blackbirdonline journalFall 2020  Vol. 19 No. 2
an online journal of literature and the arts
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The Long Way Home

Last night I dreamed I was flying. Not flying on wings which miraculously sprouted from my shoulders, but just sitting on a plane. Just flying from one perfectly ordinary airport to another. In the time before coronavirus, this might have been a mild anxiety dream caused by having an early morning flight and being afraid, though I had set my alarm for 3:30 a.m., I was going to miss my plane. But now, my husband and I are in lockdown in Montevideo, Uruguay, where the airport is closed, the country’s borders shut and I have had not one, not two, but three reservations for a flight to the US cancelled. The last one, though it was not for six weeks, cancelled with a sudden email just before I went to bed.

The dream was one of exaltation. I was on a plane! I was flying!

But it was not a dream about finally returning home. I was not looking down at Madison, Wisconsin, at the house I bought thirty years ago or at the university where I teach. I was just looking out the window at the clouds. Happy to be suspended between one place and another with nothing to do except wait. I was perfectly, totally relaxed, a sensation I had almost forgotten.


But, then again, this is exactly how I have always felt on a plane. An ex-colleague of mine once told me she was afraid to fly because she was not in charge. If the pilot was young, she thought about how inexperienced he was and worried even more. And once, in what struck me as a clear lack of gender solidarity, she said she worried even more if the pilot was a woman. But I have always been the opposite. I am afraid of being in charge, of pulling out into traffic in my car and not seeing the truck speeding toward me, of being the one responsible for getting everyone killed. I imagine if I am ever on a plane that was going to crash, the last thing I say will be, “At least it wasn’t my fault.”

But when I really think about it, that isn’t why I have always been relaxed on planes, in reality or in my dream. I am relaxed because being on one seemed like a complete suspension of the rules of time and space. This makes flying seem like a dream, even when it isn’t. It always feels, to borrow a phrase from Star Trek, as if there were a warp in the time-space continuum. This morning, Madison, Wisconsin. Five hours later, LA.

Except now, the only flight I can take is to dreamland.


The first time I flew, I was two years old and my parents, my older sister and I were flying from France, where I had been born, to the United States. I know this as a story my mother told. She said I cried the whole way, saying, “I was a little French girl.” And “Home. Madame. Home.” Madame was what I called the woman who had always taken care of me. “Home. Madame,” over and over again.

But I also think I remember the flight. The choking feel of the crying, the brain-deadening noise of the prop engine, my mother changing my sister and me into our pajamas somewhere over the Atlantic. And I remember looking out at the clouds, feeling for the first time that I was suspended in time and space. I was not in France. I was not in Texas, the place we were headed that I couldn’t even imagine. In my memory, I stopped crying and fell asleep.


My husband’s sister was a flight attendant for Pan Am for thirty years. She lived in Miami, close to the airport, and flew the Miami to Paris route for years, sometimes with a Miami to Tokyo or Miami to Rio thrown in for variety. She spent part of every week in the kind of luxury hotels Pan Am used for its crew and gave everyone tiny bottles of hotel shampoo and mini bars of scented bath soap in their Christmas stockings. On her days off, she used her airline privileges to fly to even more places, basically to nearly everywhere on the planet. She was hardly ever home. The wrapped presents from her under the Christmas tree were painted masks from the Amazon or silk from Kyoto. She traveled nonstop before it was common for anyone but jet setters to travel nonstop, and she did it when being a flight attendant was nearly as exotic as being an astronaut. Then, in 1991, Pan Am declared bankruptcy, taking her pension with it, and she was grounded.

For the first time, she noticed how far Miami is from everywhere else by land. In her old Volkswagen, it took her longer to drive to her mother’s house in north Florida than it had taken her to fly to Paris. And there was no driving to Paris. Space and time for her shifted. On her budget, even gas was expensive. She got a bike and began riding it when she wanted to go to the grocery store. She went from flying nine thousand miles round trip a week, or twice a week, to riding her bike half a mile to Sedano’s Supermarket on Calle Ocho. She felt, at least at first, as if the rules of the universe had changed, as if gravity had tripled, but only bearing down on her. Then, she got used to it.

A good lesson for me right now.


When I was a kid in Florida, I used to be able to walk, barefoot, on the hottest asphalt or beach sand. I am sure I could have walked on coals if those had been an offer. My feet were so tough I could run through people’s backyards and even the sandspurs wouldn’t go through my callouses. And I always ran. I flew through my world, even if my world was the circle of houses where we lived. When I wasn’t running, I was climbing trees. The short orange and tangerine trees, overgrown with Spanish moss, in the abandoned grove behind our house. Or in the tree fort, high in the tallest oak around, behind my friend’s house. Then, when I was ten, I fell twenty feet from that tree onto a concrete patio. I remember losing my grip as I was climbing, falling backward. I remember the startled look on the face of my friend’s mother as I fell past her second story bedroom window. As the saying goes, it’s not the fall that hurts, it’s when you hit the ground. I crushed four vertebrae in my spine, collapsed my lung, broke my jaw.

