So I’m in Georgia right now. My mom had neck surgery on Thursday and I flew out here for a week to take care of her as she recovers, but she barely needs me because she’s a champ and a major trooper. That’s just how my mom rolls.
ANYWAY, as I sat on the airplane on Wednesday morning waiting for take-off, I started thinking about how many times I’ve flown on an airplane in my life. I’ve probably taken close to one hundred flights in my twenty-four years, eighteen of which have been since January 1st of this year alone. That’s a lot of time spent up in the air. You would think that many flights would cause a person to become disenchanted with the novelty of flying, and I’ll admit that it does sometimes if I’m really sleepy or if I’m in an aisle seat, but whenever I sit in a window seat (which I did on this flight) I become a little overwhelmed by the phenomenon of flight and the things it enables me to see.
After I took my seat and other passengers continued to straggle on board, I started reading a book. I read it while the plane started backing up, and while the stewardesses gave their safety demonstration, and while the plane slowly ambled toward the position on the runway where it joins the queue and waits for a far-off voice from a radio tower somewhere to give them the go-ahead. But as soon as the plane started picking up speed and careening down the runway toward lift-off, I put my book down to focus on what was happening outside of my window. Because as much as I know that my plane crashing is a statistical improbability, I still always hold my breath a little as the nose lifts up and the plane’s tiny wheels leave the ground, as everything starts to go diagonal, as the pressure that pushes me back into my seat mounts, like the world itself is moving in the opposite direction that I am and trying to take me with it. It’s a feeling unlike any other, and as many times as I’ve experienced it, I still get nervous during the first couple minutes of the ascent and find myself intently watching for the fasten-seatbelt light, the sign that everything will probably be okay, to come on, just like Diane Court in Say Anything.
But then once I’m up in the air, when the plane has plateaued and the fasten-seatbelt light glows a reddish-orange aside the esoteric no-smoking light, its like that nervousness never happened at all. I’m free to look out the window without worry, and when I do, it’s like I’m whirring through an alternate dimension where everything my eye perceives as big becomes infinitesimal. Believe it or not, this flight was the first I can remember that has started out flying northerly, so we flew over downtown Seattle’s skyscrapers and the Space Needle, and then headed east across Lake Washington and the floating bridge and rolling hills of evergreen and over the jagged snow-capped mountains, and it all looked small enough to fit in my palm. It was easily the most majestic and breathtaking view I’ve ever had from a plane. And even as I continued to fly east, I marveled at how the tiny little houses were arranged in perfect grids like graph paper, how the variegated tones of brown farmland fitted together like patchwork, how those white windmills that stand imposing as giants looked the size of a sliver I might pull from my finger. If you’re ever in need of some perspective, look down from three-thousand feet: everything on this earth can be made to feel small.
There’s a quiet magic in flying, a magic that doesn’t boast or draw attention to itself. Even as I watched this miraculous landscape pass by me in miniature, I never gave a thought to the fact that I was sitting inside a metal bird that weighed tons but, through a series of complex processes that I’ve never even attempted to understand, somehow managed to make itself airborne and to soar through the sky with what appears to me to be relative ease. I get to sit down and read a book and have someone bring me something to drink as if I were at home with my mother, and sure, maybe it feels a little crowded, but it mostly just feels really normal. Tell me that isn’t magic!