Our response to airplanes can tell us a lot about who we are. Besides being of great pratical use, an airplane is a powerful symbol. Who among us has never dreamed of flying, in both the literal and metaphorical senses? Who has never longed to transcend everyday existence and to see, to do, to become something more - to "slip the surly bonds of earth and touch the face of god"? Who has never earnestly desired to disappear from this place and reappear somewhere different, somewhere new, somewhere far far away?
It was a winter day, cold and clear, and I was on my way to work when I stopped and stood on the sidewalk of a Georgetown side street - stopped and stood still, my face upturned to look at the plane that roared overhead and away, higher into the sky. I felt a sense of melanchonly and of longing, and I knew that the sight of an airplane, in any time and any place, had power to tell me how happy I was with my life. The more miserable our circumstances, the stronger our desire to see and to go beyond, to surpass our limits and smash past the border gates that contrain us, as if they were only so much empty air.
It was a cool evening, approaching chilly, when I arrived at the airport in Baltimore. I'd packed light for my trip, and only chosen lightweight clothes - no jacket. Fortunately the cabin of the plane was comfortable during the flight, but I couldn't help worrying that I had miscalculated and would be cold during my stay. Then we landed in Houston and pulled up to the gate, and the flight crew opened the door. A sudden rush of hot, sticky, humid air flooded the plane, bringing wry laughter and murmurs of dismay from the passengers.
Flying can be a disorienting experience. We enter the plane and the door is sealed behind us. Then, after an interval of time, the door opens, and we walk out into something completely different. Did we change our location, or did the world change around us? The sudden shift brings with it a sense of unreality, just as when we experience a sudden break in our daily routines. For vacations, for short trips, this is all part of the adventure. But, the first time I moved cross-country, I shipped my belongings and travelled by plane. I felt disoriented and out-of-place for the better part of two years, until I finally had the opportunity to travel back to my old home by car, and see with my own eyes what lay between Here and There.
The most thrilling moment of flight is the instant the plane leaves the ground. The wheels thunder along the runway and the trees whip past the window with increasing speed. The seats and the floors and the windows and the walls vibrate around us; surely if it goes on this way the ship will break apart and scatter us on the concrete like fruit-borne seeds. But then, instead, everything tilts and the ground drops away, our stomachs with it. Freed of the bonds of gravity and our ties to our own innards, we float into the air.
Most of us have dreams (the night-time variety) of flying, though they take different forms. Some dream of falling, and fear the impact above all. Some dream of expanded horizons and the view from above, seeing all, touched by nothing. But my dreams have always been of floating -- just leaving the ground, slipping into the air, and with the slightest shift or twitch, moving in any direction I please. It's never a new ability in these dreams, but always something that I always knew how to do, even if I never knew I knew it. In my dreams, I've always been able to escape the restraints of gravity and venture wherever I will.