Altitude and the Neverlasting “Now.”
The sneaky seduction of altitude is this: the higher you fly, the faster you can go but the more difficult it is to perceive the speed.
At cruise altitude, the arch of the earth or the depths of the ocean are mere backdrop for passage. From a contemplative perch made of the lightest material possible in a thin-skinned cocoon inches from sub-freezing, anemically thin air, the perspective and distance makes the otherworldly, near-Mach speed seem like a lazy float in a cloud swing.
The monumental seems miniscule because the miles-high magic of perspective paints the infinite details with a brush broadened by altitude rendering the monolithic perceptible in a glance–an impossibility from the ground.
Once the Earth falls away, the crags and mottled rocks and bare washes recede into a more perfect rugged beauty most apparent in the wide angle vantage point of altitude, a newborn epic revelation.
And the lazy cloud swing breezes through effortless miles over a rolling tapestry of preternatural vistas from here to there, a “now” with a spectacular view,
a footless, rootless, colossal impossible God’s-eye-view of the fastest way to there, wherever that is today.
That’s difficult to imagine from the surface, particularly when the struggle to get into the air seems as insurmountable as the miles to go. Even once under way but still shackled with the twin albatrosses of gravity and crowding, “now” masquerades as forever.
Waiting–Keats’ “foster child of silence and slow time”– renders the present a shuffling laggard, and speed a distant mirage like tomorrow or yesterday. “There” and “then,” the double-play of anticipation, never seem more impossibly far away and “now” a more wearisome isolation from where we’re headed and who we’re going to see.
And yet that’s the closest we ever really are to each other, wandering life, vagabonds bound by the commonality of where we aren’t yet, but are headed for–which is always some particular there. The tedious details of the strangled moment are forgettable snapshots as they present themselves, but in truth they’re truly the imprint of the best, most fleeting treasures of our lives:
This is how we were then. Look how small the kids were! And how young we were. Like the magical clarity borne of altitude, the distance of time paints a whole new picture. And the pictures side by side reveal the awful truth: time is a thief.
Let’s face it: compared to the breathtaking perspective of the sky view, the grounded here and now seems like a sideshow–even when it really is the other way around. Maybe it’s the tedium of now, the obligations, the faults and close up detail of “now” that falls away when you leave the Earth relegates the “here and now” to the status of ugly stepchild to “there” and “then” of destination.
Like the ruddy details of a landscape vanishing into the miles-high montage below a jet flight, the ticking seconds hide in the tearing off of calendar pages. But like the imperfections of wilderness, they are nonetheless the essence of our lives, the reality that makes life what it is rather than the illusion of how it appears from a distance of time or place.
That masks the real culprit–relentless time–and lets him go about his silent ruination of everything precious now under the guise of everything yet to come.
You pay me to hide that from you, and I do my best.
Though time and distance seems non-existent in the speed and altitude of flight, that’s because I’m handling those culprits, sweating them for us all. Time is fuel. Speed is distance. And neither is flexible or endless, because time is not our friend.
We have an appointment with gravity and energy that is ticking our way, hiding behind broadest view of time and distance and the breathless, breathtaking journey between them.
There’s a big plan for our little journey,
and in bringing it to a successful close, it’s easy to forget that what’s for me a workday process is for all of us a passage nonetheless. I try to keep in mind that the seduction of altitude is but ample cover for the thief of time tiptoeing silently by in the seconds barely evident in the calendar’s march. At least I won’t let him steal away unnoticed.
The sneaky seduction of altitude and its supernatural view is also its greatest secret, if you pause long enough to take it apart like an old watch:
The outer face tells an elegant story, but means nothing without the myriad interlocking details that make it tick. A sleek jet at shotgun speed is a beautiful sight rocketing overhead.
But nonetheless, it’s our mundane day-to-day litany of close-up imperfection and routine but precious interlocking lives that is the miracle. A fleeting miracle, despite the stunning trickery of high altitude sightseeing that hides the all-important ticking details in favor of something down the road beyond the reality of now.
And it’s not a fair trade-off, because as Bella Abzug promised, maybe we weren’t at the Last Supper, but we’re certainly going to be at the next one.
On the way, I plan to drag my feet as long as possible in each fleeting but precious mile-high and down-to-earth heartbeat of the neverlasting now.