A Failed History of Flight

Nearly a year ago, partway through my recovery from a neck and shoulder injury, my orthopedist waved me out of his office with vague instructions to avoid car accidents, roller coasters, and hang gliding. When I asked for more detail about what might happen if I went hang gliding, he dodged specifics, then fumed, and then finally, when I explained that I had always planned to try hang gliding someday and wanted to know the risks, told me that a bad landing might result in my needing neck surgery.

“Thank you,” I said. “That’s all I wanted to know.”

I can’t say I mind trying to avoid car accidents. I will miss roller coasters, although they are not so important to me that I am willing to risk catastrophic injury. Hang gliding, though, is another story.

Since I can remember, I have wanted to fly. I think I was eight years old, inspired by a summer-camp reading of Jonathan Livingston Seagull, when I decided that humans had failed to fly only because they had convinced themselves they couldn’t. With proper concentration and determination, I insisted, I would be the first human child ever to take to the air unaided.

I put myself on a rigorous program of fierce concentration and practice. A friend and I constructed cardboard wings, which we tied to our arms with string, and then ascended the steep hill at the top of the local park and ran down it as fast as we could, our arms outstretched. My friend, who broke her arm attempting a different flight-related activity on her own, missed the next stage of training, which involved jumping off a branch of the biggest California oak tree in the park, then about eight or ten feet off the ground.

Nearly each day that summer, I ran down the hill and jumped off the branch, thinking every time, This time this time this time this time. One day, several weeks into my regimen, I tipped off balance and sprained my ankle when I landed. The sky – or maybe my hopes – had, for the first time, betrayed me.

I had heard that you should get back on a horse after you fall, so I jumped out of the tree one more time, as a farewell to the impossible. Part of me believed that it could not possibly be true that something I wanted so badly could be forever unattainable. I jumped, and gravity, the same as always, pulled me back to earth.

At a fiction reading I attended shortly before The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao won the Pulitzer Prize, Junot Díaz said, almost as an aside, that all creative people have personal origin myths about their creativity, but they don’t as often have myths about the origins of their inner critics. (He said many amazing things, but most of them have nothing to do with this blog entry.) My own creation myth is one of flying and falling, making uneasy negotiations with hope and then having to accept my own limitations.

What did I learn from my failed experiment?

Basically, I learned almost nothing. Over the years, I have learned nothing over and over again. I can’t watch even the scruffiest sparrow dip in and out of shrubs without feeling the same old longing for flight. I wrecked my knee in a dance class, then danced again; when I’ve flown in airplanes, I always ask for the window seat so that I can imagine what the wind would feel like if my arms were wings. All I have learned is that hope is very, very difficult to kill.

If being what I am not is impossible, though, being what I am is not all that easy, either, nor is it really as prosaic as it sounds. The first year I had a vegetable garden (in Seattle’s P-Patch community gardens), I was astonished that plants could so thoroughly be themselves. The first thing a carrot seed did was send down a long, fragile root; the first thing a lettuce seed did was make leaves. At the time I started gardening, I was recovering from knee surgery and had not yet been cleared to go to dance class. I was just starting to know what my reconstructed knee would be able to do, and just beginning to understand that its abilities would fluctuate from day to day. It is humbling to become the student of a radish, but the plants had an insouciant self-acceptance that I did not.

I hope that eventually I will have the opportunity to decide whether to try hang gliding despite the risks. One side of the balance represents fulfillment of a dream of flight; the other side offers a promise of seeing the world – without embellishment – precisely as it is. Both possibilities, in the end, seem equally profound; and both still seem almost, but not quite, beyond my reach.