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Essay: “On Flying”

A short thing I wrote while waiting at the airport a week ago. After some revisions it felt good enough to post.

***

An airport in June.

The sun beats down on the tarmac as ground crew mill around like ants, dashing back and forth on foot or on one of those silly little tractors that pull carts of luggage around. Perhaps you approach the window, peer ever so closely and hope to catch a glimpse of your own suitcase dragged along with its brethren to its proper destination. Do you feel a surge of fear if you see one of those luggage carts abandoned, with a bag that looks quite a lot like yours? Because, the fact is that even though we know most people purchase black luggage, so few of us make an effort to buy a suitcase that stands out from the blacks and the greys. Perhaps we might do a half-assed effort, we decorate our standard black bags with ribbons or stickers, to hopefully help us identify it when it shows up in the mass of black on the luggage pick up conveyor belts. How many of us have made that mistake and assumed this bag or that is ours and find ourselves sadly mistaken when we check the tags?

But it’s better to be mistaken and have it show up later, then not have it show up at all. That is why we might anxiously peer out at the crew working outside, loading up the belly of the plane with our precious belongings. Surely that suitcase is mine. You can relax and go back to the dull wait for boarding to start.

We all exist in our own private travel bubble. We sit on hard, uncomfortable seats, made uncomfortable on purpose I think. Because we are not meant to spend any extended period of time here, we are meant to only sit here for a couple of hours at most, patiently waiting at the gate we were assigned, waiting for the next part of our journey to begin.

The plane sits there, like a giant steel bird, wings stretched out in a manner that makes it look like a fledgling bird, just waiting for the right time to leap out of the nest and take wing, but it is always held back by the various implements and bridges that keep it teetered to the airport terminal, the umbilical cords that feed it fuel and stuff it with sustenance for the people who will soon walk on board.

It takes us inside itself, like a modern version of Jonah and the Whale, because what are vacations but a kind of flight away from something? Where Jonah fled from his God, we might be fleeing from a job, a stressful family or just the demons inside our heads. We want this giant metal bird, this flying whale to take us away and our troubles with it.

Yet it is also a terrifying thing to step inside the hollow husk of the plane. And as we walk down the aisle our eyes immediately search out the emergency exits, with their bright, unmistakable signs. We wonder how fast we might get there from where we have been assigned to sit. We wonder if there’s going to be any point to knowing that, because what is the likelihood of surviving a plane crash anyway.

Boarding is its own trial, before we even get on board. Despite instructions it seems that the initial call for boarding makes people ignore any further instructions from the poor gate crew, a partial deafness spreads among your fellow travelers. It does not matter if they only want the very young or the infirm to board first. Impatiently we want to get on as soon as possible. We want to get inside that metal beast and leave this mundane world behind us as soon as possible.

Somehow we do get on board though. Somehow we survive the mess that can be the line for boarding and though we might find ourselves blocked in the aisles by those who boarded too early, as they stuff their belongings into the overhead bins we endure it. Because now we’re finally on board and the journey has almost begun.

We find our seat. Hopefully we did not have to worry about the space in the overhead bins. Hopefully we had plenty of room to stuff our bag in there and we had time to make sure we had our books and iPads and what not to entertain ourselves with while stuck in our seat for the duration of the flight. This becomes especially important if we are in for a long haul, a flight stretching over hours of in flights entertainment and disappointing complimentary meals and beverages. Then we might browse the inflight magazine for whatever services we can expect. Perhaps we pursue the sky shop section for what they sell on board and decide whether it’s worth it.

But then begins the other wait, for the boarding process to end and the plane to finally get ready to leave, shed its terminal safety harness and taxi out to the runway. This might take longer than you might expect. There is also the security demonstration to eat away some of the time, but really…How many of us pay full attention to those anymore? Perhaps we already browsed through the security pamphlet when we found our seat, but now we are simply anxious to get off the ground.

Unless you are like me and have a slight fear of flying. Then you approach the take-off with a bitter sweet kind of feeling. You want to leave, but you loathe the feeling of take-off, the worry that something will go wrong and a crash will ensue. You close your eyes then; you desperately chew that gum that you hope will ease that blockage in your ears. And then…That sensation that you feel lighter, that you are being carried up and up.

You open your eyes and peer out of the closest window, if you were lucky, you have a window seat. Down below you see the world spread out as the plane ascends into the sky. You see the sun reflect off little lakes and rivers, off the small houses that dot the landscape, off the tiny cars and vehicles that travel on the equally small roads that seem to just stretch on and on. Though it might set off your fear of heights, you dare to take a moment to study how small and insignificant everything looks from up here.

And already you feel like this trip has healed you some.

***

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