The Sun and the Sky: Finding Magic (part 4)

Skydiving
Photo by Skydive Switzerland

When I first watched my skydiving video, I couldn’t help but cringe a little. Even now, I find myself wishing for the removal of some frames and the addition of others.

The angles aren’t great, I stick my tongue out at one point, and I’m gaping and gesturing like a child. I’m embarrassed that I’m embarrassed, because isn’t it enough that I went skydiving and it was magical?

I want to control the way I look when I’m feeling a lot of emotion, or at least control how I look in the images meant to capture that emotion and carry it out into the world. I want to look open but not too open, happy yet composed, and please no awkward facial expressions or ugly crying or anything else untamed, unkempt, unhinged.

But the most moving photography of humans captures the real, raw moments. I have rarely seen such unbridled joy on my face as I did during the freefall, but I find it hard to see the beauty, to be moved by my own childlike, unmitigated wonder. I worry what others will think, that they will laugh or be uncomfortable, that I will laugh or be uncomfortable and miss out on every re-experience of Magic.

I wasn’t worrying about it at the time, but I was worrying in Alliance, Nebraska, a few weeks earlier. This was the day of the total solar eclipse. I wasn’t worrying about how I looked, but I may as well have been.

It’s hard to capture a moment and still remain fully present to that moment. That’s why I didn’t even try to photograph the eclipse. But I did want everything to be just so. I was aghast that the people around me proceeded to talk through all of totality, that cameras were clicking and distractions abounded. I wished I were on a hilltop, alone. I wished everyone was reverent and solemn in the ways I thought they should be reverent and solemn. I wished to fall into a sun-trance, but I seemed thwarted by externals.

Sometimes everything comes together splendidly, and yet it’s not enough. We feel too much or too little, or we look like we feel too much or too little, or our attention is diverted just enough that we feel, somehow, that our experience didn’t count.

I can never, it seems, experience something just once and be satisfied. The high demands I place on Magic are hard to fulfill.

And yet, Magic, Magic is everywhere. I have always loved the true stories of breaking through what we thought were barriers of the natural world, of going beyond where we thought we could. Apollo 13 was the first movie I saw in theaters, at age 6, and in college I jumped at the chance to take a niche course on the Space Race of the 1960s.

I am thrilled to the bones, moved to tears, by stories of these explorers and risk-takers. In these stories, there is a First around every corner, one moment and then another of breathless anticipation and water in the eyes. I watch my own skydiving video and I attach it to the more dramatic music in the company’s promo video, I attach it to Launch music and Leaving Port music and every other song I can think of that bespeaks adventure, so that the moment when the song reaches its crescendo is my Moment of leaving the plane.

 

No video or picture I’ve ever seen has done justice to the magic of skydiving, the magic of a total solar eclipse. They say a picture is a worth a thousand words. Dare I believe that collections of a thousand words could be worth pictures?

 

This is part four of a four-part series.

Part 1: Beginnings

Part 2: Eclipse

Part 3: Skydiving

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The Sun and the Sky: Skydiving (part 3)

You will remember the buildup and the aftermath, but will you remember the freefall?

Skydive: Walking to the plane

I’m worried that I’m already forgetting what it was like to skydive. Skydiving is not like riding a rollercoaster. It is not like anything but itself. I watch the video of me, plucked from a handcam, plucked from the sky. I see big-eyed surprise and wonder, then joy, then contentment on my face, but in some ways it feels like I’m watching another person. Fear, too, makes it hard to remember what came after the fear.

But I remember enough.

“I’m going skydiving,” I would say, sounding nonchalant and confident. And I was nonchalant and confident, mostly. The continuum of fear, when so many continents and weeks lie in between, is barely a blip, makes it easy to sleep at night, at the beginning.

I do not sleep well, though, the night before. I writhe in the covers and chatter into the darkness, and even the peace of an alpine cliff top does not permeate.

Then the uncertain morning weather reminds me that nothing is inevitable, and after seven hours of working myself into a lather of anxiety, I am not sure if I want the delay to be temporary or permanent.

