I was convinced that it wasn’t entirely impossible. Difficult and miraculous, perhaps, but not impossible. I reasoned that there must be a different way of perceiving the world that would enable a person to leave the ground behind – and fly. So, at around eleven or twelve years old, that is exactly what I did.
I remember it so clearly.
There was a ditch that ran alongside a portion of the long driveway that led to the log cabin I grew up in. An electric barb-wire fence ran down the far side of that ditch. It was a fence and ditch I knew very well. It was the fence I accidently hit with a golf club while trying to perfect my chip shot with fallen hickory nuts that had gathered in the ditch. It was the fence I accidently urinated on – twice, and it was the fence I spectacularly failed to jump over on my metallic red Mongoose BMX bike. I still have scars from that experience wrapping around both legs where the barbs dug into me as I struggled to free myself from the wire. Each surge of electricity running down it caused my muscles to spasm and lock up.
The day I flew was a day very much like today. The first chill of autumn was in the air. Dry leaves blew across the driveway intermittently, producing the tinkling and scratchy sounds of the rising tide retreating back to sea. To prepare for my first flight, I closed my eyes. I could feel the breeze as it delivered the aroma of a nearby cedar tree to my nostrils. I raised one foot into the air and placed it down on an invisible stair step. Tentatively I raised my other foot and took the next. Now, both my feet were off the ground. I took another step, then another, and another, and another. I was flying!
Well, not flying exactly. It was more like just standing in the sky – which was still pretty awesome. When I opened my eyes I saw the ground a good ten feet below me. I floated around the field between my driveway and the nearby woods for a few minutes before I decided I should probably come back to the ground before I got carried away by the wind. When my feet finally touched the ground again I was near the woods on the other side of the electric fence from where I started.
I knew I could never tell anyone. Everybody would believe I was crazy, but I remember it. My memory of flying is stored in the card catalog my mind alongside more mundane memories. It is as real and clear as any of the ‘true’ memories from my childhood, memories I know are real and verifiable. Whether I currently believe I have the rarely mentioned spiritual gift of flight or not, (just for clarity’s sake – I don’t actually believe I can fly) it is something that shapes how I process and organize the world since all memory and experience filter our perception of reality.
There is an old saying that goes: “A young man spends the first twenty years of his life trying to get off the farm, and the next twenty trying to get back.” I say it is an ‘old’ saying because I’ve been saying it a long time. Initially, I thought of it as merely a clever turn of phrase washed in a veneer of Appalachian folk wisdom. I just turned 40 last week and I wonder how I’ve done and if I’ve made it back to the farm.
In a way I suppose that not-actually-so-old saying is a folksy way to explain what C. S. Lewis calls “sehnsucht.” “Senhnsucht” is a German word that translates roughly as nostalgia, yearning, or desire. Lewis uses it to name that soul haunted feeling of longing we have for a home that we’ve never known. I know I’m never going to be able to go back to a childhood home where I can fly, but there will always be a part of me that will long for it.
A battle rages in the souls of many Appalachians, both those who’ve stayed, and those who have left the mountains. These hills and valleys have shaped who we are, what we believe, and how we understand the world. We cannot compete with the offerings of big cities or the great suburban sprawls that spread along the East and West Coasts. For many we find the only way to move forward, or to even survive in the modern world, is to leave Appalachia behind, leave our families behind. Leave our home behind.
I moved away from my family home to go to college, then bounced around the eastern United States for different jobs, but there was a part of me that clung to the mountains. That part of me has always stirred, never letting me find comfort in the places I lived. They would never be my home.
I moved my wife back to the town I grew up in a few years ago, and before we knew what happened we had a child and five years slipped away. The problem is, my home isn’t here either. It would be easy to say that the area has grown up too much, that the cities have creeped out of their boundaries and taken away farming and pasture land, or that they sell sushi at the grocery store in Piney Flats. Sushi in Piney Flats? That just doesn’t seem possible.
The truth is however, that this place isn’t my home.
My home is beyond my ability to return to – at least in this life. The true home I’ve been searching for is beyond that distant shore, it is further up and further in, and it is waiting and prepared for me. But how do I deal with this knotted ache inside that longs to return to a place I’ve never been?
Thankfully, we have Lewis:
“The Christian says, ‘Creatures are not born with desires unless satisfaction for those desires exists. A baby feels hunger: well, there is such a thing as food. A duckling wants to swim: well, there is such a thing as water. Men feel sexual desire: well, there is such a thing as sex. If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world. If none of my earthly pleasures satisfy it, that does not prove that the universe is a fraud. Probably earthly pleasures were never meant to satisfy it, but only to arouse it, to suggest the real thing. If that is so, I must take care, on the one hand, never to despise, or to be unthankful for, these earthly blessings, and on the other, never to mistake them for the something else of which they are only a kind of copy, or echo, or mirage. I must keep alive in myself the desire for my true country, which I shall not find till after death; I must never let it get snowed under or turned aside; I must make it the main object of life to press on to that country and to help others to do the same.” C. S. Lewis – Mere Christianity.