Monday, March 29, 2010

Everything That's Transitory Is But A Metaphorical Reference

We are on the ground when it happens.  The Minneapolis, Saint Paul International Airport. The tarmac is wet and slick. Ice patches and quilts the pavement that hasn't yet been touched by the sun.

US Airways flight 1549 was only in the air for three minutes before it began its descent, marching its way back to earth, to its watery landing atop the Hudson.  It would never reach its destination:  Charlotte, North Carolina, the Queen's City. 

"If someone's going to land a plane on the water, this seemed to be the best possible way to do it," an eyewitness is saying, his voice rising higher as he brings the plane down to the water.  He uses his hands, brushing palm against palm, to show how the plane hit, belly first, the nose tipping up just a little right before it came sliding to a stop, narrowly missing the Washington bridge. And he holds it there, his hand, the plane, as if watching, waiting for the passengers to begin to appear, afraid to look away, to look up to the camera once more until he is certain that everyone is safe. When he does look up, he looks all the way up, past the camera, to the sky, shielding the sun from his eyes.

The terminal is silent, our heads craning upward, eyes fixed on the news, as we watch the plane descend, still frame by still frame to the river.  When the passengers are finally shown exiting onto the wings and into the rafts waiting in the icy January waters, we lower our gazes one by one, to make contact, with anyone, everyone accounting for someone, before we rise from our seats, baggage in hand to fill the cabin of our own plane. We all look back once before we slip through the gate, smiling at the person behind us in line, until the very last person is left eyeing the seats where we once were sitting that are already filling with strangers. 

In Charlotte, the Queen's City, the City of Churches, birthplace of Billy Graham, the crime index is one and a half times the national average.  It is yet to outlive its Revolutionary roots, a "hornet's nest" still. In New York, the rate is less than one, as if the passengers had a better chance on the water there.

In Minneapolis, it is just under two. In Boston, where we are headed, it is one and a third and safer than where we are. Of course, we have no way of knowing as we board, file down the narrow aisle to our seats, the news of the downed US Airways flight still fresh on our minds, that a year from now, almost exactly to the day, we will find ourselves reading about a young girl who chose to take her own life, hanged herself in a stairwell, dying each day for months before her death, pushed to the end by her peers, their anger swelling and consuming her. And when the news will break, it will feel heavy, as if we are watching the hull of the plane bobbing on the river once more, doors open and taking water in, wing tipped and waving one last time in the air, though, sadly, the allusion will end there, with the nose of the plane being pushed under by tugs.

But, all cities are built on our memories of their dead. All thin cities,  trading cities, hidden cities, continuous cities, and those who stay become reflections of the memories themselves. We stay in order to become them. 

We have maps, with trajectories in blue and red to help us find our way.

News of her death will touch us all, and we will set our papers down, sun creeping in across the morning to the tables where we are sitting, waiting to start the day. Though we may pause only a little while, we will take the story with us to work and carry it back home at the end of the day, when the sun is finishing its long, slow downward climb. The news will serve to reshape us. It will reshape the way we talk about lives.

Joseph Campbell argued that, "We all need to understand death  . . . to find out who we are. We must constantly die one way or another to the selfhood already achieved." We must constantly die because "becoming is always fractional.  And [only] being is total." 

The very next day, after the young girl's death, we will hear of the crash again, the one year anniversary, watching the footage once more from the safety of our homes, finally able let it all go when we hear that everyone on the plane survived, that all one hundred and fifty-five people survived. 

But even still, the living are outnumbered by the dead.* 

When we are finally seated, pulling the belts tight across our laps, locked securely into the belly of the whale, you look out over the heads before you, eyes fixed on the woman explaining how to ensure we stay safe while we are in the air.  Without turning your head, while the woman is pointing out the exits at the front and to the rear, her arms bending and unfolding in crisp clean lines, you tell me, "It's the long winters. The long winters are to blame." And though you never say it, I know we have been thinking the same thing.  Soon, the Minnesota grounds buried deep beneath the snow will be behind us, tailing away as we climb into the clouds.  Through our windows, the land will look whitewashed, as if the ground itself were lighted from behind, and it will feel good leaving the light behind. Transformative. We will break through the clouds into the deep blue sky, waiting for the moment when we land, when we rise once more from our seats, and out into the very world for which we are escaping these lives. 

The title and the lines from Joseph Campbell are taken from, The Power Of Myth.

*from a line in Italo Calvino's, Invisible Cities.


  1. Very much like the way you illuminate these events, juxtaposing the miraculous survival of the flight's passengers with the death of the girl. A beautiful piece, redemptive, with much to reflect on.