Out of the Box, Into the Air

In a word, Erika is passionate. About life. Love. Things that matter. And she writes about each, with sentences that sing, at Be Gay About It. In our final guest installment for the “Just A Little Crazy” series, she takes us two miles into the air to teach us a lesson about living with passion right here on sweet terra firma. Take a moment to visit the new Crazy! page to read previous entries in this series . . .

My earliest memory set the stage. In the first part of the memory, I’m wrapped in a blanket burrito-style at age two. I can see through the face-hole that it’s my mom, all nineteen years of her, cradling me as she runs, panting, alabaster against the coal black sky, her strawberry hair ablaze with each whipcrack of lightning.

In the second part of the memory, I’m being unwrapped by my slightly calmer mother on our neighbor’s velour sofa. The room is golden warm and there are pictures of the sweaty, later-years Elvis everywhere.

Two fragments of one event, equally traumatic.

It’s no wonder I grew into the hyper-aroused, hyper-prepared adult that I am today. Caution is an occupation and art form for me.  I walk across parking lots with my keys splayed between my knuckles like a claw. I fill my tank at the halfway mark. I cut my fruit before I bite into it. Thanks to my sixth sense of foresight, I’ve lived a pretty safe life (touch wood). Sometimes, though, my sixth sense of foresight becomes my cross and I need to leave it by the side of the road while I meander off the path for a minute or two or, on especially confident days, longer. These meanderings are few, but conspicuous.

It makes sense, given all this, that my greatest out-of-the-box moment, my boldest foray into crazy, was both planned and prepaid for months in advance, and involved a single engine prop plane, a parachute, and 12,000 feet between me and the earth.

Never, never, never did I imagine that I would skydive prior to meeting my lobster, Jenn. It was on our second date that she showed me her skydiving video; it was during that 12 minute run-time that I fell in love. Not only with her, but with what is possible when risk is given a second glance. In the video, she’s charming and dangerously badass. I held my breath watching her arc out of the plane to Rusted Root’s Send Me On My Way and I wondered what it would take for me to do it, to skydive. We struck a deal: if she could convince my mom, warrior protector of my life, to tell me to do it, then I would. If only foresight had told me that this would be one of those rare times my mom would surprise me.

It’s July 2005. I’m 28 years old. I’m wearing a jumpsuit, a harness, and flight goggles.

I’m scared shitless.

My tandem instructor is Howie. He and the rest of the crew at AtmosphAIR are amazingly Zen human beings; such is their approach to flight. They talk to me about fear management, about letting go, about breathing and being aware. I’m like, “Yeah, okay. Right. Let go. No problem.”

We hike out to the runway and load into the plane. The noise of the propeller is enough to overstimulate me. How in the hell am I going to handle falling two miles to my death?

We taxi, we gain speed, and – lift off!

Howie offers me a Tic Tac (my last meal?). At this point, I’m secured to the plane by one questionable seat belt around one questionable strap on my harness. We’re ascending and I realize what’s about to happen. I make a decision right then and there – I will go through with this. I will leave all my emotional baggage, all my rules, right here in the plane. It will be good. Yeah. It will be therapeutic!

At 10,000 feet, the door flies open. The noise is unbearable. It’s cold and dry and – OH! – my friend Steve and his instructor fall out of the plane! Just like that! Gone! Howie shuts the door and I have serious second thoughts.

But Howie is already walking me through the steps. He’s fastening my goggles. He’s fastening the clips, snuggling our hips together. The engine stills. Howie whispers (shouts?) that he’s going to open the door and then does it. My heart screams out of my chest. Bulls thunder in my ears. Howie tugs on my sleeve. I will not let go of the plane! He tugs again and I think, “OKAY, OKAY, HERE WE –

HOOLLLLLY SHHIIIIIIIIITTT!!!”

You can actually see me mouth this on my video.

To be honest, the rest of that jump is a blur. I have the video, which retells the story of a typical freefall, typical parachute opening, and typical landing.

All I remember is being cold and unable to think anything at all.

I’ve skydived five times now. I’ve somersaulted out of the plane, I’ve parachuted through a cloud. I’ve landed on my feet and on my ass. My last jump, however, put me into indefinite retirement; the chute opening was a bit rough and I experienced whiplash (not to mention my life flashing before my eyes at 120 miles per hour). Also, a dear friend who had also been one of my tandem instructors died during a jump last September. It was a medical incident and had nothing to do with skydiving, but it rattles me just the same.

Retirement or no retirement, my initial foray into crazy changed me. I’m much better able now to let go, to find my breath, to mark time without anxiety. I’m better able to forgive and to resolve emotional conflict, internally and externally. I’m at least capable of proceeding without caution.

And while my habit may be to plan like crazy, thanks to my five times out of the box, I’m now just crazy enough to go without a plan.

Once in awhile.