One hectic morning, early in my marriage, I was driving my father-in-law to the airport. While navigating the snarling highway traffic, my mind looped through to-do lists, calculating how long it would take to drop him off, say goodbye and make it cross-town to the office. Then a jet glided silently over the road like a giant heron, about to touch down at Dallas-Fort Worth Airport.
"It's magic,” my father-in-law said, interrupting my restless thoughts. I looked at him, confused.
Here was a doctor who lectured at colleges and had visited more than 100 countries. He understood better than I the Bernoulli principle that keeps planes in the air; how the miracle of flight is actually no miracle at all but a simple physics equation. It definitely wasn’t magic.
But thinking back now, I realise he was at least partially right. While flying might not be magic, it’s certainly magical. What it brings to our lives, our perspectives and our outlooks is undeniably the stuff of dreams.
But too often, we – I – forget.
I read a tweet a few months ago that struck a little too close to home.
“You know you’re grown-up,” it said, “when you no longer want a window seat.”
You know you’re grown-up when you no longer want a window seat.
And too often in recent years, I've found myself sweet-talking gate agents to land a coveted aisle seat on the exit row, forgetting the wonders travelling at near the speed of sound. But occasionally, when the wi-fi’s out or my laptop battery is depleted, I remember to look.
One night sticks out to me. I was heading home from California and connecting in Texas after a challenging work trip. Delay piled up on delay as storms marched across the region. When we finally took off, hours late, it was pushing midnight. The crew dimmed the cabin lights and most of my fellow passengers were asleep in minutes (or at least closing their eyes and wishing they were).
I was about to follow suit when a flash of light caught my attention. The thunderstorm that had snarled air traffic that night still had some life. Our pilot had routed us 100 miles to the north of the weather system, providing bleacher seats for the performance.
Clouds sparkled as they shot silent bolts of lightning to the ground. They glowed like lanterns, popping with colours in a cosmic light show. I stared into the darkness and noticed the flight attendant had kneeled next to my bulkhead seat to watch the show.
I’m invariably rewarded when I remember to look.
For the next half-hour we were riveted, not saying a word as we sailed through the night. How many hundreds of thousands of miles had she flown? I didn't ask. But she could still appreciate the wondrous moment – and on that night, so could I.
I’m invariably rewarded when I remember to look. The world seems to make more sense from up high. Seeing the great expanse of the Earth divided into neat patterns – fields checkerboarding the landscape and roads racing to the horizon – brings symmetry to the messiness of everyday life.
I've leaned past snoozing seatmates to marvel at snow-covered mountain peaks gliding past the window, and been hypnotized by a glowing Los Angeles night, the undulating topography sparkling like a star-studded cape. Then there's the unexpected glory of a sunrise that arrives hours too early when you fly overseas, the majestic rays illuminating the horizon of another continent. This moment of discovery unfolds every dawn for tens of thousands of passengers, but few, I would venture, ever stop to think about it.
To be honest, I usually don't either.
I recall another time when I was leaving on what was supposed to be a family vacation, and once again, my mind was on the office and unfinished projects left behind.
The clouds! ... Look at the clouds!
Moments after take-off from Chicago, I dove into work. But a passenger behind me wouldn't stop talking. “The clouds!” he kept saying, “Look at the clouds!”
I turned to glare, and saw two men, one who appeared to be in his 70s and the other much younger. I felt sorry for the travelling companion, whom I imagined was the unlucky son tasked to join his aging father on the trip. The chatter continued for 20 minutes until, in frustration, I looked up from my glowing computer screen and opened the window shade.
He was right. We were floating through giant balls of cotton, soft and fluffy, each as different as a snowflake and seemingly close enough to touch. The afternoon sun provided a shifting palette of colours: pink and salmon, red and raspberry, crimson and ivory, all set off against a royal blue sky. I closed my laptop and stared at them for the rest of the flight.
I don't remember the work I felt compelled to complete that afternoon. But I've never forgotten those clouds.