Before I remember falling, I remember watching it happen. That is, I remember lying on my back in a Tennessee yard and watching the trees shed their leaves. It was like a slow-motion scene in a film, or one of those backlit displays you find in American-Chinese restaurants, the kind which show dragons and waterfalls rippling in tacky yet delightful light. The leaves fell from the tree, landing all around me in the yard with the crabapples and the long-legged wasps, there where they could molder, and scent my hair, the leaves’ edges bruised and fragile, their veins rouged in gold.
When speaking of falls—on the societal or personal level—people often invoke the idea of mythic return: cities rebuilt, debts repaid, a loved one’s heartbeat disputing its flatline. Upwards motion is progress’s favored vector, even if falling is its own kind of growth, just growth in a direction few of us wish to condone.
To fall willfully then is to dispense with the idea that we need more, or more of less, the idea that we can somehow levitate above our own lives as impersonal arbiters. To fall willfully can mean shooting for the bottom, or getting fucked up, and yet it can also be a form of abstinence: we say no to the logic that up is always better than down; no to the men in business casual dress who promise us riches; no to the self-help books and their defective roadmaps to “truth”; no to the idea, ever-resilient, that upward striving is the clearest path to success, or love, or any modicum of peace.
Not long after I lay down among the leaves, I joined the East Tennessee Wushu Team. Like most aspiring martial artists, I had to first learn how to fall. This process involved flinging myself across a thinly carpeted floor, trying always to lead with one shoulder, and using my free hand to direct the body’s momentum into a diagonal barrel roll which was supposed to land me nimbly on my feet. My shifu would bark out ready position! And then yi bei, zou! I would feel my body falling and rolling and, after many abortive attempts, arriving safely in the vertical once more.
Lenoir City, Tennessee
If going to wushu every Saturday taught me how to fall with predictability, like clockwork, then jumping off a bluff into very deep water taught me how to fall with abandon, like art, or what I sometimes think art can be. I took the latter lessons when in high school, hanging out with my friends at a place called Mizell Cliffs.
Located near the confluence of two rivers, the Mizell Cliffs is one of those southern places I thought I would never miss but now do, the kind of place where the river runs so slow everyone calls it a lake, the water dammed up, reservoir-ed, shunted into holding patterns by the TVA. In summer, the cliffs have an Arcadian calm to them. Where the forest fades, a collection of sandstone knuckles begins, a brute whim of geology presiding over the rope swings and lost tires, the dungarees with no legs, the bullet casings and chigger stumps and neatly compacted cans of Natural Light. Locals come here to jump, and so on any given day there is usually an airborne body—often young, often distantly beautiful—in view, a body that becomes a splash that becomes a patter of applause above.
In those years, my friends and I would drive across a county line when we felt like falling. We’d leave our cars by the road and walk in flip-flops up a muddy trail, passing from our world of quiet residential streets into the world of the cliffs, which felt more authentically Southern, steeped in the social mores of Loudon County, a county we called “trashy” back in our broad, suburban yards full of dog shit and dandelion. Up at the cliffs, locals would distribute sweaty beers from a cooler—the women spilling forth from Wet Seal bikinis, the men riding low in limp trunks, their pinky-toned children racing through the underbrush on ATVs.
The cliffs contained three distinct levels: a low ledge at fifteen feet, a medium ledge at forty feet, and a high ledge at fifty feet or more above the water. One of my friends (the captain of my wushu team) would leap from the highest cliff with his back to the river, completing a rapid series of flips before entering the water below. Another friend would inch cautiously to the edge, her legs visibly shaking, before stepping off in a docile motion, like a dog flashing its belly.
Technique-wise, I was no virtuoso, but I like to think my falls were not ungraceful either. My preferred style was to walk calmly to the edge and stand with my arms outspread. I would pause there briefly, my eyes trained on the river’s far shore, the flickers of heat lightning in the clouds. I would count three, two, one under my breath. On the last beat, liftoff.
Palo Alto, California
Don DeLillo writes in Falling Man, a novel about post-9/11 New York: “You build a thing like that so you can see it come down. The provocation is obvious… You are saying Here it is, bring it down.”
