There Is No Such Thing As Fearless

“Just jumped out of an airplane at 13,000 feet! WOOOO HOOOOOOOO!!!!!”

That was a text to my mom (and a few of my closest friends) last Monday afternoon. Mom responded with: “Trina! They say it’s better than sex (if you’re still alive!). Is that true?”

I was thirteen years old before I joined my friends in the deep end of the pool and it would be decades before I would teach myself how to properly swim. I kept visualizing Chrissie in the opening scene of Steven Spielberg’s Jaws, laughing and carrying on, nakedly and coquettishly splashing at the surface of the ocean while preparing for a one night stand. Terror begins to set in as we see the point of view of a creature below her. Then she is suddenly and jerkily pistoning in and out of the water thanks to the great white shark clamped to her thighs. After way too many seconds of high-speed bloody-doll-in-a-blender bobbleheading at the surface, she is violently yanked below.

I’m not sure what scared me more. The great white shark (I saw that movie when I was ELEVEN, by the way) or the lack of oxygen 100 feet below. But after the release of that film, I consistently and quietly eyeballed the depths of every pool before entering.

My reaction to the idea of scuba diving was along the lines of, “that’s something I could never do!” Anchoring a bunch of man-made breathing equipment to my body and venturing 100 plus feet under the boat was a virtual impossibility to me. I remember watching episodes of The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau and thinking to myself, “no freaking way,” especially when divers went deep into the ocean in the dark AND burrowed inside some sea-floor wreckage just to “have a look.” I couldn’t stop seeing Ben Gardner’s head popping out of his boat like a socket-escaping eyeball in Jaws.

That movie TOTALLY freaked me out.

So, weighed down (underwater!) by heavy equipment, unable to breathe on my own, not to mention there are actual sharks in those waters? Uh. No.

But then something happened. I started to become addicted to that “no-turning-back” surrender, freefall moment where life gives you no choice and fully dwells. I found myself letting go and looking forward to succumbing. Those fears came every single day and in many different forms. The only way to conquer the thing that scared me was to just do the thing. You know that moment you step off a high dive into the pool? That split second when, after all those times approaching the edge and backing up, you finally step off. And the only thing left to do is fall. That moment. There is no choice but to live there. Live.

In the spring of 2012, and while fully immersed in a mid-life crisis, fear-tackling growth spurt, I became certified as an Advanced Scuba Diver. I have since discovered some of the most memorable and meditative moments of my life. I don’t think I would be crazy about running into a great white (and am still working on my fears of drowning), but I am in awe over the whole new world that has opened up to me.

DSC00283 DSC00092I was kind of a bully magnet as a kid, because I was small, hated a fight and was generally not very good at sticking up for myself. I wanted everyone to love each other and I guess that really pissed some people off because throughout the years, I placed myself in the presence of those deriving pleasure from pushing me around. In seventh grade, I walked towards the gym for P.E., bracing myself for daily bully encounters with a girl much bigger than me. I have no idea what set her off. I had never spoken a word to her, but there she was, every day, perched to pick a fight. It was the square-dancing segment (is square dancing really a form of physical education?) and I tried dodging her around the “do-si-doers” without success. Most days I just prayed to get through it, wondering if this would be the day she would follow through and grind me into Trina burgers. Then one day, I guess I’d had it. Through balled fists, sweaty red face, clenched teeth and in a “death-defying” leap, I surrendered. I narrowed my eyes while looking into hers and said, “I’m never going to fight you. Leave. Me. ALONE!” She stared at me for what felt like a full minute and walked away. For the first time ever, I didn’t feel so small.

In college I was asked to prepare the piano part of Arnold Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire for the Cal Arts Contemporary Music Festival. At that point in my musical “career,” it was the most difficult piece I had ever attempted. Instrumentation included flute (doubling on piccolo), clarinet (doubling on bass clarinet), violin, cello and soprano. Our soprano was a guest artist and acclaimed Stanford faculty member, Judith Bettina. The difficulty of the piece and the knowledge of who would be in attendance the night of our performance had me petrified. I worked my ass off.

The night of the concert we walked onstage, bending into opening bows to the familiar welcoming applause when I spotted three people in the front row of the audience RIGHT behind my keyboard. Mel Powell, Milton Babbitt and Morton Feldman. They were three of the biggest names and most notable composers in Twentieth Century Music and my mouth became instantly dehydrated as I tried to gulp. They would see and hear every note.

I was twenty and had felt and processed thousands (maybe millions) of moments of fear and had learned that these moments were all about choosing my focus. I could stay small and trapped inside the fear bubble or I could risk destruction of the piece and total embarrassment by going for it. The irony is that in our irrational moments, we believe we are “protecting” ourselves by staying inside the fear bubble when we actually make many more mistakes from that perspective. The mistakes lie in how much we limit ourselves. There is strength (and yes, possibly complete humiliation and nobody really cares) in allowing ourselves to look stupid.