 

Finally, I arrive at the hangar in Interlaken with sixteen other people from at least four continents, not including the one we find ourselves on. We put on blue jumpsuits, gloves, and then the straps around legs, waist, and shoulders that will connect us with our other halves. We lay on our stomachs on the floor and practice tilting, bending, gripping. We watch the experts look at the sky, and we exchange rumors, and we wait. I meet people from Australia, China, Saudi Arabia, North America. I become less nervous, even as I meet very nervous people.

One plane holds about a dozen passengers, or six tandem pairs, or four tandem pairs and a few “fun jumpers,” or some other combination of novice and experienced. At last, there is more blue in the sky than white, and the rain is over, and we are moving in Swiss Time again. I will be taking the second trip up. I wait more than half an hour, watching people leave one way and return another, looking at first for the black dots in the sky, and then the blues and oranges and reds and whites of the parachutes, and the numbers always match.

My other half, Dave, is a man of few words, a 25-year veteran of the skies, someone to ease all manner of worries.

I am first on the plane, which means I will be the last off.

Skydiving: On the plane

My nerves crackle to life again as we assume our positions on board, as I pass through the door that will open again at 13,000 feet. It is me and a handful of American college students, now suddenly quiet. I smile for the camera, I peer out the window and try to admire Lake Thun and Lake Brienz, the peaks Jungfrau and Monch and Eiger, but then we are practicing positions for the jump, then the straps that had been attached at takeoff are tightened, then I am given a pair of goggles to wear that instantly fog up.

And now we are above the clouds that have been teasing us all day. The light goes on, the light that turns from red to green to tell us that The Time Has Come. The door opens, and each pair scoots to the edge for their Moment. There isn’t much time before my turn, only seconds. Not long enough, or maybe too long.

We move to the edge of the plane, the gaping hole, and I am being moved by someone else as much as I am moving myself. I know I won’t drop prematurely, we won’t leave the plane until he and I are ready.

It is not “jumping” like walking to an edge and moving my body into empty space.

I am compliant, somewhere between active and passive. For this to happen, I must walk and then crawl to a point, and then relinquish my semblance of control. I do not see where I will go, but I know where I will go.

Knees bent, hands gripping the straps at my shoulders, head tilted back, and I am ready for the freefall. I won’t see when he lets go, but I will feel it. There are a few seconds of hanging, of waiting, and then we fall.

We are upside down, but then what is upside down when you’re tumbling toward the earth? It isn’t as scary as I thought it would be.

I was afraid my heart would be in my throat the whole time, a mighty lurch, a reenactment of the falling nightmares everyone has, that I would have an iron grip on my straps, the compulsion to scream away my fears, because that’s what it would be like if the drop tower amusement park rides reached 13,000 feet into the sky, hellish Towers of Babel that really climbed into the heavens. Would I be breathing heavily and laughing nervously at the end, round-eyed and shaking and only glad it was over?

It’s not like that at all, not for me.

Skydiving is not 0 to 100 mph in seconds. You are on a plane, as you have been on many planes before, and then you make a directional shift, your horizontal journey becoming a vertical one. It is gentler on your insides that you would expect.

 

My heart jumps a small jump, then settles. I might be screaming a little, but if so the sound is lost in the wind, the wind that ripples my cheeks and whips my hair back and makes me grateful for the gloves. The world stretches out beneath me, more breathtaking than any concrete-sky jumble at amusement parks, and I have the thrill without the fear, or at least with only a low-grade sort of fear that tapers off. After a few seconds of holding my shoulder straps, I can let go, and then I am smiling big, arms outstretched. We are parallel to the ground. We might as well still be flying. I posed for the camera in my pre-interview, on the plane, and later after the parachute opened, but I was not posing during the freefall.

