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random illustration of life

I have a particular view of life, and I don't know if it's common. I'm pretty much convinced it's right (natch), and I think most people would agree that, one, it is what people's life ought to be, and two, it very rarely is what people's life is. The real question is not whether it should be, but whether it can.

In The Writing Life, Annie Dillard describes a pilot she once saw perform, and later met and received a flight from:

For the end of the day, separated from all other performances of every sort, the air show director had scheduled a program titled “DAVE RAHM.” The leaflet said that Rahm was a geologist who taught at Western Washington Universtity. He had flown for King Hussein in Jordan....

Idly, paying scant attention, I saw a medium-sized, rugged man dressed in brown leather, all begoggled, climb in a black biplane’s open cockpit. The plane was a Bücker Jungman, built in the thirties. I saw a tall, dark-haired woman seize a propeller tip at the plane’s nose and yank it down till the engine caught. He was off; he climbed high over the airport in his biplane, very high until he was barely visible as a mote, and then seemed to fall down the air, diving headlong, and streaming beauty in spirals behind him.

The black plane dropped spinning, and flattened out spinning the other way; it began to carve the air into forms that built wildly and musically on each other and never ended. Reluctantly, I started paying attention. Rahm drew high above the world an inexhaustibly glorious line; it piled over our heads in loops and arabesques. It was like a Saul Steinberg fantasy; the plane was the pen. Like Steinberg’s contracting and billowing pen line, the line Rahm spun moved to form new, punning shapes from the edges of the old. Like a Klee line, it smattered the sky with landscapes and systems.
.... Rahm made beauty with his whole body; it was pure pattern, and you could watch it happen. The plane moved every way a line can move, and it controlled three dimensions, so the line carved massive and subtle slits in the air like sculptures. The plane looped the loop, seeming to arch its back like a gymnast; it stalled, dropped, and spun out of it climbing; it spiraled and knifed west on one side’s wings and back east on another; it turned cartwheels, which must be physically impossible; it played with its own line like a cat with yarn. How did the pilot know where in the air he was? If he got lost, the ground would swat him.

Rahm did everything his plane could do: tailspins, four-point rolls, flat spins, figure 8’s, snap rolls, and hammerheads. He did pirouettes on the planes’s tail. The other pilots could do these stunts, too, skillfully, one at a time. But Rahm used the plane inexhaustibly, like a brush marking thin air.

His was pure energy and naked spirit. I have thought about it for years. Rahm’s line unrolled in time. Like music, it split the bulging rim of the future along its seam. It pried out the present. We watchers waited for the split-second curve of beauty in the present to reveal itself. The human pilot, Dave Rahm, worked in the cockpit right at the plane’s nose; his very body tore into the future for us and reeled it down upon us like a curling peel.

Like any fine artist, he controlled the tension of the audience’s longing. You desired, unwittingly, a certain kind of roll or climb, or a return to a certain portion of air, and he fulfulled your hope slantingly, like a poet, or evaded it until you thought you would burst, and then fulfilled it surprisingly, so you gasped and cried out.

The oddest, most exhilarating and exhausting thing was this: he never quit. The music had no periods, no rests or endings; the poetry’s beautiful sentence never ended; the line had no finish; the sculptured forms piled overhead, one into another without surcease. Who could breathe, in a world where rhythm itself had no periods?

It had taken me several minutes to understand what an extraordinary thing I was seeing. Rahm kept all that embellished space in mind at once. For another twenty minutes I watched the beauty unroll and grow more fantastic and unlikely before my eyes. Now Rahm brought the plane down slidingly, and just in time, for I thought I would snap from the effort to compass and remember the line’s long intelligence; I could not add another curve. He brought the plane down on a far runway. After a pause, I saw him step out, an ordinary man, and make his way back to the terminal.

... I suppose Rahm knew [that he would die at it someday]. I don’t know how he felt about it. “It’s worth it,” said the early French aviator Mermos. He was Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s friend. “It’s worth the final smashup.”

Rahm smashed up in front of King Hussein, in Jordan, during a performance. The plane spun down and never came out of it; it nosedived into the ground and exploded.

... Rahm died performing a Lomcevak combined with a tail slide and hammerhead. In a Lomcevak, the pilot brings the plane up on a slant and pirouettes. I had seen Rahm do this: the falling plane twirled slowly like a leaf. Like a ballarina, the plane seemed to hold its head back stiff in concentration at the music’s slow, painful beauty. It was one of Rahm’s favorite routines. Next the pilot flies straight up, stalls the plane, and slides down the air on his tail. He brings the nose down – the hammerhead – kicks the engine, and finishes with a low loop.

