In the southern sky, somewhere near Texarkana, the line of the terminator advances toward the horizon as we drift through the twilight zone, waiting for the approaching night. These are the things of which we dream when we stand on the ground and wish we were up there.
Monuments rooted in earth, rise above the desert floor and we revere them for their beauty and stature as they tower above the landscape seeming to touch the sky…but when Winter comes and snow falls on the desert, these earthen monuments float above the desert plain, drifting untethered, they free our imaginations from the strictures of expectation and leave us to drift in a moment of wonder.
“Letting go,” is an art that requires daily practice. I’ve always drawn…whether cartoons, realistic sketches, or technical diagrams, the challenge is always the same…to see the world for what it is and what it is not, while attempting to translate a little of both through some medium to paper. It’s something that is challenging when practiced everyday. It’s something that feels impossible if rarely practiced. The art of “letting go” is similar…practiced everyday, it is a challenge…practice it rarely (or never) and it can seem an insurmountable task. To be unable to let go is like being unable to do art…it’s hard because we fail to see the possibilities around us and we fail to practice…the very rotation of the earth about its axis provides a lesson in the ritual of letting go, night giving way to day giving way to night…and the lingering mist in the valleys remind us that even in its imminence, giving way and letting go is hard.
When we see our world for the first time from the air, it is as though we have brought water to a beloved desert…the beauty remains while our perception is forever altered and a thirst is quenched…just as we may never forget the touch of water, we will forever yearn for the sensation of wind beneath our wings.
We keep our eyes on the horizon, but the limits of our horizon are dependent on the direction we choose to travel. As we venture upward and outward, if only in our imaginations and our gaze, our horizon is limitless and we fly through invisible crossroads of stratified flight paths in pursuit of space and a reality unbound by the limits of earth.
I don’t know what thoughts my ancestors had as they slipped over the horizon nearly four centuries ago, venturing west across an open ocean for an unknown fate in an unknown land…but I know that some element of that lust for the horizon is engrained in my soul. We will always pursue the horizon, the distant line that defines the edges of our world…the more vague the definition of that horizon, the more it demands to be explored. Sometimes we are rewarded with new discoveries or visual treasures that enrich not only our memories, but our imaginations. We are richer for the experience of striving for the unattainable, aspiring to find the edges of earth, and bringing others along for the ride.
How small are we? Questioning scale with our feet planted firmly on the ground, the answer is nearly always clear…in flight, it becomes less clear as we move freely in the atmosphere and, with altitude, the world around us becomes an abstraction, beyond our touch and feel…we rely on facts, indications, and experience to build our situational awareness, to comprehend our reality. At times, we find that we are simultaneously large and small as grand extra-terrestrial patterns repeat themselves in varying scales on Earth…Imagining the textures of distant nebulae echoing through cloudscapes, mountains, rocks, and earthly wisps of dust, the competitive sense of size and scale becomes less relevant as we consider the value of these patterned relationships.
Sometimes we become mired in the emotional chaos of the storm, but as we cast aside our selfish concerns over the heavenly inconvenience of rain, we are grateful for the water…we meet the chaos head on and strive not to introduce our own drama to that of the turbulence, light, and shadow as we rise above the storm and drive onward into the new year.
I may have previously shared this photograph, but it’s more important to me now. You see, I am now the only one that remembers this moment cruising through the dawn of a Solstice morning over Yosemite…The other guy is no longer with us. The funny thing about the solstice is that it’s about the balance between night and day, light and dark, a tension that has been engrained in our spirits as the human race has thrived and endured while witnessing the cycle of light throughout the ages. There are turning points in every day where the light diminishes and the darkness rises only to be reversed by the dawn of a new day…a model for many a spiritual journey. Most of the time, we keep the perspective of a balanced universe and in the dark of night we look forward to the coming day, but sometimes the people we love (all people) lose perspective…no matter the cause…and they cannot see the light amid the deep and dark shadows that surround them. So often these same people are beacons of light shining for others, but who tragically can’t comprehend the light within themselves. As we turn the corner on the season and reflect on the Solstice, may the light in your life increase and the shadows fade to memory…and may you help the ones around you understand the light they bring to your life by telling them now, in this moment…and remember that as sure as there is darkness in the night, in the morning there will be light.
