On Letting Go

Note: This is a guest post from my beautiful niece Hannah Stanton-Gockel – Ohio University student, world traveler, hoop artist extraordinaire, all-around cool chick!

I very much like to control my life. That might be because there have been so many moments when I have had no control and now I overcompensate. Or because change makes me really nervous (for example: when I was 3 and my parents put in a new backyard fence I felt like my childhood was being ripped to shreds, much in the same way those old wooden fence posts were being ripped out of the ground. I cried for about week.)

Another characteristic I have is that I always push my comfort zone, at the same time relishing and hating the combination of adrenaline and fear I get when I try new things. It’s a sensation I live for and live in fear of. This has had good results in my life though, generally speaking. I’ve traveled more extensively than many of my peers, having spent a total of 17 months abroad as an undergrad. I’ve pushed myself in college to excel, and, while not perfect, I’m graduating with honors, 2 majors and a certificate this year. I make an effort to say yes to challenging new experiences.

Yet, at the same time, I seek out control and try to predict situations. It’s quite the dichotomy.

I spent half of 2012 traveling through Central America, attempting to plan an elaborate 6 month trip that served to challenge my comfort zone in entirely new ways because I’d never traveled alone before… there was a lot on this trip that challenged me mentally and emotionally. Planning this trip was full of anxiety and excitement. I overly planned out every detail because I wanted everything to go in a perfectly predictable way.

I have two experiences I’d like to reflect on in this post that forced my give up my hard fought control and completely give in to the moment.

In Costa Rica, the day before I turned 23, I went bungee jumping with a group of friends. We were all terrified but I put up a front, hiding the anxiety I had felt nonstop for the past few days by smiling and joking and enjoying watching everyone else break a sweat. But inside, this was a huge challenge for me. The day before I came up with a mantra to repeat to myself to calm myself down, something that would allow me to give myself over to the moment and would settle my nerves for just a slight second before jumping. Fittingly, that mantra was “I relinquish control.” It’s a little cheesy but it was exactly what I needed. In the video of me jumping, you can actually see me mouth the words as I said them out loud before jumping. And as you can see, I didn’t just jump, I soared off the platform.

It was complete exhilaration. As you fall, you forget you’re falling, because all you can feel is the wind on your face (it’s like sticking your head out a car window). But four seconds later, the rope tightens and you snap back, realizing that you did not die, that you’re totally invincible and that yes, you must pay again for a second jump because bungee jumping is instantly addicting.

Very literally, I had to give up my desire to control and predict this situation. Of course I wanted to feel somewhat safe and not at risk of the rope snapping but people don’t go bungee jumping in order to feel safe. It was a cathartic moment too, because, although my time in Costa Rica was ending, I had another five months of travel ahead of me and I was intimidated… downright scared. I didn’t know if I could do it. But as I learned from this jump, I certainly could.

About a month later I was traveling through Nicaragua when I found myself spontaneously visiting the Corn Islands. I decided to stay there for a week and take a little vacation on Little Corn- an island so small that there are no roads and no cars. I stayed at a place called La Iguana right on the beach. One day the sea was so calm that the water looked like glass. I got some snorkel gear and went, by myself, half a mile out into the bay to explore the reef. I was swimming with schools of hundreds of fish of all sizes. I explored a sunken ship wreck. For a while I was the only human in this vast eco-system. My back got the worst sunburn it’s seen in years and I loved every second of it.

Little Corn Island and the bay where I swam with hundreds of fish, a stingray and sharks.

After about an hour I ran into (swam into?) a Frenchman who was also out in the big blue by himself, enjoying the perfect snorkeling weather. We snorkeled in the same general area for a while and then decided to go along the reef’s drop off to see if we couldn’t run into any of the hammerhead sharks we heard lived in the area. Being in water with so many other creatures creates this feeling of safety after a while. I was completely at ease. And I had already gone bungee jumping so why not look for hammerheads?

Perhaps luckily, we didn’t find the hammerheads but I did spot a massive stingray on the ocean floor. It was completely hidden by sand and I would’ve missed him if I hadn’t noticed the sand kicked up around near him. He swam out from under all the sand and as it slid off his back, his full size was recognized. He had a fin-span of about five feet, my own height, from my best estimates. But I was 15 feet above him so he could have been larger. I swam right on top of him, gazing down at his size and grace and beauty. The Frenchmen and I watched him for awhile and then, out of the corner of my eye, I saw movement. A four foot long baby nurse shark was swimming by the edge of the reef. Nurse sharks can grow to be more than 20 feet in length but are completely harmless.

What happened next was unforgettable. The nurse shark spotted us and swam straight towards me, as if in slow motion. It wasn’t so much slow motion as the fact that the shark was just ambling along at his own calm pace. I actually was quite scared because well, SHARK. But he was just curious and wanted to know what these strange creatures were. He swam right up to my face, a foot away from me, and looked right into my eyes. My nerves then got the better of me and I twitched my muscles and the little guy turned and darted away. The Frenchmen then popped his head out of the water and said in a heavy accent “Oh I love nature! I just love it!”

In this moment, surrounded by these incredible wild animals, I had to give in to the fact that I was in their environment. The stingray and the shark knew the water much better than I and I was at their mercy. Luckily, both were harmless that day but it served as an important lesson to me in the value of relaxing in the moment, giving up control, and just living.

Now, whenever I am stressed, I bring myself back to the cool Caribbean waters and the friendly nurse shark. I feel the sun on my back and the flippers helping me to float and the perfectly clear water and the little  shark swimming up to me, just wondering who I am. It’s a good metaphor for all of life, really. Be calm but enjoy the adrenaline at the same time, be in the moment, and let go of the control you thought you had.

I’ve learned that there are many things we can’t control in life but if we give ourselves over to the moment, we don’t need to worry about control. And by doing so we live much more fully than we ever thought possible.

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About Hula Hooping Hannah

Hannah Stanton-Gockel is a graduate of Ohio University, a fluent Spanish speaker, world traveler and a hula hoop circus performer who devotes her life to story-telling both onstage and off. With a focus in marketing and the guts to venture anywhere, Hannah currently works as the PR intern for Circus Smirkus in Vermont. You can follow her as she finds her purpose in this circus on Instagram @hulahoopinghannah.

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