Wednesday, April 20, 2011

331. The Flight through Age and Death

I’m stuck in an aisle seat flying
to Salt Lake so my entire world is the cabin
of this plane. I see a few clouds out
the portholes. Thought
you would like to know, especially today,
which is the day before your birthday,
and I don’t remember how old you are, but
I know you’re over 50, a birthday celebrated
with a woman singing to you, boozily it seemed,
from inside a gorilla suit, pink tutu attached
to its midriff. There are better ways to turn
50, though not as many more memorable.

I am, as you know, fifty at the moment
but leaning perilously close to fifty-one, and it is
for this reason, this fiftiethness of mine, that
I’m writing to you and others, so the number
matters, as a figure of roundness, as an achievement
of numbers, as a fact again made plain and
requiring some comment, or 365 days of
comment, maybe more. I am burdened by birthdays
and caught between them and write to you
to tell you of my self-made fate, and to give you
the gift of a note that you’ve actually
waited for for many months now.

This is the middle flight of my day’s worth of flights,
just as I’m in the middle era of my life now, or
so designated. I might live the next fifty years
and reach the age of my grandmother at her own death.
More likely, I won’t, and might not even make it out of
this mid-life, halfway between birth and death, action
and inaction, value and its lack.

Thinking such thoughts because a friend of ours,
Art, disappeared a few weeks ago, somewhere
between North Carolina and New Hampshire, with
his home state of Connecticut between the two. His car
sits in New Hampshire, unharmed, and still carrying
his untouched luggage. It’s not hard to imagine what
might have happened to him, though it’s impossible
to know what. Death is possible, of course. Or Art somehow
came apart and started wandering the countryside
on foot. I’d like that latter to be the outcome, but it seems
less likely—Art was so clearheaded and stable, yet
we hide within ourselves all these layers of self, some
that hardly ever reveal themselves, so it’s hard to know,
it is simply hard to know anyone. Though I know Art
enough to believe what happened came from without.

I’ve written to 330 people so far in this year that I am
fifty years of age, and Art was one of those. I wrote him
as I write you, in an airplane heading west, and he thanked
me for the poem, the letter, the gesture, I think, more
than the actual thing itself, because he didn’t understand it,
its not being one like this one, a simple set of words
that merely explain themselves. Since I started to write
these poems, only one of the recipients has definitely died,
my aunt, and I flew west another time to see her set
into her tiny slot in a mausoleum. It seems, unexpectedly,
that Art might be the second, though he is just
a few days younger than I am, a man set for more life.

But nothing is set. When this plane raised its nose up
off the tarmac at JFK and then dragged the rest of its body up
with it, it began to shake viciously, the tail of this thing
in a wild fishtailing such as I haven’t felt on a plane before,
and it all made the plane sound like a can of bolts. Up into
the air, the plane hit serious turbulence that kept the flight
attendants in their seats. The last time I’d been on
a flight this rough—and that flight was much worse—I was
flying from Toronto to Syracuse on a small prop-engine plane
with you, at night and through a ferocious rainstorm.
The huge storm buffeted the tiny airplane so that we
were jostled in all directions. The plane would twist, dip,
as the storm hit it from all directions, because we were
in the storm so there was no direction that wasn’t also storm.
I’ve been flying since I was very young, and I’ve learned not
to be frightened while in flight, so I sat, unconcerned,
in my seat, probably reading. You, as I know I have
recounted to you many times before, were clutching
the seat in front of you, to stabilize yourself.
As you know, I’m not a kind man, so I reassured you
by saying, “Ray, it doesn’t matter how hard you
hold onto that seat if the plane crashes to the earth.”
I’m sure the other passengers enjoyed
my words of encouragement as much as you
did, but we landed safely in the dark in Syracuse,
deplaned to go through customs, and returned
to flying towards Albany once again.

In the end, everything is reduced, all of life, all
of our adventures, all of our hopes and worries and
passing concerns, to a clutching onto life, to this sense
that we must hold on, because this is all we have.
Even if a life is imperfect, it seems worth the grief
to live through it, or it does to most of us, most
of the time. And aging, at least in these early steps of it
that we are living through, doesn’t prepare us
for death. It only makes us understand more keenly
the need for life. As we age, we don’t look back
at our rich life and feel contented. We yearn
to have enough life to live the life we still want to live,
the whole of it, and to live it out as if the fact of
our small lives has enough meaning to justify our
effort to do what living we could with it.

I’m not sure I’m the best exemplar of this,
but these thoughts remind me of the words
of advice I give people as a rollercoaster is pulling itself up
to its first descent: “Feel the fall.” Sure,
you’re going to be scared, I say, but this is your chance
to experience that fear. And you must get beyond that fear,
too, and feel the fall for the joy of it, for the way
it turns your body inside out. That’s been
my advice. It’s the same advice I’d give someone
in an airplane if it had begun to fall from
the sky. Feel the fall. Because if this is going to be
the last experience of your life, you want to
experience it as a state of joy.

1 comment:

  1. Ok, um wow! I'll write more but I want a bit of time to mull it over. I do want to note that my return from Europe earlier this month was about as turbulent as the aforementioned flight from Toronto to Syracuse. And I hung on there too - not to prevent a crash, but to simply keep myself from being smacked around the plane (when I flew in small planes piloted by my dad when I was a kid I recall hitting my head or something).

    And I heard about Art today and am hoping with you that maybe he's just taking a break from things.

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