Several years ago, in a seminar room out west, I listened to my teacher talk about DeLillo’s book, his hands waving at high speed in front of his face. As a visual aid, my teacher passed around a Xerox of one of 9/11’s most famous images: A man, still unidentified, falls headfirst from the North Tower, his limbs neatly aligned with the building’s linearity, his form unassailable, evocative. (This, our instructor informed us, was photographic sophistry, a moment of seeming serenity extracted from a man’s mortal flailing.) I remember thinking in my teenage brain how maybe every high must imply a low, every leap just an acceptance of what is given. To fall intentionally is to answer some call, a “provocation” as DeLillo would have it. It is something uncultured in us saying yes, we entered this world on our backs, and will exit it vertically; we entered this world dependent, but will strive now to be free.
If upward progress is a romantic idea we try to build our lives around, then so too are falling, celerity, this wild and fickle freedom.
I remember the leaves and their deciduosity. I remember watching a nature special on tape a hundred times or more, rewinding always to the scene when two fishing eagles lock their talons and whirl seawards in cycles of feather and bone. I remember summers spent down at the neighborhood pool making swan dives and skinny-dipping after dark. I remember long road trips holed up in the back of my mother’s Honda Odyssey, my brother and I watching wuxia films in which monks and maidens fall through old China on invisible curtains of air. My favorite of these films was always Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, a fairy tale which ends with a woman leaping, gracile and composed, off a mountain for a wish.
It’s difficult to say when I started thinking about falling not just as an artful performance—that is, as something put on—but as an actual way of being in the world, an ethos flowing stream-like through our daily lives. Maybe it was in California, in that seminar room discussing DeLillo and Wyatt and Messud. Or maybe it was later, leaving that room, going with my fellow summer students to the top of Hoover Tower and performing an egg-drop experiment. Each team was given one egg and a ration of string, cardboard, cotton balls, and rubber bands. Our task was to construct a package which would float the egg safely down to the campus below.
The vessel my team fashioned included a plastic shopping bag attached as a parachute to the egg’s cotton-lined container. Still, when dropped, the package fell like a stone.
One of the pre-graduation rites at my college was for every senior to jump off an old bridge into the Charles River. I think of that ritual leap, which I made as a freshman, and it leads me to other jumps, scenes scattered in my undergraduate life like little, ecstatic nuclei: a bungee platform in Auckland, a cliff side in Hawaii, getting shit-faced in an Australian pub and falling face-first into the Pacific.
Youthful prerogative seems to encompass these actions and more, and yet sometimes I wonder if I’m playing at Icarus still, making my life into a catalog of little jumps, all these brief experiments in letting myself go. Falling should be differentiated I think from jumping, which involves a degree of order that falling does not. You reason your way through a jump, weighing pros and cons. You envision yourself as a phenomenologist testing a theory.
Theory #1: Falling is the state that jumping procures and which jumpers desire. You jump. You fall. There is a trajectory to all this, a line of progress the finger can follow. There is a shape and what might be called a weight—that suppleness of air, that amnesty of mind. There is this void, and then there is you, caught up in gravity’s groundswell.
Theory #2: One’s sentiments towards falling are subject to change. When I am visiting home these days, I don’t often go to the Mizell Cliffs, and when I do, I never jump. The inflection point for me is clear: four years ago, when two friends and I were at the cliffs, a man we had just met vaulted over our heads and across the cliff’s thin lip. After a series of motions both ordained (by physics) and unknowable (by us, the scientists peering over the ledge), this man died.
Once, I fell from a spiked fence, and the whiskered hem of my jeans caught on a metal spur and saved me from suffering permanent damage. I tell this story because it was a fall which occurred without warning or premeditation. One moment I was crouched on the cold black metal, the next I was upside down, belly bared, my friends laughing and spanking my ass before helping me down. And as I hung there, arrested in flight, the fall kept on happening inside of me, a video memory on a closed loop.
