Friday, September 3, 2010

Why Is There Air (with apologies to Bill Cosby)

I've been thinking a lot about air these days, given that nothing more substantive seems to come out of my devotions these days.  Even my occasional flashes of thought are evanescent and contradictory as a still breeze.  But that's not the only reason.  I've been on a business trip in which air in its various permutations has played a starring role in my days....

Business sent me northward to Maine again.  Flying is not one of my favorite activities.  I figure, with all sincerity, that if God had intended me to fly, He would have provided me wings of my own.  It is one of the great ironies of my life that I have passions (work, travel) that necessitate my stepping on board a steel behemoth (accent on the moth part) to get to where I am going.  Deep in my heart, I long for the days of leisurely travel by train (though not boats--water to me is nothing more than dangerous, liquid air and I have even less desire to make a trans-atlantic cruise than to medicate myself into submission for a flight across the pond...)  Suspended in nothing more substantial than air that doesn't really even seem to exist at all stretches credibility, and my nerves, to their limits.

Fortunately for me, and for my nervous co-worker,the flight was smooth and flawless.  My last trip home--a week ago--involved a gut-dropping  skip though turbulence as the pilot skirted storms to land our plane instead of being diverted.  At least on that trip, the cause of the bumps was easy to see: dark clouds outside the window and flashes of lightning in the distance.  Returning home this time, we were flying in beautiful clear skies when the plane dropped so hard and fast that my book flew out of my hands.  The dreaded clear air turbulence--we have passed through the wake of a jet passing at least a thousand feet overhead.  No warning.  No signs.

I arrived in Maine to a summer heat wave, temperatures in the nineties.  This would not be so hard to manage were it not for the fact that air conditioning in Maine remains at best an elusive concept.  I have my bona fides in this area: I grew up in Florida before air conditioning and before bug control.  I've sweated my way though many a tropical night, and thumped the screen door to discharge the mosquitoes to slip out (unencumbered by mosquito repellent, I might add) to play.  Walking around with a film of sweat on my skin, not worth wiping off as it was instantly renewed, hot and unable to cool off is not exactly unfamiliar to me, but I don't like it.  And when there's nothing to be done to alleviate the rivulets of sweat running down one's face and back, and solicitous forty year olds ask--repeatedly-- with evident concern if I am all right (I really MUST be showing my age...) it gets downright annoying.  If offering it up really works, someone surely was sprung from purgatory this week.

Then there was the little matter of Earl.  The approach of the hurricane to the New England coast necessitated my rearranging my trip to leave a day early, and prompting genetic fear-of-flying issues in my daughter who would be traveling from New York to meet her father and me in Atlanta.  I found myself shuffling down a hot corridor in the Portland airport, schlepping my carry-on bags, sweating like the proverbial trouper. Standing the aisle, waiting as patiently as my claustrophobia would allow for the crowd ahead of me to be seated, I reflected that the whole week had been an experience designed to shatter the illusion that I have any control at all over my life. I finally took my place at the back of the plane under an anemic air vent and next to an unshaded window.  Did I mention I was on the west side of the plane?

I'd arrived and was leaving in a plane not of my own making that I wasn't REALLY convinced would fly, and I'd put my hands in the life of Doogie Houser, the pink-cheeked, red-headed pilot that greeted me as I stepped on board.

I was hot and tired and there was not a breath of cool air, either natural or technically enhanced.  And all my ranting and raving would do nothing to change that.

Some malignant miasma of a tropical cyclone was churning up water, and upending my plans, and threatened to keep my daughter from me, and all I could do was watch.

And if that wasn't bad enough, once the plane got airborne and the A/C kicked in, someone complained that the cabin was too cold, and the pilot adjusted the temperature.  He didn't bother to take a vote.

Blessedly, Hartsfield Airport understands cooling systems (air conditioning was, after all, invented by Southerner John Gorrie during the Late Unpleasantness).  So does Marta, Atlanta's rapid transit system.  But when I reached the terminal stop for my hotel, I stepped out into a close, Southern night, all heat and humidity, with a walk of several blocks to my hotel.   My bags seemed to get heavier by the moment, and I collapsed on a bench to get my bearings in the unfamiliar neighborhood.  A man lounging against the wall of one of the high-rises in the neighborhood looked at me with curiosity, but nothing more.

It hit me, then on that steel bench in the middle of Buckhead, the lesson of all that air was the lesson of God in my life. 

I talk about God, in Whom we live and move and have our being.  The meaning of that came home to me as I sat on that bench, still and sweaty, all my plans disrupted, at the mercy of the winds and the pilot and the Marta driver, and for all I knew, the man who was shifting his position by the wall in front of me, and still looking at me with curiosity, clearly a vulnerable traveler, tired and disoriented in an unfamiliar place.  And all around me was the air without which I cannot even exist, that I think about mostly when it discomforts me.  When it is too hot, or too aggressive, or too smelly, smoky or disordered for my tastes.  When it whistles through the trees by my bedroom and keeps me awake on a blustery winter night.  When it prods me and pokes me and disturbs me.  When it disrupts my calm even though I cannot even see it or it is hundreds of miles away.

I think of it as well in more circumstances, but most of them follow on the heels of those discomforts.  A cool breeze to relieve the heat or pleasantly rustle the leaves on an autumn day.  The sweet smell of damp clay after a rain in the desert. The clear eye of a hurricane when all the wind stops and the sun comes out to give rest before the storm begins again.  When I exert myself in high altitudes and notice that I have put myself out of reach of its usual sustenance and have to gasp for breath.  For that matter, the welcoming smell of my fireplace when I come in from the cold.

But these are just interjections in my life.  Most of the time, I just take the air for granted, but it's there, surrounding me and sustaining me. I don't even notice it, most of the time, which as far as air is concerned is a good thing.  Life would be a lot harder if air were not perfectly transparent, or if it took real effort to move through to do the jobs I have been given and taken on.  But notice it it or not, I am immersed in it.

Perhaps the silence in my heart is like the air, still there to sustain me, never absent from me, but not pestering me and asking me to know that I am, after all, creature and not Creator.  Perhaps the silence is there to awaken me, to challenge me, to make me address the things in my life that make me, in my own thinking,  more important and powerful than I am.  Perhaps the silence is there to make me step out of my comfort and put my trust in Someone I don't know very well, yet.  To trust an unseen Father charged with getting me from A to B through the storms, intact. Perhaps God, like the air, just waits for me to put things aside and sit on a bench.  He can send me a cool breeze, if He chooses, but this night, it wasn't the breeze that touched me, it was the heat.  Even if the night is hot and cloying, the air is still there, and I still take it in.  And in it, as in God and because of God, I live and move and have my being.

Perhaps the silence is to remind me that, even when I do not know it, I am immersed in the One Who gives me life.  God in the silence is every bit as real and as present as God in the breeze.  I simply feel Him differently.

Perhaps that knowledge is enough, at least for today.


  1. I pray God will refresh your spirit soon. Please know that your blog has an authentic ring to it, because you have been forthright about the "down" times. Thanks for sharing.

  2. air/ pneuma (Greek for "breath" / spirit 'ruah (Hebrew for "breath" or spirit: CCC 691) Genesis 1:2; Gen 2:7. We have being because the Divine Breath is over us all.

    Lovely, lovely reflection. Happy to have landed here.