Tag: Love

Daughter

216128_7041024612_3296_n“Stay wonderful. We can be happy. Love can go anywhere. Wherever you are, my love is with you, and it’s good love.”

Your dad wrote these words to me before he died, and I believe they are still true. I have loved you for a long time. I fell for you when you curled up in my lap after my first weekend at a new dropzone and snoozed as he gave me a lift home.

Later, when he and I moved in together and I played more of a role in your weekend visits, we spent special time with our imaginary friends — Alice the flying dolphin and of course the toenail shark, who appeared in the bath to bite children whose nails weren’t trimmed.

You were at the skydiving club when his landing went wrong and he couldn’t get up to drive you back to your mom’s house. Nine years old, and there was nothing but to hold you and your sister tight while I still could, and hope that you would come looking for me someday.

Eventually, you did. 

The people who have stepped up to help both of us are former skydivers whose lives your dad touched through his instruction and presence. It is complicated that what he loved took him away, but somehow continues to pay the love back.

Your dad enjoyed jumping out of airplanes and flying fast parachutes, but skydiving was more than a selfish indulgence for him. Teaching and interacting with jumpers were his ways of making a difference in people’s lives. He believed in love; he believed in you; and he had a strong sense of his own path and the obligations that came with it.

He’s not here to hold you, and it’s not fair. Yet, more than ever, now is the time to begin a deeper understanding of who he was, and to learn from that wisdom. I want you to know unconditional love; to believe in yourself; and to develop strength in your convictions as you work hard to create an adventurous, fulfilling life.

From our conversation earlier today, I know there are times you’d rather be “stabbed with a butter knife” than finish high school. You’re 17, and I guess we’ve all been there. What would your dad say? He’d probably tell you he understands, but he also wrote to your uncle one time, “If I’ve learned one thing, it’s that there is no action without consequence.”

You can do this, and the rewards will be worth it. You will not be alone. 

Our actions, even the smallest ones, make ripples that we can never know the end of. When you cast a stone into the ocean, it seems to disappear, and the surface of the water continues to churn. But from the moment the stone leaves your hand, the entire universe has become a different place.

Act wisely, and the world will show you its magic.

I love you, for always.

Edgeington


Taya Jess XRWOur goal was to explore the limits of a high-performance canopy pilot docking with a wingsuit flyer in freefall. The idea had been around for a while, but we wanted to do it in new ways that showed it could be developed as a discipline and not just advertised as a stunt.

Up late one night working on a funding proposal, I dubbed the effort “Project XRW” (Extreme Relative Work). It stuck. The first round featured Jonathan Tagle of the Performance Designs Factory Team under a 71-square-foot Velocity, surfing on the back of Jeff Nebelkopf flying his TonySuit X Bird wingsuit. The project logo had their names emblazoned across the letters XRW: Tagle. Nebelkopf.

It wasn’t until a few months later during the next iteration of the project that I aimed my own TonySuit X Bird in the direction of the PD Factory Team’s only female canopy pilot, Jessica Edgeington. She had bright pink nail polish on, her hand waving at me to come in closer as I balanced on the outside of my performance range in the wingsuit, trying not to screw up.

We became the first women to do XRW, but we hadn’t even met until we were on the verge of attempting what then seemed nearly impossible (or at least, very dangerous). It’s a hell of a way to meet your future best friend, midair at high speed wearing various forms of nylon and trying to hold hands.

Edgeington. Weiss.

Those names never appeared oWeiss Edgeingtonn a logo. Not that we cared. As we navigated the high-testosterone dynamics of that week, we both enjoyed laughing at the very masculine world we inhabited and thrived in. Mostly, we wanted the same leeway to train and achieve as the men around us.

When we narrowly missed the surf dock on the very first try, the guys were quick to pull the photographer away from us, worried it would be a waste if we took too long to figure it out (we nailed it on the very next jump).

We grew to be more than just dropzone buddies. We created, for and with each other, a safe place to share, bond, and vent about the often ridiculous challenges we faced. We spent time at each other’s family homes, planned weekends away together, and helped each other unconditionally through some very tough times. She once played the ukelele and sang to me while we sat on the banks of Walden Pond after a long swim.  

We were both serious about our skydiving, and struggled with the frustrations (unspeakable and unspoken in public, of course) of being women in our professional environment. But we never stopped laughing about it all, and using humor to keep each other afloat. Years after Project XRW’s initial success, we still started calls, voicemails, and text messages by intoning each other’s last name. If spoken, we went for either a wrestling-announcer voice or an evening news-anchor persona, no matter how mundane the subject matter following. 