It is a dangerous maneuver at any altitude, and Rahm was doing it low. He hit the ground on the loop; the tail slide had left him no height. When Rahm went down, King Hussein dashed to the burning plane to pull him out, but he was already dead.

... If I had not turned two barrel rolls in an airplane, I might have fancied Rahm felt good up there, and playful. Maybe Jackson Pollock felt a sort of playfulness, in addition to the artist’s usual deliberate and intelligent care. In my limited experience, painting, unlike writing, pleases the senses while you do it, and more while you do it than after it is done. Drawing lines with an airplane, unfortunately, tortures the senses. Jet bomber pilots black out. I knew Rahm felt as if his brain were bursting his eardrums, felt that if he let his jaws close as tight as centrifugal force pressed them, he would bite through his lungs.

“All virtue is a form of acting,” Yeats said. Rahm deliberatetly turned himself into a figure. Sitting invisible at the controls of a distant airplane, he became the agent and the instrument of art and invention. He did not tell me how he felt, when we spoke of his performance flying; he told me instead that he paid attention to how his plane and its line looked to the audience against the lighted sky. If he had noticed how he felt, he could not have done the work. Robed in his airplane, he was as featureless as a priest. He was lost in his figural aspect like an actor or a king. Of his flying, he had said only, “I get a rhythm and I stick with it.” In its reticence, this statement reminded me of Veronese’s “Given a large canvas, I enhanced as I saw fit.” But Veronese was ironic, and Rahm was not; he was literal as an astronaut; the machine gave him tongue.

When Rahm flew, he sat down in the middle of art, and strapped himself in. He spun it all around him. He could not see it himself. If he never saw it on film, he never saw it at all – as if Beethoven could not hear his final symphonies not because he was deaf, but because he was inside the paper on which he wrote. Rahm must have felt it happen, that fusion of vision and metal, motion and idea. I think of this man as a figure, a college professor with a Ph.D. upside down in the loud bang of beauty. What are we here for? Propter chorum, the monks say: for the sake of the choir.

“Purity does not lie in separation from but in deeper penetration into the universe,” Teilhard de Chardin wrote. It is hard to imagine a deeper penetration into the universe than Rahm’s last dive in his plane, or than his inexpressible wordless selfless line’s inscribing the air and dissolving. Any other art may be permanent. I cannot recall one Rahm sequence. He improvised. If Christo wraps a building or dyes a harbor, we join his poignant and fierce awareness that the work will be gone in days. Rahm’s plane shed a ribbon in space, a ribbon whose end unraveled in memory while its beginning unfurled as surprise. He may have acknowledged that what he did could be called art, but it would have been, I think, only in the common misusage, which holds art to be the last extreme of skill. Rahm rode the point of the line to the possible; he discovered it and wound it down to show. He made his dazzling probe on the run. “The world is filled, and filled with the Absolute,” Teilhard de Chardin wrote. “To see this is to be made free.”

This, to me, is life. Life's purpose and form and terrifying, achingly beautiful absolute meaning. And my answer to the question is yes: I do believe everyone is capable of living this purely and perfectly. I know few people will, but the reason I believe we can is because we all want to. We see someone living this way, gloriously abandoned to who they are, and we yearn for it. Often that yearning takes the shape of trying to copy them, and this is of course wrong, but it's because most of the time we have no idea how we can be this way ourselves.

When you're good at something, people like to tell you how your life should run accordingly. They see what you can do and immediately see the glory it could achieve, and get dazzled by it. Some time ago, I came to the conclusion that I wasn't very interested in trying to write a great novel or be a brilliant artist, even if I could be guaranteed that it would go that way. Writing and creating art are things I'll always do, and I will probably always do them well, because that's simply part of who I am. But I don't want to burn up my soul in pursuit of them, to give everything to them, as I think you must in order to produce a true masterpiece (and if I'm not going to give it everything, I'll be a fraud, so no thank you). I actually don't think I can, because I can't convince myself it's worth it. I'm just not made that way, and if I tried, I'd be living someone else's life, navigating by someone else's priorities. Not that in one way or another we don't all pour out our whole selves on some altar, even if it's the altar of self-service, nor that some masterpieces weren't worth everything their artist gives them; but for myself I realised I wanted the greatest story I ever told and the greatest piece of art I made to be my life itself. I've known pretty much all my life that my life, my art, my everything, was not made for me. It's not made for great masterpieces or the public stage or touching the lives of thousands. It's for those around me, in my life, along my path. It's made for the one-on-one, the small and intimate moments of life, and when I'm done I want to slip out of the world as quietly as possible, the only legacy being the lives I helped make a little different, a little purer, without anyone really noticing I was there at all. Everyone's made different, works differently, and that's me.