Every one of us wears the impressions of our lived experiences. The worst of which are empty open wounds, while the best are etched in bas relief…their artful lines of recessing memories acting as vessels where reflections collect and inform our souls of the world that surrounds us.
Slowly opening our eyes and absorbing the scenery, we find ourselves riding on the swirling airborne dreams of a colored landscape, liberated by the wind in a place where mountains, light, and shadow blend our perceptions of heaven and earth.
When we look upon mountains, we imagine a sense of static permanence, as though something so grand must be “forever.” When we look upon ripples of sand on the beach, we understand their transience, as though something so small could not stand the tide…Then we come upon a vast range of dunes, slowly moving and shifting, achieving the scale of mountains while ever-changing to adapt to the prevailing wind…And no longer can we rest our logic upon the partial truth of scale, instead we must look toward the elements that make up our world and seek to understand their adaptations, synergies, and motion as they redefine permanence.
When the way ahead is tinted by the yellow of aspen leaves, a brilliant glow emanates from the rising landscape, calling to us as though a siren on the mountain beckoning us to take a closer look. The marvel of an aspen glen, a single organism responding to a changing world in perfect symbiosis.
We stand on solid ground, or so we believe…Yet the earth constantly quakes and we ride imperceptible waves of tectonic motion, rising and falling, as we go about our everyday customs…If we were to stop and think about the immense power engaged in moving the earth, we might feel overwhelmed. But there is another side to this…It can also be a comfort, in times such as these, to know that for all the emotional and political tumult of our world, our petty grievances and follies are inconsequential to the rolling, churning, shaking, lifting, and falling forces of Earth…Although we may feel as though we are lost at times, the Earth does not care and her mountains and oceans will continue to move in search of equilibrium, ignorant of our tiny proud footfalls.
We are blazers of trails and builders of paths. We tend to make them passable for the least agile among us. That’s kind and thoughtful as it opens a view of the world to many who would not otherwise venture out…but it is not the way of things in the natural world where exploration and adversity are often the price of discovery…As we look to the earth, we find that she leads us to places of wonder with her jagged contours and meandering forms of rivers, ridges, and valleys. These details are not benign paths to follow, instead they present obstacles that simultaneously lead our gazes to objects and places of allure and present challenges that we must overcome in order to earn the sense of wonder on the other side. Often times the reward is in meeting the challenges along the way and we find that one adventure is simply preparation for the next.
Although I often dream of being “up there” when I am on the ground, I rarely dream of being “down there” when I am in flight. Up there, the simple mysteries of what lies around the bend or over the hill are revealed in a glance, their wonder to be consumed as a small part of a bigger picture. The cumulative effect of these simultaneous revelations can be overwhelming, leading our senses to reel…that spinning feeling we experience with our first steps onto the airfield, that moment we recognize just how big and vast is the sky above and around us. That feeling never stops, though we get better at managing it, we put our excitement in check, letting it linger as a small electrical scintillation up the backs of our necks, and we work through our routine of slowing down time, hyperaware of our every impulse, action, and reaction. To live on the wing is to be part of that wonderous big sky and we forget about earthly things for a while.
