Last week, I had the opportunity to fly for the first time in my life—and maybe the only one—in a hot air balloon with my daughter, Kahlia. I got the tickets last year at her school’s auction. The combination of planning a special outing while helping our beloved charter school made sense. We have tried to schedule this trip on several occasions since last summer, but each time we tried the weather was not right. Finally, last week was our chance.
We had to be at the Sonoma County Airport at 5:30 a.m. just before sunrise. Too early for this mother-daughter duo who self-identify as night owls, but it was part of the adventure. The moon was still bright, but we could see the first rays of sunlight shining. After checking in, we got in the van that was pulling the trailer with the basket of our balloon and we went to the launching site. We watched how they first inflated the balloon with cold air and then filled it with hot air from the burners to lift the balloon. There were four other balloons preparing to fly that morning so it was nice to experience the set up of our own balloon and also see when the others were up and ready to depart.
We jumped into the basket and, pretty soon, we started to ascend in the most gentle way. Then voilá! Minutes later, we were seeing the world from a completely new perspective. The beautiful colors of the sky, the magical sight of the other balloons floating around us, and the views of the vineyards and mountains in the horizon made the journey feel like a dream.
One of the most exciting moments for my daughter was to be able to spot jack rabbits hopping across the fields below us—something you can’t do from an airplane window!
“That’s the way a hawk sees its pray,” Kahlia said.
It was in that moment that I realized that my daughter was getting an experiential “systems thinking” lesson. From then on, I couldn’t help but make comments to point out the uniqueness of this privileged perspective.
My mentor Bela Banathy, Sr., developed an approach to develop a systems view which consists of three models: the functions, or structure model; the process model; and the system environment model. Describing a system using these three models creates a rich picture—a comprehensive understanding of the parts, the relationships between the parts and the whole, and the relationships between the whole and its larger context. Bela described the system environment model as the “bird’s eye view,” or an expanded perspective that enables the observer to appreciate the whole picture. The beauty of the bird’s eye view is that it is the systemic perspective that takes us beyond rationality because, when we see the whole picture, we can’t avoid feeling awe. Bela was also fond of making his students simplify complex ideas by asking, “How would you explain it to a 13-year-old?” Since that’s my daughter’s age, this ballooning adventure turned out to be a perfect learning opportunity for both of us.
This systems view allowed us to see the patterns of the landscape that are hidden from our day-to-day, on-the-ground perspective. We could see how lush, green and diverse the areas with natural forest were; the curiously artificial straight lines of the grape fields; and how the barren fields, waiting to be cultivated, looked like scars on the earth’s surface. Also, from this perspective, we could see how poverty and wealth differ. We saw houses surrounded by junk yards and mansions with manicured gardens, swimming pools, and multiple luxury cars parked outside. We noticed the contrast between two adjacent neighborhoods, separated by a small creek: on one side, trailer homes; on the other, a gated community with large houses. My daughter and I commented on the big difference of these two communities separated by such a thin natural boundary. But from up there, it was very clear: there are no real divisions.
People working in the fields stopped working to wave at us. A family came out of their house to see the balloons and to shout, “Good morning.”
There have been occasions when I’ve seen a hot air balloon in the air while driving my daughter to school and thought, “I wish I was up there.” There is a very human yearning—to see the world from a higher place. It removes us from the ordinary and helps us appreciate life. Once in a while, we should allow ourselves to fly, to get to higher ground, and to take a deep breath and absorb the majesty of the world and our place in it.