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On Falling into a Vision
Words by George Salis
Image by Gretchen Gales
“The human bird shall take his first flight, filling the world with amazement…and bringing eternal glory to the nest whence he sprang.” —Leonardo da Vinci
On the third day of March, I jumped and subsequently fell from an airplane at twenty thousand feet. Although exhilarating, this was not unusual, considering my addiction to the sport. However, a different kind of fall occurred within the skydive, a fall related to sleep, but it was not sleep as one would know it, for I experienced something that might have been equal parts dream, vision, and hallucination. After a temporary loss of consciousness, I was able to land unscathed, and, as with most dreams, I had forgotten the details of my experience, aside from some vestigial wind, similar to the nuisance of water-filled ear canals after swimming. Later, the word ‘angel,’ uttered by my girlfriend in late-night conversation, brought back into my mind the climax of the vision, a sort of messenger: I had seen an angel with a sun for a head, two pairs of wings composed of blue and gold feathers, and a body adorned with silver scales, like armor. Whether this angel said anything to me, I cannot remember, but I felt at peace, not on or of this world. Time, so notoriously relative, seemed stilled or stretched out. This was the only remnant I was able to salvage, albeit accidentally, yet the feelings accompanying it, the wind-whispers, the otherworldly peace, seem to have been ingrained into my being. Even more persistent was the apocalyptic fear I felt when recalling earth, the world I had left behind. How these emotions connect, and what they may signify as a whole, is beyond me.
History ascribes people as chance conduits of a higher power, of some formerly secret truth. Moses on Mount Sinai, Muhammad in the Cave of Hira, Buddha beneath the Bodhi Tree. Not all of these revelations can be factual, because the doctrines contradict each other. Yet are all these people epileptics and schizophrenics, or is there some overlapping knowledge to their claims that can be siphoned from the whole? As William James explained in The Varieties of Religious Experience: …our normal waking consciousness, rational consciousness as we call it, is but one special type of consciousness, whilst all about it, parted from it by the filmiest of screens, there lie potential forms of consciousness entirely different. We may go through life without suspecting their existence; but apply the requisite stimulus, and at a touch they are there in all their completeness, definite types of mentality which probably somewhere have their field of application and adaptation. No account of the universe in its totality can be final which leaves these other forms of consciousness quite disregarded. How to regard them is the question—for they are so discontinuous with ordinary consciousness. Yet they may determine attitudes though they cannot furnish formulas, and open a region though they fail to give a map. At any rate, they forbid a premature closing of our accounts with reality.
Then, it seems to me, to come to a closer approximation of reality, we must test for degrees of the objective versus subjective, using sight, smell, touch, taste, and audition. Furthermore, to counteract the deficiencies of our mammalian brains, we would also need to document shared experiences, interview outside observers, implement cross-references, create reproductions, etc., without ever being certain.
How much does mental or physical health affect our perception of the world? It depends. Following a visit to the doctor, I wondered if my revelatory fall may have been connected to a diagnosis of abnormal heartbeats called premature ventricular contractions (PVCs). Until the results of more tests are taken into consideration, I’ve been prohibited from skydiving, along with any other activities that would increase my anxiety or excitement. Up until now, my mortality was a shadow cast against the back of my skull, but, with the additional light of this preliminary diagnosis, my prefrontal cortex has been darkened, making me afraid. Nonetheless, I can’t help but speculate on the connection of brain and heart, of folds and valves as the plumbing of epiphanies.
Part of the puzzle of my experience may involve my first jump. With shaking hands, I had prepared to be strapped to my friend Reginald, who, in blunt disregard to my comfort, had told me, “You should’ve seen it. My main parachute failed in the last jump, I had to use the backup.” And then…no, that’s not exactly right…. To be more precise and truthful, my first vivid memory of falling (which, in the previous context, is the inevitable byproduct of jumping) was actually caused by tripping, something that would seem terrestrial if it weren’t for what I had learned. In fifth grade, I was playing soccer with my classmates during recess. Most of us were grass-pickers, but not on this particular day. Competition had found its way into the air, into our lungs. Someone on the other team had stolen the ball from us and so I rushed as fast as I could over the damp ground. Then, what was perceived by my school friends for a duration of a couple seconds, was experienced by me for some minutes, allowing me to fully recognize that I was falling, but then going on to ruminate about other things, such as what people would think of me after the fall, would they laugh at me or help me, most likely the former, and then I remembered I had forgotten to bring my homework from yesterday, and that I was hungry, and was lucky enough to have leftover snacks in my backpack, and then I wondered about heights, what was the minimum height that would kill me, or did it mostly depend on how one landed and on what, and I questioned the logic of gravity, why does it go from up to down, not down to up, and wouldn’t it be curious if one were to trip like me and fall upward and upward and, in that case, would one land on the clouds or the sun or nothingness or, given enough time, would the upward fall be met with a downward fall on the other side of the earth, and I kept considering these theories until I fell completely, parallel to the ground, and all the thoughts I could and couldn’t remember coalesced and traveled as pain to my knee and forearms, the parts of me that took the most force from the impact, and I heard the laughter, although I laughed too, not at the supposed misfortune of tripping but at the wonderful feeling that a fall could cause.