I’ve been on the ground for a few months. I don’t bemoan that fact as it is by choice, yet every time I look at the wrong side of a passing cloud or gaze upon the radiance of a dusty sunset, I long to be up there where I belong. My choice is one that many of our younger pilots don’t have the luxury of making for themselves…I’ve been in that position before. Many junior pilots, men, women, fathers, mothers, daughters, or sons, all of them someone’s friend, are preparing to leave the airlines as part of involuntary furloughs. That sounds benign enough, their jobs will be there for them when the economy demands more of us on the job, but nothing about it is easy. We are in one of those rare career fields where our identities are intertwined with the job we do. That makes it harder when no one needs us to do that job. It’s not like taking a leave of absence in which we know when we will return to the air. Instead, it is fraught with the ambiguity of waiting for the phone to ring or a letter for HR to arrive welcoming the pilots back. When on furlough, a piece of ourselves is left behind. When I went through that experience, I was fortunate to have good supportive friends that helped me focus on the positive as I looked at all the other pieces. It took a lot of soul searching to unwrap my identity from my job, to look for other innate skills and passions, to determine other ways to find purpose in my everyday life. We are so much more than pilots, we are blessed with a career that allows us to spend our days on top of the world, we undramatically face critical situations when all the world around us seems ablaze, we see the beauty in a singular ray of light reflecting its way through the atmosphere, we know what it feels like to surf on clouds, and we know what it’s like to fly straight into the teeth of a storm. If you’re someone facing furlough or unwanted time on the ground, I can offer you this, you are so much more than a job…you can do anything you set your mind to doing…and I guarantee you have people in your corner who can help you focus your energy on understanding all the positive and powerful things of which you are capable. If you feel alone in this, reach out to others who have been there. You can reach out to me. The sky will not change while you are away, so all your good dreams of flying will continue to be real, and we will await your return.
In the days that surround September 11th each year, I think back to all of the events leading up to that horrible morning and all of the events that followed. For those of us who were close to these events, we will forever feel as though there is an empty seat at the table when we gather to reminisce. It took a long time for most of us to put things in perspective and to put to rest the unsettling and unproductive selfish thoughts of “why wasn’t it me?” A certain sense of jovial callousness and gallows humor are excellent coping mechanisms…But still there are echoes of those moments in our reflections…voices of friends lost, images of detached horror, perpetual columns of smoke, candlelight vigils in hotel parking lots…the warmth of strangers sharing loss, and the roaring sounds of silence from an empty sky. As long as these silent echoes resound, we will never forget.
On September 10, 2001, my mid-day flight had been delayed due to a weather system moving through the northeast, so I found myself driving to Logan Airport in heavy afternoon I-95 traffic. This drive stuck in my mind, not because of what would happen the next morning, but because of the words I heard on the radio. [I was a relatively new airline pilot, still on probation and a paltry probationary salary, so my entertainment options in my old Volvo station wagon were somewhat limited.] NPR was broadcasting the National Press Club luncheon where (then) Senator Joe Biden was the keynote speaker. At the time, the administration was preparing to back out of the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty in order to test intercept missiles as part of the Strategic Defense Initiative. Biden’s remarks focused on a vision that the United States has a responsibility not to act unilaterally, backing away from our agreements and our allies, and instead we should maintain our global leadership role while focusing on countering nuclear, chemical, and biological terror threats posed by non-state actors to which we were far more vulnerable. [A clip of his remarks can be found here: https://www.c-span.org/video/?c4551371/user-clip-joe-bidens-foreign-policy-views-91001] Glorious weather followed the passage of the front and everything about that afternoon felt routine and innocent. We had an uneventful flight from Boston to Los Angeles and, having landed late, went straight to sleep, only to awaken to the news of our next LA bound flight’s fate. Given the events of September 11th, Biden’s words struck me as having been a clarion call for action to counter terrorist threats that we could not yet fully comprehend…
Yosemite fills the windscreen, Half Dome’s distinctive silhouette emerging from the mist as the setting sun illuminates the floating dust and water vapor, warming our vision and welcoming us in from the darkness.
The places we pass through on our way to the sky, at their finest, inspire us, warm us, and create a sensory experience that lasts a lifetime. National Airport is one such place…each day that I pass through that portal, the sensation of walking through the old terminal for the first time, almost a half century ago, comes rushing back to me with each shimmer of radiant light captured in polished reflections of architecture and shadows.