bit by bit (or, the wisdom of being lost)
the hard perch of the airport chair was where i sat for a good half hour after he’d slipped down the gullet that led to the plane that would carry him into the pink-soaked sun-setting sky.
i wasn’t budging till that plane rolled down the tarmac, till it pulled him into the twilight, into the far off far off.
i thought much during that chunk of an hour of how the heart is a vessel that needs determined attention. a heart doesn’t stretch to its widest capacity, not without a long curriculum of tending and exercise. not without short chapters in being pulled to the pinching point, and then finding our way, home through the maze.
my not-so-little one took his first solo flight into yesterday’s sunset. flashed his own boarding pass, lugged his own suitcase, squeezed no one’s hand this time when the plane lifted off, that glorious gallump from earthbound to air.
he’d been hoping and wishing and pining for a chance to go back to a place he loves, back to the global village he called home all last year, back to friends who’d wrapped him in their arms and their hearts and carried him through a landscape that forever changed his worldview. he squeezed me so tight the night i clicked on his ticket, i thought i’d teeter down the stairs. this week, as monday turned to tuesday and wednesday, and finally to thursday, he could barely keep from counting down every last hour.
but then, at gate C 27 at the far end of the concourse at the world’s second-busiest airport, he realized just what he was about to do, what he’d never done before. and once i kissed him — loudly, too loudly — on the forehead, once i’d discovered the angel named “christina” who promised to get him where he needed to be on the other end, in boston, he looked away, into the place where you look when you’re blinking back tears, and talking down all the worries that have come tumbling out of your heart and settled solidly in the pit of your throat.
i watched that young boy of mine, that boy whose heart carries him straight into the face of his fears sometimes, i watched him hand his boarding pass — a bit crinkled by then — to the nice man at the door to the jetway. i watched him tug one last time on his suitcase on wheels. i watched his little boy legs, decked out in hiking shorts and basketball socks, and i felt my heart melt away.
i know it’s not easy for him to get on a plane, to sleep on someone’s hard floor. i know he gets horrible headaches sometimes.
but i know, more than that, that this is a kid who leads with his heart. and who, despite the wobbles and the oh-what-did-i-get-myself-into’s, never backs down from fear. he gives a tug to the wheels and doesn’t look back. he turns round the bend and into the mouth of the plane.
i sat there, nose to the vast span of glass, and saw this short trip for a good bit of what it was: an exercise in finding his way, an exercise in letting a boy discover deep down inside just how resilient he is, just how deeply he can count on the heart that pounds in the chest of his 80-pound self.
his biggest worry as we’d driven to the airport was what if, once he got off the plane, he couldn’t find his way to the baggage claim? what if his dear and wonderful friend — and the whole seventh-grade welcome committee — couldn’t convince the TSA agents in boston to let them slide through security to get to the gate where the intrepid traveler would be getting off the plane?
you’ll find your way, i told him. you’ll stay calm, most of all. you’ll use your brain. and your common sense. and you’ll look for signs. and ask for help if you need it. there are kind people everywhere.
not a bad prescription for all of us, for all of life, come to think of it.
and maybe that’s why, more than anything, i could hold my own breath and let him walk down that accordion-pleated tube all on his own: because as much as i want to hold him tight — no, more than i want to hold him tight — i want him to feel the rush of wind at his cheeks, i want him to know the sturdiness of those well-muscled calves, i want him to know the intricacies of his own inner compass, and the invincibility of that very fine, very deep heart.
isn’t that one of the many definitions of love: to put wings to dreams? to launch early soarings that build to some day’s long flight?
isn’t all of childhood a trajectory of ascend and retreat, climb and tumble, kiss the hurt and try all over again? aren’t we always aiming to loosen the training wheels, to give the children we love the power and knowledge that there is not a hill too high to try to crest? and how will they take in the view from the mountaintop if we don’t plonk them on the starter slopes, whisper in their ear that we know they can do it, and we’ll be here to catch them if and when they need us?
just last week i read a fascinating article about the latest frontier explored by howard gardner, the harvard educator who first advanced the notion of multiple intelligence. in a new book titled “the app generation,” gardner and his co-author, katie davis, consider the ways kids growing up with infinite apps at the touch of their smartphone screen will navigate this new world. the professors probe “app-dependent” versus “app-enabled,” and try to steer us toward the latter.
but the point they made that’s had me thinking all week is when they mentioned how, in a GPS world, kids today barely stand a chance of getting lost, of finding themselves directionless (in a literal, compass-like sense), and thus how they might never get to know the glorious rush of bewilderment followed by clarity. of walking aimlessly and without mooring, before digging deep, relying on internal and external cues to find their way out of the maze — be it city streets, or out in the woods. or in the A terminal of boston’s logan international airport.
so, sitting there in the hard airport chair, training my eyes on the plane that did not budge, i relished this moment, this breathtaking adventure of letting my big-hearted boy dip deep into the vast tool box that’s already his.
he’ll soar home through the stars come sunday eve, and there at the gate will be his papa and i, open-armed and ready to wrap him in once again. the brave sojourner, back where — for now — he belongs most of all.
godspeed, sweet traveler. you teach your mama so very much. xoxoxo
the art of getting lost: do you remember a time when you hadn’t a clue where you were, and needed to find your way? is it a lesson you’ve considered passing along? and do you remember your first solo flight? and what wisdom did you bring home, tucked in your traveler’s bag?