projects and writings of Tracy Burkholder
This essay originally appeared in The Clackamas Literary Review 2012 vol. XVII
I’ve been obsessed with the jumpers for months. Every day, I sit in front of my computer and watch them leap.
Nineteen miles above solid ground, John Kittinger prepares. Wearing the best partial pressure suit 1960 has to offer, he stands on the open platform of the helium balloon that has lifted him to this point, high above the highest clouds. He presses down through his feet, knees bending, ankles held at a ready angle. An enormous emptiness stretches beneath him. Poised above the earth, waiting to leap, he prays. And then, with a flash of synapses, a click of kinetic energy, his body moves from poised to pushed. From jump to jumped.
Three men stand on the edge of a Norwegian cliff. As if stepping off a sidewalk, they move from earth to air. With exquisite grace, they flip backwards as they fall, taking one last glance at the ground they just abandoned. Wide sheets of fabric stretch between the legs and off the arms of the suits they wear, turning them into nylon birds. No one and nothing but their brave bird nerves push them from the nest.
Gene Sprague paces a small portion of the Golden Gate Bridge. The wind whips his long, black hair across his face. With a snap, he whips it back. Eventually, his pacing stops. He is unaware that a documentarian is filming him from the edge of the bay, silent witness to the suicides committed from the bridge. Gene leans out over the railing and looks into the frigid, unforgiving waves. A gray-haired couple stands nearby photographing their moment amongst the giant red cables. Gene turns his back on the bay and lifts himself onto the ledge the way a boy would hop onto a low wall. The couple doesn’t seem to notice, maybe because it happens so quickly. With barely a pause, Gene straightens to standing and falls backwards into the air. More air. Water.
Fixed to freefall. Safety to surrender. That moment of transition runs in a twitchy tape loop through my brain. Their feet press into the solidness beneath them, ready to spring and then they spring. Months ago, I watched a clip posted on Facebook of men leaping from a mountain ledge. Now I seek out DVDs and Youtube videos, less interested in the falling and flying than I am in that irreversible moment. You can’t stop jumping half way through a jump.
But you can, with a few clicks of a keyboard, fix the moment and turn it back. I return John Kittinger to his balloon, the wingsuit men to solid ground and Gene Sprague to the world of the living. I don’t pretend that I’m keeping them safe and or that I’m keeping myself from seeing their fate. I do it to try and identify what makes that moment possible, as if their bravery is not only a virtue I can admire but a skill I can acquire through sheer repetition of viewing. Their legs lift them from one medium to another and I watch as if it were a waltz I might someday have the grace to perform. I bring stillness to the instant when their bodies pitch over the edge while their feet remain planted, touching the ground but no longer attached to it.
That is the moment I fear. That terrible slant.
I am a coward. Always have been. The only jumps I make are over puddles, the only dives into chlorinated pools. The skateboard I bought with the encouragement of my high school boyfriend rarely left the driveway for fear of a skinned knee. Lounging on the sandy edge of my favorite river spot, I keep my back to the reckless teenagers upstream plunging from the high rocks. I was built for languor, not danger.
Recently, a friend told me that she went skydiving on a whim and can’t wait to go again. “I’m an adrenalin junkie,” she said.
I cringed. “I think I’m allergic to adrenalin.”
And there lies the problem, the reason I keep watching these videos: My particular kind of cowardice extends beyond the common aversions to speed, heights and bodily harm. Cowards of my ilk know how it feels to tilt over a precipice, our blood rich with fear even while sunk into the cushions of a comfy chair.
This is the kind of coward I am: In the whole of my formal education, I probably asked less than five questions. Even as an elementary school girl I found that raising my hand in class made me numb with terror. Like a first-time skydiver who fails to leave the plane, I felt physically incapable of lifting my arm.
The written word became my salvation. At first, I left notes for my mother with questions I was too scared to pull from my lips: What do I do when I get my period? I want to learn how to dance, will you let me take a class? In high school, I wrote letters to the boys I had crushes on rather than flirt with them at McDonald’s the way everyone else did. Still older, I confessed my attraction to not one, but two different men in conspicuously placed notes delivered under the cover of dark.
In a video titled Fearless – The Jeb Corliss Story, Mr. Corliss, a veteran skydiver and jumper, describes the moments before a jump this way: “The fear is…a hurricane inside your head. Every nerve ending is saying don’t do this.” Mr. Corliss was diagnosed with counterphobia, a psychological condition where he seeks out situations or objects that he fears. His heartbeat rattles against his throat, his body tells him to back away, but instead he steps closer. He leaps.
