Monday, August 18, 2008

Sky Miles

At 33,000 feet, levitating between earth and sky on a pallet of white clouds, I am neither here nor there. With no watch and with the cell phone turned off, I don't know the time. All the faces are the faces of strangers.

Flying always produces in me, contrary to what I would have imagined before ever taking my first plane trip, a meditative state. What is done is done. What is behind is behind. My usual tendency to re-examine, re-hash, re-live gets checked at the gate and, if I'm lucky, lost somewhere in the airport.

At 33,000 feet it is all anticipation.

But the plane can't stay suspended in the ether forever. Eventually it has to land. It must begin the slow, angled drop that will deposit me onto tarmac, into time. And with the descent comes the pain.

I understand the physiology: unequal pressure between the middle ear and the cabin of the airplane, pressure that can't be equalized as it normally would be by the Eustachian tube because the tube is blocked. And since the air flow is blocked the eardrum gets stretched; with the stretching comes the pain.

The only thing that makes it bearable is the knowledge that it won't last forever and that what awaits me on the ground is worth it.

Today, as I feel the pressure building, transforming itself from annoyance to discomfort to measurable pain, what awaits me on the ground are cooler temperatures and the hugs of two towheads. Not a bad tradeoff. So I move my jaw up and down and back and forth, pump my finger in and out of my ear like a mascara wand, close my eyes and visualize 82 degrees and a light wind.

And I find myself considering how often I have done just that in a less literal, more emotional way. How often I've been flying high, oblivious to everything not in Seat 27D, responsible for nothing beyond keeping my seatbelt fastened when I gradually became aware of a growing buzz, something not exactly a noise, clearly not a voice, but definitely a sound rising in my ears. Aware, but not bothered.

How the buzzing got louder and interfered with my self-centered thoughts, got louder still and started pushing those thoughts out with something like a dull ache that grew into a sting into a throb, ignorable no longer. How most of the time, at just about the moment I thought I'd rather cut off that ear than hear what was being whispered into it, my plane touched safely down and rolled to a stop. And how, just as I was dragging my suitcase off the carousel at baggage claim, the words came, in clear translation and with the impact of a left hook, to show me the way to the parking lot and beyond.

The intercom crackles and breaks my train of thought. "We have been cleared to land," says the man in the navy blue suit behind the metal door. "Please return your seats to an upright position," instructs the flight attendant. I look out the tiny window; the clouds have disappeared and I can see buildings and highways and green.

Forrest Gump thought life was like a box of chocolates. Poets have offered that life is like a river, a coin, a journey, a battle, a puzzle. Today I'm thinking that life is a lot like a plane ride from Savannah to Baltimore with a layover in Atlanta. And I'm thinking that what I got for my money was more than biscotti cookies and "Thank you for flying Delta."

Copyright 2008

Sunday, August 03, 2008

Heat and Gnats and Passing Time

July in Georgia is not a pleasant month. Heat that chokes, insects that madden and the unavoidable sensation of time passing as the garden begins to fade can leave even the most sanguine of us short-tempered and longing for the respite of shorter days and drier air.

It is a truth of some wide acceptance that July's only saving grace is tomatoes, home-grown and thick-sliced and dusted with a heavy shower of salt, fanned out on the plate beside fresh corn and fried okra or slathered with mayonnaise and slapped between two slices of white bread.

It is a truth of some wide acceptance but it is not tomatoes that refresh my heat-withered spirits, not the juvenile pleasure of juice dripping off my chin, not the eye-closing satisfaction of the warm taste of summer spreading through my mouth. The sensation that pulls me back from the abyss of believing that I will never be cool again is the sight of a peanut field.

Unlike the corn stalks that stretch up into the sky, demanding their personal space while blocking the horizon, peanut vines grow close to the ground and spread into each others' arms, meshing their tender leaves and spindly stems into communal productivity.

Daddy, like the good farmer he is, rotates the location of his peanut fields, but every year, somewhere within sight from Sandhill's front porch, I can watch a field go from a graph of shallow gray ditches to a connect-the-dots game board of green pinpricks and, as the sunshine and water – God willing – come down in the right proportions, the dots get connected into endless straight lines that roll out like unspooled ribbon.

The spring before the summer that Sandhill was built, just before planting time, Daddy asked me, "You gonna build that house or not? It's time to plant peanuts." And when I couldn't give him a ground-breaking date, he plowed right across the three acres that had been marked with bright pink flags.

By July 2, the day the contractor and his helpers arrived to dig the footings, there were tiny little nuts, what Mama calls poppers, dangling from the vines they displaced. For the four months it took to build the house, the peanuts kept growing in what would be the front yard and the carpenters, the painters, the roofers all had the pleasure of pulling up a hill every now and then.

It's been 17 years since that summer. Lots of things, of course, have changed. There's a deck hanging off the back of Sandhill. There are shrubs and trees planted where the peanut vines were. The two tow-headed children who climbed all over the lumber stacked in the yard and picked up errant nails are grown. The dog who moved in with me is buried in the side yard.

And I've changed, too. But not just in the obvious, age-related ways. I've learned that farmers aren't the only ones who need to rotate their crops, that planting time can't be delayed, that the hottest, gnattiest moments will be survived.

In just a few weeks the multi-stepped process of harvest will begin; the plows first, then the pickers and trailers lumbering like the mechanical monsters in a science fiction movie. The sounds of their engines will fill the air as long as there is light and in a matter of days the fields will be flat and gray. I will have gotten my wish for shorter days and drier, cooler air.

For now, though, I sit on the front porch in a rocking chair in need of a fresh paint job, knees pulled up to my chest and bare feet hanging over the edge of the seat and stare across the way at the mounded green lines, drawn toward the far edge of the field, the place where all the lines converge.

And I don't even notice the sweat or the bugs.

Copyright 2008