By ERIN ROOK
As our small aircraft gains height, the Massachusetts countryside spreads out like a patchwork quilt beneath us. Strapped to the front of a strange man — the small spoon to his big — I try not to think about the awkward intimacy of it all and focus on my breathing and the order of operations I am to complete. (Don’t freak out, check the altimeter, pull the cord, bend my knees, prepare for landing.)
Two by two, my fellow passengers exit the plane. Seated at the back of the long bench we straddled as we made our ascent, my new friend and I are the last to depart. My tandem instructor indicates that the time has come, and we inch toward the open door with the clunky coordination of a three-legged race. I take a deep breath, watch the videographer slip effortless away and, without looking, step out into the deep blue summer sky.
I never expected to be here, standing thousands of feet above the ground, trusting my life to a backpack filled with fabric and cords. Preternaturally cautious, I always assumed such a bold act wasn’t in my repertoire. When I left my apartment that morning, I planned to cheer on (read: pray for) my partner from the safety of the ground below as he fell from the sky with his older sister and her friends.
“You should bring a pair of tennis shoes, just in case,” he says, looking at my sandaled feet. I reluctantly comply, reiterating that I’m really not interested and not open to persuasion.
As a thoughtful, thrill-avoiding child, I often found myself on the receiving end of peer pressure. Diving boards, roller coaster rides, climbing trees — I had a lot of practice declining the invitations of my more adventuresome peers.
So when the tattooed woman behind the counter asks, “Anyone else?” I surprise myself (and pretty much everyone who’s ever known me) by stepping forward.
“Why not? If they can do it, so can I.”
I thought I knew what skydiving would feel like. And I’d ridden Disneyland’s Splash Mountain enough times to know I didn’t like that plummeting, stomach-in-your-throat feeling. But the reality was nothing like what I’d expected, or feared.
Though belly-first skydivers typically reach a terminal velocity of 120 mph during the free fall before the parachute opens, it doesn’t actually feel like falling. Between the initial momentum-born forward motion and the 50 mph resistance of the air against your body, free falling feels more like a cross between floating and sticking your head out the car window on the interstate.
The biggest changes, the most transformative experiences, often begin with one small step into the unknown.
This January, I recalled my (unexpectedly enjoyable) skydiving experience as I resolved to stop letting fear hold me back. The first step was more of a leap. Inspired by the courageous vulnerability of those who’ve allowed me to share their stories as a journalist, I decided to come out publicly as transgender, sharing my raw and unfolding process of self-discovery in a column for PQ Monthly.
It wasn’t easy — I’ve always preferred to be on the other side of the story, writing about the intimate experiences of strangers, shaping conversations from behind the scenes. But if others can muster the courage to invite the world into their lives, despite facing a degree of risk I am in many ways protected from, then so can I.
And so, I am. In personal essays for LGBTQ and “mainstream” publications, in readings before my peers and unfamiliar high school students alike, and now, in my blog Stepping into the Sky.
I hope that this can be a jumping off point for conversations about stories that matter — our stories, and the ways in which we embrace the vulnerability of sharing them, even when it’s the last thing we want to do, when we’re convinced no one cares, when we feel like the tree that falls in a lonely forest.
What’s your story?