On a recent red-eye flight from Seattle to Newark, I sat up all night looking out from my window seat. Hour after hour, I stared down and wondered what places lay below. It’s a game I often play, but now it’s taken on a new meaning.
I like to fly because an airplane is a great place for reading, writing and staring into space, the three things I do most (besides watching baseball). It’s not so great for sleeping, which I’m not good at anyway. And I love to gaze at the land below.
I can look down without boredom, fixated on the sparse glitter of towns strung across the prairie, wondering where I am. It’s a basic human question. And what about those larger disks of light far to the north — Minneapolis, Milwaukee, Chicago?
But on this particular overnight flight, looking down at America is an occasion for somber reflection. The ghostly expanse that I’m seeing through the window is a former lover. Over the plains, ominous flashes of lightening explode inside an enormous thunderhead like dull-orange Chinese lanterns. I’ve seen this act of nature before, and it’s always impressive and slightly hideous, like a distant artillery barrage. Now it’s faintly sickening.
I happen to be at some interesting personal turning points, none of them unwelcome and none involving former lovers, but what sickens me is that the country below is screaming at itself. And I’m screaming at it too. It’s a land I no longer recognize, and I’m no longer sure it’s mine. I can’t wait to get to the Vineyard.
Until recently, this business of looking down was just a part of a personal obsession with geography. That obsession led to the habit of reading the Rand McNally Road Atlas; to road trips, and a lot of trivial geographical knowledge; a pilot’s license, and travel in 50 states. But I no longer read the Road Atlas. America has taken a turn down an alleyway so dark that the land itself seems diminished, as if somehow complicit. I have less of an urge to explore it, even via Rand McNally. The allure it once had was based on a modicum of mutual respect.
Of course America will survive — grievously wounded and diminished. There’s been ugliness in the past (as Jon Meacham eloquently reminds us in The Soul of America). But nothing quite this bad — morally bad — in peacetime, perhaps since the spring of 1861. To me the world itself seems smaller. The compass of my passion was once from sea to shining sea; now it’s roughly from Aquinnah to Wasque.
Two things since 2016 have stirred my otherwise frozen heart. One is the example of the kids from Parkland and elsewhere, rising up against gun violence with a courage that shames all politicians and most of the rest of us. They remind me of the words of Dr. Martin Luther King: “Hate is too great a burden to bear.” But even Dr. King might allow at least one exception right now.
The other emotional jolt came in an encounter right after my transcontinental flight, with an acquaintance in rural upstate New York. This man has suffered from decades of drug and alcohol abuse, and having paid a steep price, now lives in a comfortable but lonely cabin. It’s a small, hard-earned victory. We were drinking coffee on his porch when the subject of politics came up. His words struck me to the core: “I’ll take my stand here to love my country even more.”
I felt both moved and ashamed. I ached to share, or rather to reclaim, his pure and unswerving patriotism. I’ve swerved, and swerving ain’t for sissies.
I haven’t lost hope, but despite a streak of incurable optimism, on the brink of seniority I’ve become more bitter and insular. (Call it a moral failing – it’s debatable.) That bitterness, like certain medications, will likely follow me to the grave. But I’ve always been a bit insular. I suppose that’s why I love airplanes and boats. And it’s why I’m here, writing, hoping, and preparing to do what little I can to change myself and this country.
Jeffrey Scheuer is a writer in New York and West Tisbury and an occasional contributor to the Gazette.
Originally posted on https://vineyardgazette.com/news/2018/07/05/sleepless-seattle-vineyard