Saturday, April 28, 2012

What is Essential - A View From a Sherpa

It is only with the heart that one can see rightly. What is essential is invisible to the eye
 - Antoine de Saint Exupery

At first there was nothing, just a haze of blue sky, to our West, a cold, faint rain draped around the mountains like a shawl. We were flying over high desert, the sky so devoid of cloud, the land so flat and colorless, that there was no sense of movement forward.  It was one of those lazy days of flying, when you aren't on a time table and no one's shooting at you, you simply hang suspended in a state that is neither distance nor time, as though the simple act of flying was not intended to cover ground, but simply to watch your life unfold aloft.  We didn't speak, simply scanning the gauges, scanning the sky.

Then we saw it, a dot, then two, glimpsed and then gone, like that deer that has already seen you and then is a ghost, gone before your eyes had even captured what it was you were looking at.

This was some years back. I was still a pup, wet behind the ears, bobbing around the skies in the left seat of a Sherpa, hoping soon to go back and be trained on something a little faster and more technologically advanced than this. Girls I know dreamed of wedding dresses and babies, I dreamed to the smell of jet fuel, of  EPR's and whether there were really dragons lying there beyond the speed of sound.

We were on a course that was a military training route, talking to ATC when up on my copilots right the two dots coalesced, becoming aircraft.  Fighter aircraft.  Out of the NAS. My copilot had been working the radios but when I saw them, moving in close to us.I broke in and said

"Acme 89 (or whatever our call sign was).  "Are you working a couple of Tomcats (F-14's)". 

The controller said.  "Affirmative, Ma'am".

There comes a long held breath, and then I asked.  "uhh, do you know what they're doing up here?

Long pause (chuckle)  "looking for something slow and square to shoot at. . .  . Ma'am".

Sometimes though, being slow is good.  Stopping to just look around you and savoring all that you have.

I don't feel this in the city  The city has its own excitement, of lights, noise, fine dining and theater.  But after a day in a strange city, I somehow feel like I've spend the day in the company of a hyperactive 3 year old.  I'm ready to get home, to hardwood floors, to crown molding, and plaster dust, tools and the deep sleep of being loved and happy in my own element.

Growing up in a small town left something with me that remained, despite the urgent need as a teen to get away from it.   Nothing much happened there.  Certainly, nothing happened fast.  A parade could last two days it seemed, and if you wanted some work done on your place someone would be there, but not right away, dashing into your drive with their tools and a credit card reader.

Behind the house of our Sixties ranch home was open land and a small rural highway.  There were no "Coming Soon! Starbucks" signs. There were cows, nothing on the horizon but the shifting of rumps, the clang of metal as they swung their heads, checking to see if you were bringing cow chow.  That was  years before the escape to the big city, when mornings dawned early, chickens haunting the rafters. 

As a child, all of this seemed larger than life, just as it was familiar and unchanging.  Days dawned slow and time rose and swelled like the curve of a woman's breast.

My Dad went to work every day week day, was home every night at the same time.  Friday was steak and Westerns, eating on TV trays, Saturday was chores and grilled burgers.  During the afternoon we explored, cheered on by the sawmill buzz of a lawn mower, the sound of the ice cream truck.  Sunday was church, sports for my Dad, and more outside play for us while Mom curled up with her books or the the ceramics she liked to make and fire.

On those days of play it seemed as if time itself was suspended, hanging in the air like a curtain, waiting to be opened, laying on the ground to be picked up and put in our pockets, with that piece of string and the little bazooka army guy. We'd play hard all afternoon, there in time's motionless shadow. It was only with the call of Mom's voice for dinner, that we realized we'd been outside 7 hours, drinking from the hose, dashing in from the gunpowder dust of August to grab a homemade cookie, in furtive raids. Mom always pretended to be surprised by the spies and soldiers that infiltrated her house and made off with the Toll House rations.


Now I wake, the city near, headed to work in a couple of hours.  My body wakes in its own time zone, whatever country I'm in.  The days are filled with rushed deliberation, deadlines and demands, everyone expecting the answers to come within an hour, the time we've  come to expect ANY problem to be solved, thanks to TV.  It's food on the run, and conversations stammered like an old type typewriter, noise and air, sweat and motion. I usually don't rush to get there, the first responders have done their business, what waits me for isn't going anywhere, nothing left but the tragic, unspoken  bones that will wait for me forever.  But once I'm there, time is a blur of heat and sweat and thought. The sun falls, the night grows cold, lights are brought in and I realize I've not been out here one hour I've been out there for ten.


I think it's time to go back home and see my Dad, to walk into that home that's unchanged since I was a child, to simply work in the garden with him.  There we will lean over a garden rake and talk softly about everything that will matter in the rest of his life, which is so very short, while all around us ceases to be sound, except our words and the faint, free running roar that is blade upon grass.

He would like me  to live close by, but my  heart is in the Midwest and he knows that, only wanting me to be happy, and safe.  So we talk every couple of days, those chats filled with bursts of words of "we saw THAT!" or "I found THIS!"  spoken in the same voice as we did as children coming in from school or play.

I remember a moment  on a previous visit, walking into the home of my childhood, carrying groceries and seeing my Dad so still on the couch, it appeared he wasn't breathing. For just an instant, everything went into high relief, like a scene in a 3-D movie, the Safeway bag dead weight in my arm, the sun glinting off my old piano against the wall, Dad's slippers on the floor. My whole life suspended, bathed in bright sunlight.

In the short terrible space between that moment and the next, when he opened his eyes and smiled, I got a glimpse of grief as it would look in this new incarnation. And perhaps, for those of us who have had that glimpse, it is partly the encroaching darkness that makes the light so vivid.


Artists in the 17th century understood this so well, depicting it in paintings of still life and fox hunts,  the fox so carefully wrought that a single drop of blood can be seen along a fine whisker. In studies of faces that bloom in layers of ancient varnish, a light shines on a Coat of Arms, on the curve of a woman's breast hinted at only gradually, the promising, secret gleam in her eye that belies the fact that she is hundreds of years gone. In those views, in those moments, the immutable chasm between all life and all that's left us, vanishes.

But Dad will be 92 in a few weeks.  He knew, adopting me in middle age, that he would be leaving me when I was still relatively young, but it does not make it any easier. 

I need to get away from the city, get away from the rush if only for a few hours, give my Dad a call, plan a trip to see him, laugh about silly things, and then watch the stars of my childhood erupt in the sky.  We spend what time we can, even as he gives me the freedom to follow my heart, to live where I am happy.


Yet, I am aware more every day,  that time no longer parts like a curtain for him, for any of us.  It looms as a room nearly, its door one of finality, yet hope.

We never speak of it, but both are thankful for every day we have together, because we know there is another one coming, where time again will lay suspended, as the heavens open up.. That day where 90 some years is crowded into an instant of time, with no space left for air to breathe, only that step inside, into the glory.

- Brigid