My favorite thing about flying out of Boston is the aerial view of the islands.
Almost every flight does some type of turn above the Boston Harbor Islands, and I watch them until they go out of sight. The islands hold something familiar and mystical for me. They hold teenaged and early college memories. They hold a source of pride as I’d point out Peddocks and tell anyone who’ll listen, “They shot Shutter Island there!” They hold a reverie and solace as I remember the ocean waves rolling in, the view of the islands from the mainland, the feeling as the harbor island boats gently bumped against the docks.
But they also hold something heavy. They hold a memory of my best friend calling me up one night, telling me that she’s heard there’s been an accident on one of the islands — an island another friend was currently on — and that she couldn’t get ahold of him. A memory of me and my blind optimism, saying that it was all alright, that she’ll get in contact with him soon, that there is nothing to worry about. A memory of me learning how naïve I had been, learning in the light of day the next morning that he was the one in the accident — that he didn’t survive, and that absolutely nobody, directly and indirectly involved, would ever be the same again.
To this day, it makes me think of all the mistakes we are granted clemency on in life. All mistakes that could’ve — or should’ve — killed us, and the fact that some of us don’t get that grace sometimes. Sometimes dumb mistakes cost you your life and you don’t get a chance to look back and say, “Whew. That was a close one.” Some are not given that opportunity to dodge a bullet and feel grateful that they’re alive.
We fly into Cleveland and upgrade our rental car on impulse.
We pass by the convertible on our way to the check-in desk. When we get in, the first words out of my husband’s mouth are, “How much is it to upgrade?”
The cost is justifiable and suddenly we are throwing our gracefully small luggage into the trunk and putting the top down. As we blaze down the highway, finding out just how much get-up-and-go the Camaro has, 60s rock blares from the radio.
This is what it means to be living, I think to myself.
We’re technically in Ohio for a wedding, but we stay longer to celebrate my birthday. We traverse diagonally across Ohio, from one corner to the other and back, eventually hitting the roller coaster capital of America for my birthday.
My first stop is the theme park’s most death-defying rollercoaster — one that was shut down due to technical issues when I was there last, 8 years ago.
The Top Thrill Dragster rockets you straight up, hitting the highest point in the entire park, before summiting and shooting you back to Earth. The words you say as the coaster slopes down would make a sailor blush, but the rush is so thick and pure that you can barely get your seatbelt off afterwards.
Ironically, as soon as you’re rocketed up to the top, you are given a few moments of the best view in town. Lake Erie out in front of you in all her glory. A vast and open sky. A few of the other coasters twirl below you, tame cousins compared to what you’re currently on. A view that deserves a true moment of reflection.
But before that is possible, you twist and fall more than 90 degrees. You curse something mighty as genuine fear surges through you. And then — like that — your car slows down. You’ve made it out alive, and you giggle like a kid, eyes wide, smile huge.
It’s like rollercoasters are a way of creating that moment when you’ve dodged a bullet — a controlled environment where you are granted clemency, where you can walk away, walk away on wobbling legs, and thank God that you’re alive.
We attempt to do the Dragster one last time as the day starts to wind down. We get there only to find a chain across the entrance. Temporarily closed due to technical issues.
I try to do something crazy on my birthdays. Sky diving. Hang gliding. Ziplining. Little reminders that I’m growing older, but not getting older. Little reminders that I want to be a little hellion of an old lady, scaring the people in her 55+ community with her potentially self-destructive antics. Little reminders that I want to fill this life to the brim with experience.
I see a gigantic swing — known as the Ripcord, the Frontier Fling — on our first lap around the theme park. I watch the people in what are essentially padded sets of overalls get hoisted up to rollercoaster peak heights before dropping. My stomach lurches as I watch them technically freefall for a second before their rope catches them and they swing like a pendulum over us.
“Do you want to do that?” my husband asks.
There’s a part of me that is in pure fight or flight mode. A part of me that is going, “No. Fuck no. Don’t you dare.”
On our second lap around the park, I go in to do it.
There are multiple moments of legitimate fear. Fear as I’m hoisted up and my padded overalls press into my shoulders and I realize they’re the only things stopping me from a fall to my death. Fear as I keep going higher and higher, as that same part of my brain goes, “That’s high enough. That’s high enough. That’s FUCKING high enough!” Fear as I anticipate the person at the bottom telling me to pull my ripcord — fear as I recognize oh my god I’m the one pulling this damn ripcord. Fear as I pull the ripcord and freefall for a moment.
I let out an involuntary yelp, and then my rope catches me.
Then I’m flying.
I bring my arms out to the side and eventually in front of me. I’m a bird, I’m a plane, I’m Superman. I’m staring death in the face and laughing.
I’m giggling madly by the time I reunite with my husband.
“And this is why I never listen to that part of my brain,” I say, as I watch the video he took of me, as he shows the part where — at least from the camera’s perspective — I fall straight down towards the ground.
The Millenium Force was the ride when I first went to Cedar Point. Eight years ago, it was the rollercoaster with the highest point and the steepest drop. The lines for it were staggeringly big. Now, with time (and the help of a fast-lane pass bracelet), we’re at the roller coaster’s cars within 15 minutes. It’s not the big guy in town anymore — usurped by things like the Dragster and Valraven. Higher points, scarier drops.