I spent weeks in bed in the hospital with a sign over my bed that read: THIS PATIENT MUST BE FLAT ON HER BACK AT ALL TIMES!! Finally, I was fitted with a back brace and sent home but I had to stay in bed there too. I turned into a night owl. I lay in bed all night listening to the radio, to weird radio shows that came in late at night from far away on AM stations where people discussed their love lives in terms I barely understood. The voices could travel, could fly through the air even when I was like Snow White, frozen in her glass coffin waiting for magic to release me. Time stopped and space shrunk down to the size of a single bed. Then finally, the doctor, who was as close to a prince as I was going to get, told my mother that the next day, I could sit up in bed and, if that went well, stand. But she should hold on to me because I might be very dizzy.

But in the middle of the night, when no one was there, I sat up. I was dizzy. I held the edges of the bed for a while. Then I stood up. I held onto the table by my bed with the radio. I clicked the radio off. The terrazzo floor felt cold on my feet. I heard the air-conditioning whoosh on. Then I took a step. I heard my ankles pop. I took another. I held on the furniture, carefully crossing my bedroom. I remembered my mother telling me the first time I had walked had been at a friend’s house at a party when I had wanted to walk down a hall, and finding no furniture to hold on to, had just launched myself down it, one foot after the other. I did it again, walking unsteadily down the hall until I was in the kitchen. I opened the cabinet, got out a glass, turned on the faucet at the sink, got myself a drink of water, and stood looking out the kitchen window. The sun was just coming up and I could see the golden clouds, this time from below, not above from a plane, but they gave me the same feeling of being suspended in time and space. I could move, walk, fly. But for this moment, I chose to be still. I felt euphoric.

The next day, I would go through the whole thing over again with my nervous mother by my side. But that night, I finished the water, went back to bed, and never told a soul about it.


The poet Ron Wallace, my colleague for most of the years I have taught, has a farm in Bear Valley, Wisconsin. He has a house in town, too, but his farmhouse, tucked up against a steep hill in the part of Wisconsin that glaciers never ground smooth, is where he spent his summers and where we always had our fall creative writing program welcome picnic. For years, it was my responsibility to lead a car caravan out to the farm. The party started at three in the afternoon and I knew if I was even a few minutes late pulling in next to the big red barn with all the other cars strung out like so many ducklings behind me, he would be pacing nervously in the road, fearing the worst for all of us. Ron always swore it was an hour drive to the farm. In my experience, from my house on the east side of Madison and leading a caravan of a dozen cars, it was more like an hour and a half, so I was always sure to hit the road earlier than he suggested.

But still, it was just fifty-seven miles, a mere ninety minutes, from my house. Then one July, Ron decided to walk to his farm. It took him three days.

His plan was to cover nineteen miles per day, averaging about three miles an hour. That meant, with time out for lunch, he’d be on the road about seven hours a day. He started off with a backpack, new shoes, and a sunny day, so excited he began singing “The Happy Wanderer” (Val-deri, val-dera/ Val-deri, val-der-ha ha ha ha ha ha ha!). But then, at mile twelve and a half, he developed a blister. By mile sixteen, he had blisters on both heels and was thinking he might have to abort. “But,” he told me later, “you know me, I don’t quit.” Walking a half mile out of his way to a city park in Black Earth, he changed into an old pair of sneakers and had what he described as the best-tasting Pepsi ever from a vending machine in the park.

His wife Peg came to his rescue that night, bringing him replacement shoes and Band-Aids. The next day, he continued walking on mostly back roads. Even with the blisters, and in a light rain, it was exhilarating. He saw things he’d been passing for years but never saw from the car: abandoned farm buildings, mailboxes fashioned as bass with their wide mouths open, dairy farms with names like “Udder Paradise” and “MOOlah Acres.” On the backroads he also got into a rhythmic pattern of meditation in which time disappeared.

On the second day he continued, but on Highway 14 now, full of traffic, including trucks that about blew him off the shoulder. A young kid in an old Plymouth Duster offered him a ride. “Looks like you could use a lift, mister,” he said. “He must have thought I was a homeless drifter,” Ron said, “but I thanked him, said I preferred to walk, and he shrugged and drove on.” When he reached his motel, he had to rebandage his blisters and change his bloody socks before limping to Culver’s to meet Peg for dinner.

