I have to admit, when Tacoma, WA artist Lynn di Nino asked me to present photos and video of my cliff jumping at her monthly slideshow event Tripod – and suggested I play double bass to go with it – I was a little worried.
Music and cliff jumping have always seemed very different, disconnected things to me, both in my life and in general. And while I’ve performed on bass while speaking simultaneously (“B.B. Wolf,” “Failing”), adding looping improvisation while keeping pace with my own video seemed just a little scary. And completely new.
But I accepted the challenge, screwed up my courage and gave it a try – and discovered a new, better self. Kind of like cliff jumping, really.
I didn’t start out by jumping waterfalls. I didn’t begin brave.
Growing up, I was lucky
in a place surrounded by blue, swimmable water.
Canoe trips, ocean pools
And the dancing delight of endless waves in a city with ten beaches.
We jumped waves, jumped off diving boards
but I stared, heart pounding, at the 10-meter tower
knowing I could never, would never, be that person
who could make that jump.
Swimming wild also meant family
and then came the time when my own little family
wanted to jump off the rock
into the deep, cobalt waters
of Crater Lake.
Icy. And such a long….way….down….(actually, only about 10 feet. But it seemed higher.)
My daughter – 13 – jumped in, toweled off, grabbed her phone to film us.
My son, 11, did a backflip.
Me? I thought about the danger. The cold water. The rocks.
But so many others had jumped it before us, were still out there
Clearly not dead. And clearly, able to save me.
“Come on!” called my son. “You can do it, Mum!”
“Hurry up,” called my daughter.
I took a deep breath – let it out –
Sing, o Music, of water
That swift plunge into a cold embrace;
Sing of air left behind like a faded memory
and the exultant rush of silky fingers
down, down through jade, aqua, emerald, turquoise, sapphire
inside a world of effervescent sparkles.
Sing of that strange light, alien and enticing
and of that eternal moment between the falling and the upward thrust
when your weighted body
into the silence
That’s when it started, this quest for falling.
I was 45 – ridiculously old to be jumping off cliffs with teenagers.
After I summed up all my courage and leapt ten feet
into the Green River Gorge
(after depth checks, of course)
a friend laughed –
“Oh wow, I haven’t done that since I was 15!”
My 15-year-old self shrank a little, then expanded
as she realized her second chance.
Cautious, excited, we explored our world
Found new places to swim, went a little higher.
At a Puget Sound dock
my son flipped off 15 feet, then 20
and coached by a counsellor, I launched off a flying trapeze
into the seductive summer depths of high tide. Me! A flying trapeze!
And me too, stepping off
a 15-foot cliff into the blissful caress of Paradise Pool, west of Sydney.
That was me, too, jumping off the Leavenworth bridge
and off a rope swing in British Columbia
and out of a tree on Orcas Island
and 18 feet into the crystal pool at Whatcom Falls
while my son climbed higher and higher – a 25-foot gainer, a 30-foot double back layout, a 50-foot waterfall, and – then – a 60 foot straight jump
into the eggshell-blue heaven of Canada’s Howe Sound.
Oh, the color! To plunge into aqua, green, gold
a shimmering palette mirroring trees and rocks and sky and
the whole world, hidden deep.
To enter that color
Is to become the world, completely
without words, without time,
simply a part of this wild nature
and painted – for a second – by its brush.
Was I scared?
I was vigilant – we dove every time to check the depth, we did our research –
but every time I feared
that it would go wrong, that we’d be swept away
by tide, current, injury, death.
You think all of this, poised on the edge
beside your 13-year-old son as he launches off a cliff.
And he feels fear, too. They all do
these young men and women, met online
who became our cliff jumping crew,
our safety, guidance, friendship.
They all feel fear. Not my fear,
a middle-aged woman facing down 25 feet,
but their own, stomach-clenching, real.
And yes, people die jumping. I don’t make light of it.
Mostly, they’re inexperienced. Drunk. Or careless.
How can you let your kid do this?
But that’s why I go too.
And if you bring safety checks and support
then when you meet Fear on a cliff-edge
you can stare her down
and make your own decision.
Besides, the hardest part is standing on the edge.
Once you’ve jumped, there’s no going back.
And so it went. We bought wetsuits
found hidden spots, unmarked on maps.
Towering walls of columnar basalt
Canyons of ferny mosses
Red cliffs cracked like giant faces,
and waterfalls, cascading endlessly in fierce power
and misty beauty.
My son was up to 60, 70 feet now, swing-casting off bridges
full-twists, triple backflips, double gainers.
We traveled to Vermont, land of secret quarries,
and I jumped 25 feet
to be the only swimmer in a pool half a mile wide
(until my daughter jumped in too.)
Then 30 feet at a lagoon south of Sydney, emerging
through breathless bubbles into gum-scented air
and the sharp Australian sun.
We jumped into Blue Pool, Oregon, its icy, sapphire depths
still as a fairytale
where water turns heroes into gold
and we ducked three feet
into a snowy stream on Snoqualmie Pass
to usher in the New Year.
Montana bridges in summer sunshine
Rain-drenched winter Washington pools
Sun-filled lakes with rocky climb-outs
Snowy glaciers and pounding salt surf.
Does an eagle feel like this?
To stride, soar, dive
Fluid between elements?
Without wings, I fly; without fins, I swim;
Passing into a world beyond
for the briefest second of eternity
a window, opened
for my soul to breathe the air
of another, wilder existence.
V. HIGHER GROUND
Where does it end? So far
It hasn’t, though I’m getting older.
I’m 50, and have jumped 42 feet into the mighty Columbia River.
I’ve found the courage to leap over the rushing edge
of the Lower Lewis river
some ten feet higher than that long-ago diving tower.
I never thought this would be possible
this version of myself.
While my son tumbles 80, 90, 100 feet with breathtaking grace
I have found my own better self.
In facing fear, I’ve leapt through it.
Surrounded danger with safety.
Discovered that braveness comes from being brave, again and again
whether you’re on a cliff or living a life.
And above all I’ve discovered
that in trying to be the person my kids think I am
I’ve become the person I dreamed of being.