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?
You will remember the buildup and the aftermath, but will you remember the freefall?
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.
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.
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.
I dreamed about the eclipse several times before August 21st. Sometimes they were happy dreams: The sky did strange things, things that would never happen in the waking world, but I was there to see them. Most of the time, though, they were anxious dreams: I wasn’t able to find a place to stay along the path of totality. Traffic held me at a distance until it was too late. The weather was bad.
And it wasn’t just my dreams that held a sense of dread. I, who had known about this event for ten years, I, who should have known better, didn’t think to find a motel until most of them were gone. The eclipse was still months away, and I was already doing it wrong.
It was no longer a little secret between the sun and me; now, everyone knew, and they were just a little bit faster.
I was still an eclipse apologist, converting people and counting the days, but all the worst-case scenarios hung about me, the reminders that foreknowledge was no guarantee.
So there I was, spending the night on a field in middle-of-nowhere Nebraska, hoping like everyone else in this 60-mile stretch from coast to coast that I had won the weather lottery.
I wake up engulfed in cloud. Dribbling fog hides the sky, but there is hope, stronger than before, that the sun, the wonderful sun, will burn it all off long before midday.
Living in Denver, Colorado, the sunshine is our most familiar meteorological feature. Rain and even snow are welcomed as visitors, but the sun melts and dries and acts as if nothing else ever was or would be.
The beginning of an eclipse isn’t First Contact, when the moon takes its first, tiny bite out of the sun. No, it’s that morning when the sun comes up over the horizon, it’s when the clouds part and the sun, the whole sun, fills your world, and it’s a better pick-me-up than coffee, and The Beatles’ “Here Comes the Sun” must have been written for this time.
For the sun to disappear, it must first appear.
Less than ten thousand people live in Alliance, Nebraska. The main street is long and wide, and to the south is the train yard. As another train, probably a coal train, thunders by, I wonder aloud how many young people growing up here had, at one time or another, wished to take a train Somewhere Else.
The evening before, everyone seemed to be Somewhere Else. Traffic was light. A roadside booth and a K-Mart clothes rack showcased eclipse souvenirs, but otherwise the town was going about its rhythms with little interference, unless you knew where to look for the tents and the RVs.
And now, Monday morning, everyone is Here. Our makeshift campground begins to fill and the downtown coffee shop is already full and out of food.
You can’t see the sun from the big windows there, but you can see above the storefronts, and the ratio of blue to white is tilting in our favor. I sip hot chocolate or tea, one of the two, and I duck out once or twice to call my parents and look up.
My parents are with extended family in Albany, Oregon, doing the same thing I’m doing. They are an hour behind me, but today they are roughly half an hour ahead. I don’t reach them, but then it is time to put away the board game and get off main street, time to drive fast to the outskirts, me in the passenger seat opening the sunroof and tilting my head back, watching, watching for The Moment, but it is still minutes too soon, and we don’t miss anything at all.
Here comes the moon, do do do do.
A man on a loudspeaker announces First Contact, and for a few seconds I can’t tell which direction the moon is coming from. And then there it is, and the orb is no longer quite an orb. It is like seeing the moon go through its stages, only faster and more dangerous.
I have never seen a partial solar eclipse before. The closest I got was in Shanghai, several years ago. An annular eclipse would begin in southern China after sunrise, then cross the Pacific Ocean and pass over my hometown in northern California before sunset. I was thrilled at the chance to see the same celestial event my family would see from the other side of the world, even if only in partial form, but it was not meant to be. City lights and city smog shielded the sky, but perhaps it was just as well as I had no way to look at the sun safely.
Today, I have my eclipse glasses and they have theirs. We have both traveled to see this sight, and it is now that I reach them, for a few minutes when I am seeing a small sun and they are seeing one smaller still. We watch the waning together, and then I leave them for their totality and wait for mine.
I sit and stare for a few minutes, and then jump up and put on sunscreen, or throw a bag in the car, or look around at my fellow sun-gazers and this bit of green we are choosing to remember for the rest of our lives. It is about an hour and fifteen minutes, this pre-show, but it goes by so quickly.
Little by little, the lighting begins to change. There are no trees to cast strange shadows, but it is as if it is overcast, the sun behind a thin cloud, and then a thicker cloud, but all the actual clouds pushed to the edges, the sun high and alone at midday but for the moon. I need my sweater and I can’t contain my joy.
All that light becomes an ever-more-focused sliver, and it looks a manageable orange through my glasses, not the fiercest yellow that ever there was. And there is so much strength even in this tiny ray.
I know in my mind everything I’m meant to be watching for, everything I want my surroundings to be so everything will fall away, everything except the sun and me, and we will have our little secret again. At some point, I forget about my lawn chair and it’s impossible not to be standing.
In the last seconds, the light goes slant and otherworldly, the sky darker but the ground brighter, like sun and smoke, or sun and storm, and then we can look up unprotected, or nearly, as the last of the fierce yellow glint disappears.
And there it is, the black moon, backlit by the sun’s corona, a soft whiteness that in some ways resembles the nighttime moon, but is its own wild and beautiful animal, not a reflection but a reveal.
We are caught somewhere between dusk and nightfall. It is pink at each horizon, and we are the epicenter, suspended just before birth or death or both. For right now we are in the front row seats, and there are no rows behind us. The world had changed slowly, almost imperceptibly, for over an hour, and then everything happened at once, and now time is stopped for almost two and a half minutes.
If I could only look at you for two and a half minutes, how much would I remember of the features of your face?
Is that enough time to memorize the features of the sky?
Everyone around me is talking or taking pictures or both, but I am silent and my hands are still.
This new world is only ours for seconds, and then everything will happen at once, again, and it will be gone.
When the sun comes back, the sun I knew before, there are fractions of a second when it doesn’t seem so bright, when I can take in the light on the edge, before I have to tear my eyes away for their own sake.
We are ready to leave and so we do. I open the sunroof again and watch the sun grow back. I call my parents and we are mesmerized together by our memories. I keep looking up, and the saddest part for me is when the partial eclipse ends, and wherever you look, it is as if nothing has happened.