It wasn’t my intention to fall from the sky. Actually, it was never my intention to be so far from Earth that skydiving out of a Cessna, wind slicing at my skin and gravity beckoning me head first towards the hard ground with a potential terminal velocity of 120 mph, was the only reasonable choice if I wanted to return. Options are usually pretty important to a girl like me.
Yet, there I was as the plane ascended, a 33-year-old, hunched over on my knees and harnessed to Don, a man who is supposedly in the Guinness Book of World Records for the most jumps out of an airplane. I chose to partner with him because I felt his title offered me some sense of security. My younger brother told me afterwards that this reason was exactly why he didn’t choose Don as his jump mate. He figured so many successes meant Don’s luck could be up at any moment. I was glad my brother kept his opinion to himself until we were back in the car.
My brother also told me later that the whole experience had been a set-up from the beginning. Convince me, his Californian sister who was visiting family in our home state of Pennsylvania while on summer vacation from teaching, to drive him and his friend to the skydiving center with the sole responsibility of taking pictures of him as he landed. Casually, slyly, though he had already called in advance and therefore knew the answer, ask if there was any room in the plane for one more jumper. I allowed him to ask only because I felt certain there couldn’t possibly be any available space. There were a lot of people milling around, and this was a small company that used four-seater planes with the back seats removed so no more than six people could fit in one plane; that’s three novices and three professional skydivers. On a beautiful Saturday afternoon in late June, who there, besides me, wouldn’t want to take in the view of the Pocono Mountains from 10,000 feet?
* * *
Though this would be my first skydiving experience, it wouldn’t be my first taste of adventure. Most recently, for my birthday in April I hang-glided off Mt. Tamalpais in Marin, California, landing on my belly on soft Stinson Beach. The guide whom I was tethered to making sure to practice the three-legged run quite a few times with me before we headed, three-legged, off the side of the mountain clipped into the huge flying contraption, and quick to tell me, “One of us trips and it’s disaster for both.” Last summer I camped in the backcountry of Denali State Park in Alaska, leading my two girlfriends in loud renditions of “Stayin’ Alive” as we banged pots and pans through the dense forest with bear bells hanging on our sneakers. It turned out our only brush with danger occurred when Kallie, at the head of our line, tripped with the safety off the bear mace and we ran, choking, for almost a half mile before we could breathe again.
I had also been a rafting guide for a few years, born both out of a love of the writing of Pam Houston and the fact that I’d had the life-changing experience of joining a private trip down the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon seven years ago, courtesy of my then boyfriend’s best friend’s father. My boyfriend Jack and I trekked down the Bright Angel Trail at four in the morning, careful to get to Phantom Ranch to meet up with our party before it got too hot. The temperature was in the hundreds that week in July, the river water steady at a cold 54 degrees in comparison. We spent the next eleven days taking on some of the biggest Class 10 rapids I have ever or will ever face. When the head of our party asked how many times I’d fallen out of a boat, I’d proudly, naively answered, “Zero,” only to have the Colorado flick me with its tail out of my boat and into its waters almost daily.
There was a moment on an unnamed rapid towards the end of our trip, after the treacherous Lava Falls, when one of our kayakers went down a swell, motioned for our rafting guide not to follow (the two were brothers, their other brother and father were also on the trip) and our rafting guide, misunderstanding his brother’s signal, took us straight into the center of a large hole. The water circled back around on itself, tossing everyone and the boat into its fray. I remember being stuck under the water for far too long, tumbling like I was in a washing machine, having no idea which direction was sky and which direction was rock. “Okay, this might be the end,” I thought, my whole body softening with acceptance, only to be spit out of the hole’s mouth into the eddy below. I looked up at a blue sky that had never looked quite so beautiful. I felt powerful, every sensation electrified, so much so that I barely flinched when I spotted a rattlesnake down the beach just a few seconds later. These were the moments that at the time I thought provided me with the most important of life’s lessons: the amount of risk I was willing to take was directly proportionate to me feeling alive in the world.
