Freefall at 120 miles per hour is fast.
Voluntary freefall at 120 miles per hour is insane.
This is what happens when I voluntarily fling myself into crazy fast freefall over Hawaii’s North Shore from 14,000 feet up in the winter sky:
Wind rushing, loud so loud I cannot hear cannot think can only feel feel feel. What am I feeling? Ah, SHIT, I’m not really doing this, am I? Wait, that’s a thought, I can think after all. Feelings? Fear. Scratch that. Terror. Muted, held at bay, but terror nonetheless. Freedom. Is that a feeling? It is now. Strange, fierce joy. Exultation. Take that, all ye pansies down upon the painfully solid earth. I am diving into the endless buoyant expanse of the sky, and I didn’t pee my pants. Yet.
Blackness surrounds me, since I closed my eyes the second we left the plane. My stomach lurches as we elevator drop. We, me and my jump-master, let’s call him Jack. I am trussed so tightly to him there is no need to guess at anything between us, since there is nothing between us but centimeters of thin fabric. Our stranger’s bodies are joined in an intimacy I crave, although since he is behind me I can cling to nothing but endless space. Straps encircle my thighs, cut into my flesh, wrapping around my chest and squeezing me close. What if a buckle loosens? It’s a damn long way down there. About 14,000 feet of gravity’s pull insisting we meet up again. Stop thinking about that now, please.
While walking to the plane earlier, sort of frog-legging it across the grass because of the straps, I asked Jack how long he’d been doing this.
“Three months,” he told me. Shaggy blond hair framed an island-tanned face as his long legs matched mine stride for stride to the metal box taking me up into the air. He might have been 19, with eyes as wide and bright blue as this ocean whose freakishly huge waves draw surfers from around the planet. I have the terribly honest, some might say naïve, ability to take people at their word. I gave him a look and an uncertain smile. “No, I have about 4,000 jump hours under my belt,” he said, relenting to my tentative belief with a grin. “Do this all the time.”
Then he deadpanned, “How about you? How long have you been doing this?”
The question hooked into my brain and clung with ferocity.
How long have I been in freefall?
Good question, Jack. I’ll let you know when I finally touch dirt again.
Hawaii cradles a sort of otherwordly beauty to my eyes. The land I call my home is sere: red desert, echoing dry canyons, cracked, curled up soil baked by a Southwestern sun. On these islands dotted together in the Pacific, rioting in green plants and multi-hued flowers, a humid warmth bathes me in constant moisture. This is my second visit to the islands, although the first was a brief layover that barely penetrates my memories. This time, I inhale everything with each sense I have, trying to parse everything while simultaneously relaxing into simple being.
Black sand beaches, white sand beaches, green sand beaches, all of them gritty between my bare toes, sometimes pocked with pumiced volcanic stones that threaten to bite at my skin. A shiny black and green rooster pecking his way along a hidden little slice of ocean front idyll. The word mahalo greeting me at every turn. Small dark children running naked through the outdoor showers, rinsing off salty sea water while making some sort of giggling, chasing game of it. White lumpy tourists settled onto flamingo-pink towels, their skin reddening when they fall asleep. Giant lush ferns and draperies of large flowers bursting out their colors in the jungle surrounding Hilo. The barren moonscape at the base of Mauna Loa, the single ribbon of paved road twisting through and over it. My own laughter snatched by the wind and flung past my ears as I gallop a buckskin horse on a hilly cattle ranch, playing at being a paniolo.
My friends and I meander slowly through this big island. But we harry ourselves at every turn, wanting more, needing to see everything, to grasp at it all while we can. I break away at the end of the journey to find some space and claim a personal refuge. Dropping through the open air, faster than I can imagine, seems the perfect way to do it. Of course.
My eyes open three seconds and twelve lifetimes after Jack sends us soaring out of the plane. Goggles cover my eyeballs. A purely sapphire ocean spreads below us, oddly flat and immense beyond my capacity to grasp. I am captivated by it and stare down at the white caps roaring, so slowly, toward the sand.
I don’t yet know that later that day, I will find, in an utterly unplanned wander, the beach where the TV show Lost was filmed. I will engage in lazy, satisfied, sun-drenched conversation with a woman originally from the mainland who lives here now. She will show me the sea turtles, honu, as they shimmy along the waves, flipping up sideways with each swell, tumbling toward us where we stand with our bare feet on the only nonrocky portion of water-covered beach. The honu always pull up right before they might smack into us. We lose sight of them and shade our eyes from the westward-heading sun. Then a dark, skinny head breaks above the water and bobs there for a time, several feet away from us.
