As a child, the first thing I remember thinking about flying was that it doesn’t feel like flying. The final acceleration up the runway was promising, but before we reached anything like the speed I thought we needed to take off, the plane just stepped up into the air. I waited for the sensation that I had never experienced to arrive – the sensation of travelling at high speed across the sky – but the feeling of movement diminished to almost nothing. The stewardess had already clicked out of her restraints and was handing out orange juice and reassuring smiles; the lights were dimmed and the fan above my seat whirred; people walked around the cabin in their socks. I knew we were travelling to the other side of the planet, but when I tried looking out the tiny window it was like peering through an ice cube. Even clear of clouds, the earth was faint and warped, the outlines of ridges and rivers unrecognisable as anything I had seen on a map or from the ground. During the night I tried to imagine people around me were asleep over the Philippines or Mongolia or Belarus, or wherever we happened to be, but it was hard to sustain (partly because those places were little more than words to me). Flying didn’t show me what I thought it would; flying really just felt like being in a communal hotel room with no beds.
At the time, being in a hotel room was enough excitement for me and I was far from disappointed; however, the perception of flying being unsensational travel has remained. Occasionally these days, I do get a momentary sense that we are actually in the air, resulting in either fear or a strange stir of excitement. Or sometimes, looking down at the delicately drawn landscapes of central Australia or Siberia, it seems there really is a lot of wilderness in the world. The cities we consider to be huge and important pass beneath the plane almost before they can be seen but landscape without a sign of human habitation continues for hours at a time. Maybe the perception that the world is overcrowded and shrinking is exaggerated from the ground: we are by definition living where other humans live, amongst houses, travelling on roads. Everything is pointing back at ourselves and we lose any sense of proportion.
And sometimes at night I look down and spread out below is an impossible constellation of streetlights: fine tendrils disappearing like deep sea luminescence, or electric currents in a brain; a kind of scientific rapture of particles. I try to imagine what those lights look like to someone down on the ground, submerged in their life, where the specific details are everything. I cannot know what particular joy or misery that person’s streetlight is illuminating, and they cannot imagine the precise, bizarre patterns of connection between the lights I can see from here, sailing far above them. The difficulty is not deciding which point of view is most true, what is difficult is understanding that both perceptions are true at the same time, in the same place.