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The Toddler at Ten Thousand Feet

Now that I have oodles of spare time, thanks to hiding away from COVID, I have done the math (something we English majors usually avoid) and discovered that I have lectured in forty-seven states (forty-eight if you count the State of Exhaustion) on so many writers but especially on Charles Dickens, my favorite author.

Before the pandemic temporarily made my lecturing career as dead as the authors I lecture on, I had been delighted to address hundreds of groups and enjoyed visiting countless new cities. But the inconveniences, complexities, and complications of daily air travel, even pre-COVID, make my career a decidedly mixed blessing. To put it theologically, the audiences were heavenly; the traveling was hell.

Though my complaints about air travel are numerous, they do not often include tedium. As all frequent fliers know, the view outside of an airplane window is on occasion so spectacular in its beauty and serenity that it helps to compensate for the dullness inherent in constant flying.

I vividly remember one early morning flight that I took from New Orleans to Tampa. As we ascended from the New Orleans airport, we followed the course of the Mississippi River to its mouth, where it emptied into the Gulf of Mexico. I shall never forget that view from 10,000 feet. The sun had just risen, and since we were headed East, it cast a purple-golden hue onto the rushing waters of the river far below as they spilled into the seemingly endless Gulf of Mexico. And framing the view in the distance were the puffiest, purest clouds I had ever seen, suffused with yellow and pink from the rising sun, looking like so many tufts of pastel cotton candy.

As I gaped at this rare display of nature’s grandeur I happened to look around at my fellow passengers. I was on a small commuter plane with only about twenty others. Not one of them had even glanced out to see the spectacular convergence of river, gulf, and rising sun. Some had their noses buried in USA Today; others were asleep with jaws dropped, not in wonder as mine had been but in the oblivion of deep slumber. The others, of course, had their attention riveted on their iPhones.

It was possible that some of them were regulars who took this same flight so often that the loveliness had diminished through familiarity. But I could not help thinking as I gazed at the overwhelming beauty of the scene outside my window what the pen of Charles Dickens could have produced had he been alive to glimpse such a vista. His sense of awe at natural beauty combined with his genius for description could have created a hymn of infinite inspiration. Of course, none of us on that plane possessed the brilliance of Dickens, but I did think it was sad that nobody was even demonstrating Dickens’ combination of wonder and joy.

But I was wrong. For suddenly across the aisle and two rows up, I saw in one passenger’s expression the enchantment and delight of a Dickens. Amazingly, the passenger was not even looking out the window, but the wonder was more than evident in his face. In fact, my fellow traveler was a one-year-old child, the type I usually avoid because of the rambunctious turbulence which usually accompanies him. The passenger behind him was a grandmotherly, jolly soul who was engaging him in an intense game of peek-a-boo which enthralled the child. Each time the woman popped her head up from behind the child’s seat cushion, he reacted with a chortle of astonishment and joy. His eyes were as wide and appreciative as mine had been staring at the clouds and river.

That toddler made me remember my own early childhood when my father would lock his thumbs together and flap his arching fingers in perfect imitation of wings. He accompanied this with a haunting whistle that only he could make, sounding just like a songbird in flight. I was utterly enchanted by this charade over and over again as was his grandson, my nephew, some thirty years later.

And in that child’s face on the plane, I saw the same fresh delight with which Charles Dickens viewed and recorded the world and which made him a uniquely sensitive and brilliant writer. Perhaps his greatest artistic gift was to retain somehow a child’s reverence and glee for the most mundane experiences that the rest of us lose as we age and settle into our tedious adult routines. How fortunate that in the earliest months of life we do not need a fantastic panorama to dazzle us at 10,000 feet. Our own two feet will do just as nicely when we watch our toes wiggle, and we squeal with delight in our little beds.

Too many critics have ascribed Charles Dickens’ unique vision as being filtered through the bars of that debtor’s prison he experienced in adolescence. On the contrary, I believe his most inspired writing was the result of the vision we all experience through the bars of our cribs in infancy: a combination of awe and wonder. But only Dickens could retain the magic of that fresh view during his entire life and thereby turn his fictional world into a perpetual playground of childlike marvels.

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