“Edgeington. What time do you get off work?”

“Weiss. Mark and I are raising a baby… squirrel!”

“Edgeington. Shit’s hitting the fan. May drunk dial you later.”

“Weiss. I almost had a meltdown.”

“Edgeington. Time for a weekend catch-up.”

“EDGE-ING-TOOOOONNNN!!!!”

“WEEEEEEIIIISSSSSSS!”

In April, I got a call from the scene as soon as it happened. There was no filter, no lead-in, just the words: “Jess went in.”

Edgeington Weiss Pooch

Dust to Dust

1934099_19769534612_6418_nShe tells me she’s having a recurring dream about giving birth. She physically feels the contractions and the pain, pushing and breathing and yelling until she hears his first cries.

When she wakes, the sobs start low and growly. The dream vision of the birth is like the Big Bang, an explosion in her chest with the compressed mass of the human condition, pushing out and out. She gave birth, and she couldn’t protect him. Her son is dead.

Eight months later, Eric’s mother and I drive out to the skydiving club.

She rummages in her bag and gives me a slightly worn picture of him as a young boy to carry with me in my wingsuit pocket. At 19 years old in a collared button down shirt, he’s still scrawny, a gleam in his eye. He was 44 when he died, with the same smile.

She puts her hands on my shoulders and her forehead against mine (I am thinking: just like he used to do). She says, “He was my son. He came from my womb. His life started with me, and it ends with you.”

I walk to the plane with the handmade red pouch strapped to my left wrist. At boarding point, I sit with my head down. This is a solo mission. I look up once, opening my eyes to a view of our friend Raymond’s pants leg as he stands near me protectively. The embroidery reads, “Martin’s Funerals! 011-672-8104”. New sponsor. I start to crack, giggling hysterically.

On board, I sit near the pilot, close my eyes, breathe, and focus. I feel Eric’s presence. He is smiling, with a student. He is kissing me in the door.

Tears mark minutes until we get to altitude. I grab my soul and throw it over the threshold, then chase it out. The plane dives away and I begin to glide. The air feels dense. Everything is slow. He is off my left wingtip, he is underneath me, he is the air and the sky and the planet below.

I open my parachute and then the little pouch, feeling the rough ash with chunks of bone between my fingers. This magical dust. So many late night conversations, our deep trust, the way we rolled over together while sleeping, all condensed in the palm of my hand.

Pieces of him stream out to my left side, riding the relative wind.

I land where his blood marked the grass. Edith holds me and moans, “my baby, my baby”. I can’t tell if she is talking to me.

The sun is bright, the earth red, the breeze soft, the sky brilliant blue, the birds alive, the grass still growing. Everything in vivid color, heavy and bright, bleeding with his memory. 

I eat a banana, give our long-time packer a hug as he hands me my neatly closed container with the suit unzipped and ready to wear, and do what will come to define me. I give Edith a kiss on the cheek and get ready for the next jump.

Blue Skies

Taya and tonto“Blue Skies. This sport glows brightly, and burns incomparably beautiful images into our memories. That brightness comes at a very high cost. It’s the lives of our friends, the blood and the bones of our sky family. That’s the dark side, the Black Death. There is no one without the other.” -Eric “tonto” Stephenson

Blue Skies

The air inside the small plane is hot, but not for long. Ten bodies, most of them much bigger and hairier than mine, are crammed in with their gear. On the tiny bench, my hips are squeezed on either side and the guy on the floor is leaning on my legs. I put my head on Eric’s shoulder, feeling the rough cordura of his rig on my face and breathing the familiar smell of his wingsuit: nylon washed in atmosphere. He takes my hand. The Porter climbs at 800 feet per minute and I’m woken up by the two-minute call. We’re at 10,000 feet and it’s almost time to get out.

I look at Eric and we breathe together, link fingers, then clasp and let go. This is our ritual. The door opens at 11,000 feet and a rush of cool air floods into the steamy can of jumpers. Outside, canyons of cloud make the sky look like a soft, intricate mountain range. I look at him, red goggles, no helmet on his number-two shaved hair, grinning. He has the most adorable teeth I’ve ever seen.

He squeezes my hand again and leans in – sharing consciousness for that moment before exit. His lips, his cool tongue sliding into my mouth, and the adrenaline charges into my bloodstream. We step over the edge, leaving the plane behind.

