I've feel as though I've spent the past three weeks in hybernation mode. The weather has been officially declared a disaster. My first week of school was cancelled. And I think I've used my car 3 times in the past month. And yet, in spite of all this quiet, I have been reading and listening to podcasts, knitting and writing, and slowly putting my hands to work on things that really matter to me.
Over the course of my reading, I came across this essay I originally wrote for my thesis in grad school. It's since been tinkered with, but I think it gets to the heart of why I am keeping this blog and what I aim to do with my life.
The Last Time I Flew
Thanksgiving weekend 2011: skydiving was my brother Tyler's way of giving our entire family a gift. His email invitation three weeks earlier promised “the opportunity of a lifetime” for us. I worried that he’d started selling Tupperware. After reading through his email, I would have welcomed any multi-level marketing scheme. The whole thing sounded so ridiculous, I didn’t reply. One by one, my mom, my sister, Kate, and her husband, Ryan, and my youngest brother, Spencer, agreed to be there. It was a game of chicken that lasted almost a month until the email came that said, “I’m buying the tickets. Amie, are you in?”
I stared at my laptop and weighed my options. I couldn’t be the only one who declined, the one who waited on the ground with the camera. I replied, in lower case, with the wimpiest “i guess,” and wondered if any of us would survive.
At the sky diving school, I was paired with a man named Larry who talked as if it was stupid to be nervous about jumping out of a plane. I remember thinking, "This guy is not my type." I understood that I didn't have to spend the rest of my life with him but, this could be the end for me and I was strapped to a guy with a shaved head who laughed like a machine gun.
I only needed a guy who knew how to jump out of a plane, deploy our parachute, and get me to the ground safely. That's all. He checked my harness, I took the goggles he handed me and tried to listen to his instructions but stopped him pretty quickly. "I'll be honest with you, Larry. Skydiving is not on my bucket list.” I made it clear that I don't plan on ever writing a bucket list because what happens when you check the last thing off your bucket list? Then, I let him know that it would be better if he didn’t wait for me to actually jump.
“You'll have to shove me. But, no funny business. No tricks or flips. I'd really like to live. And Larry, I hope you have some good reasons to stay alive also."
"Ok. No problem," Larry was sizing me up and commented on the beautiful day and how there were no clouds to distort our view and finished with the most absurd thing I’d ever heard, “Let's go have some fun."
The plane ride was the worst part. It took ten minutes to arrive at 14,000 feet. Which gave my whole family the longest ten minutes of our lives to rethink this most recent decision and our sanity. The plane was packed with my parents, both my brothers, my sister and her husband, and our tandem professional jumpers who, I've decided look exactly like crash test dummies – the toys my brothers played with when they were little - action figures that could run into a wall, fall apart, and reassemble themselves never losing their painted-on smile. We were instructed to sit directly across from our assigned person. Spencer faced me at my left knee. Tyler the one who talked us into this mess, on my right knee. Larry was directly in front of me. We couldn’t hear anything over the engine. My ears were popping. Whenever Spencer caught my eye he’d mouth, "Are you ok?"
"Are you?" I asked.
Whenever Tyler caught my eye, he gave me an excited, "This is gonna be awesome!"
I wanted to punch him in the face, but my clammy fingers were locked in a death grip with my harness. I could not let go of myself. The dummies were laughing and joking about the group they had just flown with. I was trying hard to avoid looking out the window as the afternoon sun was streaking through. Just when it seemed we’d reached about as high as I could imagine, our tandem skydivers looked at their altimeters and acted like it was time. The rest of us sat up a little straighter and waited for instructions.
"This is the halfway point! 7000 feet!" The professionals laughed.
