We recently took our first flight since the pandemic started. Not a good idea. We are still sitting out a self-imposed quarantine period so we don’t inflict our recklessness upon the neighbors. The trip left me with great compassion for the workers who have no choice – flight attendants, security workers, people who must travel for business. Never a casual air passenger, this time I worried not at all about strange engine noises, but panicked as the man behind me kept clearing his throat. I see no way they can make air travel safe. We did what we could (practically pickling ourselves in hand sanitizer and hiding behind scarves and masks); it will be a few days before we know if it was enough. The incubation period of Covid ends for us on Election Day. An uneasy time in many ways.
It was not a completely abysmal experience, though. We had not flown in a long time; I was newly awed by the view from on high. From my window seat, I could see the contours of land brought into geometric definition by the hand of man. I could see cars like rolling BBs and houses like sprinkled confetti among the autumn foliage. I could see the top sides of the clouds and imagine the rain that was falling away from us rather than on us. It gave me the long view; I thought about Moses.
We live on the edge of Pisgah National Forest, which contains Mount Pisgah. The forest and the mountain were named for the mountain in the Bible from which Moses saw the promised land:
And Moses went up from the plains of Moab unto the mountain of Nebo, to the top of Pisgah, that is over against Jericho. And the Lord shewed him all the land of Gilead, unto Dan, And all Naphtali, and the land of Ephraim, and Manasseh, and all the land of Judah, unto the utmost sea, And the south, and the plain of the valley of Jericho, the city of palm trees, unto Zoar. And the Lord said unto him, This is the land which I sware unto Abraham, unto Isaac, and unto Jacob, saying, I will give it unto thy seed: I have caused thee to see it with thine eyes, but thou shalt not go over thither.
Moses sees the promised land but will never get there. But seeing it seems to be enough; knowing that his people will thrive in the land of milk and honey presumably gives him solace.
Martin Luther King referenced the same Bible story in his “I Have a Dream” speech:
Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live – a long life; longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land.
These two speeches assume that while the speaker may not be around to see how things turn out, things will definitely be OK, that times on the other side of the mountain will surely be better. We old folks are always trying to look over the top of the mountain to see what things will be like for our children and grandchildren. For the times we will never live to see. But what if what is on the other side of the mountain is not better; what if it is worse? What if the view from the mountaintop fills us with fear rather than inspiration? This is not just about politics (although that is heavy on my mind these days), but about climate change and environmental degradation, about the lack of economic opportunities for younger people, about the stranglehold of technology on the lives of us all. I have high hopes for my grandchildren as individuals, but I tremble for the world they will live in. Do I want to live to see that world?
One of my heroes, Leonard Cohen, died the day before the U.S. election in 2016. Go back and listen to “Democracy.” I remember thinking that I was glad he did not live to see America delivered to isolationism, fear, and studied ignorance of both the scientific and the moral. I am eager to see what happens next in the world; to resume life after the enforced quiet of the pandemic. But do I really want to see what is on the other side of the mountain? Can I really believe the long view is better? Much hinges on this election – including the view from the mountain. Moses was reassured by God; Martin Luther King was inspired by the progress already made. I want to be reassured and inspired. I want the view to be comforting. I want to end my life believing that things are getting better.
My husband and I climbed Mount Pisgah a few times after we moved to North Carolina five years ago. I must admit that the wooded slopes of the milder climate here do not give the panoramic views we used to get from the bald tops of New England favorites like Mount Monadnock. And I am getting older. The last time we reached the peak of Pisgah, I realized that although I can go long distances on gentler slopes, the scramble up is getting too much for me. So I am probably never going to see that view again.
And I will probably not see the Promised Land. When I was young, it looked like things were getting better. Civil rights were being granted, women were welcome in more places and professions than ever before, the rivers were actually getting cleaner. I came into this life on a hopeful note. I pray that I can go out that way.
This week’s fiction, “Going Down is the Most Dangerous Part,” takes place on Mount Monadnock. Enjoy.