One of my favorite books is The Temple of Air, a collection of interwoven short stories by the Chicago writer, Patricia Ann McNair. The book continues to have an impact on me because of its profoundly rich and deep sense of place. I’m finding that as I grow older my relationship to places, whether it’s where I come from, where I am, or where I might be going, is for some reason becoming more and more important to me. The stories in The Temple of Air all take place in the fictional and isolated small town of New Hope, Illinois, which bears an uncanny resemblance to the town I grew up in, Union Grove, Wisconsin
But it’s not the greatness of the book or Ms. McNair’s evocative prose or the nuanced and substantive characters she draws that has me thinking about her book tonight, although that’s where these things normally end up. Instead it is quite literally that last word in her title.
This is where things get a little bit weird, and where I’m going to reveal what a real flake I am. But I swear, this is true and real, even though I know I can’t adequately describe it, and I have no idea what if anything it means.
About a year ago, I had triple bypass heart surgery. Although I was 99% blocked in one artery, and about 90% in a couple of others, it’d be disingenuous to call it a near-death experience. But while it may not have been in the room with me, I think it’s safe to say that death was in the neighborhood, and was on his way, in his big, blue 1969 Impala, stuck at a light with his left turn signal on, waiting for the arrow to turn green. He was close enough for me to feel his presence more acutely than at any other time in my life. Fortunately, everything went well, and now the old ticker is just plugging along, and having missed his exit, ol’ death is back on the outbound interstate.
But here’s the weird part, and I swear it’s true. Ever since the operation, I’ve had brief moments, about two or three times a month, where I feel the air in a way I’ve never felt it before. Usually it happens when I step outside. I feel its coldness or warmth, I smell it, I taste it, just like everybody does, just like I always have, only stronger and deeper. It becomes overpowering.
But it’s more than that. It’s very strange. When these moments occur, they establish a connection to something and sometime in my past. Most of the time I can’t name when or where it is, but I get the sense that it’s connecting me to some point in the past, usually in my childhood, unlocking a brief moment where the air felt exactly like it does at that precise time in the present. Usually the flashbacks triggered in these moments are vague and shapeless, and impossible to make out the connection, but I feel it, and I know it’s just beyond my grasp. A couple of times, they’ve been vivid enough to present to me, like a movie playing in my head, complete scenes.
The most vivid of these flashbacks occurred just a couple of days ago, on a warm March day when I stepped outside to let the dogs out.
Suddenly I saw myself, six or seven years old, on the front porch of our house in Union Grove, on a warm spring day. And I more than just saw myself, I saw the world, through my young child eyes and body, and everything felt different, except for the air, the air felt the same, it was my portal into the past. And I walked through the screen door into the living room of my childhood down the hallway into the bedroom my brother Don and I shared. Don wasn’t there, our bunk beds along the near wall were empty. The plastic model of the Japanese Zero plane that Don had assembled hung from the light shade, suspended by a thread tied to its front and back that was looped over the shade. It was late afternoon, the pre-dusk shadows advancing across the room. My little bones ached, so I lay down on the bottom bunk and stared at the mattress springs of the top bunk above me.
And then I was back, fifty years later, in the present.
The title and final story in The Temple of Air is about an adolescent girl who is painfully neglected by her divorced and hopelessly shallow parents, and how she is finally able, for at least a brief moment, to literally rise above her circumstance. I was lucky enough to have no such hardships. My childhood was nothing if not idyllic. It never occurred to me that there were other people who suffered tremendous pain and anguish. I took my good fortune for granted, and thought no more about it than I thought about the air I breathed.
Tonight I’m thinking that when my last story is told, when air is no longer available to me, I’ll kneel before the aggregate of all the air I ever breathed in, and I’ll rise above but not too high, tethered to this world like a model airplane suspended from a ceiling light.