“I’d never wanted to leave that bucolic life of bare feet on a country dirt road, the chorus of the birds in the meadow, or swinging on a rope above the creek and jumping off at the highest moment of exultation . . . I certainly never imagined being in this place or this job. And yet sometimes I still shudder thinking how narrowly I escaped that life.” —From Plain to Plane

Have you ever looked at a caterpillar, I mean really looked at one and wondered if it knows what lies ahead? Does it know that soon its body will dissolve into a gooey soup called a pupa, that the seemingly-contented life, and body, they now enjoy will become unrecognizable? If it’s anything like I was all those years ago, the caterpillar is blissfully unaware. I had no idea what awaited me in my new life until everything I knew disintegrated before my eyes. 

Life in the Cocoon 

My childhood was guided by the rhythms of nature. As a little girl raised in an Old Order Mennonite sect, my earliest impressions were stamped by the routines of a strictly-ordered farm life. As a little girl, I expected (and wanted) to live a life identical to my mother’s — wearing the traditional clothing and heeding the training expected of girls and women to be silent and submissive, to know a woman’s place in a man’s world. 

It never occurred to me that I was oppressed or stuck. Still, there was an inner voice, a whisper that told me, “You will have a bigger life.” 

The whisper turned into a scream when I was eight years old and my father was excommunicated from our church and was subjected to the practice of shunning. His descent into madness dissolved our way of life overnight and ended up thrusting our family into the national media spotlight. The New York Times, The Washington Post, and People all reported on our dramatic break with the church, frequently romanticizing my father as some sort of modern-day folk hero. The truth was, I lived in fear of him, and the subsequent decade of my life was spent living on the run from violence. My father described this demarcation in our lives as, “before the trouble began,” or “after the trouble.” I would later come to the realization that this time signified a different borderline for me: the time before clarity or after clarity. 

You were born with wings, why prefer to crawl through life? —Rumi

Even as my life was being dismantled, my wild soul was waking up and calling me to see all the ways I had been bound. The messages of female inferiority and subjugation were relentless. As my clarity was sharpened, I couldn’t believe I had never before noticed the perils of forced dependence upon an irrational man. A new voice emerged, loud and brave: “I will be financially independent. I will have a different life.” But how? 

It’s one thing to feel drawn to a higher purpose and more fulfilled life, but it’s quite another to know how to turn the calling into reality. For me, it was akin to following a trail of breadcrumbs. I grabbed each small opportunity and kept going, with no idea where they would lead. One of these breadcrumbs turned out to be my first flying lesson. I tried it, and I knew I wanted to stay up in the air. 

The sky’s the limit

That trail of breadcrumbs I had been following eventually led to a surprising place, an appointment to the US Air Force Academy. Even though I had grown up in a culture in which military service is forbidden, my old friend the inner voice told me I was where I needed to be. I cast off 400 years of tradition and entered the Academy. I went on to fly as an aircraft commander in the first Gulf War, and later as an international commercial airline pilot. 

Remember the caterpillar? I like to think there’s something inside it that knows transformation and beauty are just around the corner, a still, small voice leading it onward toward flight. Each of us has a metamorphosis, a journey that changes us and invites us to higher ground. It is through change that we recognize parts of our former selves that we have outgrown and we are given the opportunity to embrace truth. If we are open, this process can lead to great heights! We can unlock new desires, our new selves, as we move toward our own butterfly destinies.