Learning to Believe I Can Fly

 

I used to know people’s phone numbers. I think I may still know my mother’s cell number, possibly my father’s, but I don’t know any of my friends’ numbers and if I found myself stranded somewhere without a phone, I wouldn’t be able to call my brother or sister because I’ve never known their numbers. Cellphones have made it impractical to memorize or even have a handwritten address book filled with the numbers of family and friends. As a kid, if I needed to call someone, I’d have to go to my mother’s phone book, find the number of the person I was jonesing to talk to and dial them up. She upgraded or simplified it every few years, copying the numbers and addresses by hand into each new address book. The one I remember the best had a picture of a baby dressed as a turnip on the cover. Anne Geddes made a lot of money making newborns appear edible in the ‘90s.

As a kid, the only teenager I knew who had a cellphone was Zack Morris on Saved by the Bell. By the time my parents finally got a cellphone, the trendy Nokia phones with the mix-and-match covers were on the market yet their phone—the one I was forced to haul around when I went to concerts with friends—was as heavy and brick-like as Zack’s was on TV all those years prior. Today, I don’t even have a landline, only a cellphone. Well, I apparently do have a landline, but I’ve never known the phone number and never hooked a phone up to it—it’s just part of the package that pays for what I really care about: my TV and internet.

All of my youth group friends had the trendy Nokia mix-and-match phones so Sunday mornings became a sort of technological runway with the newest and brightest phone cover winning everyone’s attention. When I finally convinced my parents I needed a cellphone of my own, I got a tiny black rectangular phone that wasn’t much larger than a beeper. While I was happy to have a phone, it did nothing to appease my jealousy of the detachable plastic covers which came in styles like bright orange, lime green or plaid.

As a teenager, when AOL Instant Messenger was a new advent and we were warned daily of the stranger danger that lurked behind every chat room door, I knew everyone’s phone numbers. Even if I didn’t call them on a regular basis, I made a point to learn my friends’ phone numbers. One of those numbers was Nolan’s and I thought he was the epitome of cool. We were in the youth choir together and while singing wasn’t his forte, he was our go-to guy for the raps in the gospel songs we’d sing. It was the late ‘90s, every gospel song had a rap. Nolan loved basketball and had an ease about him that made it seem like life made moves for him, not the other way around. Hindsight tells me that wasn’t true, but as a teenager it sure felt like it.

The summer of my freshman year in high school, our youth group took a trip to Hurricane Harbor where I spent most of the day floating around the park in the Lazy River or bobbing up and down in the wave pool. I’ve always had a complicated relationship with water parks. There are facets of them I truly enjoy: the flumes, rides that warrant inner tubes, and large pools in which to float. Yet the older boys in the group liked the thrill rides—the tubes that dropped you from the sky down a thin Hotwheels track to skid into an alarmingly small pool below. Those rides tended to be named horrible things like the Dive Bomber or the Geronimo—names that clearly indicated you could and probably would die. I’d rather be tossed around in the rather sterile wave pool and be perceived as less adventurous than plummet to my death on the Geronimo. Also, given my debilitating fear of the open ocean, the wave pool is as close to feeling the phenomenon of waves crashing over me as I will ever experience.

Toward the end of the day, our entire group congregated at the wave pool in the center of the park. On a stage next to the pool, a band played covers of songs like “I Swear” and “The Sign” while we swam in the glow of the multicolored stage lighting. Above us was an enormous drop swing, the sort of pay-per-ride excursion that lifted two people into the air and then released them to plummet…er…swing downward in a breakneck freefall over the wave pool. I imagined its placement over the giant body of water was to ensure that if the rope snapped, the thrill-seekers would fall onto the waves and not the highway.

I watched as duo after duo took the plunge and swung from hundreds of feet in the air, screaming as they swooped over my head. It was terrifying to hear their faint scream from the top of the swing grow louder as the riders sped down toward us and then softer again after they’d whooshed by, but it was also invigorating to watch. As another duo swooshed over us screaming as if they were dying, Nolan turned to me and said, “I want to do that.”

My eyes widened and I nodded silently. He ran off into the pool and I remained eagle-eyed on the airborne swingers. I did not want to do that, but if Nolan wanted to and I wanted to be like him, then maybe I should swallow my fear and give it a go. This pubescent rationale is the reason kids take up smoking or drinking or wearing Abercrombie. It’s foolish and errant but in the moment, it’s the clearest path to acceptance and inclusion.

Before it was outlawed in indoor spaces, I once saw a teenage girl try a cigarette for the first time in the food court of the Vista Ridge mall. Sitting with my mother while eating a cookie as we were wont to do, I watched as this girl’s friend peer pressured her into taking a drag of her cigarette. I was young, probably around sixth grade, and I saw the girl slowly bring the cigarette to her mouth and hesitate. Her friend egged her on, employing every cliché that’s ever been in a “Say No To Drugs” PSA, including, “everyone does it.” That’s never a good reason to do anything. I knew that then and I was in sixth grade. Regardless, this girl buckled and took a drag of the cigarette, quickly coughing and choking on the smoke. Her friend laughed as she assured her that happens to everyone the first time and that it would get easier. The coughing girl kept smoking and choking for the duration of my cookie. I may have been young, but I was old enough to know I had no interest in being a part of that nonsense.

