Up in the Air

The Feast of the Ascension has passed and soul-kindling is being gathered for the feast of Pentecost. I am thinking aerial thoughts.

Over the weekend, I encountered, for the first time [here], the superb story of Henri Nouwen’s friendship with The Flying Rodleighs, a troupe of trapeze artists. The story seems to have resonated with a number of other things lately on my mind. The story goes,

One day while he was sitting with Rodleigh, the leader of the troupe, Henri fell into a discussion with him about flying. The acrobat told Henri this: “As a flyer, I must have complete trust in my catcher. The public might think that I am the great star of the trapeze, but the real star is Joe, my catcher. He has to be there for me with split-second precision and grab me out of the air as I come to him in the long jump.”

Henri asked him to explain how it works. “The secret,” Rodleigh said, “is that the flyer does nothing and the catcher does everything. When I fly to Joe, I have simply to stretch out my arms and hands and wait for him to catch me and pull me safely over the apron behind the catchbar.” “You do nothing!” Henri said, surprised. “Nothing,” Rodleigh repeated. “The worst thing the flyer can do it to try to catch the catcher. I am not supposed to catch Joe. It’s Joe’s task to catch me. If I grabbed Joe’s wrists, I might break them, or he might break mine, and that would be the end for both of us. A flyer must fly, and a catcher must catch, and the flyer must trust, with outstretched arms, that his catcher will be there for him.”

I am reading Endo Shusaku’s collection entitled Foreign Studies at the moment. Endo’s book is-and is not-a memoir. Its core energy is melancholic and aggravating, a masterfully sustained mood that expresses the vulnerability of being foreign and the deep unease the characters experience studying in France away from their native Japanese environment. I picked it up out of curiosity and perhaps also for consolation. Sometimes, even after 20 odd years away from home I want it affirmed that foreignness can be a fragile condition. Endo interests me as a cosmopolitan Japanese, and as a Christian, and also as someone who questions whether the two can, or do, ever really fit together. (Should they, I wonder? I mean snuggling with (any) ideology seems to me not such a good idea . . . ). In Foreign Studies, Endo elaborates the ‘unfathomable distances’ between cultures , between differences in daily life, customs, social mores and ways of thinking. Indeed, the strength of alienation in his characters might lead one to strongly suspect Endo had little hope that meaningful East-West dialogue was actually possible. In his later reflections, however, he gives some ground saying that

despite the mutual distance and the cultural and linguistic differences that clearly exist in the conscious sphere, the two [cultures, East and West] hold much in common at the unconscious level.

There’s a connection between the book and the aerialists in flight; or, rather, the connection is the moment of disconnection, that sublime moment when things, bodies or minds or simply possibilities, could go either way. That moment when the flyer is in flight and the catcher has not yet caught. Endo suggests that what we are not actively in control of (the unconscious) is what has the greatest potential to save us. The flyer, as Nouwen learned, must trust that connection will be made.

For fun I am appending this reliably beautiful post from a guy who is a rock star in my galaxy. Here is Ben Myers’ post on my favourite animator, Hayao Miyazaki, called “In Praise of Air

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