Skydiving: Right After the Jump

Skydiving: Upside Down

Skydiving: Freefall (mountain view)

We are even with the clouds now, level with white and blue and the yellow glow to the west where the sun will set in an hour or two. Close at hand are mountains with ribbons of snow, and others, farther away, that are full white and glorious. And below, getting bigger and bigger, is a carpet of green, grass green and tree green and blue-green, and it is hard to look anywhere other than down.

And then it’s time to slow down, after 45 seconds or forever. I’m jerked into a sitting position, and now I’m cruising along the sky, mountains now in my line of sight, conversation now possible. The dipping and spinning Dave now commences reminds me that it’s been entirely too long since I’ve had anything to eat or drink, and my stomach isn’t as strong as it once was, but it all works out.

 

I’m not an extreme sports kind of person. I don’t like downhill skiing or snowboarding. I’m not a fan of climbing rocks or jumping off rocks, and my particular history makes me pull back even from water skiing. I’m not usually someone who takes upon herself feats that others fear to do.

But if there’s anything that can give me the courage to leave a plane mid-flight, in a foreign country and surrounded by strangers, it is a chance to be among the wildest of beauty. Switzerland is the most beautiful place I have yet seen. Mountains are the most beautiful things I can think of, be they near or far, be they towering above me or under my feet or on the other side of the sky. This is the place to be my bravest self. If not now, then When?

 

After gliding in to a smooth landing, Dave asks me if I would ever do this again. Half an hour ago, I thought this would be a one-and-done type of thing. I surprise myself with the immediacy of my Yes.

“I’d rather be scared than sick,” I always say when describing my lesser-of-two-evils at amusement parks. But for that glorious minute, while falling to the earth, I was neither scared nor sick.

 

Skydiving: Freefall

 

All photos by Skydive Switzerland.

Video by Skydive Switzerland here.

 

This is part three of a four-part series.

Part 1: Beginnings

Part 2: Eclipse

Part 4: Finding Magic

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Running into Story

My drive to work is nothing special. It starts with a nondescript road, grey and industrial and mostly quiet except for the semi trucks that sometimes congregate at the stoplight. Only, if I remember to look down when crossing the river, down and to the right, I smile.

It’s my recurring phenomenon across the suburbs, across urban and residential areas, across the very heart of the city.

Certain intersections are dear to my heart, certain crosswalks and parks and even train stations. I once made meticulous plans to be at those intersections, to be at those crosswalks and parks and train stations, and when I find myself there again by accident, it feels like a secret and a surprise.

I should venture out of the city a little more. I should seek out longer stretches of dirt and fresher air and closer proximity to the mountains. Denver is big, but it’s not that big. It’s beautiful, but it’s not that beautiful.

But I love it. I love this way of discovering my town. I love making my own loops and dipping into tiny parks and looking in vain for a sign with my last name on it. I love involving public transit when I can, fiddling with my armful of gear in the mornings and keeping downwind from other people in the afternoons.

running selfie
My favorite selfies are the ones that bookend my runs.

More than anything, though, I love the stories that write themselves when I run — memories upon memories, tied to place: This is where I saw the deer, on that side of the snow-covered bridge in Cherry Creek State Park. This is where I almost cried listening to The Liturgists Podcast, these two laps around City Park on that hot March day. And the most common story: This is where I went the wrong way and got lost.

But I was always finding things too.

Some I found simply by going to certain places at certain times and paying attention. It’s the feel of the wind at night, warm and wild against my face, hours before the storm hits and the snow blankets everything. It’s the sight of the most beautiful sunrise I’ve ever seen on the morning of my first marathon, a beauty undiminished even though everything else went wrong that day. It’s a series of quacks and rustlings and big skies and horizons. It’s life at its zenith, in me and out there.

sunrise
A sunrise so beautiful that even an iPhone photo does it justice.

I found within myself the usual things people find when they spend months training their bodies in strength and stamina, all the exhilarating and painful and confident and exhausting and stubborn things. I found a clarity that surprised me, an ease in decision-making while on the trail. I learned what I was capable of, and I learned when it was worth it … and when it wasn’t.