We looked around and took deep breaths. Our eyes wide, our mouths dry, and our hands shaking. My sister was cursing under her breath. As we climbed higher, the plane seemed to get louder and smaller and it smelled faintly of gasoline but these professionals knew exactly how to maneuver the situation so that we never had a chance to chicken out. In one swift move, Larry had me sitting on his lap as he latched himself to me. The door of the plane opened and he told me to put on my goggles. There was a flurry of activity inside the plane with everyone being strapped together and the cold wind rushing through us all. I saw my mom at the door of the plane one second and the next, she was gone. We just keep scooting down the line until I could feel the full cold force of the open door and the wide expanse of the horizon spreading out before me. I swallowed hard, closed my eyes while Larry counted. On "one" we rocked back. Before he finished saying the word “two,” we were free falling.
One hundred and fifty miles per hour felt faster than anything I could have imagined. It was hard to breathe with the wind pushing against my face, my chest, my arms, and every other part of me. All I could feel was air. There was nothing else. For the 45 seconds before our shoot opened, it felt like I had been sucked under a wave and could no longer distinguish up from down. I couldn’t even feel Larry who was strapped to me. I had expected to feel his weight push against me. I almost forgot he was there until he tapped me on the shoulder and reminded me to spread my arms out so that he could pull our parachute. My hands were still clinging to my own harness as if these straps were able to break my fall. This tiny, final amount of letting go was terrifying. I’d made it out of the plane. The only thing that could go wrong now: a failed parachute. I took another shallow breath and lifted one finger at a time before spreading my arms like Larry had showed me when we were safely on the ground and I was unaware of what 150 miles per hour felt like. With my arms spread like wings, I spent a few awkward seconds reaching for Larry's hand in a moment of "Hold me!" panic. I couldn’t reach him. Larry pulled our parachute. I waited for a bright light and the highlights reel of my life to begin, but Larry interrupted before I could get started.
"How you doing?" Larry asked as I heard our parachute unfurl.
"I'm trying. To catch. My breath." I could only get two words out at a time without feeling like I might pass out.
"Just relax. We're right where we should be." Larry was doing his best to reassure me.
"Oh wow," was all I could manage.
He adjusted our position to make me more comfortable and continued talking, "You're doing so good. We've got lots of time.”
The air was getting warmer and with the blessed parachute finally open, all I could hear was the sound of my own shallow gasping breaths. We were too far above the earth to hear anything except the wind and ourselves.
"So, do you live here in San Diego?" Larry asked.
"No. I live in Pasadena,” I went on in my two word bursts, “The rest of my family lives here. We are all here jumping out of perfectly good planes today because my brother thought this was a great idea. This is all his fault,” I clearly remember blaming Tyler because it’s so gratifying to point to a situation and blame another individual for your fate.
“It seems no one in my family can say ‘no’ to him. I think there might be something really wrong with him. No offense."
I heard Larry's rapid fire laugh. I felt his chest vibrate against my shoulder blades. Larry thought I was hilarious.
"I only ask because we have such a clear view of the border. See? There's Tijuana right there. And there's downtown San Diego and right there is the ocean. Beautiful, right!"
"Oh wow." I wasn’t bringing much to this party.
"So, how come you live in Pasadena?"
"I'm a writer and a grad student at USC."
I tried to relax my breathing and noticed my legs dangling. As much as I wanted this to be a good memory, I also felt helpless in the face of gravity as I remembered the last time I’d flown through the air. Last time was 26 months earlier and it was nothing like this. I was four steps into a crosswalk when a Nissan Versa slammed into the left side of my body. I flew out of my shoes. Last time I flew through the air, I had to be strapped to a backboard by an EMT who sat next to me in the ambulance and asked me very similar, very personal, questions.
"If you could do anything with your life, what would it be?"
Shock was washing over me. I could not stop my teeth from chattering. I could not catch my breath. I had the distinct feeling I was being sucked under a rip current.
"Amie? Talk to me. What would you do?" I couldn't believe this was the conversation he wanted to have right now. My voice sounded small and far away with only a few words coming at a time.
"I want to be a writer. I want to go to grad school and teach creative things."
"That's cool. You're one of those artist types. I bet you'll have some great stories to write tomorrow." I searched for his face and became painfully aware of just how tight my harness was. He back-pedaled, "Maybe not tomorrow, but soon. Definitely soon."
