Flight attendants, please prepare for takeoff.
As the pilot recites his line, I turn toward the window to watch the small Sioux Falls airport float slowly away from view. Through the film of frost on the glass, I can see the wing passing over the pavement–bone-white with cold–like a hand of blessing. Though the engine roars around us like static, there is a profound silence to this moment. Each passenger is alone in his head, huddled into himself, clutching a mental talisman of hope as he considers the journey ahead.
I booked this flight late last night. The day before, my friend Kaitlyn, who lives in Chicago, asked if I happened to be free that weekend to visit. I wasn’t–I was scheduled to work at the Visual Arts Center on Sunday–but her text planted something inside me. And the more I considered it–cheap flights, free place to stay, a weekend away with a friend I hadn’t seen in months–the more that seed grew.
So before I had time to over-think it–or to really think at all–I clicked my way into a little adventure.
I have to admit, I’m feeling pretty proud as the plane begins to whisk us down the runway. Yes, this ticket cost me $175 of my meager post-college cash, and no, I still haven’t found anyone to take my shift on Sunday. But right now, none of that matters. The plane is thundering forward, pinning me to my seat, scooping me up and out, into the chalk-white sky. I finger the fur of the coat on my lap and watch the earth fade away like an unfinished sentence, like faltering speech. I cannot hear it from here.
A few weeks ago, I saw The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. The movie, starring and directed by Ben Stiller, is loosely based on a short story written by James Thurber in 1939 about an ordinary man who daydreams about doing extraordinary things. In the 2013 film, Walter Mitty, the shy, absentminded manager of photography at Life, must track down a missing negative he’s supposed to use for the magazine’s final cover. His search takes him around the world, where he sees breathtaking sights, meets fascinating people, and does incredible things. All of this swells to an adventure that’s larger and more magnificent than anything he could have ever imagined.
This movie, while imperfect in some ways, completely mesmerized me. Not only were the cinematography and soundtrack gorgeous, but the message–grabbing hold of your life, pursuing things with passion–lingered in my mind long after the credits spun. I left the theater with a sense of spontaneity, a motivation to get up and go–it didn’t matter where. My thoughts kept pulling to the moment Walter Mitty, a man of routine and rut, hops on a plane for Greenland with nothing but hope in his heart–the moment he leans forward in his seat, music bursting triumphantly from the speakers, to watch the water below separate him from home, sweep him toward something entirely new.
From that point on, Walter Mitty no longer fantasizes about doing cool things–he just does them. He says yes to people instead of no. He picks up the adventures tossed into his lap. Sometimes, he seeks them out.
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty reminds us that it’s never too late to start our own story, as long as we eventually have one to tell. It reminds us that imagination is dangerous when we dwell inside it too long–but downright magical when we use it as fuel, when it inspires and becomes our reality.
“Brothers and sisters,” calls the man with a crutch from the top of the subway car, “I ask you, in the name of the Good Lord Jesus Christ, would you help a brother out? Any spare change–please, in the name of Jesus, I ask you.” He pauses, scans the people-packed car for the sight of someone reaching into a pocket or rummaging through a purse.
No one moves.
He tries again, but after another minute of monologue, he gives up, hobbling toward the last empty seat, pulling the crutch onto his lap like a pet. For the remainder of the ride, he sits as patiently as everyone else, hardly bothered, apparently, by our lack of response–he’s used to it. He gets off at the next stop.
After three glorious days in the Windy City, I’m en route to O’Hare to head back home. The weekend has been everything I wanted–a perfect blend of activity and rest, of venturing into the city to museums and restaurants and shops and then returning to Kaitlyn’s cozy loft in the suburbs for a movie and dessert. As luck would have it, I happened to come on the coldest weekend of the year, so much of our time was spent trudging through slushy heaps of snow and, afterward, burying ourselves under as many blankets as we could find. But that was okay. The cold made us brave; it banded us together–and it banded us to everyone else, who shared in our shivering and exasperation and sudden awareness of our own mortality.
Now I sit alone on the train, bundled as tightly as possible into my thin wool coat, looking through the streaky window at the paradoxes passing by: skyscrapers touching trees, sunlight resting on snow. Moving along it like this, armored from the vicious cold, the city is brilliant and bright–a movie scene. I pull out my little black journal and write:
How could you live in a city like this and not be aware of the fullness of life? How could you not believe in how rich, how exquisite, each soul really is? How could you not take the colors and textures and mediums you’re handed (free inspiration) and make from them something lovely, whole–a work of art?
A little pretentious, maybe, but right now I’m overcome by the beauty of being here, and how overwhelmingly vital this trip has been for my soul. As a writer, I’m finding that travel stimulates my mind, for stories lurk everywhere: in each crack in the sidewalk, each face on the subway. And as a person of faith, I’m finding it stirs my spirit in the most invigorating way. It’s impossible to be complacent in a place so unfamiliar and fresh.