Freedom. The whole world looks soft from this far up. We’re over the Carletonville mine dumps. From the air, they look like zen gardens, their arsenic-laced sand combed methodically. Even the one shaped like a coffin has somewhat rounded edges from altitude. The township shacks, the dumps, the roads, the railroad tracks, the grassy fields with cows, are draped today in fluffy white distractions.

Wings open, catching air, I glide for the edge of the nearest white canyon with the sun on my face. We dip our wings into the cloud, and it tickles my right hand with cold moisture. Eric flies up alongside me: “Hey!” I hear his voice on the rush of the relative wind. He’s laughing, face full of joy: “I LOVE YOU!”

The kisses on the ground are better than the ones in the plane. They affirm that we have chosen to fly and survived, yet again. When he leans in to kiss me on that hard ground, I am grateful for the red earth under my feet: for his closeness, acceptance, shared need to fly.  At sunset we crack open a cold beer, eat a home-cooked meal, and disappear to one of the wooden huts nearby. When I think of love, I see his smile in the door and I see him blowing kisses at me as he flies off my wingtip, and I see his red shorts hanging off a bare white bulb as we make love at the end of a day like this.

Remembering Pam: A Friend in Kliptown

Last week I returned from South Africa, where we raised a record R11,000 for charity at the annual Johannesburg Skydiving Club and Raise the Sky tonto Boogie. The boogie is a rocking skydiving party, and for me also a time to celebrate my late partner, Eric “tonto” Stephenson. For the last seven years, I have driven into Soweto after the boogie to deliver skydivers’ donations of food and clothing to the Pastoral Centre Pre-school and Creche in Kliptown, a haven for vulnerable children. This special place was founded by Pam Mfaxa, who protected and nurtured the next generation of her community with the force of a warrior and the conviction of a saint. Pam passed away in January, suddenly and too early, but her legacy, like Eric’s, lives on. This year I made the familiar drive just the same. Alone in my car, I realized how strange it felt to be carrying on this work, these rituals, when the people who anchored them for so long are both gone. The sadness made me ask, what is more powerful than loss? What actually soothes loneliness? Turns out for me, it’s gratitude. For love. For deep and real friendship. For the way both of these extraordinary people changed my life and continue to inspire good. In gratitude and memory, here is the story of how I met Pam, and the very first time I went to Kliptown.

 

1393150_10151831565454613_1743989356_nKliptown, Soweto. February 2002.

Less than two months after I had packed up everything I owned and moved from San Francisco to South Africa, I was waiting to eat lunch at a community building in the middle of a slum. I was determined to build a meaningful life, one shaped outside the predictable forces of my Harvard cohort. I had recently started skydiving, which gave me the courage to make other jumps: as far away as possible from the vortex of startups, parties, after-work martinis, and hung-over brunches.

A group of us had just toured Kliptown’s Freedom Charter Square informal settlement, learning about how families subsisted in shacks with no electricity or running water, marking out territory by placing locks on the port-o-loos and fighting for access at the outdoor taps. Unemployment was high; HIV rates were high; the post-apartheid dream was deferred; privacy was non-existent.

As the name implied, this is where the Freedom Charter was officially adopted in 1955, the document that first enshrined the core ideals of a non-racial South Africa. “The People Shall Govern!” it declared, and “There Shall Be Houses, Security, and Comfort!” In this utopian vision that supposedly kicked off with the release of Nelson Mandela from prison and his subsequent election to the presidency in 1994, “Slums shall be demolished, and new suburbs built where all have transport, roads, lighting, playing fields, crèches and social centres.”

So there we were, taking in the stench of untreated sewage and bearing witness to the piles of garbage that constituted the playing fields, a walking cliché of foreign white do-gooders engaging in ghetto voyeurism with young black men as guides.1395942_10151831565259613_25412023_n

At lunch, the men talked a lot about the importance of women, but none were actually present at the table. I got up on the pretense of finding a bathroom and didn’t have to go far before I heard laughter bursting from a tiny, cramped kitchen. There they were, the women. Chopping vegetables. Preparing food for us.

Pam and I found each other the moment I stuck my head into that overcrowded kitchen. With authority, she denied my offer to help with the meal, but something about my privileged indignation at the gender imbalance at lunch made her laugh. “African men don’t do much, but they do talk,” she chuckled. “If you really want to see this community in action, come back and stay the night. You are welcome at my place.”

