Remember that glorious day when your P.E. teacher showed up with an ENORMOUS FRIGGING PARACHUTE?
Maybe you played in the gym, or maybe your class was lucky enough to be outside on a windy day. Perhaps you’re thinking, “Oh yeah, that thing. Haven’t really thought about it…”
Well, I have. I have thought about it. I remember it well.
Because, that day, instead of standing around while two smug mini-jocks filled their starting lineups with those of us not feigning great interest in the linoleum, we were all called together.
No teams. No team captains. No manipulating the trajectory of some ball or another. Just every single one of us, our hands, and a giant piece of fabric.
First we formed a circle, that primeval shape evoking millenia of arcane human ritual, up to and including kindergarten rug time. We stood side-by-side, with no regard for skill or weight or height, like so many Whoville revelers. A small bundle was produced. And one by one, we took its edges in hand as our teacher unfolded and expanded until the full, round, vibrant pattern unfurled.
Giggles immediately ensued as we backed up to stretch the thing taut, some joker shook his hands like an irate Italian, and every one of us felt it.
Then we played: we made a silken sea of waves, then sent “divers” below to fish out frisbees or balls. We chased each other in outward-leaning circles, one arm gripping the chute, the other stretched out for balance like toddlers until one side over-pulled and we fell into laughing heaps. We launched a giant beach ball in the air, cheering its vertical gains and groaning when it foundered.
And then came the crowning moment — one that may have nurtured my subsequent hippiedom more than I know.
Because next… We threw our arms up to form a swelling canopy and counted three steps in — then abruptly turned, brought our hands to the ground, and sat down on the edge. It took a few tries, but once we synchronized the moves just right, there we were: the jocks, the nerds, the mean girls, the rest. All of us, enclosed in a fluttering dome of our own collective making. All of us exchanging looks through filtered beams of colored light, eyes wide, mouths slightly open and grinning.
And just like that we transformed the anxiety-inducing social hierarchy of gym class into a giant, multicolored magic-mushroom top where all may dwell in peace.
Why didn’t we do this every single day?
In parachute-play parlance, this trick is called The Cathedral, and I don’t remember if I’d been in an actual cathedral up to that point, but if I had, surely this replica moved my spirit more.
Granted: the double-lens of memory and childhood lends our Parachute Cathedral considerably more grandeur than it probably had. But I sometimes wonder if that was the moment — that brief, shared space-time of bright, buoyant cooperation — in which my now semi-buried dreams of human equality, compassion, and unity began to incubate. Perhaps the idealism that still fights through embittered doubts to inform my political and spiritual biases can be traced back to this fleeting, shared experience of undulating nylon.
Because that was when I first thought the fourth-grade equivalence of: “We are all one people.”
Because we are all in a frigging parachute right now.
MMhmm, you say, perfect metaphor for idealism: a tenuous hiding spot from harsh reality momentarily puffed up by so much hot air and seconds away from suffocating us all on the fabric of our own dreams.
That’s what I think too, sometimes.
There’s a great deal to be learned from the tournaments and trials of life, and we certainly can’t spend our whole lives exiled beneath a soft, unsustainable orb of pretty colors. I have noticed that.
Still, in spite all of it all, I say to you, former fourth-graders of the world: Let’s try, just every now and again, to forget about scoring points, about winners and losers and who’s gonna kick whose ass after school, and just get under the damn Parachute Cathedral for a change.
If you look, you can find Parachute Cathedrals everywhere: make-shift awnings perpetually lifted and re-lifted by the hands of many. These are your community food banks and soup kitchens, your homeless shelters and free clinics. As a mother, I’m especially mindful of family resource centers (shout-outs to the Wolf Tree Collective and Speelodroom) where stay-at-home parents and their kids can meet up for some much-needed adult company and play, respectively.
Parachute Cathedrals lift every time people cross social boundaries that they don’t have to cross solely in the service of human connection. Like when Muslims and Christians form human chains to protect each others’ worship. Or when a Greek volunteer lifeguard association takes time to teach traumatized refugee children to swim and love the sea.
The truth is, our entire human lives are tenuous, billowy, and brief. But they’re only beautiful if we bother to make them that way. So, while my fourth-grade vision of a unified people may remain a castle in the sky, I find it notable that it was rooted in the image of a tool designed to deliver us safely out of the clouds.
If there’s anything I’ve learned from 2016, it’s that we all need more time-outs to breathe life to something brief, beautiful, and shared. So, who’s with me? Come on, America. Come on, WORLD! Now, hold tight…
On three, ready?