As I write, I am glancing out the window of my plane while traveling from Atlanta to Phoenix, from the city that rose from the ashes of the Civil War to the city whose name symbolizes rebirth. The ancient bird was used to symbolize Atlanta in the late 1890s as Atlanta was promoted as the capital of the New South. I flew past the lush forests of Georgia a few hours ago. Now, the land is generally flat with stretches of barren hills scarring the landscape. Strings of windmills appear, large spinning gray blades atop huge poles connected by dirt roadways. Some windmills look like weeds scattered in patches; others are in a row atop the peaks. They must be huge to be so clearly visible.
I see some gray and white clouds above the skyline; there are other whiter clouds below. It’s peaceful. The clouds cast shadows, water flows in the rivers, and snow caps the mountain peaks ahead. The colors of the ground, rust red, grey-green, light brown, and dark grey, bleed into one another. The etched land has been shaped by natural forces, but the shape seems permanent. The landscape reminds me of the NASA photos of the lunar surface I saw a few days ago at the National Archives at Atlanta. Dusty, austere, and lifeless.
The world of the sun, clouds, rivers, flatlands and mountains does not know anything of my concerns. There is no Donald Trump in this environment. The material world is unphased by the human world of symbols. This place looks inhospitable, but if the plane landed, I imagine I would see past the huge windmills to a rich ecosystem teaming with life.
I could stand in front of those rotating blades shouting the latest news. I could express my anger, make a joke, tearfully tell a sad story, or draw conclusions from the evidence, but the windmill would keep on spinning, moving to the degree that the wind blew. I could mention Trump’s connections to Russia, his vulgar language, his failure to pass a heath care bill, and the pain he will cause the American people, but the windmill would not care one bit. Nor would the plants and animals in the surrounding environment. The wind from my lungs, shaped by my vocal chords and mouth, would matter not one bit.
We are no longer intimately connected to the earth. We observe the material world, like passengers looking out of a window on the plane. The real world, for us, is the symbolic world. What we think and talk about matters the most. But, we must not forget that we can’t look out of the plane if there is no fuel in the tank. The world of symbols depends on the material world for its existence.
I traveled from Atlanta to Phoenix to watch basketball–not just any game–the semifinal games of the NCAA tournament. The final four. I met a friend from high school who came from Cleveland to join me in completing this item on the bucket list. We had not seen each other for about twenty years. We arrived on Friday, visited the NCAA exposition in downtown Phoenix and saw two bands play music in a nearby park. There is no desert in downtown Phoenix. On Saturday morning, we hiked a three-mile loop trail in a canyon in the White Tank Mountain Park. In the afternoon, we drove to the stadium, ate lunch, drank freshly brewed beer, and watched two exciting games from seats in the last row of the football stadium. It was like being on a mountain peak. On Sunday, we had breakfast and drove to the airport. I am flying east in the plane now as I write.
I spent most of my waking hours talking to my friend, David. We shared stories of our lives. We talked about the concerts we attended, the cities we visited, and the sports events we’d seen. We discussed our families, work, and mutual friends. We also spoke about politics, but I wish we hadn’t. Our views were not compatible. But our anger subsided by next morning. We both knew it would, I suspect.
As I sit buckled in my seat and reflect on our visit, what strikes me is how fortunate I have been. Until I started sharing my experiences, I didn’t realize how many places I have been and all the things I have done over the course of two decades. I have paid top dollar for many concerts. My work has taken me to interesting places for free. I enjoyed a couple of vacations a year.
I was able to afford final four tickets, round trip airfare, and a two night hotel stay. I reconnected with an old friend to watch ten college students on a court dribbling, passing, shooting, and blocking a little brown ball. An orange metal ring was the focus of the attention of millions of people. The event was significant not for its ability to feed or shelter others, but for its symbolism.
I am high up, looking out the window. The flat brown earth is interrupted once again by protruding mountains. I remember these scenes from my flight in. The windmills are still spinning. Now, however, the landscape has changed subtly. I fully realize that life exists down below. I experienced it to a degree. There were over 17,000 fans at the game. The streets of downtown Phoenix were teeming with people. The desert surrounding the town was not barren as it looked from the window of the plane. I saw many kinds of flowers, cacti, and other plants. I watched ants, birds, and lizards as I walked the desert trails. The desert is the same as it was on my trip to Phoenix, but it has taken on greater meaning now that I touched the ground.
From high above, I am writing, manipulating symbols in the cocoon of a jet, burning gasoline extracted from the earth. I am flying high in my symbolic environment while the world spins below. I am privileged in many ways. Most of the people seated nearby are privileged as well. Many traveled to see the same games. The man in the seat beside me went to Phoenix to ride his mountain bike. He didn’t care about basketball. The woman who sat next to me on the flight in was a psychologist flying to Phoenix for a business lunch. She returned home the same day. She was originally from Holland and knew nothing about basketball, but she loved the walk across her homeland, completed by thousands of people from around the world every year.
Most of us, I suspect are ignorant of the challenges of living in a harsh environment. I simply took an hour stroll in the desert, as a tourist. I’m not like the native Americans who lived there a couple of thousand years ago. They knew how to survive in a place where water and shade were precious. They created art, petroglyphs I saw, to enhance their experience of their symbolic world. I better understand something of the life in that harsh environment, but in an abstract way. I did not have to try to adapt. I did not suffer a bit. I knew the rental car, with its air conditioning, was a short walk away. I was not connected to that land. I was a visitor, with a camera in one hand and a cold beverage in the other. My experience was an abstraction. The desert visit, and the basketball games and concerts were life lived at 20,000 feet.
We like observing, especially new things. But, until we dig in the dirt, until we are living in a way where we can’t ignore what we don’t want to see, hear, and feel, we are living in the symbolic world. The renewed friendship may have been the most real thing I experienced. It reestablished a connection.
The lesson I take home with me is to remember that I am generally flying at 20,000 feet, living in the world of symbols. I need come down to earth more often. I must engage. Things look different when you are on the ground living the life, getting more closely connected to the material world and with the people who live there.