The division has been there since I was a child. I ached to walk by myself in woods and along streams, and spent hours outside wandering, but I loved the return home to dinner and the warmth of knowing I belonged somewhere. In college I attended parties and sat at bars, but I relished the long walks back to my apartment in the cold, all the turmoil disappearing with each block. When I was climbing, I would sit facing hundreds of miles of mountains, row after empty row of them, but I liked the presence of my climbing mates close by. The rift has tensed and relaxed, gapped and drawn close, back and forth throughout the years — the desire for both solitude and community. I know that many others also live this way, including Lindbergh, who came very close to an absolute purity of aloneness.
Charles Lindbergh, inside the 15th hour of his flight to Paris in late May of 1927, hundreds of miles at sea, gained altitude to keep above a fog and ice bank. He had climbed to ten thousand feet.
He did not want to lose the stars which he could see through a skylight directly above his head and through his small window which he left open so the cold might keep him awake. He wrote later that he “gained such confidence from the stars. A single minute in their light was all I needed (316).”*
He carried no radio. There was no other voice to give him confidence. Even if the night had been clear, he would have seen no lights. His route had taken him far to the north of shipping lanes. He was as alone as it is possible for one to be. Completely dependent upon his pilot’s skills and the smooth functioning of his plane for his life, he looked below him and saw nothing except the “stratus layer” of dense white hillocks and towers. It seemed to him that “the world had rushed along on its orbit, leaving [me] alone, flying above a forgotten cloud bank, somewhere in the solitude of interstellar space (302).”*
Lindbergh, here in the middle of a great risk, had decided very deliberately that he would do so isolated from all human help and consolation. He is invigorated and in his elements, the sky and a plane, the places he was happiest. And I envy him those innocent hours and the majesty of such solitude immersed in beauty.
Yet, keep him there at ten thousand feet for the duration of his life, forever alone, never returning to our teeming mess, and his purity becomes the worst kind of imprisonment. What makes his loneliness endurable is the expectation that it will be relieved by the damaged, messy, brilliant, silly and tragic animals with whom he shares his humanity. My envy of the purity of his solitude must always be tempered by the knowledge that my tribe is anchored here, and thus in all the bittersweet and sullied knowledge in which we must abide as thinking adults.
Late last week I went to the visitation hour for a former student, dead at 31. The sun was so bright outside, and I could smell the scent of hyacinths. I did not want to go in. I kept thinking of that bright boy in a box in a hole in the ground.
In the space of that hour the large, windowless room filled with the bereaved — some big men struggled to retain their composure; there were more than a few pregnant wives and mothers with small children. They looked almost old worldly in their black dresses. His family stood off to the side of the photo and memento array, composed, welcoming, soothing those who needed their grief-cleansed solace. It is a bitter truth that the young sometimes go before the old, but the other truth observed here is equally powerful, I would argue more powerful — friends and family meet in the ancient ritual of bearing grief communally. A crushing loss leads to these gatherings, but also to the sustenance of tears and to the speaking of familiar words: “I am so sorry, what can we do, be strong for your parents, call me to talk.” The mourners gather to embrace each other and to resolve to remember. This afternoon’s passage was filled with two of our strongest virtues, those of tenderness and pity.
In Boston on Monday a gathering of strangers turned toward the screaming of other strangers and put courage, a third of our great virtues, on display. The videos show many police and civilians alike running into the bombs’ smoke and kneeling in blood and glass to bind tourniquets around terrible wounds. There might have been other bombs. That did not matter. The need to help had more gravitational force than the need to flee.
In his old age, Robert Frost, someone who had borne his share of mortal sorrow, remarked that he thought mankind would squeeze by, that we would avoid destroying ourselves because our ability to extend compassion to strangers would save us. I think he was right. I have faith that most of us will chance heartache and blood if it means that we are reaching toward another who needs our strong grip.
*The Spirit of St. Louis by Charles Lindbergh
P.S. This is a scale model of The Spirit of St. Louis, Lindbergh’s plane. Note where he sat. The pilot’s cockpit, a tiny space, rests just behind an enormous gas tank.