But we go on it twice, cherishing the vistas of Lake Erie from the top, our vision graying slightly from the G force as we hit the first bend. My knuckles aren’t white and my adrenaline isn’t through the roof, but the experience is wonderful and exhilarating and giggle-inducing.
On our second trip, during the usually quick ascent to the top, something stops. We feel our coaster slow down and slide back slightly. We can hear the backup chain attempt to click into place, only to ratchet a couple times. We slide back a little more.
For a brief moment, there is a supernatural calm that takes over me. I know this is not what a rollercoaster is supposed to do. But whatever happens, happens. I am at peace with something that is clearly beyond my control, with something that could quickly become calamitous. There is zero fear, zero adrenaline.
The backup chain clicks into place, and outright shoves our coaster to the peak and over the edge.
While in line for another rollercoaster, a girl behind me asks me what one of my tattoos mean. The type of midwestern friendliness that I adore and cherish (the social introvert, the person who lives for small snapshots and interactions). She wants to know what my Sanskrit means.
I begin to babble — as I always do when something matters to me; the more important a subject is, the less succinct I’ll be when talking about it — in a roundabout way, I talk about Tat Tvam Asi. You Are That. You are part of the Divine, part of God, part of the Universe, part of Consciousness. You are a wave in the ocean and the ocean itself. Whatever this force is that permeates all things, you are part of it and you ARE it.
In the ancient yogic tradition, you are put on Earth to discover and recognize that. Yoga translates literally into “to yoke, to unite”. Unite what you think you are with what you actually are. Live your life in a way that help you see your life is — to see that you are — part of something so much greater.
My favorite moments at Cedar Point are all the intense ones.
My favorite rides are all the ones where dread crept in the second I heard the lap bar lock into place. Rides where my knuckles were white around the handles, rides where a part of me just wanted to hurry it up already so it could be over. Rides where there is a moment of genuine, pure fear.
Moments where I trick a part of my brain into thinking I’m on the verge of death.
In a time of great introspection and soul-searching, I have to wonder if I’m akin to an arrow or a slingshot: I have to be forcefully pulled in the opposite direction — aggressively, to the point that the tension is unbearable — before I can spring load into where I should be.
It makes me wonder if that is just the person I am. If — like Carrie Fisher — I have to toe the edges of hell to see what heaven feels like. If I have to overwhelm the senses to calm my nerves. That my love of the thrill isn’t just about pushing my limits and overcoming fear, but staring death in the face in order to appreciate being alive — and is it even possible for me to live outside of such a state of opposites.
Towards the end of the day, I can actually feel my fight or flight response become exhausted. I can practically hear my amygdala say flatly, “Oh no. We’re dangling over the precipice. Again. Certain doom is immanent. I guess it’s time to flood the body with adrenaline…again…”
I’ve become an adrenaline junkie who is exhausted on her own supply. The same part of me that fights wildly when I want to do something crazy is now calmly telling me, “See? Even living on the edge can get repetitive.”
But, that’s not entirely true. My favorite moments are not just the intense ones.
When I think back on my birthday, I think about my husband and I sharing food, sampling plates from all different places. I think of trying frozen custard for the first time, my husband and I passing the waffle cone back and forth as we take gigantic, delicious bites.
I think about the hues of pink as the sun set. I think about the stroll down Lake Erie after Cedar Point closed. The gentle silence of a quiet theme park, the rolling waves, the feeling of soft sand beneath my feet. A gentle, rolling joy. Something exquisite in its subtlety.
We drive back from Cedar Point through the backroads of Ohio, top down, the dazzling stars above us. Within minutes, we are encased in darkness, a vibrant and sharp nighttime that rivals the most rural sections of New Hampshire. We find an isolated spot and park. The car is turned off. All lights are off. Just us and the clear sky.
We can see the Milky Way as our eyes adjust. Thousands of tiny little stars start making their appearance, finer and finer little specks making themselves known, the subtle aspects of the night making the picture better, more alive.
Silence and the stars and a gentle summer breeze. A moment to remember how amazingly tiny we are in the grand scheme of it all, and yet how beautiful it is that we’re part of something so big. Tat tvam asi.
It continues to be a time of soul-searching. Or perhaps the soul-searching never really ends. So long as you’re aware of it, you’re constantly searching for what makes your soul sing and why it sings in the first place and how the music sounds to you. You’re constantly on the lookout for self-understanding and self-improvement and maybe, just maybe, self-actualization.
My biggest contender as of late has been staring down my need for extremes. Contending with my need to toe the edge — perhaps even let a foot slip off for good measure — in order to find peace with the soil in the center. Recognizing how lucky I have been when I’ve done more than just let a foot slip and could still scramble back up in one piece — recognizing how this is not a luxury that is present for everyone.
Our plane back to Boston is delayed due to bad weather — echoes of a hurricane that has gracefully missed our region. But, unlike Montana, our flight still goes on, and we’re even able to leave earlier than they had originally thought.
On the descent, the islands are blackened out by the night and the fog, indistinguishable from the ocean. Even when it’s clear, you can’t see the islands during nighttime flights. Just an ocean of blackness. The only thing that remains visible are the handful of lighthouses: a constant vigil in the night, keeping well-meaning but wayward boats from dashing themselves on the rocks.