Not everything about running has been glorious or even good, but for many of the months I’ve lived in Colorado, it’s been one of the truest parts of my life. Even in the staggering and the struggling, the long middles and the early mornings, it was the X that marked the spot. So I look down and to the right, and I smile.

The Rainbow

a rainbow fading
Not my rainbow, but the lighting conditions are similar. John Garghan took this picture.

The light is weird: bright, bright sun and a collage of clouds at near dusk, and in the eerie I see the start of a rainbow, oh so vivid.

And I cry.

Twice I pull over on the side of the road to gaze and to hold up my little phone with its weak little camera and to marvel and to feel. The second time, it all rises up in me even more as I see that this, this is a full rainbow. A picture of perfect wild cloud light bow.

I cry more.

The rainbow disappears a few minutes later, but the emotions stay with me, full and welcome. Soon I am home, walking inside to where the others are. This is when the feelings vanish — completely from my face, and mostly from my soul. No. Too much. Too emotional. Too personal. Too intense. It’s conscious and unconscious, a pulling back and a sudden lurch as something pulls itself out from under me.

Then, I am with the people. Easily, I hold out the stories I’ve collected of the day, I speak fast as I do, I remember excitements and energies and frustrations, all of them true in fact and feeling.

And yet…

There are moments, moments like these, when something more real comes out. Something more real than cynical admissions and little life stories, and I remember what it’s like to be awake. And then I’m afraid of what it’s like to be awake.

The Art of Turkeys

Wild TurkeysI see art in the turkeys who come to our yard daily. I see beauty and wonder as they drink from the old, metal bucket we keep filled with water, tilting their heads back once they’ve filled their mouths with a swallow so that the liquid can go down and quench and fill. I am delighted to watch them peck and scratch at the dirt, and, sometimes, sit in it.

They haven’t brought their babies here to drink for more than two years now. I wish they would, but I’m content just to see them live and move and have their being right outside our kitchen window.

Turkeys aren’t known for their beauty. Maybe that’s why I’m drawn to them. Cats and dogs, dolphins and horses have many admirers. But turkeys, with their tiny pink heads, their thin legs, and their sleek, dark bodies, aren’t the recipients of as much love. But still they go about their lives, unconcerned with the world that only notices them for their meat.

I notice them, these wild friends of mine, and I never tire of watching them walk, run, sit, drink, explore, and fly into the tall pines at twilight to sleep in safety.

Sometimes I feebly gobble to them from above or across, and sometimes they reply. But more often I just watch them, like I’m doing right now, not wanting to alarm them and thus hasten their departure.

I watch this corner of the turkeys’ world, knowing that when I’m no longer living here, my heart will still thrill at the sound of their gobbling, one of my favorite sounds in the world.

Day 7: It’s a wonderful thing to be human

This is Day 7 of 31 Days in the Word.

I’ve been thinking about all the things that come together to make life rich and full. As I write this, I’m listening to the Titanic soundtrack, and a sense of the divine is washing over my tired body. A full life is the mystery of music and how it wraps around us and fills us up, the stories that capture what it is to be human, that painting on the wall that makes you gaze when you meant to glance, watching the turkeys and deer that come to drink water from the bucket in the yard, feeling summer relax into an autumn of shifting and breathing and color, the taste of bread dipped in a thick, hot soup.

Fall where I live
The beauty of here.

The more I fully embrace my humanness, the more fully alive I feel, and the more I see God. By “humanness,” I don’t just mean my limitations and sin, sin, sin (though those things do point me back to God as well). I mean, rather, how my body and soul interact with the physical world.

I live in this real world, where I feel the stuccoed church wall pressing into my back and my right eye squints under the blue sky, even in the shade, and I have a canker sore just behind my lower lip.

I live in this real world, where I struggle to know what to write and how to be real, and I’m in constant danger of comparing myself with someone else, and I long to be a voice even though I don’t know the “where” or the “for what” or the “how.”

God is in this real world.

Even in the blizzards and the potholes and the bad smells and the arguments and the loss and pain.

All of life, washing over us, merges the spiritual and the physical.

