Tuesday, December 25, 2012


I always wonder who knows I'm terrified.

I'm called "fearless" an awful lot. I imagine most of us are -- we plane-jumper-outers, we cliff-leapers, we who pull big pieces of fabric up over our heads and let them pull us up into the clouds.

I'm not fearless at all. Not one tiny bit. I think I'm probably more of a natural scaredy-cat than most of the people who accuse me of having none of the stuff. I have great gobbling oubliettes of fear; the caustic kind, the mean-making kind, the kind that swells in your belly like rice in seagulls. Fear that revels and grows in its own nonsensicality. Fear that pushes people away, just when you need them close. Fear that freezes muscle and narrows vision and screws the mouth down against smiling. Hateable fear.

Today, tugging on my wingsuit for the first time since it arrived so many months ago, I saw in clear relief the distance I've come this year.

I remembered that first BASE jump, done the evening of a day I'd already jumped frankly frightening gear from a plane over a sea visibly full of great white sharks. (That jump seemed so tame in comparison, I sang pop songs all the way to the exit.)

I remembered launching Lion's Head, running down a hill so steep that my glider had to be held at the top of the launch so as not to slide down on me, into absolutely no wind, off the edge of a cliff.

I remembered that late afternoon on Babadag, watching my wing fold, then pin itself into a whipping spiral as I watched the ground come up so terribly fast and yanking my lines for dear life.

I remembered speed launching Mürren alone for the first time, sprinting down towards electrified fences and barns and trees and bored-looking, pointy-headed cows, tripping in a gopher hole and barely clearing all of the above.

I remembered Yellow Ocean, when the fear was so complete that it was elevating; that it constricted my vision, my blood, my fists, my hearing, my breath, my jaw, to the point that I felt physically lifted by it; that my knees were water because I didn't need them, borne forward on a dizzy cloud of terror. I remembered the feeling of pushing through that fear as being the liquid sensation of putting a palm through a soap bubble,  snapped at the moment my little hop converted to downward speed, lungs filling suddenly and painfully with air as my sternum found its heading.

Even those first skydives rate somewhere on this scale -- all alone in a crowded plane, hands folded between my knees, impossibly uncomfortable in a rig.

Today, it was better.

I remember, in the plane, looking down at the unfamiliar stitching over my belly; the strange little inlets and zippers obscuring my customary leg straps. I remember kneading the wingtips between my fingers, feeling the peculiar pressures against my knees and toes. I looked around at the other faces, mouths set in concentration, minds already in freefall, and suddenly felt the absence of that old familiar fear. Oddly, there was nothing in its place -- just a yawning emptiness under my belly button, utterly neutral, letting me breathe and wiggle playfully for the camera; letting me snag Brett's finger with mine and meet his puppy smile with one of my own.

I'm not fearless. Not in the least. But sometimes, the fear forgets its footholds.

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