Living in Free Fall


Free Fall A recurrent theme in my life is that you grow the most when you step outside your comfort zone. It is a heady feeling to realize that a painful experience that had you in free fall for a time has made you stronger and wiser … to realize that, using Bradbury’s metaphor, you have indeed grown new wings.

What’s easy to forget, once those new wings have grown and set, is just how rough it is when you are in free fall … when you don’t know where you’re trying to get to … when you don’t trust your own judgment … when you have no idea quite what to do next.

It’s all the harder when you are in free fall off a cliff you didn’t even see coming.

To put this in perspective, I will take you back to 2008. Depending on how you count, I had changed careers half a dozen times over the previous 38 years, including several times when I dropped off the corporate ladder for a period of years. Some transitions were harder than others, some more successful than others, but there seemed to be a consistent pattern, one in which my skills in one arena provided a temporary branch to hang on to while I grew new wings in another.

When I decided to give up finance to be a creative writer, I expected this transition would go smoothly. After all, I was an experienced business writer. I’d taken university-level courses on creative writing. I’d published a memoir about sailing around the world at age 40.

Friday, I was a financial consultant.  Monday, I would be a writer.  How hard could it be?

Pretty hard, as it turned out.

What I overlooked, as I launched myself into the writerly world, was the common thread that stitched my earlier transitions into a satisfying quilt … the opportunity to work with smart people who were big thinkers. My success lay, to a very large extent, in my ability to carry out complex projects that these big thinkers—whether mentor, client or husband—believed were important.

In 2008, however, there was no client or mentor or husband. I had lots of ideas, but no way to set priorities or assess whether they were worth pursuing.

And then, one morning, as I waited for the first edition of Sailing Down the Moonbeam to be delivered, I recalled one of those wing-growing experiences as we sailed across the Pacific Ocean. Most of the time, my husband and I were vulnerable to unpredictable winds and currents. Setting goals was an exercise in frustration, since we could not control our progress on any given day. The best we could do was set a course that took us in the right general direction. All too often, we revised our course several times. More than once, we had to change our destination.

The metaphor seemed obvious.  If I wanted to I be a writer, I needed to write and hope my words would cumulate to a writer’s persona. Write something. A blog. A book review.  An essay.  Anything. Now, today.

It was a eureka moment.

I’d like to be able to tell you that I grew my writer’s wings that day.  I didn’t. Those simple goals got me out of bed every morning, but it was months before I did so with any enthusiasm.  It was several long and painful months before my wings started to grow.

Now, six years later, I have a writer’s wings. A novel and a memoir. A regular blog. A steady stream of freelance work. Invitations to speak to book clubs, libraries and community groups.

But once again, I seem to be in free fall. How can I be a writer if I don’t have a meaningful story I feel compelled to tell, or an idea I feel compelled to write about? Having just turned 70, I’m intrigued by the personal and societal challenges as the boomer cohort ages.  But how much of my thinking is unique enough to be worth writing about?

Once again, I seem to be grasping frantically for a branch to retard my free fall … give me a few extra moments to develop the wings I’ll need for my next act?  But what’s that next act? A writer in her 70’s with temporary writer’s block. Or a humanist for whom aging IS the next act, whether you write about it or not? Or maybe something else I haven’t even thought about?

What do you think? Can we still sprout wings at 70??


  1. ” … when you have no idea quite what to do next.” Mary, I know just what you mean. For those of us who’ve lived our lives with a plan — whether a strategic five-year plan or just a goal — having no plan can seem daunting, like we’re adrift. In free fall, to use your term. That’s just where I am too, but have relaxed my way into it. If I’m in free fall, then I’m going to enjoy it. I have no plan for marketing my book, for example. But as I said last August when it came out, I’ll stay open to opportunities as they come my way. So far, so good. I just this week received the bookmarks I ordered. One day, it just seemed like a good idea. And today I enjoyed an afternoon in Montpelier, using them as a visual aid while taking to the owners at two bookstores, (both said they’d buy the book and get back to me). Not bad. Three readings have come my way, with four more planned over the winter. For the first time in my life, I don’t have a master plan; I don’t have a goal. I’m determined to just BE. To stay open to what this benevolent universe brings to my attention (including a dramatic car accident, from which I’ve learned much). I’m learning, in the process how to free fall. And I think I’m getting damned good. You have much to offer this world yet. My money’s on you not needing to know what that may be.

    • Mary Gottschalk says

      Janet .. thanks for the vote of confidence. I’ve never had a master plan either … jumped on what bus was going by that looked interesting. But most of the time — even when I’ve been in free fall — I’ve had short-terms goals that kept me from focussing too hard on my anxiety level. I’ve never fallen flat yet, and don’t expect to … but the absence of even a few short-term goals is a bit disconcerting.

  2. Mary Gottschalk says

    Janet … thanks for those lovely, sharing, and supportive words. In an unexpected way, actually writing the blog helped me to realize that not knowing what the next act will be is probable critical to living in the moment, something I try hard to do, but don’t always succeed at. Thanks for the encouragement!

  3. Yes, we can sprout wings anytime … even at 90 … because they’re already sprouted and waiting for us simply try them out. I’ve recently realized I’ve never had a master plan. Every year, when New Year’s Eve approaches I get kind of anxious about what will happen in the next year but when the year turns, I listen to what is happening in my head and go for it. I figure I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing. If it’s a mistake, I’ll know soon enough and learn the lesson that’s been sent my way. But unless we wait for a cue and then try out our wings, we’ll never know. I say just let it happen! I really think you’ve been doing that all of your life … you just didn’t know it!

    • Mary Gottschalk says

      Joan … I like the image of the wings just waiting to sprout … and you are exactly … you do what you can do when the time is right to do it … the wings had to be there somewhere waiting for the right moment. I’ll keep checking the mirror to see if I can see them!

  4. Mary, it seems to me that my life has been a series of free falls that have invariably strengthened me for the next free fall, making my wings a little stronger each time. As Boomers, I think we can safely depend on those wings that have carried us to this point. I’m with Janet on the marketing-open to opportunities but not obsessing over a specific plan. So far, I have been fortunate to have opportunities present themselves to me. I also appreciate Joan’s take on “wings can sprout anytime.” It seems to me you have found your niche and can glide on those well-developed wings! Thanks for another great discussion.

    • Mary Gottschalk says

      Kathy … thanks for yet another vote of support! It’s so nice to know that I’m not out there by myself! And I am thrilled at the opportunities that seem to be appearing for you … it was meant to be!