Solo? Or Together, With Spirits?

I’ve been thinking a lot about where ideas for my stories and my interest in aviation come from. As I work to finish my story collection and the training for my private pilot’s license, I find that inspiration is more important than I ever imagined and comes in many forms.

Yesterday I soloed for the second time.  There was no one else in the 1963 Cessna Skyhawk 172D but me; all I had to rely on was my knowledge, the voice of my instructor Maria ringing in my ears, and something else, luck maybe, though that seems too chancy to be of use in the air. My mind attuned to the sounds the engine made as I banked the plane. I trusted in the principles of flight (planes really do want to fly and are designed to do it!) and in my abilities, though adrenaline coursed through my body and my lungs couldn’t seem to get enough air. Calm down, breathe, focus, focus, I coached myself. As I did three takeoffs and landings I felt anxious and nervous – was I prepared for this? What if I didn’t level off at the right time and miss my landing? What if I ran into another plane in the air? What if I didn’t turn fast enough and hit the skydivers jumping nearby? I said out loud, more than once, “You can do this.”

Last night I hardly slept. I kept thinking, I did that!

“And you think you did all that by yourself?” Audrey Hepburn’s character Hap asks the daredevil pilot Pete as he recounts his first solo in Steven Spielberg’s 1989 film Always. I felt she was talking directly to me.

Steven Spielberg’s 1989 film is sentimental, but salient. And just what I needed to see yesterday.

“There was certainly nobody else up there with me,” Pete, portrayed by Richard Dreyfuss, answers.

“There was, Pete.” Hepburn’s character goes on to describe a whole group of deceased people who have already learned what you need to learn and who come back, unseen, to help you. We humans have a different word for it, she goes on to say – inspiration. These beings, just when you need it most, they breathe it into you, spiritus, the divine breath. They make you think your thoughts are your own.

“Once I got up there, I felt like a veteran.” Pete says. He watches a tailwheel airplane, the same model he flew during his solo, rise into the air and exclaims, “I did that!”

So who was in the plane with me yesterday? I don’t know how they all fit, but I suppose spirits or thoughts or angels, whatever they like to be called, are pretty skinny and so there was my gutsy, red-haired Grandma Lorraine, my high school geography teacher Jerome Lipetzky who pushed me to do a presentation even though I forgot my notecards that day, my gentle father-in-law Joe, Sr., my Grandpa Frank who fought in World War II, aunts, uncles, cousins, all kinds of people who are no longer here. I was far from alone.

Friends, family, teachers, professors and colleagues — their belief in me has always propelled me beyond what I thought I could accomplish. If it weren’t for my colleague Greg, who made sure I knew how to go about signing up for instruction, I doubt I’d have soloed. Whether it’s writing a book, flying a plane, managing a team at The Nature Conservancy or getting married, I’ve enjoyed a great deal of help. But I’ve always wondered, if I were really confident and talented, would I need all that support? Wouldn’t I just naturally be all that I wanted to be? Does it count if I require so much assistance?

But yesterday I realized that I’ve been living a bountiful life because of all the people who have given of themselves so generously.

Like Larry Taylor, my anthropology professor at Lafayette College, who during my six months as a 19 year-old student abroad in the Burgundy region of France, was one of the first people in my life to call me an artist and writer. His wife, Maeve, was what I considered a real artist – she painted and sketched and even dressed like an artist. When she met me in Dijon and I meekly admitted to wanting to major in art, she immediately referred to me as the artist in the group. From then on I was given special dispensation to linger longer than my classmates in each cathedral, abbey or museum gallery we visited. Maeve would ask if I had sketched that day or written some poetry. Larry even lent me money when my summer paycheck was delayed in the mail. I admitted one night to Larry and Maeve that I shouldn’t live abroad when members of my family were not able to enjoy it with me and when I didn’t really have enough money saved up to do it. What I was really afraid of was that other people deserved to be in France more than me – the kind of people who had more money, beauty, luck and ability to realize their dreams. I agonized that I was given a gift without having earned it. Larry and Maeve were adamant that my being in France was not only fair, but it was a way to learn and grow in ways would benefit my family and my community. I would be able to offer more to the world as a result. It was not selfish of me to be there, they counseled.

Who is responsible for my desires, for my dreams, for my goals and drive to meet them? Am I unique in my creation or am I the culmination of ancestors who are working through me? Or are angels sitting on my shoulders? Or, if I were Buddhist, am I the product of past lives in perpetual quest for Nirvana? I may never know the answer, but I will revel in uncovering the mystery and beauty of my life’s quest.

My writing coach and editor asked me this week about whether I intended “Doc Gooding and Mrs. Mary Parker” to be a love story. She probed into my choice of words and setting, into components of the story that moved her. I found myself trying to explain my approach to short story writing and falling short. Because I honestly don’t know the answer. I can’t remember how this story found its start and how I shaped its journey. Did the story write itself through me, she asked? That may be the best explanation yet. Or an even better one – an angel whispered to me as I wrote, keeping me steady even when I thought the story might go south and need to be destroyed in its entirety. Don’t give up, keep going, it’s got some good bits, I like the pumice stones under the doctor’s boots and the moon and the desert heat, the voice would say. I like that Mary Parker. Tell me more about her.

Always was Audrey Hepburn’s last film role. She shined, as is appropriate for such angels on Earth.

This concept called inspirit, or putting spirit into, giving life or courage to, cheering on – I can get behind it. I would be less than human if I didn’t respond to others’ belief in me. It’s exhilarating. Whether inspiration comes from a divine source, from my ancestors, from my family, from the soul, all of that and more remains mysterious. But it’s working. So I’ll imagine my angels lining up, piling in the plane or sitting by me and my laptop, loving hands and arms keeping me safe and lifting me up. Oh, and Grandma, can you make room for Audrey Hepburn in the cockpit? I really like her.

Special thanks to Joe at Wings Flight School for recommending Always!

A scene from the film: http://www.dailymotion.com/video/xkywmo_haircut-from-hap-part-2_shortfilms