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An Aviator, An Artist & Life's Voyage- Nancy Hillis MD & Bruce Sawhill PhD

An Aviator, An Artist & Life’s Voyage- Nancy Hillis MD & Bruce Sawhill PhD



An Aviator, An Artist & Life’s Voyage


Imagine being alone in pitch darkness, a baleful red glow of instruments illuminating your face, peering into the darkness.

A kind of sensory deprivation.

The stars above, the ocean below, one infinitely far, the other always too close.

The hypnotic thrum of the engine is so soothing, a low frequency like the purr of a big cat.

It evokes safety, the mother’s bosom, warmth, protection. 

So easy to doze off.

But you can’t!

Falling asleep would mean certain death. 

This is the dilemma that faced Charles Lindbergh (1902-1974) as he piloted ‘The Spirit of St. Louis’ across the Atlantic on May 20 and 21, 1927.

The flight from New York City to Paris was a distance of 3,600 miles, over twice the record at the time, in addition to being over water essentially the entire way.



Col. Charles Lindbergh



Since aircraft of the time did not have conveniences like autopilot and GPS, navigation was a hands-on task.

To add to the excitement, weather knowledge was very sparse in ocean regions without satellite observation.

Charles had to maintain altitude and direction while managing the wallowing aircraft, laden with so much fuel it could hardly take off.

In fact the aircraft had no front windshield, that space was occupied by (yet another) fuel tank.

He navigated with a kind of periscope. 



Charles Lindbergh’s control panel for The Spirit of St. Louis, 1927



Falling asleep on the 33 hour trip was a major risk.

Setting an alarm clock was of no use, the plane could become in an unrecoverable position in a matter of seconds without constant correction at the controls.

If the alarm clock went off every ten minutes and you dozed off at nine minutes and thirty seconds, it was too late.

He actually designed the aircraft to be difficult to fly so that constant attention to the controls would keep him awake and occupied. 

There is a different philosophy required depending on if you’re planning to cross the Atlantic once or many times.

Lindbergh optimized for a single crossing, not reliably doing it many times.

He had no radio and no life raft and a plane that would not fly straight and level if left alone, poor choices for frequent flyers but good for one trip.


A Novel Idea


So Charles came up with a novel idea.

He got a large machine nut and tied a string through the hole, with the other end tied around his finger.

He closed his fist around the nut with his hand facing downwards.

If he started to doze off, the fingers would relax, the nut would fall, and the jerk on his finger would wake him up.  



Hex machine nut



He did what he had to do to accomplish the mission. 

The closest either of us ever came to such an experience was Bruce helming a 40-foot sloop from Oahu to Maui through rough seas overnight and some of the next day on his own, as all of the rest of the crew were green and hanging over the rail, feeding the fish. 

Like most things people do, there are examples in Nature.

Not surprising, since we are Nature. 

Storks and other waterbirds are often observed sleeping on one leg. This is a kind of dozing state, not fully asleep.

As the bird begins to fall into deeper sleep, the leg muscle relaxes in the other leg and that leg eventually touches the ground, waking the bird.

The bird startles, checks for threats, and starts the process over again.

What looks like a “bug in the system” is actually a kind of deep functionality. 



Flamingos standing on one leg




Salvador Dali


A very different personality on his own mission adopted a similar technique.

This mission did not involve physical life or death, but perhaps creative life or death.

The person was the artist Salvador Dali, a contemporary of Lindbergh’s. (1904-1989).

Dali (more properly Salvador Domingo Felipe Jacinto Dalí i Domènech, Marquess of Dalí of Púbol) was fascinated by the unconscious mind and wanted to be able to tap into it in his artwork, but he felt that he was not very good at remembering his dreams.

Had he not achieved worldwide fame as an artist, he would be immortalized in the Mustache Hall of Fame.



Salvador Dali, from Paco Barragàn, Artishock



So Salvador came up with idea of holding a spoon in the same way Lindbergh held a nut.

He believed that the moment of falling asleep was a “hypnagogic” state when dreams could best be remembered.

Hallucinations and lucid dreaming are associated with this threshold between wakefulness and sleep, a liminal state, a doorway between worlds. Dali wanted to balance at the threshold..

In particular, a certain kind of hallucination called phosphenes, which are abstract geometric forms that might be fascinating to an artist, kind of a test pattern for the retina.

So he would sit on a chair in his studio, holding a spoon over a metal plate on the floor.

No doubt a bystander would observe this situation and feel that the artist was already living a surreal life and needed no further assistance. 


teaspoon, suitable for dropping



As soon as the spoon dropped, Dali would jump up and paint! 


As an artist, you must figure out what works for you, your particular string to follow into and out of the cave of your personal Minotaur.


Your voyage may not be in a fabric covered plane over the surging Atlantic, but it is a voyage nonetheless, a voyage only undertaken once across an ocean of dreams and aspirations. 


With gratitude from our studio to yours,

Nancy & Bruce


P.S. Here’s a fun little video of my beautiful friend Dr. Jane Lombard, receiving The Adjacent Possible Guidebook. Dana is one of 25 amazing artists in the book. 



P.P.S Thank you dear Readers, our Reader Team, and the fabulous 25 artists featured in the book.

This puppy joins the suite of award winning books in The Art of the Possible series.

If you haven’t gotten your copy yet, go get it and see what all the excitement is about. 

Get your copy HERE. 




Get the suite of award winning books in The Art of the Possible Series. 






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