Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Up, Up and Away...Forever

It was a little before six yesterday morning and I was on my way to Panera’s for my regular Tuesday morning routine – prayerfully planning out the week, clearing up correspondence and enjoying an always stimulating conversation with John Malek – when I saw a lonely but lovely hot air balloon hanging just over the southwest horizon.  It didn’t seem to be drifting at all; indeed, it held the same position the whole time of my drive and at least several minutes after I got my coffee.  But I was then distracted with work and the next time I looked up, maybe 20 minutes later, it was gone.

I wished I had my binoculars with me.  I wished too that Claire had seen it – hot air balloons are pretty rare in our part of the country.  But I especially wished my sister Sherry could have seen it too because she really likes hot air balloons and still cherishes the dream, as yet unfulfilled, of gliding through the air in this colorful, buoyant style.

In fact, gazing at this hot air balloon made me think of three things and the first directly concerned Sherry.  It is a vivid memory of an early morning in the mountains of Colorado sometime back in the late 80’s.  The Hartford clan was having one of its very few family reunions.  Sherry was there with her family, Mom, Claire and I, Ric and his wife, James, and Linda and her family.  We had a wonderful time that week but the highlight of the whole event was Sherry tearing through the place very early one morning (we were all still abed) and yelling at everyone to get up and look out the windows.

I was rather disgruntled at the sudden awakening but since she was so adamant, I stumbled over to the sliding glass door that led out to the balcony, drew open the shades and …wow upon wow…there they were!  About two dozen hot air balloons had come over Loveland Pass and were now moving pretty fast down the valley.  They were colorful.  They were colossal.  And they were close!  We were awestruck at the beauty, the grace, and the sheer uniqueness of the sight – these huge, silent beasts that carried passengers who were waving to us and wishing us good morning.  In various stages of undress, we waved back, feeling a pang of deep regret that we weren’t in one of those baskets with them, sailing through the crisp mountain air to who knows where - Frisco, Leadville, for all we knew, maybe Shangri-La.

Far from being annoyed at Sherry for waking us, we were all extremely grateful to her for giving us this rare and invaluable gift.  It was, in one sense, a fleeting moment.  The balloons moved so quickly that within minutes they were all gone from sight.  But, in another and very real sense, Sherry also gave us a forever moment because the combination of surprise, novelty, color, movement, the soulful longing everyone feels for travel and adventure…and the fact that we experienced it as a family... made that moment something that we will always treasure.  I’m feeling a glow just writing about it now.

But the second train of thought elicited by that balloon yesterday morning was a bit more philosophical for it caused me to also think of the song which Americans of my generation invariably link with hot air balloons; namely, the lilting lyrics of Jimmy Webb’s “Up, Up and Away” as delivered by the Fifth Dimension.  The song is exquisite – nearly every Webb song is – and the incomparable voices of Marilyn McCoo, Billy Davis, Jr and the rest of the Fifth Dimension almost guaranteed that it would be one of the most popular songs of the 1960’s.

But it’s not just the sound of “Up, Up and Away” that gave it almost anthem status for the flower children.  It was the sentiment of the song too – the sentiment of escapism.  Sure, love songs and poetry have, throughout the ages, tended towards this theme.  “Make the world go away.  We’ll build a world of our own.  Fly me to the moon.”  And so on.  But there was a particularly pronounced escapism of the 1960’s youth culture that went beyond romance.  For some that involved outright rebellion, the laborious attempt to change what they believed was a restraining status quo. But for many more, the response to the world was just escape. And whether the "drop out" route involved drugs or drink, the intensity of sensual pleasure or immersion in the minutiae of popular entertainment, quadraphonic sound or religious mysticism, the goal was self-absorption. 

