By BRYNN SAITO, program coordinator for the Department of Writing, Consciousness and Creative Inquiry
Last February, I boarded a small single-engine turbine airplane and crested to 13,000 feet alongside nine veteran skydivers and three other first-time jumpers. It was a crisp afternoon after many days of rain, the sky was ringed with thick white clouds, and the fields of Yolo County below us were braided with dormant crops. I said, “This is the first and last time I’ll ever do anything like this,” to no one in particular, my head cocked towards the window, my eyes glued to the diminishing landscape. “I said the same thing,” said the jumper in front of me, “and that was 22 jumps ago.”
The hatch opened and the wind rattled in. Blue-suited bodies began tipping out of the aircraft, one-by-one, two-by-two, then the tandems, then the guy with the video camera mounted on his head. I was strapped to an “instructor” (an experienced professional jumper) named Charlie, who flew Black Hawk helicopters in war zones. After the parachute exploded (about a minute into the free-fall) and we began floating down-earth like two tear drops, Charlie passed me the toggles to steer our descent. “Just don’t land us in that shooting range,” was his only directive.
I recently shared this story with a student in the Master of Fine Arts class I’m co-facilitating this summer with Kris Brandenburger called “Art and Literature of Extreme Circumstance.” As part of their final assignment, the students are asked to interview someone about an extreme experience then create a piece of art inspired by the story. What kind of art is possible after—or in the midst of—moments of upheaval, disaster, or other life intensities? How is the self reconstituted after an extreme experience, and what is the role of art in that reconstitution?
Such questions frame the class; they are questions that artists are increasingly called to ask, as the global landscape continues to be marked by extremes: political, social, and ecological—each category inevitably informing the others. Besides addressing those extreme circumstances that are sought-out (skydiving, for example, or racing in the Vendee Globe, or journeying to Lhasa) students are asked to consider war, exile, internment, slavery, and the art and literature that arose from those dark histories and present realities. (For poignant example of art created in the Japanese American internment camps, see The Art of Gaman, which was on display at the Smithsonian earlier this year). Students are also asked to create a map of their bodies or of a place that marks how their own personal extreme experiences have “landed” in them. Their art and stories will cover the classroom walls in a final sharing exhibition.
It’s only now, months later, that I’m beginning to reflect on my own extreme experience—the 13,000-foot jump is surfacing in my poetry and dream life. It seems to me that the free-falling person (the person caught in the extreme) is, for a brief second, no longer a person but—simply, utterly—a body with five senses. It’s caught in a moment of both pleasure and terror. The wind rushes around it at gale-force speeds and the body has no choice but to breathe it in, though the impulse is to hold one’s breath as if underwater. There’s an acute awareness of one’s surrender to and simultaneous connection with the surrounding elements: a profound shedding of everything familiar—the ground beneath one’s feet, for example—and a quick closeness to the beating heart, the true engine of the self.