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Woman Goes Skydiving on Her Fiftieth Birthday Remembers Past Life as a Bird

I’m not a birthday person, but I celebrate the big 0’s because I figure even with luck and good health we’ll only experience eight at the most. I don’t remember my 10th or 20th birthdays. Unfortunately, the main thing I remember about my 30th birthday is that my husband forgot it. I went for a long walk to the top of a waterfall wallowing in self-pity and existential grief. On that unhappy birthday, I realized that if I wanted something special to happen on my birthday, I’d have to organize it.

Fortunately, some time in my mid-thirties, I met my birthday sister, a Japanese girl who was born on the same day ten years prior, and who was also a passionate rock climber. We shared many birthdays and planned a rock-climbing challenge for her 30th and my 40th. Each year I looked forward to spending our birthdays together. She was full of joie de vivre, which is increasingly uncommon in this era of depression and anxiety.

Two years before her 40th and my 50th, she died. The circumstances around her untimely death are sad and uncertain. Her loss leaves a hole in my heart, especially around our birthdays. As my 50th and what would have been her 40th birthday approached, I felt deep grief. And yet, I didn’t want to spend the day in mourning, so I decided to plan something completely different that might shake me out of my sadness.

I want to age like wine, not a banana. Yet, to my horror, I have shrunk and am now under five feet. Besides physically diminishing, I’m also concerned about brain shrinkage after witnessing loved ones suffer from age-related cognitive decline. To create space between my vertebrae so I don't become any shorter, I hang upside down on an inversion table. I used to hang from a pull-up bar but all that did was make my arms longer.

To slow cognitive degeneration, I practice self-directed neuroplasticity. Brains don’t fossilize as we age, but our habits and behaviors do. Engaging in the same activities for long periods is great for ego and mastery but doesn’t help our brains because our neural pathways become too efficient, and they take established circuits rather than build new ones.

Novel experiences and learning new skills build neuroplasticity by creating additional neural networks in the brain. The activities don’t have to be high adrenaline. Learning a new language, cooking a new meal, or even driving a new route to work, are probably better and safer than high-adrenaline activities for fighting age-related cognitive decline. The principles of self-directed neural plasticity can also be used for deprogramming dysfunctional habits and thought patterns.

It’s estimated that 78% of people are list makers. They make to-do lists, shopping lists, wish lists, guest lists, packing lists, book lists, movie lists, and bucket lists. My mother is a big-time list maker. She’d read me her to-do lists instead of bedtime stories when I was a child. Consequently, I’m not a fan of lists.

I’m a list loser. On the rare occasion that I make a shopping list, I leave it in the kitchen or worse on the roof of the car with my coffee mug. I even misplaced my bucket list. Not sure if this is disorganization or cognitive decline, but maybe you can see why I practice self-directed neuroplasticity.

Skydiving wasn’t on my lost bucket list. Most of the list involved travel. Covid forced me to rearrange my priorities, so there's no longer a bucket list. These days, I go with the flow and try to find joy in simple things like butterflies landing on my nose and the company of canines. I chose skydiving as a 50th birthday experience because it was completely new and easier to book than a reservation at our favorite restaurant. I also love heights. The thought of jumping out of a plane causes me less anxiety than the thought of being squeezed between two people on a flight.

On the morning of my 50th birthday, thundershowers danced on the horizon and I worried the jump would be canceled. Luckily, it was just delayed two hours. My husband decided to jump with me. When we arrived at the hangar, the storm had tangoed to the southern end of the valley, and the air was ethereal. Within a week the sky would be filled with wildfire smoke. No one would see the color blue for months.

My instructor was a cool confident he-man type who was at least 6 feet tall and had arms that were bigger than my thighs. His main advice was to look around while we were in the air. He said nerves cause people tunnel vision and they forget to look at the scenery. The skydive was tandem, so I was strapped to his chest. All I had to do was arch my back and bend my knees when we jumped out of the plane. Due to the passive nature of the tandem jump, I’m not certain it builds new neural networks, but hey, at least it pumps adrenaline.

The only moment of nervousness I felt was watching my barrel-shaped husband strapped to another barrel-shaped man tumble out of the plane together right before my turn. “Oh, that didn’t look so good,” I said. As we approached the open plane door, the he-man laughed and assured me that was just because my husband forgot to arch his back and bend his knees. He scooped up my legs and we were in the air. I arched my back, bent my knees, and looked in all directions.

Memories flooded back of flying in lucid dreams. In terms of the mechanics of flight, skydiving lacks trajectory and is not really like flying. The motion is more like falling, makes sense that they call it diving and not flying. In the dreams, flying was bird-like and involved a forward motion across changing landscapes. Those dreams had seemed just as real as the skydive. But I’ve been conditioned by society not to regard those experiences as real, or talk much about them. In my MFA program, I was even told “Never write about your dreams. No one wants to hear about them.”

Skydiving made my 50th birthday exhilarating and memorable. I still felt the loss of my birthday sister that day, but it gave me something else to focus on and a burst of adrenaline to temper the grief. Lucid dream flying is actually more fun than skydiving. However, I can’t make that happen on demand. It’s a random phenomenon that sometimes results in crashing. But that’s another story.

Here’s something I wrote for my birthday sister:

Elegy for Shiho

Go, my beautiful friend, to a borderless realm

where there are no boundaries, and we don’t have to worry about rent or retirement

that we started too late or didn’t start at all

You were always good enough for me: a free spirit, an earth girl, a warrior of rock and sky

This world cracks our souls, splits us open,

forces us into shapes and spaces we are not

The sun, moon, earth, and sky call us home again

May I meet you again in some other field, of which I know there are many

Here's a video of the jump:


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