Sunday, August 22, 2010

On Planes

I just boarded a plane headed from Knoxville to Dallas. If I can manage to make my connection in the Dallas-Ft. Worth airport, it’s on to Albuquerque.

I don’t fly much. I’ve flown only 3 or 4 times in my life before now—an amount which allows me to retain both my wonder and fear of flying. I can only suppose that most of the people on board this cramped craft are seasoned flyers. Everyone but me seemed to find his or her seat quite easily, then quickly settle in with a book, newspaper, or cell phone. Some even shut their eyes, laid back their heads, and ignored the safety demonstration as well as the takeoff.

I, on the other hand, confident that 4C must be in the far-off section C (for less-experienced and shallower-pocketed passengers) trod toward the back of the plane. But very soon I saw the lavatory ahead of me—with no such section beyond it. My naturally red face turned a shade brighter as I repented of my trek to the plane’s tail section. Fortunately, I was one of the last passengers to board, so on my way back toward the front and my undeserved fourth-row seat I didn’t have to squirm past too many people.

Finally in my seat, I admitted my foolishness to the woman next to me. “Are you 4B?” I asked. Then, upon her nod: “Oh, good! I’m in the right place.”

While my blonde neighbor adjusted her watch for Dallas time, I itched to open the window. Finally I did, but not without asking if it would bother her. She piddled about in her purse. “Oh no, honey. That’s fine.” She was nice, though apparently uninterested in our upcoming ascent.

After ten minutes of poking around in the leather bag, she closed her eyes, and her head lolled slightly toward the aisle. I felt impatient for takeoff, and when it came I was grateful for the window seat my sleeping companion would likely not have appreciated.

Now here I sit, alternating between craning to view earth’s texture below and scratching my messy cursive on a small legal pad I threw in my bag with no expectation that inspiration would visit me. From up here, even my fine-lead pencil seems too large to describe how small the world looks—the world I so recently have crawled on and considered large and important. I first realized how high we must be when we passed over a stable, including an arena full of jumps appearing nothing more than lines in sand. We’re much higher now than we were then, so that even roads appear only as earth's veins:  thin, squiggly, and hardly-visible.

Now clouds and summer haze keep me from seeing even those. But for a few minutes, at least, I saw the earth’s surface as two-dimensional. Huge and pure bright clouds, in contrast, seemed full—as though things up in the air have greater substance and make up a more tangible reality than the stick figures below.

I have bothered to look out the window, and I have seen that the dust from which I am made really doesn’t comprise much. Fence-lines, tree-lines, roads, and rivers seem no more real or massive than the markings on a map. Buildings which ordinarily would overwhelm my 5’2” stature have no height, really. And cars just like the one I drive on seemingly important business are like specks I can’t be sure represent more than a flaw in my vision.

Up here where clouds collide with sky I never knew to be so deeply blue, I have seen that the hill of dirt I daily trudge is miniscule. And though I sit on this plane, separate from that almost-reality, I know that--were I tied to earth as usual--I could not hope to be even a speck in a sky-flying observer’s field of vision.

Yet it’s also easier (from up here) to see the beautiful order of the earth’s landscape. Roads section off verdant plots of land—some fields dotted with tin-topped barns, others subdivided into symmetrical neighborhoods—all with trees marking internal boundaries and occasionally dappling the landscape. From above, there seems design and purpose of placement. There’s beauty in the smallness.

Now we’re descending and I have to stow my implements. Unfortunately, the Dallas airport will make me think earth-bound things are large once again, and that my scurrying to catch my connection is terribly important. Still, for two short hours I have seen the smallness and the beauty of the earth. Indeed, I think I may have seen the smallness of myself.

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I wrote the above post at the beginning of a delightful trip to New Mexico.  The picture below shows me, an insignificant traveler, in the vast Sandia Mountains.


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