I made my way back to the lunch table, looking around at our group: mostly white North American women in their 20’s; a guy with very white socks from Minnesota who had studied anthropology and, five months after arrival in South Africa, was throwing around township slang in a way that made him look even more ridiculous than the socks, if that was possible; and our cool “feminist” shepherds seemingly ignorant of their own ironies. I counted myself among the hypocrites, though I couldn’t pinpoint (or didn’t think through) exactly why.

Months later, once I had settled in to some kind of routine, I boarded a shared taxi from downtown Johannesburg to take Pam up on her offer.

****
Kliptown, June 2002.

I spent my first Youth Day in South Africa in and around the shacks of Kliptown.

Hector_pietersonJune 16th, 2002 was Youth Day for the politically conscious and Father’s Day for everyone else. Youth Day commemorates the beginning of the 1976 Soweto student uprisings against “Bantu Education”, a segregated system with Afrikaans (the language of the ruling National Party) as the required medium of instruction in the township. Riot police fired tear gas followed by live rounds, and a lethal bullet struck thirteen-year-old Hector Pieterson. Fellow student Mbuyisa Makhubo picked up his limp body and carried him from the scene, running alongside his wailing sister. More than 400 people were reported dead during the uprisings, but photographer Sam Nzima captured this moment on film. The image, widely distributed in the international news, marked a turning point in the world’s understanding of the regime’s brutality.

I was seeking refuge with people who wouldn’t ignore history in favor of a trip to the mall. I was excited to spend time with Pam. My new friend had chosen a life dedicated to the youth of a country she had adopted – a country I was trying to call home.

Pam came from rural Swaziland to South Africa in the 80’s and lived through apartheid, transition, Mandela’s presidency, and more intimate trials than I could ever know. She stayed in one of the only concrete structures in town, where she graciously allowed me to sleep on the floor in the common area with her children, Zoleka and Nomaswazi (nicknamed Gogo). On Saturday we visited people in shacks of varying size and quality, talking about everything from child abuse to hand-crank telephones.

154824_459525554612_7947341_n One tiny shack had the ten residents’ laundry hanging out to dry in front. A large woman came charging out, ranting at the top of her lungs. She was drunk, her huge breasts sagging under a loose shirt. The stale smell of home-brewed beer lingered as she yelled about her troubles—no money, no food, too many children.

“God may come to others, but He doesn’t have time for me! He doesn’t have time!” she moaned.

Shaking her head, Pam said, “Eish, wena. It is your responsibility to make the first move, especially when it comes to God.”

Like a jilted lover, the woman scowled and would have none of it.

“You see? This is what we still struggle with,” said a woman standing nearby. “We finally have our freedom and she spends it on beer. Her children will be hungry tonight.”

The kids ran around me, giggling and taking turns jumping up to be held.

Saturday night was black, with a sliver of moon blurring through the haze of township smoke. With a group from the youth center, I set out into the damp darkness of a different Kliptown. We walked carefully on the dirt paths, narrow and flanked by barbed wire in places, stopping to talk with huddles of people gathered around tin buckets filled with glowing coals.

The groups warming their hands and smoking pungent-smelling joints were mostly men – men who as young boys choked under apartheid and the tyranny of Bantu Education designed to keep them servile and who spent their adolescence without access to basic rights, education, or meaningful work.

It was the textures and smells of that night combined with the joyful children of the day that woke me up inside. My inner revolutionary had been dozing a bit in the suburban comfort of Melville where I had found a place to live, and Pretoria, where I had found a mentor and an internship at a think tank.

Few whites see Kliptown in the dark; they would say it’s far too dangerous, and they may be right. Spend the day and take sunny images of smiling kids to impress your family and friends with your “African experience”. Spend a winter night and share your humanity in the bitter cold. It becomes impossible not to challenge the status quo.

Sunday dawned clear and freezing, heralded loudly by an overzealous rooster right outside Pam’s house. The kids from the youth center were running excitedly to the old Battery Center. The bare cement room was now a makeshift theatre with “United We Stand” and a picture of Hector Pieterson painted on the wall. Performers of all ages hammed it up for the audience, all people from the community. The kids did gumboot dancing, recited poetry, and sang about the new struggle: HIV/AIDS.

HIV was a mental sledgehammer: freedom was won by the previous generation, but life itself was hanging in the balance for this one.

I felt that my life was hanging in the balance, too.

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