Larry asked about my writing and offered to let me steer our parachute. I took the reins. We turned a few circles. I had no idea we’d have this much control of ourselves while dangling thousands of feet in the air by some silky fabric and string.
"That's awesome! I bet you’re going to have a lot to write about after this," Larry continued. He pointed out the landing strip. I could see our car in the parking lot and my sister and her husband were just about to touch the ground. "We've got lots of time," Larry unknowingly reminded me of just how far I had come in the two years since my accident.
We landed safely in the exact spot were our plane had taken off 15 minutes earlier. I couldn’t feel my knees or hear much. Larry unhooked us and stood me up on my feet. He put his big hands on my shoulders and turned me around to face him.
"We lived?" I asked, relieved to have finally found two words other than “oh wow.”
Larry gave me a hug and added, "We did. You did so great!"
"Really. You did great."
"Larry, thank you!"
Larry gave me one last high five before dashing off to reload his parachute and meet his next jumper.
I joined the rest of my family, where I met hugs and high fives all around. There were sighs of relief, raucous laughter, and more pictures than we could count. We had done it and lived. Later, we made Spencer give a speech to mark the occasion. He’s the funny one. It mainly consisted of lines from the Brave Heart speech, the preamble to the constitution, and a little Shakespeare paraphrased for our purposes, "Some men are born skydivers, other men have skydiving thrust upon them!" With loud voices (our ears drums were still popping) and shots of tequila, we toasted our victory. While the guys talked about definitely doing this again, my Mom and sister made plans to keep their feet on the ground for Christmas. I was struck by the notion that I'm always so afraid the next time I fly will be my last. And, how I only seem to have major epiphanies while strapped to strange men when my life is in danger.
And yet, major life lessons have a way of circling back around until we really learn them.
After my accident sent me flying and my brother forced me out of a plane, both instances left me seeing my life and work with such clarity. As much as I believed that each of these moments were gifts and lessons, I had no desire to let my body be hit by a car or reach terminal velocity ever again.
I moved to Boise, Idaho on August 15, 2014 and took a job as a writer at a small marketing firm. I was getting close to the five year anniversary of my accident and was consumed with trying to not feel so lost in this new city with only one major freeway.
My lawyer had found me a chiropractor a few blocks from my place. I remember showing up for my appointment right after work on September 10, 2014. I filled out the form and handed him the clipboard and pen. He showed me to the exam room, stretched me out on the table, and asked me how I was. He put me in a headlock. He told me to relax and take a deep breath as he gripped my head and twisted to the right. There was a small pop and my left hand went numb for a few seconds. He moved to my right side to do it again. This time, when he found his position at the base of my skull, he asked me the questions I’d become all too familiar with.
“So, what do you do?”
Suddenly, I felt as though I was screaming and careening towards the earth for the third time. But, this was different. I was not falling or crashing. There were no straps involved. My life was not in any immediate danger. Although, I should be clear, this guy could snap me in half if he really wanted to.
Somewhere between deep breaths and neck cracks, I heard my answer and surprised myself.
“I’m a writer.”
I’ve probably been asked these questions thousands of times over the course of my life. Up until the last time I flew, I hated these questions because my answer terrified me. Writing, art, storytelling… these were always my answers. But, they never felt like enough. I would not be curing cancer or ending the refugee crisis or anything obviously helpful to the whole of humanity. And for that I felt guilty.
What I’ve always wanted is actually pretty simple: to build a community, a home, a family, a life around collecting memories and experiences rather than things. To write and create and share in such a way that others are reminded about the truth of who they are and the power of the story inside each of us.
So, this is my story…
Story Telling is a Super Power
As I look over all that has happened in our world and inside of myself in just the past year, I believe more firmly than ever that our stories, when told with authentic voices carry the power to change the world.
On Instagram, I'm using the hashtag: #storytellingismysuperpower and I invite you to do the same. As we create space for authenticity and truth and beauty, we create space for genuine growth and community. We all need more of that, right?!
This is Not the End,