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  • Writer's pictureWinona Rajamohan

like wings flapping about

Updated: Aug 9, 2021

When I was younger, I didn't like to speak that much.

Being outside made me nervous. My arms were always tightly bound to my sides, held in place by the idea of a world so much bigger than me. A basic fight or flight response was waddling to the back of any room without letting anyone know, a book in hand and a pair of lips zipped shut.

But sometimes I would have no choice but to make my way to the front. There was always someone I had to greet — a neighbor, a distant relative I didn't know how to address, a family friend who apparently last saw me when I was the size of their palm.

At this point, I'd feel something pool at the bottom of my stomach. It was a numbing tug that pushed and pulled, left to right, like a tug of war that nobody was ever going to win. I would feel a flutter of light thumps, a shrill discomfort that rang like a bell and making the sides of my stomach itch.

It felt like wings flapping about 🦋

"You have musical butterflies in your stomach," my piano instructor back then, Miss Peggy, would always tell me. I was always nervous, always scared. She would wrap my little palms up in hers and invite me into class, promising me that the musical butterflies would come down after hearing her play a song.

Over the years, I picked up on new ways to see to numb the flapping wings, to make my way to the front of the room without falling to the floor.

Listening to music became one of them, but on the days that I couldn't, I played a game.

It was like playing a game of The Floor is Lava, but instead of avoiding the floor altogether, I would avoid stepping on any gaps between tiles on the floor. The larger the tiles, the easier it would be to avoid the little cement-filled lines running through them. This game worked best on tiled surfaces in places like shopping malls, school corridors, or the living room of someone's house. As you can imagine, marbled floors were incredibly unsettling and offered me no escape.

No matter where I ventured next within those four walls, the rule of the game was to only step on a clear floor tile until I finally found myself at the end of the room.

By then, the butterflies would be gone. A light headrush would settle on the air above my shoulders, where bob-length hair wrapped around the skin of my neck right beneath chubby little ears. It was a meaningless sense of accomplishment that symbolized a big defeat.

The slaying of wings.

On my 24th birthday, I felt the same numb tugging in the pit in my stomach. Wings flapping about. Were the butterflies back?

But this time I wasn't nervous. Instead, I was incredibly calm.

There was something refreshing about turning another year older this year. It was my first birthday where I found myself at peace with a reality far beyond my full comprehension. I could barely make out the shape of my role in this world, yet I was surprisingly OK with that.

I was reminded of the game once again.

In my head, I visualized myself standing on tippy toes in a giant hall, balancing myself as I squeezed my feet into a floor tile the size of a penny. Here I was at the back of the room, ready to jump from tile to tile to reach a destination I couldn't even see.

The stakes are raised now, the payoff heftier and the cost of defeat heavier. But I've played this game before. Mastered it even. So here are my three rules to taking it all the way to a win.

#1 Making the big scan

The first thing I did before kicking off this game was to take in the room. The size of it, the smell of it, the people in it, how close they were to each other, how close they were to me.

The big scan of the room — my playing grounds — was an assessment of how I would play. Did I want to draw the goal line at the very end of the room or just up the middle? Was it wiser to take big steps or inch forward with little ones?

To map out my path, I would count the cracks between the tiles, my mind fixed on everything I needed to avoid.

My solutions were rooted in a careful methodology to thread around and away from anything that could make me fail. It was a pretty accurate representation of how I was a person, always keeping my eyes fixed on pitfalls I needed to maneuver around.

At 24, I now know the world doesn't work much differently from this little childhood game. A big room with lots of players, with everyone getting in anyone's way as they inch or run toward the same finish line. But I've noticed a key difference.

The world isn't predictable. Regardless of how much I may have prepared or thought through a decision, sometimes you step on a pitfall crack on the ground and you lose. The only way to move forward is to forge a new one, a path that takes you to the same

destination although it looks completely different from the one you drew in your head.

These unchartered paths are surprisingly in abundance when I focus less on the cracks in the ground and instead keep my eyes locked on the wide spaces.

The big scan is an assessment of options. It's the eye of the storm, a small allowance amidst the chaos to digest my start and endpoint and to come to terms with the roadmap ahead of me.

I prepare for a path laid not with pitfalls, but opportunities. Not mistakes, but a chance to start over.

#2 Settling at the peak

Decisions are made after the big scan.

Even the most perfect plans mean nothing if there's no commitment to execution.

At this point in the game, I raise my knee ever so slightly — ready to make the first move, but with enough wiggle room for a change in direction. I call this exact moment the peak, the highest point my foot lifts to before I take a step.

It's a small range of motion that holds a lot of weight. At the peak, I could make a choice. That split second of a moment could dictate my next step or I could retract my foot back completely and put it down somewhere else.

It's a situation I know I'll find myself in a lot more often.

As I turn another year older, I feel as though the margin for error has yet again shrunk smaller. The cost of not meeting my own expectations rings heavier than that of the year before, but at the same time, the heights that I could reach have never felt more close.

Being 24 is being at a crossroads. It's about standing dumbstruck and gaping at the intersection of a perfect plan with your foot hovering in fear right above the gas pedal.

The pressure to make the right decisions has more often than not rushed me into the wrong ones.

I forget that for a split second, while I'm at the peak, I have just enough space to think things through one last time and convince myself of my choice. I realize now that it's easy to forget to pause. Most of all, it's easy to forget how much one small pause can change the tides of your game.

#3 Finding solid ground

I'm a little more realistic now. I know that I can't stay at the peak forever.

The only way to move forward from the highest point is to go back down, and that really isn't a bad thing.

After making my split-second decision at the peak of the game, I put my foot down. I'm firm in my decision, right or wrong. At that point in time, there's no turning back as my feet make contact with the ground.

If I step on the right floor tile, I'm safe. I make my way to the end of the room by running through steps 1 to 3 until I finally reach my end goal.

If I step on the gaps between those tiles, I lose and start over.

The beauty of seeing another year is continuing my lesson of realizing that life isn't black and white. The rules are never clear cut, and wins and losses aren't easy to define.

I've come to learn that there's nothing wrong with making the wrong step, or perhaps starting over. The most important thing to me is to have my feet on solid ground. I want my mind rooted on something I can feel, something I believe in, something that holds my place in this world even as my head wanders aimlessly through the clouds.

I've too often defined the days in my life as a series of ones and zeros — wins and losses, good days and bad days. As I look back on this simple game that found its place throughout most of my childhood, I remember a sense of relief as I put my foot down onto the floor, glad that I finally come to a decision and got it over with.

This last rule is about trusting my senses, even when they're wrong. Why? Because the world doesn't give us easy answers. Most of the time, we're carving those answers along as we go as we take the sights, sounds, and smells around us. I look around me and I see that nobody is 100% convinced that they're doing the right thing, and for that, I'd like to give us all credit for all the decisions we've ever made.

So there we have it. Three rules to set the stage for three ultimate outcomes.

Making the big scan 🔭

To shape the path before me by searching for opportunities — not dictating my direction to avoid all potential failures. Two very different views and perspectives.

Settling at the peak 🏔

To rest and to pause when I need it, with no fear of falling behind in a race being run by others around me.

Finding solid ground 🌎

To realize how beautiful it is to live a life that's grounded in what you believe in, regardless of how many steps I've taken both forward and backward.

I'm not entirely sure how this game will go. Neither am I certain on how I want to play it. The only thing I can say for sure is that I'll be cycling through these three steps on repeat — staying optimistic, giving myself a break, and being grateful for a chance to learn from wins and mistakes.

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