Beautiful Truth

I want to be someone who sees the good, the silver lining, the glass half full. I don’t want to burrow into cynicism, negativity, and, eventually, contempt about my world and its people. But at the same time, I don’t want to be one who is easily fooled and misled, duped by false appeals to emotion, by propaganda, by happy masks that hide ugly realities.

I want to see the truth and I want to see the good. In such a broken world, is it possible to have both? Or am I just trying to have my cake and eat it too? When motives might be mixed or Hollywood romanticizes a true story, can I still embrace the beauty (even the partial beauty) of the message? Should I? Or would it be willful ignorance to welcome that good when there’s even a chance of a hidden agenda?

Sometimes, the appearance of good is used to hide what is truly bad, whether that is a defective product hiding behind pretty lies, or slave labor hiding behind cheap products. Then, “embracing the good” is really just looking the other way. Then, the issue is black and white. Then, there is no good to be found nor beauty to be mined, only truth to be exposed.

Sometimes. But it’s those not-so-black-and-white cases that I want to look at.

It’s easy — almost automatic — to be critical, to point the finger at supposed consumerism, manipulation, or pandering. And yes, chances are, the bigger the movie or project is, the more likely it is that some of those involved are just in it for the money. But does that possibility render any good message, any touch of beauty, null and void? I say no!

Our motives aren’t completely pure and true, yet God still uses us. Who are we to impose harsher standards on others than God does on us? And yet, it’s so easy to do because we can see our hearts but we can’t see the hearts of others. We excuse and justify ourselves, but question others’ motives. When we don’t know the people behind the art or the project or the story, it’s even easier to let the cynical words fly.

We aren’t perfect people with perfect hearts and minds who create perfect art. No one is. So why are our standards so impossibly high? Why do we keep setting ourselves up for disappointment and colder hearts?

You may have already seen this video of Dove’s social experiment exploring “how women view their own beauty in contrast to what others see.“ If you haven’t, I encourage you to watch it. I found its message inspiring, thought-provoking and full of truth. Not the be-all of truth, not the perfect, complete picture of what true beauty is, but still worth celebrating for what it is: a poignant step in the right direction.

Since I watched it, I’ve read several critical comments pointing out perceived flaws in the message, questioning the project’s authenticity, or remaining skeptical of its motives. These responses started the train of thought that led to this blog.

Art might just show us bits and pieces, the tip of the iceberg, the first step. It might not reach its fullest, perfect potential. But we aren’t perfect either, so why not recognize, celebrate, and learn from the nuggets and handfuls of truth and beauty and goodness rather than cast them aside for not being bigger and brighter?

What Do I Want?

English roseI want to wander along the side of the highway between my home and the city, a route I’ve driven thousands of times, with my camera in hand. Slowly, leisurely, I want to capture the splendor of our short-lived spring, to stand and breathe and gaze rather than glance from my car window as one image dissolves into the next.

I want to really listen to my new music, to read the lyrics, to be steeped in all its beauty. I don’t want it to just be background noise as I hurtle along, rushing from doing the things I don’t really want to do to the things others expect me to do.

I want to read and write and cook and spend time with people and God with freedom, not pressure. Pressure to perform, pressure to turn everything into tasks to be completed, pressure to be everyone’s buoy – including my own.

I want to do what I’m passionate about and to live each day to the fullest. Because each day matters. But it’s easy to lose the joy in the rush or to lose myself in the wrong kind of rest … to go too fast or to stop altogether. I’ve realized that I don’t give myself time to mentally and emotionally and spiritually breathe between all the doings. When that happens, it’s easy to lose sight of why the important things really are important.

It’s not all about the doing.

There’s a fine line between being a people-pleaser and doing out of obligation, and stepping out of one’s comfort zone and doing out of love. Sometimes it’s hard to tell which side of the line I’m walking on.

What do I want? I want to chase my passions rather than be dragged along by them. I want to breathe in Life in the quiet so I can breathe out Life in the noise.

What do you want?