Jason Dias: On Entering the Church of Planes

Written by Jason Dias

Here’s Jason Dias on air travel. Read this and you’ll never look at an airport the same way again.

aNewDomain —  Out there on the tarmac, my plane was waiting. Before I could get there, though, I had to be purified.

I got up early.  It was a special day: traveling day. A ceremony, a ritual.  Last-minute packing, checking the portents online (what’s the weather like?  Will there be turbulence?  Is the flight on-time?), saying goodbye to the family.  They dropped me off outside the airport and I walked in alone, burdened by everything I thought I might need and nothing else.

There is something freeing about not taking everything in the world, about traveling light. About having faith in one’s own competence: whatever you have forgotten, you can live without or improvise on the fly.  This is the same faith that has caused me to not write any of the presentations I need to give this weekend.  I know the material; I don’t need pictures or Powerpoints or scripts.

So this is the first level of purification: faith.  Faith in self, faith in the machinery.  The unfaithful have to travel some other way, or pay penance with additional time and fees for bigger bags.

airplane-flying-church-of-planesAnd here is the second: screening.  Screening with your ticket, your ID that does not quite match your face because the state lets you renew your ID online and the photo is 12 years old.  Screening of your body to make sure you’re clean – of weapons, bombs, arbitrary things like too much soap or nail clippers.  When was a plane every held up with fingernail clippers?

We all stood in line together.  Then we went through the nude-machine, the advanced sensing equipment that allows the screeners to see everything under your clothes.  I had a hair tie in my front pocket and the screener demanded to see what it is.  Given my long hair and beard I expected to be pulled out of line and patted down, as usual, but it didn’t happen this time.

Now for the third purification: the ritual of shoes.  We all took of our shoes, jackets, watches; put them in plastic containers to be scanned while we were scanned.  We took of our shoes as though to traverse holy ground, and now we dress again together, snatching our meager things out of the containers, trying to make our own space in the crowds.

It is as though we have washed our feet so as to not profane the temple. 

Next we came to the terminal.  A long wait in uncomfortable chairs.  Coffee, the ritual drink of travelling, was available for a price.  I had coffee and eggs and sausage patties by a picture window facing the Rockies.  The sun painted them pink, the clouds too, and the sky gradually went from night to early morning.

Then another ritual: the graded boarding of the plane, zone by zone.  It’s a meaningless ritual that divides the wealthy from the poor, the frugal from those willing to pay extra to board sooner.  More efficient to board at random than in zones but we, the consumers, demand this ritual of order.  I clambered onto the plane in my turn, squeeze my bag into the overhead and my body into the seat.

Another purification: the body ritual.  I was cramped up against another big guy, mostly sitting in the window-well made for someone much smaller while his shoulder, arm, hip and thigh pressed against my other side.  We mingled our sweat and pretended we were alone, staring at our knees as though contemplating our navels. 

The plane taxied so long I wondered if we were going to just drive to California.  How might the plane fit under the overpasses?  While we taxied, the put-upon flight attendants talked us through the basics of flying, like how to fasten a seatbelt.  Another meaningless ritual, demanded this time not by the customers but by the FAA.

Once, in China, I sat next to an elderly couple from the provinces.  My Chinese is next to non-existent and their English was worse, but they managed to convey that this was their first time on a plane.  I’ve been in rural China, where nothing much has changed since about 1550, so I was charmed by their naivety about things like what the seat assignment numbers meant and how to work the seatbelts.  I gladly yielded my window seat because they needed it — that first experience of flight demanded a view of the ground receding.

In the present, though, I complained to myself that basically everyone else on Earth knew how to work the seat belts. 

Finally, we were cleared to take off.  We transitioned quickly from taxiing to take-off speed, and as always I waited for that magical moment, the time when the wheel left the ground.  The transition from terrestrial being to pseudo-angelic, a being of balanced forces.  Air pressure and speed and gravity all put into perfect opposition so that we soared above the Earth, incapable now of landing as the wheels were stowed into the fuselage, another milestone in the flight.

planesThe flight attendant reminded us we were only mortals by distracting us with snacks in shiny foil pouches.  Food and toilets bring us back to Earth like nothing else, our aspirations to Heaven dashed with the crinkling of foil pouches.  I asked if there was coffee, but there wasn’t.  The carafe was broken.  She seemed to think I would be very put out, offering alternatives in a mollifying tone, but how put out could I be?  We were hurtling through the atmosphere, verifiably above the clouds, at hundreds of miles per hour.  In the face of such miracles, who could expect and demand coffee?  A cup of water was a miracle and I savored it, pretending the table in front of me was a space all my own.

We flew over the Great Salt Lake for which a city is named.  It was frozen and, from close up, might have seemed flat and smooth and white.  From above, though, it appeared cracked and fissured, a map of tectonic activity, maybe like the surface of Io.  So much beauty, the ninth or tenth miracle I’d noted that day.

Finally we landed, disembarked, forgot all our fellow travelers as we rushed for our connections or the baggage claim or the taxi ramp or …

But later, after another plane and all its attendant rituals, I would arrive in a new place.  Another state.  Geographically and psychologically.  All these rituals and purifications allowed me to shed my Colorado life and step into a California one unencumbered.  I took with me everything I needed and nothing I didn’t.  My feet were on the ground and I was once more humble and terrestrial.  My mind was full of wonders and ready to encompass the awe of new experiences, new people, new places.  Focused and open.

Rituals.  Purification.  Wonder.

They say air travel isn’t like it used to be, that the wonder has been stripped out of it, that planes have become like city buses. But all of that is inside us, in our cynicism and entitlement.  Our contempt for the familiar, our inability to stretch out into awe for all the miracles around us, even when those miracles are merely our own knees, crammed into too small a space, pushed into our awareness because there is nothing else to look at for two hours or four or six, for a thousand miles.

Of course I nailed the presentations.  And then I came home, trembling on the edge of some apotheosis – into something between the terrestrial and the avian, perhaps.

For aNewDomain, I’m Jason Dias.

Cover art: Leonardo Design for a Flying Machine, c. 1488” by Leonardo da Vincihttp://www.drawingsofleonardo.org/. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Art 1: by Transportation Security Administration [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Art 2: by Afrika Force from South Africa (Bird in the Sky) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons