I’ve been up in the air a lot these days, uncertain about many things, caught in worry and anxiety over finances, deadlines come and gone, and the precarious health of those I love. And it’s been taking to the air that has grounded me—not because I’ve gone to exotic locations, or taken a vacation (my plane trips have delivered me to the doors of loved ones in need), but because aloft, the smallness of my life is put into rightful perspective.
I was in the air a few days ago, on my 56th birthday, flying from Seattle to San Jose. Instead of my usual “volcano tour” along the Cascade Range, I sat facing the west, and found an entirely new perspective as the plane arced over Southern Puget Sound.
I saw the whole of the Key Peninsula—where I currently live, and then miles of the Hood Canal. I spied the fingers of the Skokomish River emptying into the Canal’s Great Bend, pinpointing the strip where my next live-in project house is perched along the shore waiting.
We winged past Olympia and soared over the Coast Ranges for hundreds of miles, the lip of the land along the sea always in sight, and the blues of the water and sky bleeding and blurring into the horizon.
Ribbons of river wended through mountains and valleys, and by some trick of late afternoon light, the metallic reflection of our plane acted like Tinker Bell’s wand, turning the water below us into flowing silver solder as we passed. I was mesmerized by the magic of it.
My husband met me at the airport and took me to dinner.
“Do you have any birthday wisdom from your 56 years on Earth?” he asked.
“Always get a window seat,” I answered.
There is more to it than that. You can’t simply sit by the window, you have to open the shade and look outside, and not just look, but look mindfully, paying attention to what is in view—without being distracted by the inflight magazine or preoccupied with schedules.
I gazed out the window, focused on the mountains, sky, sea, and settlements appearing and disappearing below me. The landscape unfolding sparked curiosity and wonder. My troubles slipped from mind, as I contemplated only what I could see in the present moment. Hurtling at 38,000 feet, covering 900 miles in less than two hours—that itself was miraculous enough, but to travel through clear skies, witness to such glory—gratitude filled my soul.
As we began our descent over the eastern slopes of the Santa Cruz Mountains, narrow roads snaking along the ridges came into view. Dwellings straddled the spines and slopes along the San Andreas Fault. Whether humans are brave or foolish for building homes and living lives on the sides of mountains that will tremble and slide I saw our vulnerability as universal: how precariously all of us are perched as we cling to life.
The plane travelled further south, toward Morgan Hill, then looped north for our landing in San Jose, and the Santa Clara Valley filled my view. This valley, familiar as Silicon Valley to millions, was once called the Valley of Heart’s Delight. It is the place where my husband, and his mother, and her family back five generations, was born and raised. Houses and high-rises have long since replaced orchards and farms; commercial towers and hi-tech campuses fill the valley from edge to edge, and in each of those buildings: people.
All those precious lives, too many for me to even comprehend, living and breathing, hoping and despairing, side-by-side in this one place, held and known by the same force that created the shifting tectonic plates—that too, is nothing short of miraculous.
Too soon we touched down, the world shrinking to the confines of the plane as we taxied toward the gate with the restless rustle of passengers reaching for cell phones, tethering back to daily concerns. Seatbelts snapped open, overheard bins unlatched, the aisle crowded with bodies. How quickly the liminal space of flight of evaporated, people taking leave of each other, and the pilots and crew who had borne us between heaven and earth, defying time and gravity.
In those moments of reentry, I looked at the faces around me, feeling as though returning to my seat after receiving the sacrament of Holy Communion. I recognized my fellow travelers as family, and felt such tender love toward them, toward all who walk and breathe and inhabit the earth, that the walls protecting my heart cracked and in that exposure, I experienced just a glimpse of God’s expansive love for us.
Then it was my turn to deplane. I hoisted my backpack and my heart reassembled, because I don’t know how to survive in that egoless split-open place for long. I trod along the jet-way, hoping and praying that a fissure would remain along the fault line of my heart, one that will gleam like liquid silver in the light.
I am a writer who, in December 2011, fortified by a new MFA, empty nest, and changes in my husband's employment, relocated from my native California to Washington state to see what would unfold next.