And I'm confident that my life will be the masterpiece worth pouring myself into. Not because of my own skill at living my life (although I'm practicing), but because my story is in the hands of the Mastercraftsman Storyteller. I know him, better all the time, and I trust him. My life is the plane, wholly, joyously given over to the skill of the Pilot. And my life is the pilot, an ordinary person willingly climbing into the tool of my art, my life, and living it. Recognising what I am and being it. Tracing the line of my life in the present, not looking at myself – at what it costs to be me (because honestly, how higher is the cost of not being me?), at the price it exacts in rigour, at the final smashup. That's not important.

So many people refuse to ever get into the plane. It's frightening, it's uncomfortable, painful often, and in the end you die. And so they live tamely on the ground, sparing longing looks at the sky and the one or two pilots of excellence in it, and in the end they die anyway. Or they try to get into the plane and fly it all their own way, for themselves, trying to clutch the life and themselves in their hands and so jerk back and forth between them through an ugly flight until ditching in a final, graceless scream of denial. A willingness to live the way you're designed means a willingness to acknowledge the design itself, which is not a product of you but what produced you. Bringing us once more back to the question: yes, I think everyone is capable of living this way, provided they have this willingness that looks beyond self. That's the rub ... and the unspeakable grace of it. It's the Absolute upon which freedom depends.

More and more, I'm understanding what Jesus meant when he talked about this stuff. His absolute demands, his call to the highest life possible, the line through the air designed for each one of us, his invitation to trust him to pilot it perfectly with us, his warning that no one else can. I can understand why religion tries to turn it into a set of rules and formulae for approaching the divine, because to take off like that in the hands of the Creator can't be regulated or controlled; it's just pure life. People squatting around on the ground are tame, useful. Living like they're dead already.

Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it. What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul? Matthew 16:24-26

The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full. John 10:10


( 4 speakses — have a speak )
Mar. 4th, 2011 05:05 pm (UTC)
Writing like this doesn't often make me want to cry. Whilst being entirely atheistic, I understand entirely what you're saying, I agree, and I love you for sharing it.
Mar. 4th, 2011 10:47 pm (UTC)
I love her writing. I don't usually write these kinds of posts because it doesn't make sense to me – not that one-on-one thing that does. But then there are things like that story that is just worth sharing, and it would be wrong not to! Every time I read that account, my soul just soars (pun kind of intended :p).

I'm glad it translates ... I feel like this is so fundamental, this what is life question, it trandscends that whole proving-God-exists-or-doesn't argument that people get sidetracked by. I know that question is important to people, but at the same time, there's more to talk about, I guess. Thanks for joining in that. (Also, Jesus was way cool. :))
Mar. 4th, 2011 11:36 pm (UTC)

That's an incredible account and soul soaring YES. I kind of love that the King of Jordan himself raced out to help. I have no idea if the dude at the time (when was this?) was that sort of guy or not, it just makes me smile to think that the performance moved him so much he couldn't NOT move.

It's the greatest pity to me that not everyone who speaks in his name is as cool as Jesus was. Some kind of awful irony. I don't know.

Mar. 5th, 2011 04:15 am (UTC)
She says the airshow where she first witnessed him perform was in 1975, and the book was published in '89. So sometime in between then. I know – it's so ... compelling. Beyond right and wrong, black or white, it's just True. Something the very best stories all have, and something that says so much to me about who God is.

I agree, what people use Jesus to justify infuriates me. The only reason I have any peace about it is that Jesus is even more angry about what people have used it for, and protective of his name, than I could ever be. He said there would be people who'd abuse it, but promised it wouldn't end there; whatever they achieve by doing so, they're in for a really, really bad day when they stand in front of him to give account for themselves:

“Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. By their fruit you will recognize them.... Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’ (Matthew 7:16, 21-23)

Also, given the way he cared for the people who were screwed over by the religious authorities, I'm pretty sure he's able and intending to restore any damage anyone could do in his name. I'm continually astonished at how beautiful he has made it, that he just asks people to know him. He's so completely relational. I can't always wrap my head around it, and yet it's so simple....

Anyway. I ramble. :)
( 4 speakses — have a speak )

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