Melissa O’Brien

Melissa O’Brien | Contributor

When I first returned to Charlotte after mostly being away for the past two years, I was staying in a place where I could see the ferry making its rounds, back and forth, across the lake. And I was reminded of how wonderful a thing that is, that Charlotte has a ferry tale as part of its story. The lake, of course, is magnificent in and of itself, but the ferry is a special thing. Many times in my life when I told someone that I lived in Charlotte it would jog a ferry memory for them; “I think I took the ferry there once …”

Then came the train whistle. Laying bed one night I heard the train whistle, like a sigh in the distance. “Ahh,” I thought, “the train.” Really, is there anything more wonderful in this life than the sound of a train making its way across some unseen landscape?

Next came the thing I have always referred to affectionately as FFD—or the First Flight of the Day. I was aware of it when I lived on Whalley Road, but it was later, when I was on Church Hill, that I really noticed it: the first plane out of the Burlington airport, heading south, flying overhead. I imagined it filled with folks on their way to New York City and then points beyond. It used to pass overhead at a little after 6 in the morning, and if I wasn’t up by then it was the indication that it was time to rise. Recently I noticed the flight going overhead a little after 5, and it made me wonder if things had shifted in the world of transportation aviation.

I left Charlotte two years ago to become the pastor of a Congregational church in southern Vermont. A lovely church in which I had once been married and my boys baptized. It was a homecoming of sorts for me and truly an unexpected twist in the adventure called My Life. Life, as we know, often conspires to move us in directions we do not plan or wish to go. It’s best, I’ve learned, to stay in the flow and to look upon the shifts with curiosity and not fear or disdain.

And so I find myself returned to this little piece of bucolic landscape, tuned into the modes of transportation that move people in, around and through its waterways, tracks and air.
It’s funny, the things we become used to and don’t notice much until we leave from and return to a place. The little things. Which are, of course, the things that really matter. The distinguishing features, the sights and sounds of life humming in a place.

I took my first flying lesson the other day at the Shelburne Airport. I don’t imagine that I will learn to pilot a plane all by myself, but I do want to reach some level of proficiency. I have no idea what compelled me to do this. I suspect it’s the sands of time and the way it feels to be 52, wanting to do and learn as much as possible before it’s all over. Maybe it’s because I spend so much time with people in hospice care. For me, the jig is up. I know with great certainty that I am going to die and I’m OK with that; it makes me love life that much more. It makes me listen for train whistles and wonder where everyone on a 5 a.m. flight is headed. And it makes me want to learn about things that seem interesting.

I have flown in small planes in the Caribbean, from island to island. And in Alaska, from Fairbanks up into the Arctic Circle and a few times for a closer view of Mt. McKinley. I love the sensation of being in a tiny plane, inspecting the world from above. The flight I took up and over Shelburne and Charlotte last week was no less fun than all the other ones I’ve taken. Only this time I got to drive the thing, and that was … well, language falls short here as it so often does in this life when something is truly transcendent. We soared over the farms and the houses and the lake on a perfect blue-sky, no-wind afternoon. I felt like a little kid, learning a whole new way to move a mechanical object, with the very best view imaginable.

Most of you probably know what this place looks like from up in the sky. Most of you know what the Charlotte shoreline looks like when you are on the ferry and heading west. Some of you may even remember when there was a commuter train that went from Charlotte to Burlington and may have ridden the rails then. And so you don’t really need me to tell you, but I will anyway, that this place is extraordinarily beautiful.

On the ground, at times, we become embroiled in our daily travails, some of which bring us in conflict with our very neighbors. We get caught up in what we believe to be right and wrong, mine and yours, fair and unfair. We spend a lot of time looking at our screens, watching our kids play sports and instruments. We go to work and come home from work. And in those hours it’s easy to forget the tremendous blessing bestowed upon all of us by this landscape, this place, by the water and the air and the dirt that surrounds us. Those are, of course, the things that make us and keep us human. Leave for any stretch of time and come back to a place you once called home and I guarantee you will notice all the little things. With fresh eyes you will see what drew your heart in the first place.

Here is what I said when a friend asked me how it was, after I returned to the ground after my first flying lesson: Now I know why the bird are always singing. Amen.

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