“It is true that when we travel we are in search of distance. But distance is not to be found. It melts away. And escape has never led anywhere….What are we worth when motionless, is the question.” – From “Flight to Arras” by Saint-Exuperey
There is irony in the context I read these words. It was during a 24 hour, marathon travel day that had me flying from Denver to Las Vegas to Oakland to Seattle, and finally on an eight-seat puddle jumper across the San Juan Islands to Eastsound in Orcas Island. It was a space of time that would seem anything but motionless and appear to be all kinds of escape over absurd distances. But when you are merely a passenger, there is vey little actual personal movement involved. You sit. In an exit row. At a gate. On a shuttle.
In this case, I read quite a bit while sitting, or simply pondered and watched. I read about Saint-Exuperey’s potentially doomed “Flight to Arras” - a recon mission he flew in the last ditch efforts of French resistance to the bulwark German Army in World War II. He left his airfield on a flight that had a 1 in 3 chance of returning alive, if at all. And of course he survived, because, well, he wrote the book.
He answers his own question, “What are we worth when motionless?” with this:
“There is a density of being in a Dominican at prayer. He is never so much alive as when prostate and motionless before his God. In Pasteur, holding his breath over the microscope, there is a density of being. Pasteur is never more alive than in that moment of scrutiny. He is advancing in seven-league boots, exploring distances despite his immobility. Cezanne, mute and motionless before his sketch, is an inestimable presence. He is never more alive than when silent, when feeling and pondering.”
I had enough chaos in the travel that I could easily have missed the spaces to sit “mute and motionless,” and I almost did. One of those moments was on my last flight for the night to Oakland, on the taxi and take off. Regardless of the typical FAA regulations I had my earphones in and on, listening to Beethoven’s “Piano Concerto #1 in C, Largo.” There was this coming together of sight and sound, a choreography of the music with the passing of runway lights, the crescendos in sync with the engine’s roar as the wheels left the ground. In it all something inside my skin, in the thump of my heart heard and saw something unspeakable and beautiful. The agitations melted to a peaceful hand on the shoulder of my spirit. The music reminded me that God is in the creative work of making order out of chaos – and the day had been chaotic. Mako Fujimura’s words came to mind:
“What would our art look like if we truly believed that through our weaknesses, through even what we are ashamed of, we could create something that is lasting and meaningful, and incarnate hope back into the world?”
In a motionless moment of travel, the art that Beethoven created hundreds of years ago and the art of lights and passive movement unintentionally created by the airline industry hope was incarnated back into the world around me.
This was preparation for what was to come. For the following morning, after a crack-of-dawn flight to Seattle from Oakland, I climbed into a small, single engine plane at Boeing field – feeling very much like a little boy again for all the various planes and Wow of flight and giddiness sparked within me – and flew over the San Juan Islands on a sheer blue day to Orcas Island. It was the beginning of a rich and full day that plucked strings in some deep part of me that hasn’t heard music since the day I was born….