Tuesday, July 3, 2012


In the end, my son was right and I was wrong. When I asked him after our hot-air balloon ride yesterday whether he had taken any pictures with the phone he is constantly texting on, he replied, "No ... some things I prefer to keep in my mind."

I, however, did take mostly-mediocre or somehow-incomplete photos. Funny how photos, like words, simply cannot capture experience. A perfectly obvious something-or-other, something you can take pictures of or talk and write about, cannot be made obvious. It is just a part of loneliness, I suspect ... a loneliness that is not lonely and yet pines like some childish tantrum for company.

Filling the balloon
We met balloon pilot Paul Sena and his son in a supermartket parking lot here in Northampton and were driven, together with another couple scheduled for a ride, perhaps 10 miles to the take-off location, a wide field surrounded by protective trees. It took perhaps 30 minutes to unload, assemble and inflate the balloon. The pictures Sena took of me an Ives inside the inflating balloon did not come out well. But the day was, at about 6:30 p.m., bright and clear and not so hot as the days that had gone before. Colors were lush.

Sena, a sturdy man in his 50's with Hippie-length, greying hair, gave us instructions, had us sign disclaimers and then, with a couple of bumps and the help of a ground crew, we were off. None of us had been prepared for the back-draft heat that erupted above our heads when Sena goosed a little more fiery heat into the balloon. He gave us hats to help ward it off, but our necks and shoulders felt it anyway ... it was like being a chicken sizzling on the barbecue.

We floated, sometimes higher, sometimes lower, above the green hills of the Pioneer Valley below. Fields, houses, highways, the snaking course of the Connecticut river, a series of houses that all seemed to have swimming pools, the farms plump with green nourishment, ponds we dipped down to until the reflection of the balloon looked back at us ... and all of this seen at a languid pace as we strolled across the sky.

We never got above 2,800 feet, but it hardly mattered: Depth perception was completely shattered somehow -- a fact that became clear when, spitting over the side of the balloon basket, the spit fell and fell and fell and fell and went plop long after the mind had assumed it was going to land. Spitting was one way to gauge wind direction at different levels, Sena told us.

Sena knew his stuff and was enthusiastic about it. When I asked him about the historical uses of hot air balloons, he knew. He imparted bits of his skill set as we went along. Ballooning was clearly something important to him and he was proud of his skill and knowledge ... a little like an enthusiastic Zen student who knows enough not to talk too much, but can't refrain from saying something about this wonderful and wondrous adventure. When we finally arrived back at the supermarket parking lot where he had picked us up, he brought out a picnic basket and a cooler and there was cheese and grapes and salsa and crackers laid out on a small table together with the post-flight ritual bottle of champagne. It was only then that it occurred to me that ballooning was a bit like keeping horses -- a rich man's sport; a world in which those who played it could be blissfully cocooned and blissfully unaware of a less fortunate world ... not mean, necessarily, but the kind of people I take with a wary attention because of their potential for unintentional or perhaps intentional harm.
Reflected in water

A rich man's sport ... when the thought idly crossed my mind, it felt like being at the ocean, sitting on the beach with someone who was well-off who could not do more than assert his well-offness ... and all the time the ocean was busy making equals of us all ... beautiful, enriching, humbling, huge, relaxed ... an atmosphere in which everyone was rich, to the extent that that word had any meaning.

And that was the experience of the balloon ride for me -- something that went miles beyond the pictures or words or wealth of the circumstances. In the balloon basket, in moments between words and between the moments of being barbecued like a chicken, there was ... something. It was, as it occurred to me, like being wrapped in a morning glory. It was like being magically inserted into a Claude Monet painting ... an arena in which the differentiated senses were no longer separate ... they hugged and laughed and danced together in a world where there was no 'together' ... a world in which you could hear the colors and see the sounds and taste what was touched. And most of all, as delicious as it was, it was not special. This was just a fact that had gone unnoticed and now became clear in the softest, gentlest, most-enveloping way. It was like standing by the ocean and things -- even the wealthiest visitor -- got straightened out.

The champagne was tasty, but as my son said, some things are better left to the mind that cannot express them adequately.

Light and shadow

PS. I sent what is written above to Paul Sena, the balloon captain. He replied with a kind note which said in part, "I like to think of flying as the extension of my art training and 50 plus years of farming the land in Worthington. Every flight is different and creative, and for the brief time that we glide through the sky, everyone's perspective  changes as if looking through the eyes of a hawk, in timeless flight, looking to be gently set back down into the loving arms of mother earth. You and your son are now, bottom dwellers in the sea of air. Soft landings, Paul."

"Bottom dwellers in a sea of air" ... I can't top that.