Sunrise, sunset

For the first time in my life, I watched the sun rise and set on the same day, while flying.

Homeward bound on Wednesday, I saw the sun rise above Finland on a Finnair flight from Oulu to Helsinki.

And I saw the sun set somewhere over western Europe on my Swiss Air flight from Zurich to Boston.

Nothing quite so inspiring.

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Chasing the sun

Sitting in 39K at 38,000 feet somewhere over the Atlantic, chasing the sun across the globe, gradually losing this race hour by hour, ultimately losing the light off Newfoundland.

No sight of the ocean, rather a sea of clouds below, gray in the dips, the upper reaches still illuminated by the sun. Out of London, I witness the contrails being formed by the jet engine, a sight I’ve seen from the ground so many times but never from the vantage point of a window seat behind the engine.

Inside the cabin, the passengers are viewing movies, listening to music, reading. Outside is a world where we should not be, where we would not survive unprotected, -50° F, moving at 550 miles-per-hour over the earth.

Two disparate environments separated by a few inches of metal. Contemplating the contrast between inside and outside, I sense transcendence. That’s why I love to fly.

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Finding gratitude amidst grief

Sunday — What a beautiful late fall afternoon, this first day of November. The leaves left on the trees – surprisingly quite a few – are now a burnt orange against a backdrop of blue sky and white wispy clouds. The car thermometer shows an unseasonably warm 60 degrees as I pull out of the driveway, the image of Grant raking leaves in the rear-view mirror.

No traffic delays the drive into Boston, no lines slow my passage through airport security, both benefits of flying Sunday afternoon, when most business travelers are home watching football. The downside is losing part of the weekend. How many weekends are in a life?

Today I feel a wistful sense of time.

I love to fly. I mean as a passenger, not a pilot. Despite the cramped seats, crowds, waiting, delays, and lack of hospitality, I can always rekindle a childlike amazement at this big metal bird sustaining itself at 39,000 feet and, even more, the ability to travel from one side of the country to the other in a mere 6 to 8 hours. When I lament that a flight is taking unbearably long, I try to recall that just 150 or so years ago, this journey lasted months and was fraught with dangers. During that era of covered wagons and railroads, no one could have imagined that we would crisscross the country in hours, barely paying attention to the awesome sight of the sprawling landscape below.

The experience of my generation is that normal is the norm, life is routine, often boring. Extreme sports and reality TV were invented to make it more exciting. We expect virtually no risk in our lives: no planes crash, the power doesn’t goes out, diseases are prevented, what illness invades our bodies is cured. When something out of the ordinary does occur, a commission or government agency determines the cause to prevent future occurrences.

So foreign the concept, I have to visualize that not that long ago, life was much harsher. Disease was common. It often killed people. Children died at or within a few years of birth. Mothers died giving birth. Longevity was more the exception than the norm.

I wonder how such uncertainty affected our forebear’s sense of gratitude. Could the experience of more frequent loss have instilled a deeper appreciation for the seemingly simple and basic gifts of life?

Tuesday — What is the relationship between grief and gratitude? I’ve been pondering that for several days now, since hearing tragic news. A mom, just 52, has a sudden stroke, leaving her husband and two teenage boys – the same age as my two children – with a lifetime void that’s hard to comprehend. The horror of their loss is visceral, a lump in my chest.

With no rational reason to explain why death happens nor to relieve the sadness, I wonder if there can be solace through gratitude. Gratitude for the days I am given, the people who love me, the glimpses of beauty that too easily fade into the background blur of the routine and the rush.

As the plane begins to descend into Boston, returning me from my cross-country journey, my gaze lingers on the sun splashed cloud peaks, the shadows forming below in the waning afternoon sun.

This is not routine I tell myself. It’s an incredible mystery and miracle. I have the privilege of being a witness, a participant.

After another routine landing and inconsequential drive home through evening traffic, my hugs are a bit more intentional.

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