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Passion

A few days ago someone reminded me of a poem, a famous sonnet about flying written by a young pilot during World War II. I looked up the text on the Web and copied it to use in a modeling newsletter I edit, because most of my readers have some feeling about flight. It was written by Pilot/Officer J.G. Magee, Jr. RCAF Squadron No. 412, 1941:

High Flight

Oh, I have slipped the surly bonds of earth
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I've climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
Of sun-split cloudsĖand done a hundred things
You have not dreamed ofówheeled and soared and swung
High in the sunlit silence.
Hovering there I've chased the shouting wind along, and flung

My eager craft through footless halls of air.
Up, up the long, delirious, burning blue
I've topped the windswept heights with easy grace
Where never lark, or even eagle flew.
And, while with silent, lifting mind I've trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.

The first time I encountered this poem years ago, I was entranced. It expressed something I identified with, even though I had never had the experience of leaving the earth so far behind. Taking a Northwest flight from Detroit to Seattle doesnít quite do it. Heís writing about flying as play, not mere travel. And play is serious stuff.

Now I read the poem and somethingís missing for me. Yes, I still get a tug of sadness, maybe, knowing that the young pilot died just months later. He was an American volunteer in the Royal Canadian Air Force, stationed in England before the United States entered the war. He wrote the poem on the back of an envelope, on his knee during a high-altitude training flight in his Spitfire. He had, indeed, gone "where never lark, or even eagle flew." He wrote about the passion of flight. My sadness is for the life cut short, his other poems weíll never read, the stilled longing no more to illuminate our spirits. What Iím aware of is my own lack of passion. I read his words, and savor the smoothness of line and image and sound. A writerís admiration. But the reading cloys.

I know that speaks of me, the cloying, and not of his poem. When I felt his passion, it linked with my own. Now I can still remember it; but as with love, to only remember is a pale shadow of the experience itself. And I miss it.

John Boorman, a British filmmaker, wrote:

What is passion? It is surely the becoming of a person. Are we not, for most of our lives, marking time? Most of our being is at rest, unlived. In passion, the body and the spirit seek expression outside of self. Passion is all that is other from self. Sex is only interesting when it releases passion. The more extreme and the more expressed that passion is, the more unbearable does life seem without it. It reminds us that if passion dies or is denied, we are partly dead and that soon, come what may, we will be wholly so.

I suppose thatís my fear. Iíve always had two sides to me: the rational, analytical, left-brained side that has carried me through life pretty effortlessly, overall; and the feeling, soft, right-brained side that has been both a blessing and a curse, a roller-coaster ride. Mostly, Iíve encouraged my rational side, and often hidden from my feelings. Today, every morning, I sit on my cushion and learn to let go of desire and aversion, wait to see what is real. Passion is not part of that, not intentionally, anyway. If it arises, I simply notice it, and continue waiting. Iím convinced that this path leads me toward peace. And yet, . . . and yet.

Itís not that Iím hiding from passion, either (I donít think, anyway). Itís more like what John Boorman said, I feel as though Iím marking time. Life doesnít seem unbearable, just a bit colorless. Pilot Mageeís poem arouses nostalgia in me. I wonder if I will ever again feel as strongly, as vividly, as that. I know Iím stuck with not being able to hear as clearly, or to see as well, or smell pine forests in the sunlight, ever again. Itís harder to accept the thought that intense emotion is just another thing that goes, with this aging thing.

It doesnít bother me that passion might be simply another manifestation of hormonal activity, like energy and sexual drive. Intellectually, I can accept the inevitable natural decline of physical processes. I donít want to live forever. Iím delighted that many of the things I used to get worked up over are now only mildly interestingóand someone elseís problems. Iím happy that I no longer have to deliberately control my libido when I encounter an attractive woman, and keep my mind on whatís appropriate. That has given me a heightened appreciation of women as sources of insight and wisdom. And Iím glad for my decreased sensitivity to taste since my childhood, when anything unusual was not only too much, but often intolerable.

But I miss that blooming, singing, wonderful sensation of passion, the vertiginous feeling that in another instant I might burst open and release my very soul to the universe.

 

Donald Skiff, August 19, 2001

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