In The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Milan Kundera proposes that vertigo is not the fear of falling off a building, but of jumping off. We are never sure how in control we are. The resonance of this thought helped me relinquish what according to Mr. Kundera I never fully possessed. The truth of this notion is the only way I can account for my complete lack of fear as I jumped out of an airplane at 13,500 feet on a sunny day in May. I was supposed to. I was strapped to a fetching young instructor named Doug, who, having jumped out of a plane before, had the foresight to bring a parachute.
Admittedly sometimes I am a wall-clinger. I feel woozy when looking down on the Empire State from its eponymous skyscraper. I do not worry about the structure's integrity. I have no anxiety of being pushed. I fear my imagination. I fear that the line between imagination and action might be fuzzier than people think. I look down from the Eiffel Tower and I psychically tumble. I regard Parliament from The London Eye and I fantasy fly.
Of course I also see myself belting out an Ethel Merman tune at a funeral. I wonder sometimes at the sight of a gun-toting police officer if I could get to her pistol before she could. It's the same fear really. Who is to say that one time the fantasist side of my brain might not grab the controls long enough for me to permanently alter my, yes untraditional, but mostly legal, mostly appropriate, and mostly gravitationally constrained life.
Skydiving was not on my list of lifetime accomplishments. It was not something I needed to do as catharsis. I did not need to prove to myself that I could. I had no phobia to cure. I was not bereft of strength. But skydiving had, when I seldom gave it thought, appeal.
My brother Jack is a jumper. He went to skydiving school in Spain. On only his sixth jump his chute was irreparably tangled. Even in crisis, he tried everything he could to mend the pretzelled cords before relying on his reserve. My brother preferred death to dilettantism and pulled his parachute at a perilously low altitude.
Our mother loves that story. Almost as much as the yarn in which the pilot overshot his mark and let Jack out miles from his drop zone, forcing him to walk back through a small village during some native festival, chute in hand, Spaniards giggling and pointing the lost jumper toward his base.
Undaunted by past experiences and in celebration of an incurable family irreverence, my brother and I jumped out of a plane together on Mothers' Day, 2001.
To make your first tandem jump there is an orientation process which, as far as I can tell is threefold in its objectives: 1) Free jump site from liability. 2) Teach jumpers body position, altimeter use and ripcord pulling. 3) Scare prospective jumpers senseless, weeding out the faint of heart while still on the ground and lessening the number who land in the plane and not on their feet.
I attended orientation, and later jumped with four imminent graduates of the University of Pennsylvania. Their foray into the wild blue was fraternal, a ritual of brotherhood before their exile from the ivory tower forced them to matriculate in the real world. They were really cute. And really nervous!
While waiting for our manifest I sat at the snack bar sipping a Diet Coke and devouring a basket of French fries. I offered my trepidatious friends some. They looked at me, brows furrowed and trembling and stuttered, "Um, thanks, but maybe afterwards, alright?" Boys are such scardy-cats.
After sedulous drills in body position (laying my tummy on a cable spool in a rudimentary simulation of freefall) my brother and I climbed into a turbine caravan and I got to co-pilot the vessel. Philadelphia sparkled in the distance and the landscape was lovely, but I began to worry about my persistently sanguine temper. Was my dearth of fear going to manifest itself at the last minute in a total meltdown, or was I really just not afraid? The boys were ashen.
One by one I watched them bravely disappear into the ether. I watched my brother wink at me, hold his nose and plunge into the sky as if it were a world-size swimming pool.
Eventually it was my go. I turned the controls of the plane back over to their rightful pilot, brought my goggles down over my eyes, let Doug fasten me to him and there we stood, half in and half out the open door of an airplane.
Surveying the world below me, unfettered by glass or by screen, I crossed my arms over my chest like a corpse (pursue the allusion no further) and Doug and I swung out, and then in, and then, on that third out - We Jumped.
That was the moment. That was the moment of letting go, of losing my moorings with intention, of giving it up to the wind and the air and the sky. That moment is as close as I have ever come to being perfect. I bore the unbearable lightness and I fell. For sixty seconds I fell.
Falling is loud and cold and awesome.
During freefall the videographer took my hand, spun me around, and I began to conceive all the possibilities of dancing in the air. I tried to smile as the wind filled my cheeks and dried out my teeth. I showed off with the predictable thumbs up and some less pedestrian disco moves. I also tried to check my altimeter every five seconds without being reminded. When that little needle pointed to 5,000 feet, I pulled the cord myself!
The instant change from cold to warmth and from noise to silence was remarkable: beautiful calming sun, airy quiet as I floated, floated, floated.
My friends were subject to multiple and mandatory viewings of my skydiving video. As Doug steered us expertly to the ground, I fell on my bum. While on my arse, the videographer zoomed in and asked what I thought of my experience.
"Sublime," I said.
I have been heartily chastised for this pretension but it was professed in earnest. The word had remained dormant in my vocabulary since college when I'd heard the story of a disagreeable pundit and contemporary of Beethoven's who was noted to have involuntarily blurted out the same expletive upon hearing the Eroica.
I meant to be apt. Sublime: not to be excelled; supreme; inspiring awe; raised aloft; set high. The ultimate example of something.
A day of skydiving will make you forget there is a world outside the jump site. You'll be tempted to hang around indefinitely. I swear, beside the need to financially support the habit, you'll want to quit your jobs and go boho with a parachute.
Jump out of a plane someday. Once you do, you'll be forever beguiled to trade in the office for the hangar, the Volvo for a chute, and the suit for a suit. And I'll not be dissuaded from telling you, you might meet somebody nice. Skydiving jump sites are rife with adorable people who jump out of planes. I highly recommend you get one strapped to your back.
Echo, a character in a favorite play of mine ruminates: "The secret of flight lies in the assurance that we are worthy of flying."
No secret now. You Are Worthy.