A Flight of Thoughts
|A hundred years ago the challenge was to see the world like a hawk
and for many now, the challenge is to see the world like a star.
I'm currently sitting in 15A, the last row of business class on BA0145 to Dhaka, Bangladesh. I'm also so many thousand miles above the ground. I could be anywhere between Germany, the Black Sea and Pakistan. I'm above and between the clouds. I am moving at an unimaginable speed while remaining incredibly stationary. I am flying.
In the six hundred and forty-seven minutes that I have to stay in this limbo between the earth and the rest of the universe, I can't help but wonder, what is this notion of flying? For thousands of years birds have flown the world while we have walked it. Humanity's observations of these feathered creatures seem to have fuelled its aspiration to fly. Flying to me suggests so many things from the notes one can fly across a classroom to the wars one can dominate.
Human flight began as a form of punishment and now helps the world's natural and ever increasing immigration. Imagine a Chinese farmer, tied to a kite for stealing a chicken from a warlord's estate; then imagine me, bond for my mother's homeland. Already I can see that flying is a dangerous, tortuous experience and then an exhilarating, satisfying phenomenon. Humans were once limited to the forests and valleys they could walk across and I was once limited to the bedroom and living room I could crawl between. Time has brought us all forward and into the skies.
Though I say time has taken me into the sky, it has also frozen around me. Like in limbo I sit here, waiting for the time to move on. I glance over at the gentleman next to me, his chair's ability to become a bed in full use, while he breathes heavily into a small airline pillow. I turn to my other side to see through the oval window; to see a vastness filled with small dots of silver. I am reminded of humanity's insatiability for new experiences and greater challenges. A hundred years ago the challenge was to see the world like a hawk and for many now, the challenge is to see the world like a star.
My first real encounter with the stars was three years ago, with a boy called Josh, who could carry me away the same way the currents could carry a man across oceans; forcefully and blindly. Under the cloud of night we lay on summer's grass, his arm around my body, my hand resting on his chest. My heart was beating in my ears as he tried to teach me about the stars above us. Despite having quite an imaginative mind, I could barely make out the shapes he was trying to draw out with his finger.
“See that bright one? It's got two smaller ones above it link that one with that one to its left and the one above that and you've got a car.” He said smiling.
“A car? I see a frying pan at best.” I scoffed. “Can you see any constellations?”
“Yeah, can't you?” He asked turning to look at me.
My heart throbbed as I tried to squint above me. “I don't know. They're all stars to me. I can't help but see them all at once.”
His embrace tightened around my shoulder as he made himself more comfortable. “There's Libra,” he pointed into the distance. I smiled remembering how we were both Librans, with not even a day to separate our birthdays. I never did see it, despite his best efforts to point it out. For a start I wasn't sure what the constellation should look like to begin with, let alone how it would draw itself out on the tapestry before me. The scales of Justice known as Libra was made with the severed claws of the Scorpion that had scared Phaethon as he had tried to fly across the sky in Apollo's chariot. Zeus had said these stars of Libra should remind everyone that “ego can destroy the balance of the universe.”
This makes me wonder whether any parallels can be drawn between Phaethon's failed attempt to ride the Chariot of the Sun and humanity's continuing efforts to ride the skies and beyond. Overall mankind has succeeded to defeat the air above and remains persistent in its battle against the cosmos. Is that an ego that can destroy the balance? Or does the story have a simple moral at its heart? Like one can not take on a greater challenge than oneself.
“Excuse me madam, would you like breakfast?” asked a steward, breaking off my train of thought. As I then sat there with my little bread roll, jam and plastic cutlery I looked around to the people who travelled with me. In front there was a mother and a young daughter, like me, flying to visit grandparents and cousins. The little girl was talking loudly about the how she dreamt she was flying the plane and how cool it would be to be a pilot. Irony strikes a chord in my mind as I can't help but think of perhaps another flashing example of Phaethon and the Chariot of the Sun, this time an Isabelle and the plummeting Boeing 777. The gentleman I mentioned before was being roused from his slumber to eat his fruit salad. Across our aisle a middle aged man sat with his middle aged wife, swapping pieces from their trays. The husband liked his yoghurts while the wife preferred butter to margarine. The stewardess was making her way up the aisle, smiling, offering the drinks on her trolley. She surely was frustrated by the businessman who persistently asked her to bring down and take up his brief case from the overhead compartment. Her complexion was tanned but pale, like someone from southern Europe, like Greece or Italy.
My mind trailed to how the Ancient Greeks and Romans revolutionised the skies from realising the earth was round to plotting the stars. Greek mythology seems to dominate our initial understanding of many things. I remember my childhood being littered with it, from how Athena was born from Zeus' head to how Hades tricked Persephone to stay with him in the Underworld. Such tales of heroism and scandal would inspire and alarm the best of us but one that has stuck with me through my life seems quite fitting considering my current journey of thought. Though I have always tried to relate to this story, the tale of Daedalus has most likely been one of the most interestingly alienating stories I have heard.
Trapped on the island of Crete by King Minos for possessing the knowledge of its famous labyrinth, Daedalus, the most skilled artificer, was forced to come up with an inventive escape that did not use the land and sea routes Minos could control. Using wax and thread he created wings like that of a bird. Such a great achievement from man is remarkable but every success seems to have a moral point, and Daedalus' son Icarus' fall from flight is just that. Temptation steered him towards the heavens, where his waxed wings melted from the sun's beams, and he fell into the sea. Now that I've thought this through, perhaps this is yet another example of ego rising where it shouldn't and paying the price of downfall.
The lights on the wings of the plane are flashing at me. I'm snapped back into 15A, with a belt across my lap and a blanket tucked around my feet. A steward's voice echoes through the aircraft, requesting passengers to remain seated through the turbulence. My stomach rises and jolts for a few minutes. I enjoy the sensation forgetting that I am thousands of miles above the ground.
My thoughts have left me dumb and pensive. I speculate to whether it is the seat I sit on or the experience I am enduring that has infused this contemplative state into me. I glance one more time at the stars to see that across the horizon a deep red is rising to engulf the darkness that had just dominated the sky. The silver orbs are about to return the role as Light to Earth to the sun. They are still sparkling, as if winking at me, saying they'll be back again. The distances between the earth and the stars are unimaginably huge, yet they appear so small and innocently to us; and I wonder, how small must we be to them? My own stories to explain such natural and everlasting events begin to brew. The Greeks would have Apollo riding the Chariot of the Sun while I might have a golden dragon breathing his red flames into the darkness. It seems that in the same way that the Wright Brothers warped the wings of their airplane to sustain flight, I have warped my imagination to create my own mythology.
So as Flight BA0145 descends into the civilisation beneath the clouds, I ask myself once again: what is flying? From the act or process of flight, to whatever it means to us individually, it is the metaphorical and physical journey of anyone and anything.
(R) thedailystar.net 2009