As the train rumbles farther away from the clustered center of the city, I look around the car at my fellow passengers. We’re an odd assortment–some young, some old, all our bodies and outfits painted different colors–but there’s a certain understanding among us. We’re all journeying somewhere, both literally and figuratively, ruminating to some degree on where we’ve been, where we are, where we’re going to end up.
So much of our lives is lived in this way–linking departure and arrival, past and present. That’s why it’s so important, I think, to do things like fly to Chicago on a whim or wander the streets in negative-fifty-degree windchill. If we live life like we’ve already arrived, we can never explore new ground.
Recently I applied for an editorial job back in the Twin Cities, where I went to college. The company requested an interview with me, so one foggy January morning, I grabbed a Starbucks and drove the four-hour trip to the publishing house, stopping at a gas station on the way to change out of my sweatpants. The meeting went well–conversation flowed smoothly, and the interviewers seemed encouragingly eager.
It wasn’t until early the next morning, when I set out for Sioux Falls beneath a black-and-blue sky, that I started to see the job as a real possibility. The position had come up so fast that I hadn’t had much time to consider the implications of accepting it: quitting my current jobs, leaving many of the people I love, finding an apartment with people I liked, and starting a full-time job in a field I knew relatively little about.
I won’t lie, the prospect was a little daunting. Alone in my car on a highway dark and silent as shadow, with nothing but a scratched Lumineers CD to keep me company, I felt the weight of such a sudden and enormous change.
But the farther I traveled, the brighter the world became, and I began to wonder if maybe such an abrupt transition was just what my restless spirit had been craving. I thought of the book I’d just finished, Bob Goff’s Love Does, and the why-not lifestyle it advocates. While I’m not sure Bob is really a writer at heart, I’m inspired by everything else he’s been: lawyer, activist, adventurer, family man. He believes that life, particularly one filled with the Lord, should be bold and whimsical and willing to take on any challenge, even–especially–if it scares you. Because that’s what you do when you’re overflowing with love: you do.
Ultimately, I didn’t get the job. I did get a second interview, as well as the request to apply for a different position, but I chose to let it go. Truthfully, I was fine with being rejected. I had always sensed something a little off about it all.
But I’d been ready to go. As I drove back to Sioux Falls that morning, with the sky slowly extracting the darkness from the land like poison from a wound, I told myself that if I were offered the job, I’d take it–no matter how difficult it would be to uproot my life in a matter of weeks. Because those opportunities, I think, are like handwritten invitations from God. You’d be a fool not to RSVP with a strong and resounding yes.
When the plane begins its sprint down the tarmac, I lean back, letting my body sigh into the stiff gray seat. After a day and a half of flight delays thanks to the record-breaking cold, I am finally on my way home. I enjoyed my bonus time in Chicago, but I’m ready to be rid of airports and airplanes and this cumbersome carry-on I’ve been dragging around.
Still, as I stare out the window at the lights streaking by, I think about my weekend adventure and feel full. I also think about my mom, who’s been gone ten years now but who joins me every time I fly, her presence more obvious here than almost anywhere else. She was always planning cross-country vacations for our family, always packing things in and out of our Disney-themed suitcases. She thrived on the tantalizing experience of travel.
Liftoff had always been her favorite part of flying. She would grab our hands excitedly as the plane raced forward, squeezing tight when the wheels finally gasped off the ground, pointing out the window at the crammed buildings and cars that shrank by the second, suddenly as small and busy and anonymous as ants.
I was never afraid of flying, but hovering so high above the intimate earth I thought I knew was unsettling to me, the way I felt whenever I tried to wrap my mind around the impossible concepts of heaven or hell. Seeing that my mom was just as fascinated–but somehow still at ease–with this zoomed-out view of the world gave me a sense of safety and peace. With her hand covering mine, the earth could be both big and small, both universal and unique.
Tonight, I’m flying alone. My window shows me Chicago at night, and again I think of insects–the yellow lights teeming together like bees in a hive, lining Lake Michigan so neatly it looks as though God took a knife and simply sliced the rest of the city away. There’s a great mystery to this scene, and I send up a thought of thanks that I’ve been given the solitude to be able to cherish it, the sheer independence to be able to take this trip by myself.
Still, as the plane rockets farther into the night, I mentally grip my mother’s hand and trust I’m not truly alone in all of this. To live a life like Walter Mitty or Bob Goff, we need both autonomy and support, both the courage to step out solo and the faith to know that God will go before us wherever we’re called. Because we are not called, for the most part, to stand still. We are called to step forward–to venture forth–to adventure out, into the wild unknown.