One Reason to Try Skydiving: Perspective

A jump out of a plane ten years after her first jump gives writer Jenny O’Connell new outlook on the place she calls home.

We are ten thousand feet in the air, packed into the belly of a tiny Cessna plane as it circles above Biddeford. Eight thousand feet ago I felt ready to jump, but now the Skydive Coastal Maine office is just a speck on the ground, the trees are blurring together, and I think that might be Boston—Boston!—to the South. I can see more of Maine from here than I could ever imagine from the ground, and I am about to launch myself out of a perfectly good airplane and fall face-first toward all of it.

Meg, for her part, appears not to be afraid at all, even though this is her first time. We’ve been friends for six years, but I have forgotten to mention that I am scared of heights. Theoretically we are safe, because attached to each of our backs is a skydiving instructor. We are all wearing safety goggles, and our instructors have triple-checked the straps that connect us. They have altimeters on their wrists, and each of them carries a Federal Aviation Administration medical certificate and has completed over 9,000 jumps. We sit between their legs and wait for instructions. “What if I have to pee?” I ask mine, whose name is Rich. “I’ve had worse things happen,” Rich says, and he yanks open the door.

Wind roars into the plane, whipping our hair about our faces. I squeeze my eyes shut. “Ready?” Rich asks as he shifts us toward the opening, though it’s not really a question. “No,” I say. I know I’m not supposed to be pushing back with my feet like that, but the ground is so very far away. The skydiving instructor who is strapped to Meg nudges my sneakers out of the door with his hand. I notice them for the first time since putting them on—turquoise with purple laces. It’s as if my brain is trying to memorize the world of the living, just in case.

My feet find the platform for a second, and then we tip forward and, in one dizzying motion, roll out of the plane and into the sky.

When I turned 25 a decade ago in San Francisco, I decided to have a quarter-life crisis. My life was a full-throated search for things that made me feel alive, and skydiving felt like one of the wildest things I could do. I found a coupon online and some adventurous friends, pulled on my favorite pair of sparkly rainbow leggings—“adventure pants,” my sister and I call them—and drove to Hollister, California, to jump out of a plane. What I remember most about that day is how it felt: loud, reckless, bold, silly. One of my friends wore a gorilla costume. When the skydiving instructor let me steer the parachute, I drove us in big, sweeping loops above garlic fields and arid hills. It was the first time I’d felt adrenaline quite like that—heartbeat spiking, hands tingling. My brain addled with excitement, I had to fight the urge to kiss him when we made it back to solid ground.

Everyone looks the same when they free-fall. It’s like sticking your head out of a car going 80 miles per hour down the highway; the pressure of the air so strong you can’t breathe through your nose. Your mouth is open, your eyes are wide. Meg calls it a “joyful scream.”

Today above Biddeford, free-falling feels the same as it did ten years ago. I’m even wearing the same rainbow adventure pants. But when Rich pulls the ripcord, I realize how different this is. He offers me the handles to steer the parachute, and I hold them lightly in my hands and turn us to face the water. Up here, it’s silent. The White Mountains rise to the Northwest, and the Gulf of Maine stretches out in front of me, wide and blue and speckled with islands. I am struck by how much I love this place, deep in my bones. How lucky I am to call it home. All I want to do is hang, suspended, over Maine.

Our jump ends as it’s supposed to, with our butts in the grass. I lay in the field, sprawled awkwardly on top of Rich, and wish I was still in the sky.

There are things we do that don’t make sense. Things that shake up our world, that cause us to look up from our phones and packed schedules for long enough to notice beauty sliding in. Always, I am searching for that joy-scream. I want to be opened. I want to see the world again for the first time, eyes wide and full of wonder-tears. I want to float in silence, to stop the clock for one long moment as I gently pull a handle and turn myself back, back, back to the ocean.

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