As for my first skydive, strapped to Reginald, it was less of a revelation than it was a confirmation of one, a reinforcement of what I had imagined and hoped and longed for. The infinity of its duration, although finite, the pull of gravity, although the wind held me up in the palm of its massive hand, and, above all of this, the sun as an eye that questioned my curiosity and admired my audacity. The Atom, my father, known for his contributions to the field of aeronautics and beyond, once told me that, during a fall, he felt as though he was a cognizant part of the lattice that connects us all to everything else, and he revered how those atoms were put together rather than fawning over the elementary particles themselves, which might have been the key. When you see how the universe is constructed, you can cease fighting it, and create mechanisms that can conform to it in a way that would unlock what may have been seen at first as ungraspable miracles. With the advancement of technology, he knew the future, however distant, would reveal the reality of alchemy.
All this from a jump and a fall.
It’s true: we have a thirst for flight, as da Vinci illustrated. But that’s only the half of it. We crave, perhaps even more so, the fall. With the latter comes a sense of martyrdom, the former a kind of resilience. But it is more complex than that. There is a chaotic abandon, riddled too with the virtuous notion of a leap of faith. Which recalls Joe W. Kittinger and his long and lonely leap from the stratosphere. On the sixteenth day of August 1960, Kittinger rose in the air while inside a tin can gondola attached to a vast silver gas bag. He wore a pressurized suit designed to prevent his blood from boiling, although during the ascension his right glove was compromised, which caused his hand to swell like a latex glove attached to the aerator of a running faucet. Exceeding 100,000 feet into the atmosphere, he looked down upon the earth, as an object separate from himself, and then jumped, subsumed once more into the world. He fell for sixteen miles and his maximum speed was clocked at 614 miles per hour. Once on the ground, his elephantine hand returned to normal. The mission was a success. Along with scientific advancements, his fall had the public spellbound. A photograph of his accomplishment was featured on the cover of Life: atop an expansive and rumpled sheet of clouds, he is in a green suit and a white helmet that match his boots, limbs sprawled to one side as if he had turned over in his sleep.
As far as revelations go, I’ve always wondered, what did Kittinger hear as he traveled near the speed of sound? Perhaps as things quieted he tuned into the churning systems of his own body—blood and electricity. During my blackout, maybe I did something similar, nearly broke and beat sound, left with the residual bang, a din of dying wind, of fatigued air, coupled with the crackling neurons of a solitary, speeding brain. Whereas my first fall was, on the whole, terrestrial, falling out of a plane, with the addition of pneumatic elements, was truly extra-terrestrial. Like Kittinger, I conquered something, if only for a moment, and on a more personal and subjective level. As the relativity of my childhood fall demonstrated, it could have lasted more than a single king’s reign, it could have lasted a dynasty, and I would have been unconscious during it, or most of it. Even though climate scientists, in clarifying the fragility of the earth’s atmosphere, have compared its thickness to the varnish on a globe, when I fall there is such a sense of power and force. It’s no secret that the pressures and temperatures of the atmosphere cause destructive hurricanes, tornadoes, and thunderstorms, natural events that required our ancestors to create pagan gods in order to extrapolate an economy of retribution and placation within a chaotic universe. But that sense of dominion, after every jump, even though it’s expelled not long after the parachute, might be inversely linked to our ancestors’ hopes and fears.
I’ve noticed that skydiving and the rituals associated with it mimic the awe and worship of religion. It’s only natural to consider that some of us might be susceptible to certain revelations. Who or what, then, is our God? Not Yahweh or Allah. Skydivers are submissive to something more substantial. The wind and clouds, the upper sky. What the Greeks thought of as the realm of the primordial deity dubbed Aether. Skydivers are, however, descendants of the fallen ones. Mere temporary masters of that sliver of elements. Reflecting on this, it seems that until we sprout wings from beneath our shoulder blades or grow feathers on our arms and extend our phalanges, we will never know the likes of Helios or Daedalus. We will always fall from the heavens as bastard sons and daughters. Our history scarred by naïveté: the fatality of Lt. Thomas Selfridge in a Wright Brothers airplane, the fiery rest of the gargantuan R-101, the mid-air impact of Flight 182, the snaking and pluming smoke of the Challenger wreckage. We’ve landed on the moon and planes travel across the world like aluminum Rocs, but, as mentioned, these are fleeting. Only when the ether becomes the blood of the clay-born will humans ever know any certain abode beyond the surface of the earth. Despite this, our falls, and our reactions to them, form the temperament of our souls, allowing us to grow and discover, more so than if we simply took off with wings aflap. This might be why we crave the fall, using flight as a Freudian displacement of our true longings. With a tweak to Alexander Pope’s phrase, I assert: To Fly is Human; To Fall, Divine.
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