Many of the Fifth Dimension's songs fit this mood -- “Age of Aquarius,” “Stoned Soul Picnic,” “Paper Cup,” "Sweet Blindness," and, of course, “Up, Up and Away. ” They described the delight of finding a refuge from the harshness of the real world. They weren't songs of rebellion. Those came from harder-edged groups.  No, the Fifth Dimension offered a mellow, more sensual route of escape.  Make love, not war. Harmony and understanding. Party hearty.  Hold a good thought for cosmic convergence. 

The lyrics to "Paper Cup" (another Jimmy Webb song, by the way) include these lines:

Here inside my paper cup
Everything is looking up

No one comes in, no one goes out
Nothin' to get hung up about
I'm free and it's so easy to get by
Cause I don't try.

Living ain't so bad without a rudder
Life is kind a groovy in the gutter.

Sound familiar? Forget old-world values like work, the integrity of family and tribe, morality, making something out of yourself, changing the world for the better. Instead, make the hippy mantra your reality -- "Turn on. Tune in. Drop out."

But the lyric that particularly grabbed me yesterday morning was from "Up, Up and Away." It goes, “The world’s a nicer place in my beautiful balloon; it wears a nicer face in my beautiful balloon.”

But the balloon ride doesn't make the world a nicer place. It, in fact, has nothing to do with the world. It's soaring above it, unconnected, uninvolved. And from the balloon one isn't even an effective observer. The spectacle is too distant. The aerial view doesn’t take in the broken-hearted young girl in her bedroom, the angry young thug in the prison cell, the fatherless child in the alley, the lonely widow leafing through the photo album, the worried mother in the doctor's waiting room.  No, the scene from the balloon takes in only color and general contour.  Hidden from sight is the trash and tragedy of real life.  That, no doubt, suggests a world with a "nicer face." But it’s not the real world at all.

And, of course, even the exhilarating experience of flying through the air must end.  Alas, there is a limit for that beautiful balloon. It does go up and up...but it doesn't really go away. It must, governed as it is by a law of gravity that no amount of yearning can deny, come down to earth. The balloon ride doesn't make an efficient refuge from reality at all. A respite, yes. But not a refuge. For when the balloon inevitably returns, the passengers find themselves once again on the cold, cruel earth, facing all the problems, questions, and challenges they left behind.

But I'm not ending this essay on that note. Oh, no. For there was one more area of thought that the sight of that hot air balloon opened for me yesterday. And it also brought back to me the lyrics of a song, one that I knew long before I heard of the Fifth Dimension...though I must admit I didn't treasure the meaning of those lyrics until it was almost too late.

This song was written in 1929 by Oklahoma musician and hymn writer Albert E. Brumley. And it's lyrics not only describe the "final flight" of the Christian, one who has personally trusted the sacrifice Jesus made to pay for the sins of mankind, they also provide the secret to living joyfully and victoriously on the cold, cruel earth I've mentioned earlier. For though we must face the challenges the real world presents (no escape until our day is done), we do so in the confident expectation that a "nicer world" does exist for the believer in Christ. It is the "new heavens and new earth" prepared expressly for us by Jesus Himself.

The song, as some of you have already guessed, is the most recorded gospel song ever, "I'll Fly Away."

Some glad morning when this life is o'er,
I'll fly away;
To a home on God's celestial shore,
I'll fly away.

I'll fly away, Oh glory
I'll fly away.
When I die, Hallelujah, by and by,
I'll fly away.

When the shadows of this life have gone,
I'll fly away;
Like a bird from prison bars has flown,
I'll fly away.

Just a few more weary days and then,
I'll fly away;
To a land where joy shall never end,
I'll fly away.

The hot air balloons Sherry awakened to us that Colorado morning were spectacular and I'll never forget the sight of them floating down the valley with the blue of the Rocky Mountains behind them. Nor will I forget the yearning they created in my soul for spiritual flight. But the trip I now have scheduled is not a disconnected, day-trip escape like the one the Fifth Dimension invited me on. I want the real thing. The lasting thing. The final flight that doesn't just take me "up, up and away" but instead takes me to God's celestial shore. Boy, I'm looking forward to it.

By the way, have you booked your flight yet?