Over the Atlantic

I apologize in advance and beggar your patience regarding the length of the following post.  It is not often that I have over 10 hours straight of anonymity and limited distractions to read, study and write.  I spent yesterday and last night flying from Wichita to London for a week-long course examining over 10 specialty libraries there.  For the course I must keep a diary online, and while not about “library business” per se, this is about the journey…

de botton - heathrow

Over the Atlantic

I have no idea what time it is.  I have been airborne for perhaps four hours, having left Houston around 7:35 PM after an hour of mechanical fix-its, preceded by departure from Wichita at 3:36 PM earlier this same afternoon.  We seem to be flying fast enough that my electronics are scrambled and I haven’t worn a wristwatch since high school.  I’ve been lucky enough to have booked onto an half-full flight, allowing me the pleasure and benefit of a two-seated section all to myself.  Almost a work-cubby – two tray tables stacked with books and an empty seat for sundry supplies.

At all times I pursue readings that might deepen and expand both my abstract and subjective life – I’m certain that could be stated better – perhaps that challenge and enhance my lived experience.  Most honestly: that cause me to think, help me make sense, prompt change and give me pleasure.  Writings that move me, would be another way of saying it.  In the cabin I have arranged Focusing by Eugene Gendlin, Elegy Owed by Bob Hicok, Impenetrable Screen of Purest Sky and Wonderful Investigations by Dan Beachy-Quick, Light Everywhere – Cees Nooteboom, Buddha’s Brain and Just One Thing by Rick Hanson, Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace, A Thousand Plateaus by Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, and Art as Therapy with  A Week at the Airport by Alain de Botton.  Which could be explained in so many ways.

Traveling internationally, one is limited for selection – in fact it’s by far the most difficult portion of packing – which books will I need – not knowing how the movement and context will affect me?  So I choose:

  • fresh books by authors that have earned my confidence (my top choice for this trip was Leaving the Sea by Ben Marcus –  missed in the mail by a day);
  • books that I know meet my needs on departure (many my third or fourth reading); and
  • books I long to swim in but rarely have time with the insistent daily needs and benefits of home. 

Whenever I’m struggling with depression, I reach for Wallace and books of wisdom – on staying present, taking steps, coping skills, the breath and body.  Reality therapy, as it were.  Poetry helps as well, with its attention to detail and sensual triggers.  Books that remind me that I’m alive, regardless of  felt experiences or circumstance.

I will finish A Week at the Airport on this flight, I’m almost there – or maybe I won’t, saving the “Arrivals” chapter for that moment in my journey.  It is the account of de Botton’s stint as writer-in-residence at London’s Heathrow Airport (my immediate destination), and in his inimitable and typical fashion – exposing those human universals embedded in the familiar, or overlooked, or hardly spoken.  What he asks from other writers, he provides (and I quote): “I was looking for the sort of books in which a genial voice expresses emotions that the reader has long felt but never before really understood; those that convey the secret, everyday things that society at large prefers to leave unsaid; those that make one feel somehow less alone and strange.”  Maybe that is my true criteria – “those that make one feel somehow less alone and strange” – for the books I end up digesting do just that.

Here are some of the portions I have highlighted:

Departures

  • “Entry into the vast space of the departures hall heralded the opportunity, characteristic in the transport nodes of the modern world, to observe people with discretion, to forget oneself in a sea of otherness and to let the imagination loose on the limitless supply of fragmentary stories provided by the eye and ear…to sense viscerally, rather than just grasp intellectually, the vastness and diversity of humanity”
  • on the parting of lovers: “We might have been ready to offer sympathy, but in actuality there were stronger reasons to want to congratulate her for having such a powerful motive to feel sad.  We should have envied her for having located someone without whom she so firmly felt she could not survive, beyond the gate let alone in a bare student bedroom in a suburb of Rio.  If she had been able to view her situation from a sufficient distance, she might have been able to recognize this as one of the high points in her life.”  – (I know this feeling and need this distance)
  • on taking ourselves with us:  “There is a painful contrast between the enormous objective projects that we set in train, at incalculable financial and environmental cost – the construction of terminals, of runways and of wide-bodied aircraft – and the subjective psychological knots that undermine their use.  How quickly all the advantages of technological civilization are wiped out by a domestic squabble.  At the beginning of human history, as we struggled to light fires and to chisel fallen trees into rudimentary canoes, who could have predicted that long after we had managed to send men to the moon and aeroplanes to Australasia, we would still have such trouble knowing how to tolerate ourselves, forgive our loved ones, and apologize for our tantrums?”
  • on unfamiliar workspaces:  “Objectively good places to work rarely end up being so; in their faultlessness, quiet and well-equipped studies have a habit of rendering the fear of failure overwhelming.  Original thoughts are like shy animals.  We sometimes have to look the other way – towards a busy street or terminal – before they run out of their burrows.” 

Airside

  • “Despite the many achievements of aeronautical engineers over the last few decades, the period before boarding an aircraft is still statistically more likely to be the prelude to a catastrophe than a quiet day in front of the television at home.  It therefore tends to raise questions about how we might best spend the last moments before our disintegration, in what frame of mind we might wish to fall back down to earth…”
  • Or, as a “Terminal Priest” expressed to him: “The thought of death should usher us towards whatever happens to matter most to us; it should lend us the courage to pursue the way of life we value in our hearts.” 

need I go on?

Yet on I fly…listening to and “Gustavo” from the new Sun Kil Moon album Benji on repeat; performing breathing exercises while silently repeating blessings on those I love to the quivering thrum of this airborne albatross; catching glimpses of “Before Midnight” on face-sized screens where perhaps mirrors should be; and reading and reading and reading and trying to conceive…

stories imagined and rejected

in which the yachtsman drowns

in a remembered winter

and exists as a poem,

.

but the last thought is of

her, the woman who disappeared,

who everything was about, the yachtsman, the bay,

the poet.  The air it all breathed

is the loftiest fabrication, a life

possible now it’s no longer

possible.

-from Cees Nooteboom’s poem penobscot

and worrying about “how modest and static a thing a book would always be next to the chaotic, living entity that was a terminal,” our relationships, our lives.

14 February 2014

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4 thoughts on “Over the Atlantic

  1. Great entry. Having flown so much myself, I seem incapable of much valuable insight into the experience anymore besides it being only one of increasingly feeling weary, beat, and corralled. I need to turn more to others writing on the experience of travel, airports, and flights for motivation, so thanks for your perspective. On this topic I definitely want to read this de Botton volume, and also Marc Augé’s “Non-Places: Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity” – do you know this one? – for more of such insights.

  2. Lovely. Such a bardo is the long-distance flight!
    If you have a chance, see if you can visit Sir John Soane Museum in The Strand. A library of sorts. Never been, but it is crammed full of architectural/artistic source materials and it looks a stunning, bizarre, surreal, sublime space of collected culture and memory crammed into a town house, like the V and A in a Tardis……

"A word is a bridge thrown between myself and an other - a territory shared by both" - M. Bakhtin

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