To fall in earnest is to be reminded then of life’s underlying stochastics: that we are here and upright on account of a blind and unruly luck, a luck which the paranoid imagine might depart any minute. Ask yourself a few questions. How can we anticipate each shard of black ice in winter, each flash of heat lightning in August? How can we dally with the immediacy of falling while also reckoning with its fallout—an ankle sprained, a relationship broken, a lifestyle descended into guilt or self-loathing? Most of all, how do we prepare for the fall when the fall is something we understand always in retrospect: an accident that took place once, a past transgression which led to the current affair?
It occurs to me now that a life full of jumps, of intentional falls, is a good one. We savor the downstrokes most when we have a gaggle of friends ready and willing to catch us. This is gravity in action, but also a kind of privilege.
It occurs to me also that I never properly learned how to fall, that my shifu failed me or I failed myself. Going up seems a teachable task—you figure out the handholds, chart a path up the climbing wall. In contrast, going down feels always like an accident. Perfecting the body’s aerodynamics can help, adopting a devil-may-care persona even more so. But in the end, you cannot learn how to fall. You cannot do anything but experience it.
The English word fall comes, in part, from an old Norse word for sin. This implies that freefall liberates the body from sin, freefall which is (in Newtonian physics at least) any state of motion when gravity is the only salient force at play. A man in freefall experiences no friction, no drag, no torque. He is essentially weightless and so metaphorically blessed.
In Mostar, one June, I went to a high bridge to watch the Mostar Diving Club at work. A rotating cast of men, ranging widely in body type and age, plied the bridge’s dramatic arc. One of the younger divers, who wore a speedo and had a tattoo of the bridge over his heart, was collecting donations from passerby—twenty-five Euros in the hat to watch a man jump.
The bridge was built back in the Ottoman era, though it had been destroyed during the Bosnian War, when the Bosniaks and Croats had held one side of the city and the Serbs the other. When the war ended, the bridge was rebuilt, and tourists could stream back to Mostar and watch the local men (I saw no women in the club) fall seventy-eight feet into the blue-green water below.
A woman standing beside me that day told me that jumping off the city’s bridges was a common pastime among local teens. One of this woman’s friends had died jumping off another bridge, which she pointed out to me, directing my gaze to a shabbier, grayer bridge downstream. The woman added that her friend’s death was not a result of the fall exactly, but something freakier than that. A lightning bolt had struck the water right after her friend’s leap, stunning the boy before he could reach the riverbank.
Before I could decide how to respond to this story, the divers reached their twenty-five-euro mark. A blonde boy in a wetsuit, barely out of middle school from the look of him, crept carefully out onto the ledge. When the appointed time came, the boy slipped out into space and fell.
“My impulse to throw myself from high windows and the edges of cliffs belongs to my body, not my mind,” John Updike writes. The duality here seems unnecessary. Watching the Bosnian boy fall, both my body and my mind wanted to fall with him as they always do, as they maybe always will. It’s a desire I can’t discard, a need to revel in that feeling of transit which is quickly stripped away, lost into an ampleness of air or an enveloping sleeve of water. What I am also responding to in these moments is the realization that even in staying still I am falling, continually and without recourse. Inertia or what we call common sense might keep me here, riding this edge, but only for a time.
Sooner or later, the stakes became not just higher but sharper for me, and I began to think about falling as a set of potential consequences and not just as a playful performance or philosophical question. I began to think that there is only so much narrative in long drops and short stops, and that the lessons we glean from falling are, all things considered, pretty basic: Live for the moment. Avoid over-thinking. Try to treat the body and its motions as art.
Even so, stories and images of falling continue to haunt me. My laptop screen fills with notes on Vesna Vulović, the Serbian flight attendant who fell 33,300 feet from a plane and lived, or Ren Hang, the Chinese photographer who committed suicide in 2017 by jumping from a Beijing building. “Tripping and taking a fall can be a counterbalance to depression.” Hang writes in his diary.
In my apartment, I stare intently at an untitled photograph of Hang’s from 2012. The image shows a frontal view of a naked, square-jawed man, leaping cannonball-style into what I assume to be an empty pool. The boy is watched from two ends: by the naked woman who stands on the edge he has just vacated, and by the viewer and photographer, who are positioned below the boy’s body, in the negative space he falls into.