“Is it looking at us?” A smile pushes up the woman’s cheeks.
“Do you think they know we’re here?” I wonder.
But of course the sea turtles know we’re there. They share an awareness of us, with us. This is their home, and we are the funny dry land zoo creatures they have crested the waves to gawk at. Or so my scribblings that night in my journal claim. All I really know is that honu are large, they are graceful in the water, they are protected by law, and one of them swam not two feet away from me as I stood, motionless and pretty much breathless, willing the moment to last beyond what it possibly could.
The sky diving photographer I paid extra for is flipping around me and Jack, grinning so big I have to stretch my lips over my teeth in return. Universal signal for, Friends? I will not eat you? Come sit at my table, you are the main course? Whatever it is, I smile back at him. Laughter explodes out of my dry mouth and is snatched away. Hell, yeah! I can jump out of a plane, world. Take that.
This is my freedom drop. My trip back to me, from wherever I’ve been. I’ve been lost. It was probably a good thing I found the lost beach later. If the metaphors surround me, I don’t recognize them at the time. Being lost has been a personal art form. It tightly shuttered me to insights, to reflection, to reality.
Before I leapt out of a plane, I was tumbled and thumped and tossed willy-nilly in freefall for six months. It happened to me, was done to me. I did not choose freefall, it chose me. Why? Because I participated. Willingly. There are two choices in life, as I see it. Either live life and be active, be aware. Or just let life happen to you and be passive, allow yourself to be a canvas upon which anyone and anything may paint. Paint spattered me hard and ugly and painful, and I let it.
The dark edges of a wild, fun lover pulled me in and along, whirled me around and spat me out. In him, I saw excitement, promise, possibility. My eyes wide shut, I let his demons engulf me as he sought to yank down everyone around him to join in the grips of the thrilling, terrifying whirligig he chose. He pulled me into his own freefall, and I enjoyed the cruise. Until he dropped me into open, endless space without care or notice. Cut the straps, unloosed the buckles, and shoved me away. With no parachute, I plummeted, screaming and crying from shock the entire way to the ground that slammed into me and broke every bone and organ in my body.
First lifeline flung to me from my sanity? This opportunity, right here and now, high in the clean sky above a tropical island not my home but perhaps my temporary sanctuary. To speed through the air, strapped hard and close to a Pan-like guy. Deciding to leap into the void of my own free will, shrieking with laughter and release the entire way down. Racing back to earth both fast enough and in control enough to burn off the bullshit so I can open my eyes and pull clarity back in.
Once freefall ends, Jack and I float in a silence that is almost loud after the rip of the winds above. Oahu spreads below us, green and hilly. The North Shore appears as a point, outlined in pale beach strips, outlined yet again in the endless waters, trimmed by ragged breaks of white waves. Houses, roads, cars, people. From up here, they still appear to move slowly, as if with deliberation.
“Hey,” Jack says into my ear. My young Pan of the islands, my guide into new and gorgeous territory I so mistakenly had thought blocked from me. “Do you see the rainbow?”
I scan the sky in front of us, above us, looking hard at the hugely puffed clouds that gather here and there. I squint my eyes, willing the colors to appear.
“No,” he says. “There,” and he gently grasps my head with his hands and turns it so I am looking down.
Directly below us, a rainbow spins. It is a complete circle, one end attached to the other in an infinity of colors endlessly chasing themselves.
“Do you want to dive through it?” he asks.
Oh, hell yes.
Colors, mist, and something I suspect might be sheer grace all envelop me for brief seconds as we rocket through the heart of the rainbow. Jack flips us sideways, twirling us around so I can see the three hundred and sixty degree view.
I just keep laughing and smiling the rest of the way back to our solid landing on the green earth below. Voluntary freefall is insane. Life is insane. But the crazy ride ends up being worth it every time, as long as I can keep throwing myself into the void even though I can’t see the net that will catch me.
And as we float back to earth, something inside me cracks open just wide enough to allow pure joy and freedom to flow back in, unleashing a torrent of brilliant light that dances beside the dark shadows inside.