On the third day he arrived at the farm. He looked around and decided it needed mowing, so that’s what he did, with his old push mower, adding another three miles. Then Peg drove him back to Madison, the whole fifty-seven miles in a single hour. Like flying.

“I loved the walk,” Ron told me. “Time expanded and even now, that walk fills a big space in my memory.” So Ron, I am sure, would say faster is not always better.

Another good lesson for me.


The first time in my life planes stopped flying was, of course, 9/11. I was home, flat on my couch, recovering from emergency gallbladder surgery, when the first plane hit the North Tower, when the second one hit the South one. I watched, not able at that point to go further or faster than hobbling to the bathroom, as the news came on about the plane hitting the Pentagon and Flight 93 going down in Pennsylvania. At first, there were rumors of other missing planes. I knew lots of people in New York and in DC, people who might have been near the Twin Towers or even the Pentagon, but what scared me, froze me actually, were the planes. If I hadn’t had a dozen stitches across my chest below my ribs, I might have been on one of the planes. I flew all the time, to New York, to DC, to give readings, teach classes and go to conferences. Lots of my friends flew as much as me or more. I kept waiting to hear the numbers. At first it seemed as many as twenty thousand people had died in the Twin Towers. But I really wanted to hear the names. I kept thinking—someone I know is going to have been on one of those planes. I knew a friend had been scheduled to fly back out of Boston that day.

But my friend turned out to be scheduled for an afternoon flight that never left the ground. His story, instead, turned into one of those that over time would age into the slightly comical. He and ten other people at the convention had rented a U-Haul truck, took turns driving and riding in the back all the way across the country dropping people off along the way in Cleveland and Chicago until he reached home in Wisconsin.

Then came the quiet, empty skies. I live near the airport in Madison and there are flights going in the morning, when the small commuter jets head out full of passengers for the bigger, hub airports of Chicago, Detroit, and Minneapolis and again in the late afternoon and evening when they return. Now, silence. Blue above without a single contrail. Then, on September 13th when I was walking the dog, I looked up and saw a Northwest Airlines jet low overhead, banking over the lake. For a moment, it looked unreal. It reminded me of WPA era post office murals with trains racing across the landscape full of haystacks and cows with a single plane, frozen mid-flight in the sky.

Then I panicked. It was flying too low. Was it really headed for the airport? It looked like it might dive and hit the Wisconsin State Capitol with its white dome so like the one in DC. But then the plane leveled out, headed east and, yes, clearly going in for what on any other day would have been a perfectly normal, unremarkable landing.

So that day, I felt fear, not joy.

What will I feel when I am on a plane again? On a plane where everyone will be wearing a mask that will serve as a reminder flying is not always without hazards or consequences? It seems like a lesson I should have learned—and not forgotten—after 9/11. But three weeks after 9/11, I got on a plane and flew to Italy for a film conference. Then I flew back through Amsterdam where Dutch airport security was so determined no plane from their airport would be used for another terrorist attack that we were searched not once, but twice, and I was asked to unroll a package of mint Life Savers and put one in my mouth.

But I kept flying. There were shoe bombers and underwear bombers. There were articles about how bad all the planes were for global warming. And yet—I sat on each plane and looked out the window and felt free of every care.

After 9/11, if anything I flew more. I was the lone poet on the board of a South American environmental institute where scientists from all over the world flew to Uruguay for an annual convention so we could talk about global warming. My daughter went to live and work in Japan, and my son to study in China. Any family reunion meant a long plane ride. It seemed the world would go on that way. And then, the world stopped.

Or at least flying did.

Or flying for me did.


Coronavirus arrived in Uruguay on March 13th and, bam, the airport closed and the borders snapped shut. I feel like my sister-in-law all those years ago when Pan Am shut down. Montevideo is 9600 miles from my house in Madison, Wisconsin. As the crow flies. As the passenger jet flies. Except there are no planes.

But last night, before my dream, my husband, looking out our kitchen window, called out, “Hey, I see a plane. I think it’s a 737!”

“A plane?” I said, running over to see it. “How could that be?”

“It says Azul Express on it,” he said, his eyesight better than mine. I stared at the window at the vanishing plane as he looked it up on an online flight tracker. “It’s a cargo plane,” he said, “headed for Miami.”

A cargo plane. So mail or Uruguayan beef or blueberries or wine were still hurtling at four hundred miles an hour toward Miami. But us humans, no. But me, no.

I stood at the window, looked up at the contrail until it was too dark to see it anymore. Then I turned on the light in the kitchen and fixed dinner.


Kercheval and her husband were able to return to Wisconsin in June.  

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