Coming, Going and Enjoying the Journey.

It was towards the end of a bright day this past summer. Our west facing windows are open. I am watching the sun as it blazes through the clouds. The view is punctuated by a plane every few minutes on final approach to Glasgow airport. Their flight path is a few miles away. The planes as well as the sun are low on the horizon. Their sound is muffled, more of a distant hum than a roar. Not the harsh noise that airliners make when you are right under their flight path. Observing these heavy machines defying gravity yet slowly descending is strangely enjoyable. A smooth and steady end to travel. The end of a day merging with the conclusion of people’s journeys. 

I wonder about the occupants of these planes arriving from many places. Is this their first visit to Glasgow? What are their initial impressions? Are some returning after years away to a new, uncertain future? Who, if any, are meeting those anonymous passengers? A family, a friend or a business contact? Maybe the more faceless, formal greeting of a sheet or board held by a driver with your name. These descending aircraft contain the hopes and fears of many.

In arrivals everyone wants to get out of the airport as quickly as possible. I don’t know anyone who savours hanging around in arrivals. There might be the joy of meeting a loved one but even then you don’t linger. You leave as soon as practicable. Yet to arrive one has to leave from somewhere. Going through departures is usually slower and encourages use of shops, cafes etc. In spite of decades of increased hustle, bustle and security the departure hall of today’s airports still hold a vestige of excitement. In the 70s and 80s it was different. For the most part air travel felt more special and luxurious then than today’s typical budget airline experience. However, even nowadays, once through check in, customs and immigration, the departure experience is usually not that bad. Yes you are in limbo waiting for your flight but not feeling you are in a queue. There is also the prospect of leaving one world to emerge a short time later to a different one. The reason for a journey of course determines how one feels about the whole experience. In that there may be a multitude of joys and sorrows. Saying goodbye to home and family, starting a new life or job, facing up to responsibilities.

I notice how much more often we ask “When do we arrive?” than “What can I see on the way?”

Disguises of Love p34. Eddie Askew

Commercial air travel however does not lend itself to savouring the actual journey. Travel in an aluminium tube is not very aesthetic. Any ‘in journey’ experience for me nowadays is more likely to be internally, in my head. Of course it may be different if you were flying the plane. However I speak here about a ‘seat 21E in a crowded 737’ experience. 

Here is one personal recipe for a more absorbing journey. Become a passenger, not a driver, in a car travelling slowly through quiet countryside. It’s a bright day with clear views. There is little or no other traffic dictating your speed. No rush to arrive anywhere. The destination may even be the same place as the trip’s beginning. Happy even to just stop the car on occasions and take a closer look at something. Especially helpful to have knowledgable fellow passengers/ driver who know the area and its people well. Small villages, isolated houses and the occasional walker passes by. Fellow travellers have stories to tell with each passing scene giving a sense of connection to what or who you are passing by. “So and so’s building has a new fence round it.” “‘Mrs. ‘X’ passed away last year but her son now lives in the house.

What’s around the corner?

Of course enjoyable journeys do not need modern means of transportation. We live in a restless world. I guess air travel can sometimes be a symptom of that malaise. One of the things that Covid lockdowns brought to me, a city dweller, was a better awareness of what is in my neighbourhood. This was through the simplicity of leisurely daily walks or cycles in our neighbourhood. Even in an urban environment there are things of interest and beauty on my doorstep. Lots of wild raspberries and blackberries (to eat) growing along hedgerows. Herons and ducks on their daily movements up and down the canal. Hidden streams in local parks, wildflowers by the roadside. These scenes were always there but I often did not have eyes to see. It took a pandemic for me to be less distracted. To become more aware of the rhythms of life that are always around me. 

“The Lord will keep you from all harm – he will watch over your life; the Lord will watch over your coming and going both now and for evermore.”  

Psalms‬ ‭121:7-8‬ ‭NIVUK‬‬

Touches of Lightness

I find the pithy sayings of G K Chesterton striking. His book ‘Orthodoxy’ is a defence of Christianity and his journey of faith. It is right up to date in addressing the problems of our age. This despite being written over 100 years ago.

The main point of Christianity was this: that Nature is not our mother: Nature is our sister. We can be proud of her beauty, since we have the same father; but she has no authority over us; we have to admire, but not to imitate. This gives to the typically Christian pleasure in this earth a strange touch of lightness that is almost frivolity……. To St. Francis, Nature is a sister, and even a younger sister: a little, dancing sister, to be laughed at as well as loved.”

GK Chesterton

Available to many of us are the simple sights and sounds of nature. Enjoying them can feel guilty when contrasted with the current news of war and pestilence. However these pleasures can be balm to the soul in dark times. So I will indulge you in the following ‘touches of lightness’ that have been a blessing to me in recent winter weeks. You can adapt if you live in Southern Hemisphere!

