Tuesday, November 18, 2008

All Right

When it comes to skydiving, I believe there are three kinds of people.

The first kind hears the word “skydiving” and thinks: “The Best. Idea. Ever!” These are people who enjoy rock climbing and rappelling upside-down, snowboarding, bungee-jumping, and eating strange foods for fun. For these people, life is a relentless Mountain Dew commercial, with all their experiences flickering by in jump cuts as they endlessly quest for the next big rush. Or so I imagine.

The second kind of person thinks skydiving sounds stupid and horrifying. This person is likely to say something like, “Why on earth would you jump out of perfectly good airplane?” The idea of skydiving is entirely alien and goes against all instincts to this person.

The third kind of person has an instinctual fear of skydiving but also knows deep down that if they could find a way to break through that fear, they would really enjoy it. Hopefully. That is, if they are alive at the end.

I am the third kind of person. I have never been deeply afraid of heights, but I’ve never been real keen on heights either. When I’m pushed to an uncomfortably high place my body begins to war with my mind. My mind says “Hey, it’s alright…this is perfectly safe,” while my body enlists my stomach to climb up my throat in a futile attempt to throttle my senseless brain. The net result: nausea, vertigo, racing pulse, flop sweat…a clear message from my body that death is indeed immanent, so pretty please, with sugar on top, return to safer ground, NOW!

My skydiving experience had been paid for over a year and somehow I never “had the time” to schedule my jump. It probably had something to do with the way I would grow pale whenever the topic came up. “Yes,” I’d say, “I really think it will be great!” but meanwhile I’d be wiping copious sweat off my palms and think to myself, “I’m gonna do it next year.”

I can’t say what caused me to finally schedule my jump, but it had something to do with the fact that every month that went by in which I “just couldn’t find the time” to jump, I lost a little faith in myself. When my friend Sandy, whose husband owns the skydiving company, prompted me with “Hey Mar, fall is the best time to jump because the colors are so beautiful,” I surprised myself by responding, “Alright, let’s schedule it.”

And so, one month later, I found myself donning some warm clothes, packing snacks for the kids, and driving with Brian to Skydive the Farm in Rockmart, Georgia. After signing our names to about 100 tiny boxes (affirming that we were aware it is sincerely possible to die doing this) and watching a brief “you-really-could-die-you-know” video, it was finally time to…wait. So we waited, while the kids played in the hanger with Sandy’s kids, driving an electric car, riding bikes in circles, dodging chutes waiting to be repacked, and generally having the time of their lives. Here’s what happened: we began to relax. Waiting around, just watching people for three hours forces you to chill -- in a way no safety class can chill you. All around you the atmosphere is saying: “What’s the big deal? We do this everyday. No worries, mate!”

The crew at the farm consists primarily of a number of “Mountain Dew” guys (and gals) in their 20s and 30s, with excessive piercing and interesting facial hair. They work to jump, and spend every spare minute hanging around The Farm hoping for another opportunity to crank up the adrenalin. They banter, play with the wandering kids and dogs, scavenge for food, and generally act like it’s just another day at summer camp on Adrenalin Mountain. They chill any lingering freakiness I am harboring. I like people like this. I can hang.

“I’m putting you with Big Steve” Sandy informs me. “He’s the best!” Brian jokes about favoritism as I size up Big Steve. He is not one of the Mountain Dew crowd. Big Steve is in his 40s, 6’5” and well -- a big guy. He has a calm demeanor, slightly graying hair and most importantly, kind eyes. I quickly understand why Big Steve is the “best”. He knows when to crack a joke and when to look into your eyes and connect. He has this uncanny ability to hold your fluttering gaze and reassure you. Big Steve is like the Mountain Dew crowd’s dad. I know I should be getting more nervous now, as I suit up, but I’m with Big Steve and my camera guy is flitting around interviewing me, and I am totally zen.

We load into the bus for the short drive to the airfield. The Mountain Dew boys continue to joke and jostle like puppies. Their banter has a practiced air that makes it clear to me that these jokes, these activities, are all part of a reassuring ritual. Brian and I goggle at each other, “We’re really doing it!” written all over our faces. I expect there will be a moment, sometime on the plane when I will feel that panic, when my stomach tries to eat my head. But for now, I am simply bemused and amused. Everything is so new and interesting. I’m just trying to take it all in.