Yet, at home after our day of fun at the waterpark, I sat in my room thinking about Nolan wanting to ride the swing of death and my wanting to emulate him at any cost. In what must have been a brain spasm, I picked up my phone and dialed his number—by memory of course. Nervous to the point of numbness, when he answered the phone, I struggled to form complete sentences. I was able to form the words, “You said you wanted to do that swing thing today.”

“Yeah it’d be fun,” he replied.

“Cool. Next time we’re there, I’d do that with you.”

“Oh fun,” he said. “Let’s do it.”

It was the most awkward phone call I’d ever made and while there may have been more words spoken, I’ll never remember them. We also never ended up at that water park again so our trip on the swing of death never materialized. My friends and I preferred to spend our summers going to Six Flags Over Texas anyway, and with our season passes, we were there once a week.

Among the new rides erected at Six Flags while we were spending summers there, one was a tower not unlike the Tower of Terror at Disney. Seated around a central column, the ride would slowly lift you in your seats high into the Arlington air, bestowing you with a panoramic view of all of North Texas. The Republic being as flat as it is, you could see for miles in all directions. With downtown Dallas on one side, downtown Fort Worth on the other, it was an aerial perspective unmatched anywhere else in the Metroplex. That’s when the ride released you into a free fall in which you would both question and plead for your salvation. It was a ride I only rode once and as my sister and I approached the top, our faces turned green and our vocabulary turned equally colorful as we realized how far we had to fall. Screw this view, get us down. We screamed in unholy terror as we dropped toward the Earth, certain this would be the end of our young lives. It was clear—I do not like being dropped.

The summer after I offered myself up for the swing of death, I participated in a program in which we spent our mornings at the church studying the Bible and learning how to not be delinquents. We had rules, most of which were normal teenager rules that told us to stay away from smoking and drinking, but there were some further reaching rules that said we shouldn’t listen to music that wasn’t Christ-centric. The point wasn’t to be hyper-restrictive, but to create a distraction-free environment for a couple months where we could focus on learning about our faith. It was overreaching for sure, but we did what we were told. Truth is, we spent all our time at church listening to gospel music anyway so for most of us, the rules weren’t that much of a stretch.

One afternoon after an enormous lunch of CiCi’s pizza, I rode with Nolan back to the church. He had a small red hatchback he was proud of and since it had no air conditioning, he always drove with the windows down. When you get into a car that’s been sitting under the sun in the middle of a Texas July, the air inside is so supercharged with heat that it becomes heavy; like entering a hot cloud that’s trapped in an oven. We’d have to open the doors and let the heat escape, the fumes visible as they wafted out of the car, before getting in.

Once we were inside, the hot leather seats seared my skin so I had to adjust my shorts to cover my thighs. Nolan then turned on “I Believe I Can Fly,” the now classic song from the Space Jam soundtrack. I couldn’t believe my ears. The rules clearly stated we weren’t to listen to any secular music but here we were, breaking the rules and doing so with the windows down for all to hear. Trying to play it cool, I gave him a sly look and said, “You know this isn’t on the discipleship approved list.” It’s gross to think that I was such a legalistic goody two shoes because I wasn’t that way about so many things in life, but in that moment, I super was.

He laughed. “It’s a song about believing you can achieve your dreams. Where do you think both that confidence and those dreams come from?”

I’m sure this sounds like certifiable nonsense to people who weren’t raised in the mid-90s Pentecostal branch of American Evangelicalism, but that sentence actually blew my mind. It was one of the first moments in my life where I considered God not only existing outside of categorically-Christian things—songs, verses, or sermons—but God existing just as fully and largely in those outside spaces. My insular existence as a church kid began to warp like a plastic cup left inside Nolan’s hot car and the shape and form in which I believed God to be began to bend and stretch. It was a truly revolutionary moment in my life that just so happened to take place in a car with no air conditioning outside a CiCi’s Pizza during a song from a Bugs Bunny movie.

It was a moment of spiritual free-falling. The insulated perception of God I’d relied on seemed to evaporate and I was seeing God’s hand in my world from an entirely new vantage point. Within the walls of the church, I’d learned many invaluable things, but this lesson learned outside those walls opened me up to seeing that God wasn’t restricted to existing solely within our rules. God was bigger than that. Much bigger. Suddenly, there was an entire landscape stretching out in front of me, a world where God could use anything to teach us, shape us, or bless us. Rules are fine, but God wasn’t going to allow me to careen into the highway or plummet into the wave pool if I stepped beyond the bounds of those human-created rules. Quite the opposite. Not only would I be held tight like the harness holding the brave/stupid people whooshing through the wind on the swing of death, but I’d be able to see far more of the God that exists in the expanse of the everyday.

Ryan’s book of essays, I Really Like My Hands Today, is available now on Amazon

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