Decisions. I’ve never been very good at them. It’s partially because I love details; for example, if you ever come grocery shopping with me, you’ll notice that I get a thrill out of finding the best cereal to match my mood or if it’s going to be a week of 2% milk or skim. (If you’ve already shopped with me and haven’t noticed this, it’s because I was being polite.) Buying clothes are worse. My friends from Avignon, France, can surely remember the 2004 Saga of the Green Coat, a suede, mint-sage, knee-length number that I blabbed about for weeks before I finally could agree to swipe my debit card. In 2008, signing my name on a lease for my 2004 Ford Focus was a reason to cry in front of the salesman, and, after that, I naively refused to buy car insurance for awhile because I pegged it as “too expensive.” I bought a Macbook Pro in 2010 after having considered one since 2007 and even then had to close my eyes when I clicked “purchase”; this is also what happened when I bought a pair of leather boots from Metz (2007), a ring from Paris (2008), a watercolor from Avignon (2005), and my first Victoria’s Secret bra (2012). Money, for me, complicates. I’m okay with other people’s possessions, but my own are superfluous. To allow myself to have them, I have to block out something within myself, close my eyes, and plunge.
But money’s not the only aspect that’s hard. In 2003, deciding to attend Susquehanna University instead of my family’s alma mater Messiah College left me miserable for months. Choosing between job offers and selecting apartments since then have hurt friends’ feelings and almost cost me all of the above. I know this, but in the moment, I hardly know how to care: faced with a choice, my mind jerks about like an old film, moving bone-on-bone between pros and cons. I’m left short of breath, prickled with anxiety, and devoid of logic, a panicked shell — pacing from one Starbucks to another in Manhattan or crumpled asleep on the Dublin airport floor. In most of life, I am a chill, good-natured, “whatever goes” kinda person, but when it all comes down to me on a day without a Plan B, there’s no middle ground: I’m either steadfast or reckless, sleeping or sobbing, in short — absolutely terrified.
It’s 6 AM on a Saturday in November as I’m writing this, having been blown awake out of a solid sleep by the fear of a looming Choice. Really, Sylvia? I ask. After backpacking across Europe, making impromptu lessons as a high school English teacher, and flying standby to Amsterdam, Alaska, and Santiago, Chile — where nothing is ever in my control other than choosing to go forward — shouldn’t I be good at life already? But no. My first agonizing life decision came in fifth grade when Mr. Wilsom made me chose between playing the flute and playing the oboe (or was it the moment I stood in front of the Super Duper Looper at Hersheypark with my cousins for forty minutes in the growing dark, unable to just do it?), and now, seventeen years later, here I still sit. I’m not getting better; I might as well be getting worse.
The very notion of facing a choice scares me so much that I don’t even have a strategy for making one. When confronted with a handful of options, I imagine that I should probably identify which one’s most desirable and weigh it against the financial and emotional cost to myself and to others around me. However, it’s the knowing — or, more accurately, the admitting — of what I want in the face of whatever I feel I owe as a daughter and a woman — or worse yet, as a Responsible Daughter and Woman — that’s hard. I prefer my life to remain just outside of the limelight so that both victories and defeats can be hidden by the shadows, but a choice thrusts me front and center. Some self-help book would probably tell me that I’m afraid of my Really Knowing Myself or something else I’ve always dismissed as bull because I already know I like the noodles that slurp and old men who play accordions, but none of this explains why almost any choice, however superficial, will drive me to days of wide-eyed helplessness.
But as I’m sitting here, I wonder if what I’m really afraid of is recognizing that my life is up to me. While I’ve had the luxury of being surrounded all my life by those whom I deeply love, I’m afraid of realizing that it makes no difference, that when the rubber meets the road, it’s only me who will be left standing, eyes fixed on the horizon, hair wafting in the wind. If I could face this person in the terrible loneliness and power of that moment of realizing that her voice exists, I’d tell her that strength is not a quality but a series of decisions, that life is an expression and not a performance, and that living begins at the end of her comfort zone.
I’d tell her to plunge.
And so I plunged.
This essay continues at “Part II, What it felt like to skydive,” published November 29, 2012.