So I trusted my hard work and went for it. I did make some insignificant technical mistakes, but who doesn’t? (Okay, the last Lang Lang concert I attended was note perfect, but WHATEVER.) All three of those composers I idolized approached me afterwards to congratulate me on my performance and I received heartfelt hugs and “thank-yous” from Judith (who blew everyone away, BTW). I knew the performance was not a perfect one and there was much to be learned, but there was growth and it pushed me to a new level of confidence.

When I became a mother, every fear I had ever felt up to that point suddenly felt insignificant. The way I felt when I held and looked at my newborn daughter is most eloquently put in the words of Anne Lamott in her book about the first year of her son’s life, Operating Instructions, “For the first time in my life, I feel I have something I can’t live without.” Suddenly nothing felt like a threat. And everything felt like a threat. I stopped caring about saying or doing inappropriate things or asking stupid questions. There were no stupid questions and nothing, nothing was inappropriate when it had to do with the development and safety of my child. But I also began experiencing extremely irrational nightmares (like the time I woke up in a cold sweat after a dream of walking on the third level of the mall with my baby swaddled closely to my body as people kept running at me from behind, bumping into me, finally launching my baby over the edge of the third level balcony like a football).

I look at my life and recognize the fact that I have never (so far) been placed in a truly life-threatening position. I can only imagine what it must feel like to be a soldier in combat, a police officer or fire fighter jumping feet first into danger, facing a head-on collision with a terminal illness or worse, having a child in any of those positions. Possibly the worst of all fears is the loss of a loved one. But human beings are extraordinary and there is strength to be found in every fearful situation. Most of us have tendencies to underestimate ourselves by not trusting our potential. It is true that we often fall face first into the mud, but it is in those free-fall moments where we discover what we are made of and where we learn what not to do the next time.

Performing in the classroom, boardroom, bedroom, competitive sports arena or onstage all require acts of courage. As do going to a job interview, requesting a raise, or leaving that job you hate; expressing true and compassionate emotions in marriage, divorce and parenting or just saying “hello” or “I love you” to someone for the first time. Letting go of my four-year-old’s hand in pre-school and choking back tears with her assurances of “Mommy, you can go now” was gut wrenching. Even attempting to use arms as shields when walking in the rain without an umbrella and finally letting go and giving in to wet clothing and a bad hair day requires a leap of faith. I love a challenge. And I have failed more times than I would like to admit, but I have never regretted “going for it.” Regrets only set in when wondering what might have been.

My favorite dream (and I’m sure – I hope! – some of you can relate) is a recurring one on flying. They have varied in the amount of which I have been able to control my height, speed and maneuvers. Naturally, in the best of them, I am a powerful superhero. But the weakest of them, where my speed is inconsistent and I have trouble initially getting off the ground are still pretty awesome. I knew it would be scary, but for as long as I can remember, I have wanted to jump out of an airplane. What could be closer to flying?

So, on the afternoon of the 50th birthday of my childhood friend, we did just that.

IMG_5054 IMG_5068It was a tandem jump, so there wasn’t that “high dive” moment where you’re the one stepping off, because you’re actually strapped to the guy who is doing the jumping (those guys are my new heroes). We were along for the ride. But there is that moment when you make the decision that you’re doing it and there is no turning back. Our jump was followed by a sixty-second 120 MPH free fall and we were in the moment because there was no other possibility.

We landed and all I could say was “awesome!” (When did I become that person?) My friend landed before I did and came over to hug and kiss me, high-fiving everyone in his path and “woo-hooing” more than I had ever heard him “woo-hoo.” He also looked more beautiful to me than he had ever looked and I felt oddly emotional. I knew if I said too much I would begin to cry, so I stayed quiet and just let myself continue to feel the moments as they came.

There is obvious danger in jumping, but to not jump is really the death I do not want. We can “live” in fear, or we can allow ourselves to surrender and pass through those fleeting moments on the side of true life and living. Some might call me crazy for taking the risks I have taken – I have children! My kids are older now and their existence is probably the reason I did not check this item off my bucket list sooner. Like the guy in the Parachute Center said with a smirk and a wink when I told him we wanted to celebrate my friend’s fiftieth birthday by leaping from an airplane… “right, because… what could possibly go wrong?”

Everything. But maybe that’s the point.

George Mallory died in 1924 on his third attempt at reaching the summit of Mount Everest. When asked why he was making the attempt, he said: “Because it’s there…Everest is the highest mountain in the world, and no man has reached its summit. Its existence is a challenge. The answer is instinctive, in part, I suppose, of man’s desire to conquer the universe.”

We all have our Everests, our life-changing moments, our “right jumps.”

My right jumps may be different than those of anyone else. Jumping out of that airplane was something I have always wanted to do. I can’t answer why. It has just always been there.

And, to answer your question, Mom, on whether or not it is better than sex? Well, it depends on who you’re having sex with. For some of us, that right “fit” (get it?) takes a few tries. Jumping from that airplane was thrilling and life changing, but I bet it pales in comparison to just sitting across from your best friend. And, yeah…that includes the sex. TMI, Mom? Well, you asked.

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