A quick flash of oven-like heat enveloped my head, carried by a thunderous sound, then silence.
With another quick roar, the floor beneath my feet pushed up against me and the sensation of floating overwhelmed my body.
I heard a laugh, but not one that follows something funny. This laugh was soulful, like I might imagine a relief as anxiety leaves and wonderment fills its space. I think it came from me.
Standing in a hot air balloon, now a few hundred feet off the ground and rising at a comfortable pace, I practice trust and try to appreciate the experience of the pilot guiding us on this journey.
I don’t like heights while still attached to the ground. Standing atop tall buildings creates sweaty palms and uneasiness.
I’m a licensed airplane pilot, but the altitude below me is not a bother while in a moving plane. This balloon is a conundrum for my fear, however. Not attached, but no real sensation of movement other than up or down.
My palms are damp, but the view is incredible and distracting.
For years, I carried a misconception about hot air balloons. They appeared to travel at the mercy of the winds, or lack thereof. The pilot only directed up or down, but little else.
As they say, ignorance is bliss; and my clear lack of knowledge did me no favors here.
The skill necessary to control this craft is clear in our pilot. The significant pre-flight planning, an in-depth understanding of the weather, knowing how this massive balloon responds, and her skill make it look easy. I’m more than certain now, it’s anything but.
Still, there is no stress in her voice or her movements.
She is kind in responding to all my questions and I appreciate her patience with me as I learn snippets of her trade.
We stand in silence and look out over a countryside of green trees, golden fields, and rising mountains in the distance.
Peaceful is an inadequate description of the feeling.
The balloon, I learned, is both lifted and altitude-adjusted by controlling the heat released into the balloon itself, pushing out colder air and making the balloon lighter than surrounding air; so it floats upward. Venting air, or just letting it readjust to the outside air lets the balloon sink.
Winds at different altitudes determine direction and understanding the circulation of wind caused by the Coriolis Effect. Rising winds circle right. Wind travels slower near the ground because of impediments; heat causes pockets of thermals that affect altitude. It gets rather complicated.
Yet we drift with the silence of a cloud, interrupted only by a new blast of heat to keep us aloft.
My life is much like this balloon.
Many years I’ve drifted with what I considered a directionless intent. Truth is, the forces acting around me controlled my path.
I was just an inattentive pilot.
It’s clear that some people thrive in a well controlled environment. And if I may indulge my aircraft metaphors, I’ll take the idea a step further.
Well focused, they fly through life on a pre-planned route with checkpoints along the way and GPS-like navigation to each step in their climb through business degrees and company organization charts, working to a destination they claim shows success.
I don’t fault them for their incredible foresight and determination; in fact many times I envied their drive and focus. They fly the jets of life. Move fast, rise quickly and look to the future with focus. If they are happy this way, I applaud them.
Some work at lower levels of life’s atmosphere. They don’t travel far from their home base, fly slower, and are find comfort just getting back home at night. They fly the local routes of life and while they don’t climb high or go fast; they are happy to find their purpose and do their daily work. If they are pleased with themselves at the end of the day, I smile with them.
Then there are those of us whose lives travel like the balloon.
We may look lost, drifting about with no clear intention or direction. But flying the balloons of life are much more complicated that it appears to those who don’t understand how we operate.
I like to wander. Sometimes I get lost on purpose, just excited to see where things might take me next. I’m ok with that. Sometimes I’m the pilot, sometimes I’m irresponsible and let others direct my course. I’m not always happy with that.
But adults make choices and all choices have consequences, like it or not.
One of my favorite people of all times, Zig Ziglar once stated, ““It is your attitude, more than your aptitude, that will determine your altitude.”
When I bounce around close to the ground with a poor attitude, I rarely travel far. I fail to see the beauty surrounding me, and it takes more energy to move from place to place. I typically end up in a place I don’t want to be.
But when I work the winds blowing around me and understand how they impact my current situation, things change. I can engage the burners with positive thoughts, empathy for my fellow travelers, and work smarter not harder. I take control of my direction of travel. I rise above the pettiness and my perception of life improves. And so does my situation; it smooths out almost every time. Quieter, smoother air at those higher altitudes.
I don’t see success decided by a pinnacle event.
I see a fulfilling life revealed differently. It is an appreciation of the age-old adage that we don’t determine success by arriving at a specific destination, owning a certain car, or having a set amount of money; it’s more a collection of the elements in our journey and all the interactions and impacts we have on the world surrounding us while making this trip.
Like the sight of the balloons lighting up the night sky; not going anywhere, just being present to beautify the lives of those who enjoy their colors while sitting safely on the ground.