We board the plane, which has a sliding door (that gives me pause!) and scoot backward, straddling a long bench, our backs pressed against our tandem instructors’ chests. Big Steve shows me the altimeter as we climb and points out landmarks on the ground. As we near our jump altitude, 14,000 feet, the jokes become more fevered and everyone around us begin giving everyone else sliding high fives and fist bumps followed by a peace sign. Another ritual.

Someone opens the sliding door. I fly often for my job on commercial airlines, and I must say -- an open door on a flying airplane feels wrong. Really wrong. I decide that I’ll save my panic for my turn in the doorway and busy myself putting on my goggles and triple checking my harness.

Then Big Steve is walking me (on our knees) to the door, reminding me of the proper position for our leap, and reminding me to keep my eyes open and breathe through my nose. I am looking out over the universe, poised to take the greatest leap of my life, and all I am thinking is “Wow!” And we jump.

Big Steve executes a perfect somersault as we exit the plane, affording me an amazing view of the sky, the planet -- the underside of the plane. There is no lurch. No panic. It is not peaceful. It is not zen. It’s amazing!

I breath through my nose, stretch out my arms and I am flying. The air rushes past me at 120 miles per hour and all I see are blue skies, the haze of our planet and my camera guy, still joking, flapping his arms like a demented bird. I grin like a loon myself and mug for the camera. I’m skydiving! I do not have an ounce of fear left in me. I’m totally There. Time is suspended. The NOW is immense.

The camera guy waves “bye-bye,” Big Steve reaches back and pulls the chute and we whoosh upward, the most jolting moment in the trip so far. “Good chute!” Big Steve yells in my ear. “Alright,” I respond moronically. But, what else is there to say? I don’t want to leave the moment. Right now I am sailing above western Georgia. I am happy. I am free. I am not stuck! “ALLLRIGHHHT!” I scream again. And this time I am saying it to the sky, to the world, to the universe. Because in this moment, everything is perfectly alright. I am all right.

They say, how you do anything is how you do everything. As I deconstruct my jump, I can see my familiar patterns emerge. It took me over a year to schedule this jump. “My life is so busy” I kept telling myself. “I’ll do it soon.” I let the excuses and the anxiety dictate my actions. But I finally became so uncomfortable knowing that I was avoiding something -- avoiding a part of myself -- that I took action. My need for a breakthrough finally superseded all the other excuses.

It was more stressful packing up the kids and the snacks and getting directions to the Farm than jumping out of an airplane. I was more afraid of that moment when I thought I would be afraid than the actual moment of truth ever was. I was afraid of the unknown. I was afraid of looking stupid and scared. I was afraid of my own panic.

I was like Dorothy and her ruby slippers; I had the power with me all the time. My panic didn’t win. It never even really showed up. And if it had, that would have been okay too. I had trust on my side. I trusted the equipment. I trusted Big Steve. I trusted the rituals. I trusted the process. I jumped and I flew.

If you are the first kind of person, the adrenalin junkie, you probably can barely even read this because you are currently hurtling down a mountain somewhere or hanging by your toes from a cliff. You know what I’m talking about and you’ll say “right on!” and then you’ll slam a Mountain Dew.

If you are the second kind of person, the kind who REALLY has no interest in extreme experiences, don’t worry. There are lots of ways and places to find your path to flight. Just don’t stop seeking for that path. That is your challenge.

For the rest of you, afraid to jump but secretly aware you want to do it: Stop listening to the excuses. Release yourself.

Jump. And fly.


Anna Banana said...

Dang it! I am crying again!!!! Seriously, you amaze me sis.
All my love

Hubby said...

she amazes me too...talk about being one lucky fellow.

brick said...

wow, so I think I read this blog when you first jumped, but now since I've jumped I re-read it. I can totally relate to what you are saying. So many people say to me, " why would you jump out of a perfectly good airplane?" or "what are you crazy?" but for me it was a philosophical experience. I am amzed at what I can do. I never had "it" in me beofre and now at 35, I think I found "it". Thanks for inspiring me!