When I started out on this journey I knew that flight lessons were going to change me; I just didn’t know how much. In my sixth week of flight training, I’ve found flying to be a parable for my life on the ground, and a possible remedy for two habits that are begging to be kicked.
I’ve always been drawn to slower processes. I like old things -- I’m a luddite -- and I have a deep respect for ritual. I chose to smoke a pipe when others tried cigarettes; I started writing with a typewriter because a laptop distracts me; and recently I started shaving with a straight razor. I like the calmness of these rituals: they allow me to weigh and consider my actions despite the frazzled pace of life.
Flying a trike is strikingly dissimilar. When you’re in the air, and especially when you’re making a landing -- hell, even in the moments before you start your engine -- you don’t have the liberty of stopping to smell the flowers. The single act on which trike flying is based (moving above the ground) has to be omnipresent.
Our flight instructor, Doug Donaldson, has over 3,000 flight hours in a trike and is a master of the art. He has an incredibly calm demeanor and a lot of stories. We affectionately call him our “Trike Yoda,” (although we’re not ready to leave Dagobah and face Vader just yet). If I could make any generalization about pilots I would say they have a certain zen about them, and in the air you quickly see why. Flying is an active, present activity. The zen of pilots was something that I was immediately jealous of and now strive towards.
Landings are the hardest: they happen relatively fast and you have the most factors to juggle (Doug calls it balancing plates). You have to monitor the air for traffic, make calls on the radio, keep your wing steady, pick a point on the runway, and round out (change the pitch attitude of the trike so that you don’t careen into the ground). And you have to be “fluid and in the moment,” which, God Almighty, has been my biggest plate.
That’s just not how I process. I’m introspective, I don’t readily commit to things, and I like to weigh my options. I get irretrievably lost in my thoughts, and often. If something’s really irking me, I’ll spend hours with that thought stomping away on my forehead. I’ll be riding my bike, reading a book, cooking, whatever, and that thought will still be center stage; I’ll autopilot everything else.
In a trike, there is no autopilot, and you need that valuable brain space. I’m applying that to life on the ground: forcing myself to focus on the task at hand and table the plates I don’t need. It’s a switch that you have to flip; if you don’t, it’ll toggle itself when you’re not looking. How can you enjoy life if you’re constantly focused behind you or on a future event? You can’t, because joy isn’t something you can experience in reverse or fast forward. It is only now, in the immediate.
Sometimes, in the trike, I find myself quoting the one phrase I remember from my yoga mat: this breath, this moment. This breath, this moment. Sometimes a decision can’t be thought over, and you’ll know because in those moments there is no sometimes. That soup is going to boil over unless you turn down the heat right now. Your sister is going to walk away from you unless you apologize right now. That dying man needs your help right now. The beautiful woman that you’re secretly in love with won’t know unless you take a chance right now and kiss her right now.
Another thing I do: I berate the living daylights out of myself. It’s a cliche to admit, but I’m my own worst critic. I’m a major perfectionist, and the smallest thing can regress my attention until I’m trapped while life dances in front of me.
This tendency didn’t dissipate when I started flying. In fact, it grew. I would stumble into a bad landing or make a mistake because I wasn’t juggling a plate I thought I had under control. I would come out of the mistake quietly insulting myself, but the real problem? I was still flying, and that’s not something you can stop being aware of. Flying isn’t a perfect art: you might have an engine out or a sudden rush of wind from the side when you’re landing -- you have to react on a dime. This immediacy shattered my habit almost at once because I had no other choice.
Today Doug switched things up on me, as he is wont to do. Coming downwind (that is, parallel to the runway), Doug made me bring the engine to idle to simulate an engine-out. I had to immediately turn towards the runway and land without preamble. It wasn’t perfect, but when Doug had me take off to go around again he said “...but you were relaxed and in the moment!” Holy crap! I thought to myself, shocked, I was! And then I quickly forgot my shock because I had started lining up for another landing.
Finding a kind of zen is sometimes the product of a certain act, of a ritual that acts as a reminder, a reinforcer, and a guide. It can take on many shapes depending on what you need. I think I found mine.