take some time to come to light. Or the meaning may change. But, no matter what, when something keeps popping up over and over in your life, it is good to pay attention.
The first time a Ferris wheel started pursuing me was last summer at the height of fair season. I saw one rising high above the fair grounds and was overcome with the desire to pull my car over and take a ride. But I was alone with Esmé, and it seemed like such a silly and illogical thought that I was embarrassed by my childishness. While I’d not been on a Ferris wheel since I was young, I remembered the slightly queasy feeling of going up, up, up as I drove by. I was struck by what a deceptively simple thing a Ferris wheel is, made up of equal parts fear and beauty.
Then more of them started nagging me, popping up here and there as I drove places, in the background of books and television shows, in store windows, their ridiculous and majestic geometry demanding that I stop and stare, I wasn’t certain why, but I decided to stopped a few times and listen…and allow my brain light up and spin around and around with the thoughts they’ve inspired over the last year or so.
I’d think about how humans do beautiful and absurd things—how important those absurdities are for life. I’d think about how fleeting moments in life can be defining. And I’d think about how we can choose to respond to fear and desire—letting it hold us back from being the people we want to be or letting it signal our way forward.
When, a few weeks ago, I got a text from Juliann with advance tickets for the Ferris wheel on Navy Pier for our trip to Chicago I burst out laughing, thinking, OK, well, I guess that’s the way forward.
Before our trip to Navy Pier Juliann and I grabbed lunch and a drink…and talked Ferris wheels. It turns out that Juliann has her own meaningful and amusing connection to Ferris wheels—through a friend whose loss she is still feeling intensely.
Afterward as we walked toward the pier, the wind blowing the skirt of my favorite pink dress in a way that made me think about flying. I kept seeing the wheel peaking between the buildings and under overpasses. It seemed so tall that I started wondering if it would be enough to just too see the thing up close. Maybe all I’d want to do is stand below it and look up. Maybe all I’d need was a chance to vividly imagine what it would be like to ride it…and then walk away. After all, I live in my mind so much of the time…I could invent the whole ride in detail and tell myself that story—the feeling of the seat, of my stomach lifting through the rise and fall, of the delicious nervous feeling in my fingertips.
It might be enough.
It would be like the me of late to almost get in line and then make an excuse and walk away before I embarrassed myself…or did anything illogical.
But I was with Juliann—and so not riding it was not an option. That just isn’t how Juli works. In fact, she’d gotten us Fast Passes, so we walked onto the pier and skipped the whole long line for the Ferris wheel. Before I knew it, I’d hopped on. There was no room for hesitation other than a brief pause to look up for a moment at the impressive structure and snap a photo.
When we began to rise up the first ascent of the wheel—stopping, swinging in the air, as more people were loaded on below—I felt that same nauseous excitement I’d remembered from childhood rides on much smaller wheels. This wheel was absurdly big, however, rising almost 200 feet in the air. Not even a third of the way up the wheel, I felt we were unnervingly high off the ground.
My mind raced for a minute thinking, Oh God, why would a person do this? What a stupid, stupid idea. Let me out…
And then the wheel started moving up, up again. When it stopped closer to the top I looked out—my head swimming and dizzy—it was so beautiful. Lake Michigan spread out in front of us green-blue and dotted with boats. There was the city off to one side, tall and majestic—it’s own kind of ridiculous human effort to rise up and fly. There were tiny people moving around the pier like joyful ants.
I took a deep breath. I relaxed. I let it all flood in. Juliann and I laughed off my fear in time to just enjoy the next two revolutions—giggling, pointing, taking photos—rising high and coming low, awe and anticipation over and over, like some laughable metaphor for human existence.
I think it can be easy to forget that the friendships we form with other women are their own kind of love story. The women we choose as our sisters help define us, challenge us in amazing ways. They help us face our fears…and uncover what we need in life.
Swinging in the air with Juliann—in a place only she could have taken me—helped me understand something new and pressing: I don’t want to keep being the kind of person who only stops and looks up at the Ferris wheel…feet on the ground, safe, and secure, telling herself stories about what it would be like at the top. I don’t want to just admire the geometry of it. I want to experience the perfect wheel lifting me up and swinging me around and around.
Sharing that moment, silly and dizzy and giggling there, with my dear friend, I realized that every chance I have to take such a ride with someone this loyal, daring, and fun, I am going to hop right on.