* * *
There was room on the plane and room on my credit card and not a lot of time to waiver. I said “yes” because I had been feeling closed off and ambivalent in my life lately, and I was a bit afraid of what that meant. In the last few months I had turned down a job offer and ended a three-year relationship. I was grappling with the possibility of moving back to the East Coast from San Francisco to go to graduate school at Harvard University or, a decision with a smaller risk, moving across the Golden Gate Bridge onto a houseboat in Sausalito. I felt frozen, unable to move towards anything with confidence. Was I losing my edge? Would I miss out on the more fulfilling experiences of life because I hesitated?
Not that I didn’t hesitate in this situation. I hesitated as I strapped the harness around my legs. I hesitated as I tried to listen to the quick ten-minute explanation the instructors gave, though I figured if I were clinging to one of them as we dropped to the ground he’d hopefully know what to do. I hesitated as the door of the plane closed and the engine started revving.
Don and I boarded the plane last. This meant I had to go through with jumping, because there was no room in the plane for anyone else to maneuver around me if I tried to back out. This also meant I was closest to the door, so I could see the view through its tiny window as we rose up and away from the crowds. A deep peace began to weave its way into my fear. The mountains looked exquisite, soft and warm and almost beckoning, and there was something comforting about letting go and relaxing into a decision.
* * *
With the exception of my brother, who occasionally did things like jump out of a plane, my family didn’t really understand my call to adventure, my need for that passport stamp or the sound of river in my ears. They didn’t know what it was like to ride an elephant through a jungle in Chiang Mai or kayak among icebergs in Seward or hear the coyotes begin their night song as the full moon appeared over the Grand Tetons, my favorite mountain range. They didn’t know what it felt like to be so hot and tired at night on the Colorado River that we’d usually pass out right on the sand, too spent to set up our tents. When it rained during the Grand Canyon trip, Jack and I would rouse from dreamland just long enough to grab our rain fly from the dry pack, pull it over our bodies, and fall right back asleep.
And it was okay with me if they didn’t understand. Instead, my two sisters both got married in their early twenties and started creating families right away, the trust, commitment, and vulnerability required to make those decisions far more terrifying to me than zip lining across Tikal. As hard as it was to admit, which is why I never did to any member of my family, I knew that part of what called me to that level of risk had something to do with my father, something to do with being slapped across the face so often as a child. My father always let me know while I was growing up that he had power over me. Maybe my call to adventure was nothing more than my way of finding my own power, of standing up to Fear, of finally being able to control what exactly it was that would make my heart race.
* * *
My reverie was broken as I heard the pilot shout his commands. “Door!” Don swung the door open and I turned my body towards the wind the way I had been instructed. “Knees!” I placed my knees against the edge of the doorframe, so that I was looking down at the clouds. I had a split second to record the feeling in my memory before I heard, “Drop!” and as the plane literally tilted to drop us we fell, arms extended, bodies embracing the pull of gravity.
My brother says he screams during the thirty-second free fall. I had no voice. There really is no way to describe those seconds of freedom, except to say that it was like flying, but even better. It was like becoming one with the elements, feelings and energy and matter all swept up in the wind and the sun and the pit of my stomach. It was absolute and total release.
A moment followed of deep intense wishing, much like prayer, when Don signaled me to pull the cord on his pack. What if the parachute didn’t…but it did, it opened, and we found ourselves perpendicular to the ground below us. I had about three minutes before the ride was over to watch the multi-textured green and cobalt blue and brown squares of land inching their way steadily closer to my feet. I laughed at the sky as Don and I twirled with our parachute, first clockwise, then counterclockwise. I was a child, my mind and heart completely and fully open to the present moment as if nothing else existed. Our landing was fast and furious but my euphoria canceled out any pain, at least until the next morning.
There is a Buddhist expression, “big sky mind,” which refers to the expansion of a person’s thoughts to allow for a multitude of perspectives. Opening ourselves to big sky mind affords us more options in how we see and respond to what’s happening in our lives. As the safety of the plane fell away, I began to understand that maybe my life didn’t need to center on reacting to my father one way or the other, with fear or with commensurate aplomb. Maybe it could just be about this, about the choice in the present moment to open my arms wide and drop, willingly, fully, and completely, with a kind of surrender, deep into the unknown.
STORY IMAGE CREDIT: Flickr Creative Commons/Yaniv Yaakubovich