Sunday, January 18, 2009


Are we really meant to be up there, aloft, afloat?

I think not.

It's a conspiracy, I say.

In fact, I don't think anybody actually hurtles up into the sky at all.

More on this startling realization, but first:

Hearing about the airliner that dived into the waters around New York City, all my anxieties about flying in general (and crashing in particular) bobbed to the surface.

Not that I have all that many hesitations about flying. Some of my earliest memories revolve around flying with my father (who had his pilot's license) in that little plane he steered so skillfully into the skies from the small airport in St.Catharines, Ontario. We would soar in the little two-seater above the streets of my hometown, as he pointed through the window at the little Fisher-Price house that he assured me was my real, actual home that we had left only an hour or so earlier.

Flying that young, in a plane that small, seems normal when you're four or five. (Of course, everything seems normal at four or five. "Eat snot? Let's do it!")

It was only later, years later, that I started to get a wee bit uncomfortable about the whole hovering-above-the-earth-thousands-of-feet-in-the-air thing.

What freaks me out the most is: it never feels like you're moving. In a car, or a bus, or a train, you can look out the window and see cows eating grass and children playing catch and mothers hanging laundry out to dry in the fresh spring air, and you zoom on past them, and your brain starts to wonder who they were and what they were doing, and whether they are happy, and whether they think the same things about you as you hurtle past, your face for them a one-second glimpse-through-a-window.

In a plane, you usually get none of that.

Once the plane takes off (the only really mobile part of the journey, in my opinion), everything after is simply shaking. Jostling. Yes, you can look out the window, and see clouds, and mountains, and various bodies of water bobbing next to each other, but it's all in the abstract. ("That's Alaska? Cool...")

You can't see the frozen breath of a forest ranger as he walks through the woods. You don't catch a glimpse of a little girl's sarcastic roll-of-the-eyes at the latest warning from her mother as they stand on the edge of the highway, scouting out traffic. All sense of proportion is reduced, narrowed, diluted.

The plane shakes, and four, eight, ten hours later, you're in another country. As if you stepped into some kind of science-fictional contraption that bashes you around like fruit in a blender. Like you are not moving at all, in fact, but everything around you is shifting and altering its molecular state.

Perhaps that's what's really happening.

A car-wash world, in which the illusion of movement is necessary to perfect and uphold the illusion itself.

Planes do not lift off at all, I'm thinking.

The universe, instead, rearranges itself, physcially discombobulates its quarks and neutrons, its atoms and cells, folding in on itself until we emerge from the plane, thinking we have moved a great deal, when, instead, the air and space around us has accomodated itself to our geographical desires. A constant, unending Rubik's Cube of a planet that contorts itself to fit our moods and whims.

Which would mean my cherished childhood memory of flying in my father's plane might very well be an illusion. Authentic, yes, yet nevertheless a ploy designed to make a child feel safe and ennobled.

I may never have actually been up there, between the clouds. I was granted the perception of flight, and yet the truth was more mundane: that little speck of a house, which I was told was mine, had been an untruth concocted by my dad, a picture painted outside the window, designed specifically to give me a sense that the world was both smaller and bigger than I could imagine, that I could elevate myself, and yet still see my home from such a great height. That the world could simultaneously be viewed from a vantage point both high and low. We could go from here to there and remain intact; we could see where we came from, even though we were so far away (and above).

How intricate such a plan was!

I did not go up. The world rearranged itself for me and me alone.

An adult's scheme to make a child feel comforted in a vast, cold and disproportionate world.

So that's what it's all about, I'm thinking.

I've got it figured out.

All of these airports and airplanes were designed by adults to make kids feel that they were actually going somewhere.

I mean, come on: who actually believes that thousands of planes are above us, daily, hourly? It's absurd. Much easier to acknowledge the truth -- that when we step onto that plane, and settle into our seats, and fasten our belts, we remain immoble.

I'm waiting for when the truth is finally revealed, via an email, or a midnight phone call, or a knock on my door on a late-winter's morn. The simple message will be delivered by men in black suits and somber ties and silver shades when they've judged that I'm ready for its impact: It's a vast conspiracy, this whole flying thing, something grown-ups have invented to reassure kids that we can move from left to right and yet still maintain a sense of ourselves. That we can somehow control all of our flights and our falls.

The truth is, as we all soon learn, we never truly go anywhere.

(We think we do, yes, and we feel we do, certainly, but the world cannot truly be that wide. Such lateral and horizontal mobility cannot tangibly be that simple.)

The world comes to us, and we make do with what we have before us. Bending the world, for good or ill, to suit our needs, hopes, heartaches and longings. Going anywhere changes nothing; only that which comes towards needs to be confronted, and comforted, and loved. The shaking we feel on a plane is a shoddy replication of what trembles within us on a daily basis, but it invigorates us, this jostling; it makes us feel that we have the power to withstand tension and emerge, more or less, intact.

But: shhh!

Keep it yourself, this knowledge, as you would your mother's secret or your sibling's sickness.

For right now, at this very moment, somewhere in the world, a child is in a small plane with his father, staring down at their family's house, believing that the world can so easily be divided into up and down, large and small. Not understanding, as no child possibly can, that the true journeys we take are always stationary. That the world does with us what it will, and we have to be ready and open to embrace all that stands before us after the shaking subsides, when the final illusion of landing fades away like morning mist.