Mr. Corliss, having gone through years of depression and suicidal thoughts, described his initial feelings towards jumping this way: “Either I’ll die and I don’t want to be here anyway or I’ll live and have done something amazing.”
As a young adult, I followed a kind of coward’s guide to suicidal urges: Sit with the unmedicated residents of Boston’s public benches and listen to their rants. Wander alone through the moon-made shadows of suburban playgrounds, college arboretums and quiet urban streets. Court a more delineated form of death among the gravestones of old cemeteries.
And then there was the subway trick. I would stand with the curve of my shoes half way into the yellow line that marked the edge of the Boston T platform. There I waited for that nearly indistinguishable instant when the subway car passed from tunnel to station to me, followed by a gray rush that blew the hair from my eyes and filled my nose with gusts of dirt and piss. The screeching, rhythmic roar crossed the narrow space between the train’s motion and my own stillness.
The trick was to hold that stillness. To stay put. Not lean out into the deadly smack, but imagine how any one part or the whole damn lot could be taken. Just like that.
And just like that, the train would stop, the doors would open. In the cold, white light of the car, I’d find a seat. Crowded by other commuters, all I’d feel was the closeness of that metal, the obliterating blur that lifted the fine ends of my nerves like a breeze.
Being a coward kept me alive. If I’d been braver I might have jumped. Of course, if I’d been braver, I might have introduced myself to that group of interesting-looking people who always ate in the same dining hall as me. I would have said yes to more invitations. I would have raised my hand. Cowardice kept me creeping out to the edge where I’d fill with that hurricane of fear. I’d crouch there for a while then slink back into my life.
I’m no less of a coward now than I was then. I’ve simply arranged my life in a way that keeps adrenalin out of the picture as much as possible. My thrill seeking is confined to the rare roller coaster ride, the occasional scary movie. Activities that may not even produce adrenalin, only some minor chemical cousin.
These days, the crutches of email, texting and social networking have tilted my fears back to the spoken word. All it takes is the thought of having to call a plumber, chat with strangers at a party or even maneuver around an awkward silence with a friend. A few drops of adrenalin is all I need to feel like there’s nothing between me and a long way down.
In many ways, I’ve learned to listen to my body and interpret its signals. I know by the first ghostly aches around my elbow that I need to cut back my computer time or risk stirring up months of painful tendonitis. I know when I get weepy over cat food ads that I need more sleep and a break from the onslaught of dreary world news. But the signals my body sends when staring at the digits of a stranger’s phone number or when approaching an acquaintance on the sidewalk make no sense. My brain scrambles and leaps, trying to find a reason why those numbers don’t need to be called. Not now. Not ever. My heart hops up higher in my chest as I search my purse, tie my shoe or even duck into a nearby shop to avoid the pain of eye contact and casual hellos. And there’s always the thin sweat that worries its way through the most thorough layer of antiperspirant.
It doesn’t usually get to this point, of course, because my cowardice is more clever now. I know to avoid the ledge altogether, convinced not only that I don’t need to jump from it, but that I don’t even need to check out the view.
Others have it worse. Some people suffer full-blown social phobias that keep them trapped in their houses. Some have trimmed down their lives into friendless, loveless slivers of isolation in order to avoid the panicky slant of social interaction. The internet can be a balm for such people, providing connection without panic. It can also be a suffocating blanket that keeps the shy person from ever being challenged.
Recently, in my own internet wanderings, I came across a research study for the socially phobic. Participants follow a 9-week program called Social Fitness Training that was developed at the Stanford University Shyness Clinic. Immediately, I pictured the clinic’s waiting room full of bowed heads and twitchy fingers. So blatantly admitting to your shyness as to walk through a door with the word right on it got my heart fluttering a bit. Thankfully, this was an internet based program. Staring at the shoes of my fellow shymates would be unnecessary.
I circled the cursor over the link, wondering if I should click it. The whole thing made me terribly uncomfortable and yet there I was of my own volition at http://www.shyness.com. I debated erasing all tell-tale signs of self-helpery from my internet history and going back to Youtube. Instead, I imagined Jeb Corliss standing at the edge of a cliff with every nerve shot through with DON’T. I thought of Gene Sprague, with only one courageous leap left in his legs. I laughed nervously as I told my boyfriend what I was about to do. The laughter got higher pitched as soon as I pushed “send” and the email agreeing to participate in the study was sent off to the researcher.
Later that day, I typed John Kittinger’s name into an image search engine and copied my favorite picture. I then clicked over to Facebook and replaced my profile photo with what I had found: Kittinger framed by the ledge of his 19-mile high balloon, jumping back into the world.