Let everything happen to you
Beauty and terror
Just keep going
No feeling is final
–Rainier Marie Rilke
First I have to make one thing perfectly clear: I am not an adrenaline junkie. Roller-coasters terrify me and even water slides give me great anxiety. I won’t even get into my ill-fated attempt to learn to ride a motorcycle (I was turning 41; clearly a mid-life crisis).
Suffice it to say I have never done anything in life purely for the rush it might bring me.
So how did I come to find myself on the morning of September 17 in a small airplane with a snug harness on my body, sitting on the lap of a tandem sky-diving instructor?
What on earth possessed me to make the decision to step out of a perfectly good airplane?
Back when I was in my 20s I had made a bucket list (before the term bucket list was even coined, I might add) of things to do before I died. As years passed and I wasn’t accomplishing any of these five items, I decided a more specific "dead"line might be useful. So I amended it to "Things to do before I’m 50." The five things were: scuba-diving, para-sailing, riding in a helicopter, hot-air ballooning, and sky-diving. Clearly, I needed to make these a list to focus on since none of them would naturally occur in my non-athletic, non-thrill-seeking, somewhat sedentary life.
I accomplished the first three in a single week on the island of Maui, HI when I was 31.
The para-sailing and helicopter ride were both fun; I learned in scuba-diving that I have serious control issues around when and how I get to breathe. But then there was a long dry period of, well, 18 years and as I turned the corner on my 49th birthday this past June I realized it was time to get serious about checking the other two items off my list.
My niece Pam got the ball rolling. She had already sky-dived and was ready to do it again. She posted on my facebook wall, other nieces saw and wanted to join and the decision was made to do it when everyone would be here for Sam’s 16th birthday.
Reservations were made (and reservations were had by me, but I pushed them to the back-burner of my mind; there was too much other fun stuff to focus on: my entire family descending from all parts of the nation for Sam’s birthday; Sam’s party itself, which was epic; the sermon I still had to prepare for Sunday, on the off chance I survived my jump). Suddenly it was the day. We all got up at the crack of dawn and drove to the sky-diving place just outside of Canon City. When we were all assembled it was my brother, Erik; nieces, Pam, Rachael, and Marissa; a friend of Pam’s; and me.
The small plane took us up two at a time; through no planning on my part, Erik and I were to be in the last plane. It was truly beautiful and amazing to see the other four jump out of the plane, two by two, and watch as their chutes blossomed open and they gently glided to land.
Now it was our turn. Erik climbed in first, positioned himself on top of his instructor and my instructor and I followed suit (Erik’s instructor said, jokingly, "I bet this is the first time you’ve paid so much money to sit on a man’s lap." I chimed in "It is for me, too." I’m not sure they got the joke). But for the rest of the 20 minute ride I was mainly quiet. I could sense this growing anxiety in me, even though I knew I had a fairly good chance of surviving this jump (and as one friend said on fb "If not, it’ll only hurt once." Cold comfort, those words) and living to preach the following day. I was trying mainly to just stay in the moment, to take in the beautiful vista of the Royal Gorge, and to ask myself, What am I to learn here? Why am I doing this? I wanted to be open to the lesson, not the adrenalin rush.
Finally, the pilot said, "Door!" My instructor open the door and I did as I had been instructed, following his left foot with mine, placed on the step there; next was my right foot. That was the most terrifying moment and I barely had time to feel it before we were out; tumbling over and over in an incredible bullet-fast rush through the skies. After about 30 seconds, my instructor pulled the chute cord and there we were: gracefully wafting down, the silence even more noticeable after the rushing of air during free fall. It was an amazing experience.
And here’s what I learned from it: that there are many times in life when I am facing something unknown; a new challenge, a stepping off from the norm; and if I wanted to, I could let the terror get the best of me and back away– and often I do remain in the place of terror, fear, anxiety longer than I need to because there’s no one there to make me jump but myself. But really (and this is true as I look back on all my free-fall experiences, mainly metaphorical though they may be) once I let go, once I give in to the moment and just free-fall– I have fun; I find I can do something I wasn’t sure I could; I discover I’ll survive.
As we come into this New Year with new opportunities for growth and change– with all the accompanying terror and uncertainty– this is a lesson I want to take with me into 2012; this is a moment in time I want to remember when it feels as if I’m being asked to step out of a perfectly good plane: the getting there is the scariest part; once you let go and jump out, it’s a fabulous ride. Happy New Year.