Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Unusual Spiritual Test

I'm back from my last trip of the summer.

The 5K went well. I did better than I expected. I ran a good portion of it, but walked up some of the hills. And I really enjoyed it. I felt I struck the right balance of pushing myself without ending up in utter misery. I needed to have some energy left over for more visiting and then travel home, arriving back at 1:00 am! So then I felt pretty wiped out yesterday.

The biggest adventure was on the flight out there. We landed in the midst of storms, and so the plane got tossed about a lot more than I've ever experienced. But I was just reading about body sensing, breathing and relaxation in an amazing book called Chi Running, by Danny and Katherine Dreyer. So the last half-hour of the flight put this learning to an unusual test. When the plane would suddenly drop, or shake from side to side, I would find that my whole body would go tense. Could I stay relaxed, go with the movement, slow my breathing? Could I trust the air, the strength of the plane, the judgment of the air traffic controllers, the skill of the pilots?

I must confess the thought did cross my mind that we could all die. The airplane was big and old and creaked a lot from the strain. In fact it was supposed to continue on to Alaska after this flight, but once we were safely on the ground there was an announcement that those continuing to Alaska had to change planes after all. I wondered then if they were worried about sending this plane back up through that weather.

But as we had descended for 30 minutes through the blank whiteness of the stormy clouds, I wasn't yet sure it would be all right. But inwardly, I felt amazingly calm. I didn't really think that this would be how my life would end, but what if it did? I found myself wondering about what people back at home would do if this happened. Would they cancel my courses, or quickly hire someone to take over? Would they break into my computer and my e-mail to check on what pending work I had, and who needed to be notified? Would my blog readers figure out what had happened? I calmly thought through all of my projects in process, and calmly realized that, even though there are ways I am still anxious about my life and future, I do still want to keep going with it all. Even though I'm particularly stressed about the likelihood of increased travel demands if I'm successful in some of my aspirations, I found myself realizing that I wanted the courage to meet that kind of change of life. It was as if God was responding, "ok, this is your test."

The plane suddenly dropped. Then it pulled up hard. Then a cross wind caught it and it shook from side to side while I watched the wings flap. (Yes, flap!) I closed my eyes again.

Then I noticed that even though inwardly I was quite calm, my body was responding with alarm: tenseness, short shallow breathing, heart pumping hard. So I focused again on relaxation, reminding myself that being tense would do no good, trying to dance with the churning air instead of fighting against it. Everyone was very quiet, and suddenly I felt I could sense focused, prayerful energy all around me. Everyone was praying! Everyone was lending energy to keep the plane strong and to help the pilots stay calm and focused. We were all consolidating our energy to bring the plane down safely.

After an eternity of tossing whiteness, we broke through the cloud layer. The air was still rough, but I was reassured to see the ground and watch the remainder of our descent. As we touched the wet ground and decelerated hard, I knew that much could still go wrong (we could still feel the wild wind), but we finally settled into the normal taxiing to the gate. There was a collective sigh of relief.

My return home was smooth and uneventful, and that reassured me (though I was sad then to learn of the plane crash in Kentucky that happened the same day I returned).

It still amazes me that this sort of thing is possible: that we can be lifted out of our normal lives, touch down in a place of our past, reconnect with old friends and memories, set in the same yet altered place, and then be transported back to our present home -- all in just a few days! It is unusual for me to make such a trip.

And it is dizzying. Yesterday the new students arrived for orientation. We had our matriculation ceremony. We got decked out in academic regalia, greeted each other with giddy enthusiasm, and then processed before the astonished looking parents and new students. We sat in the sun, heard the noble words of our administrators about the ideals of liberal education, and heard the characteristics of the incoming class (e.g., one of our new students ranks 15th in the world in sled dog racing). I felt dazed and exhausted afterwards. Am I really ready? Why does everyone else seem happy and excited? But I too had noticed that I never stopped smiling. The Dean had waved to me as I walked past the stage. I thought to myself that this was a better scenario than if I had just died in a plane crash.

The e-mail is quiet this morning. I think I am not the only one focused on finishing syllabi. Classes start Thursday. Ready or not, the new academic year reaches down and lifts us up and sets us on our way. It has begun.

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