After months of long, grey days experiencing late winter clear skies has been very refreshing. The light is not as strong as spring or summer. There is a sweet, almost delicate tinge to everywhere the sunlight bathes. Now this may simply be because of many dark days and my eyes not used to brighter light. Whatever the reason it is special and different.

Sunlight is felt as well as observed. There is something gentle on a cold day to have one side of your face being warmed, albeit with a weak sun.

Wakening in the middle of the night to birdsong. When the worries of the world seem to threaten mind and heart their music is balm to the soul. I am no bird expert but listening to this pre-dawn chorus is healing. Naively I have always thought that birds waken later in winter, a bit like myself. It’s only this year I’ve heard them so early. Maybe God wakens them to get up and sing for me!

Country walks punctuated by the gurgling of water. Streams transporting melting ice seem especially joyous and playful. That may just be my imagination. Of course water also rushes and roars with tremendous strength and destruction. However this seems the season for gentle, murmuring waters.

The seemingly random and chaotic patterns of deciduous tree branches in winter. There are scientific descriptions for these patterns in nature (‘fractals’). For some years I find observing them is soothing to the brain. Recently I read that there is apparently scientific evidence for this. Not that I need any. Gazing at the seemingly random patterns of branches against a blue sky is like a brain massage.

The many sounds of different terrain.

The cushioning thud of feet on a dry forest floor.
The scrunching of dry ice underfoot.

The ending of most pandemic rules in UK has also awakened other dormant experiences. One such has been the comforting murmur of multiple conversations when in a large room or hall. Groups of people talking to each other seemed unremarkable and mundane before pandemic times. Such a hubbub of noise makes no sense. With other eyes it shows something of the glory of being human.

You can no doubt add to this list. Wherever you live on this globe there are plenty ‘natural’ soothing ointments for frazzled, fearful and tired souls.

Savour the end of a clear winter’s day. Slower and more nuanced than a summer sunset.

The Elephant in The Room

Like the proverbial elephant in the room the pandemic and it’s effects on physical, mental and spiritual health cannot be ignored. I thought writing a blog in these times one topic I would safely ignore is the virus. There is so much in the news and most conversation is permeated by it that people don’t need to hear more. However this elephant at times suffocates and takes up too much of my mental space. It needs addressing in some way so here goes. 

Late last year I wrote to friends some of my ‘lockdown musings’. With a few variations it largely applies today…

Quiet evenings; unhurried; fogginess of mind (brain fog); stress despite little activity; furtive shopping; playing guitar; waiting on God; preciousness of relationships; impatience; news overload; irrational fear; auto distancing from people; cleanliness; blurring of the particular and the routine; Zoom and video meetings; online church; discouragement; crosswords; newspapers; clear, blue plane-free skies; sweet birdsong; phone calls; cancelled trips; cancelled races; freedom of trail / mountain running; walks alone, together with Elisabeth and with friends; envying people with gardens; good books, podcasts and music; family fears; solitary but not alone; frustration; weariness; disquiet; sleep; noise of social media; a different future; peace; mortality; resurrection; Ignatian retreat and use of imagination; annoyed with myself; anger at rule breakers; gratitude; face masks; picnics in friend’s gardens; rare meetings with relatives; indecisive; becoming ‘buddy’ to two overseas students; short stays at friends’ cottages between lockdowns; amazing 42+ year Zoom reunion with former colleagues; guilt at things not done.  

Such a bundle of experiences and contrasting feelings! I have much to be thankful for. For some the pandemic has brought much misery, sorrow and grief. With your unique circumstances you will have your own list.

It would be nice to say that these days I wake up, jump out of bed and ‘seize the day’. However there are times when I lie awake and think wearily of doing exactly the same thing as yesterday. Slight variations, maybe a different walk route from day before! Or a short car trip for some errand or different household chores. More dangerously I might imagine starting on a minor DIY project. Rarely enjoyed and usually filled with frustration. Going through this mental exercise hundreds of times the past year there is little that is different or new that motivates me in doing these things again. Except discipline. 

Discipline will get me out of bed. However another less healthy stimulus to activity is a misplaced sense of guilt if not busy. I initially thought that lockdown offered an attractive possibility. More time to slow down and just ‘be’. However the paradox is I often trade this opportunity by filling my life at the altar of ‘poor quality’ activity.

Many of us here in the UK are eagerly observing the beginnings of spring, the season of hope. It seems to bolster the desire for long awaited freedoms from lockdown. Tentatively daring to imagine a post pandemic world where that elephant takes much less space and we can breath easier. 

A long time ago king David wrote probably the best loved and most well known of the Psalms. His voice rings true today as an antidote (vaccine?) to my frenetic nature. Best read slowly.

God, my shepherd!

    I don’t need a thing. You have bedded me down in lush meadows,

    you find me quiet pools to drink from.

True to your word, you let me catch my breath

    and send me in the right direction. 

Psalm 23 vs 1-3 (Message translation)