On the slow descent downward, I didn’t know that my parachute hadn’t opened all the way.
The man on the radio said, “Toggle right,” and I toggled right. He said, “Toggle left,” and I toggled left. I toggled a lot–right, left, right, left– because from the ground, the radio man could see that my parachute wasn’t opening properly and he was trying to help me fix the problem.
But I remained blissfully unaware.
It was back in my college days when a newbie could jump out of a plane with nothing but a short tether that would pull a chute 150 feet from the plane after the virgin skydiver launched into the Great Unknown.
The initial ascent skyward was humbling. After reaching altitude, I crawled out of the rickety little plane on my own to take a position on the scaffolding under the wing. I let go of the wing on my own count and I reflexively curled into the fetal position as I cast off into the downward descent and screamed with terror into the dead air until the tether activated my chute and my fall was disrupted by a violent jolt. It was then that I opened my eyes.
I was alive.
Privately, in the silence, I celebrated, even as I toggled mindlessly to save my own fragile life. A few hundred feet from the ground, the last two compartments on the chute opened, probably because the wind on the ground had picked up. I didn’t know about the failing chute compartments, but if I had, I would’ve certainly been relieved and grateful that they’d finally opened.
I could see the little bulls-eye below me on the mound of sand where I’d hopefully land. I toggled to steer myself right, then left, then right again, always doing whatever the radio-man said. Mindlessly. Obediently. And as the landscape changed from two-dimensions into three, the target was right there underneath me, the wind carrying me along silently. I thought I’d be a natural at this. I imagined myself bragging about my bulls-eye landing later with the rest of the people I was skydiving with that day. Maybe skydiving would be My Thing.
I tensed up as I readied for the landing.
But there was another problem. Between the time when I’d jumped out of the plane and the time when I came in for my landing, the wind had picked up. The wind had probably blown my chute open (which was good), but there were brief gusts coming in at 25 miles per hour now and so, despite my best efforts, I was not destined to land on the target. Still, I remained blissfully ignorant of the danger. I stayed optimistically focused on the target.
The radio-man said, “Tuck! Tuck! Tuck!” And I tucked reflexively. I tucked and I tucked and I tucked. And I closed my eyes tightly because to me, that was part of tucking. Then, I hit the airplane hangar going about 25 miles per hour. I slid down the side of the building onto the cement.
I opened my eyes and sat up, leaning my back against the hangar. I put my legs out in front of me and I looked at them with interest, scowling. I wasn’t exactly sure what’d just happened. In the distance, I could see the gray horizon and people running toward me. I lifted one gloved hand up to my face and looked at it. One of my arms wasn’t broken. That was good. I moved my legs. I could move them and they didn’t hurt. They were okay. I pulled the glove off my other hand as a group of concerned people ran up and surrounded me. I held my fingers up in front of my face and moved them. And then I chuckled at how silly I must’ve looked slamming into the side of the building like that. I heard a woman tell someone in the group that from the inside, she’d seen the impression of my body come through the insulated panel of the steel building. No one laughed about it except me.
Ann, a friend who’d jumped just moments after me, arrived on the scene. The radio-man had landed her way out in a barren field, far away from trees and buildings and she’d had to walk some distance to get back to the hangar. That had been her adventure. When she got back to the hangar, I stood up for the first time and turned around to take a look at the dent that I’d made and the steel bolts jutting out in various places through the panel that I’d just smashed into. I’d missed them all by fractions of an inch.
That night, Ann and I went out dancing until 4:00 AM.
It was a good day.
Some might say that after a near brush like that, it would be stupid to tempt fate a second time. And I might say that I am, in fact, stupid. Yes I Am. But I’d add that I often get good results from my persistence. I don’t like to end things on a bad note. I always aim toward emotional mastery of the things that scare me most. On my first jump, I mastered my fear of heights. On my second jump, I mastered my fear of slamming into the sides of buildings after jumping out of planes.