I look at this photograph and then watch “THE MOST AMAZING CLIFF DIVING VIDEO EVER” on YouTube, a video which shows several pretty, toned people jumping into bodies of water, people I can identify with, sort of, people who seem to be having a good time, living out the fullest potential of their youth. “Thumbs up for chicks who flip,” a caption on the video reads, and I am rolling my eyes already.
What does it mean that I am enamored with these strangers even as I cluck at their hubris? Maybe a part of me will always want to be one of those fly girls in a string bikini, turning flips with the boys and shaking my non-ass for the camera. Maybe another part will stand back, demurring, trying and failing to understand the costs, the feedback, the meaning.
Lenoir City, Tennessee
I don’t go jumping at the cliffs anymore, but I can never forget those days. That rush, it lingers. The way my chin would draw close to my chest in flight. The way all sound would abate, the water approaching my feet like a material period, a fermata. You don’t forget the feeling of that impact. You don’t forget the body penetrating blade-like through different layers and temperatures of water, caught up in the shape of its own falling. It was like being born, or never dying. It was like jumping from great height into very deep water and feeling surprised the body could feel this way, one moment so light and the next so solid. The limbs splay underwater. Bubbles detach in search parties from the mouth. The lungs, swollen like lobed balloons, pull you back up for air.
Whenever I tell this story—the story of the last time I went jumping at the cliffs—I tell people that it happened on my father’s fiftieth birthday, which my family celebrated at a friend’s house by the river. My old wushu captain was there, turning aerials off the dock. Another friend lazed with me on the dock, our bodies beaded in river water and sweat.
I mention my father’s birthday party in every re-telling as if it means something: the father entering his house of middle life, the stranger leaving through another door. I watched both happen, not simultaneously, but very close together in my memory. What I never mention is floating in the shallows at my father’s party watching a swarm of mayflies (order: Ephemeroptera) die-fucking in the air above me, or how I repeatedly surged up from the water to catch the low fliers in my hands, to feel their insect lives briefly held, caught up in my prism of fingers. This detail seems, for whatever reason, too morbid to share.
When my father’s party was over, my friends and I piled into my car and drove to the cliffs like usual. We arrived near dusk and jumped only a few times before settling down on the cliff’s edge to rest. A man smoking Marlboros struck up a conversation with us. He told us that he came from a place called Friendsville and had a baby on the way with a woman he loved. He told us that one of his dreams was to visit Japan, and he spoke of something called the Japanese domestic market, which he used like an adjective, as in “my ride is JDM as fuck.” He asked where we were from, and we said something to the effect of China, to which he responded, “no shit.” We all laughed, not terribly offended, not terribly bothered by anything as we sat there, watching the sun set.
The man finished his beer and asked if we would jump with him one last time, an offer we politely refused. I remember later diving into the water, hands outstretched towards this man’s dying. I remember hearing one of my friends enter the water above me, the dull boom of his impact, the way a person can come into or out of a story.
And so it goes, you might say—the simplest line, the most familiar fable. One man goes and does something risky. He sees a gamble, one where the collateral is maybe his life, and he takes it. Is the collateral not the same for all of us? Are we not making this wager every day, in different ways and weighted by very different odds? Driving the car, taking a drag, kissing a man out on the street? Boarding planes, traveling far, writing and acting in dissent or solidarity or both? I guess I want to know more people who would jump off a cliff just because their friends did, more people who would try to fall with me, to dwell in our in-betweenness, our waiting for the impact we know is coming.
In the part of the South where I am from, a summer sunset can linger in the air. The light leaves an afterglow, a carbon copy of day. When the police arrived, my friends and I gave our statements and left, driving back home on the same roads we always used. We would read in the paper the next day of a man whose body had been found in the river below the Mizell Cliffs.
If there is a lesson here, and I don’t know if there is, it has something to do with that ratio of life we want to call fleeting or bold. Holding on to that golden integer matters. Knowing that this fraction is unstable matters even more. This is the image of falling I can’t shake, its purest phenomena, when being and nonbeing meet and switch places for a time. A man I do not know comes running up from behind me. He takes one leap over my head, spinning in midair to yell “fuck y’all” and give me the finger. There is no planning, no do-overs, no countdown at the edge. I hear a splash far below, and later, not much else.