The second time I went skydiving, I did a tandem jump, I had it videotaped, and I jumped from a higher altitude. It went well. So well, in fact, that there was almost no story to tell. I landed on the target. And again, Ann and I went dancing into the wee hours of the morning.
As a young person, confrontation and risk made sense. I congratulated myself whenever I survived a near-miss. But the older I get, the more difficult it gets to take even calculated risks. Words like Responsibility and Retirement have drained the life right out of me. Making a plan for Right Now is hard enough without having to Plan-Ahead-for-the-Unknown 20 or 30 years from now. Life lived responsibly is rigid…and boring. In the U.S. the most exciting thing that happens to people my age is heart disease or early-onset diabetes. Some people get lucky and develop nothing more than a phobia or panic attacks.
We didn’t travel this summer because when we returned from our last trip, we were quite ill. Over the summer, we recovered from our tropical illness. And now, I’m anxiety-stricken about our upcoming trip. And I miss the days of discovering something new about myself and the world without all the pre-conceived notions about what I’m supposed to fear. Fear is such a burden. And it seems to have a symbiotic relationship with Comfort. The more comfortable I get, the more fearful I become of discomfort.
It’s hard to feel the presence of a Higher Power in my life when I brush my teeth every morning, when I read the hopeless news stories in the paper, or when I go through the mundane motions of day-to-day life. But when my life balances precariously on the edge of something, I can’t help but marvel at the magic of not falling and crashing hopelessly into the abyss. I willingly trade my comfort for the awe of finding my way through a foreign place and for the friendly gestures offered by strangers in a strange land. Comfort is lovely, but in moderation. Too much breeds fear. It makes me forget that I’m human.
It makes me forget that other people are human. That other people deserve to feel some measure of comfort too. They deserve kind gestures and the opportunity to feel awe when the world hands them something small but perhaps wonderfully surprising.
Which is why we’re going to the Middle East again. People keep asking John and me, “Is it safe?” We’ve been keeping a tally of how many people have asked us the question because the number (currently) is more than we can count on just our fingers. They ask the question reflexively and always, I hesitate in my response. In the U.S., shootings happen daily in random places. And safety is a relative thing. I don’t think it’s safe to eat in fast food restaurants. Several people died last week from E. Coli after eating at Chipotle, but still, people go to Chipotle. So, is it safe? Yes. And no. Just like everywhere.
Nonetheless, I’ve worried about this trip for months, but not for the reasons most people would think. I’ve worried about the discomfort. Lydian and I will be going to Arabic classes for three hours a day at Cairo University. This will be exhausting. It’s hard to spend hours and hours with people who can’t fully understand your language or your culture. It’s hard to be really hungry and really tired and really misunderstood all at the same time. And it’s hard to be a woman in the Middle East. This is not a vacation. And I’m tense about it.
I’m worried about the trip to Israel and Jordan. Will we make it through the land border crossing or will we get turned away for having visas from other Arabic countries? Will Israel be an angry place? How dangerous is it? John’s going to drive from Amman to Petra in Jordan on a road that leads into nothing but open desert. Memories of Tunisia give me anxiety about Jordan. I’m trying to keep my mind open, but I’m worried.
And so, a better question that people could ask me is, “Are you worried about safety?” I could answer that question simply by saying, “Yes.” And then I could talk briefly about my concerns and feel better rather than worse when me and my conversation partners part ways. As it is, every time someone asks me this question, I feel compelled to point out the safety issues associated with seemingly harmless activities like going to the movie or the mall in the U.S. And no one seems to want to think about those things. The United States is a violent place. Is Egypt more violent than the U.S.? Less violent? I don’t know and I’ve even been there before.
The whole point of jumping out of a plane is to Not Know exactly what’s going to happen. For most of what we do every day of our lives we believe that we do know what’s going to happen, but how often is that really true? How often are we pleasantly or unpleasantly surprised by something unexpected? And thank god for surprises, because without them, life would be dull and pointless and there would be no need for things like serendipity, faith, or magic.