Sometimes when we think something is really remarkable, we call it holy. We respond to the shock of an astonishing event with ironic phrases like "holy cow," "holy mackerel," "holy shit," and so on. I think "holy smokes" must be an exception to the irony of the phraseology, because smokes can indeed be holy, and often are, as in the sacred smoke of ritual incense. Flying ought to be one of the holiest of remarkable moments. Think of it! Just the thought of looking down on the clouds is enough to take your breath away. My God! Look at all those holy smokes!
My flight was delayed. I think a delayed flight is one of the ultimate exercises in stillness. The thwarted expectation of speed. Instead of hurtling to your destination, being greeted by the strangely static terminal (what a term) all full of motion and frenzy but not itself really going anywhere. It's anathema to travel. The station. The place that stays put. Two hours delayed. I call the director of the symposium I'm attending this week to tell him I'll be late. He seems relatively unfazed. Two hours pass... delayed again. I'll have to spend the night at my next layover. Holy shit, this is going to really still.
We board, finally, and I'm sitting in front of a middle aged man. He's anything but still. He seems excited—talking to his children who barely respond. His topics of public rumination include the usual concerns of a 40-something American man: junk food, drill bits, plumbing, cancer. He seems preoccupied by the fact that airplanes don't have headlights. He mentions this a few times. No response from his children. "I'll be going to sleep now. Nudge me if I snore." He immediately feigns snoring. No laughs. It's almost 11:00PM now. The topic is twizzlers.
The plane is brand new, with sparkling plastic inlays and soft gradient lighting. The roof of the cabin is arched with whalebone-like structural supports, and is illuminated by soft lighting emanating from bulbs nestled in the molding. It looks like a planetarium at twilight. The boy next to me is quiet as he peruses a magazine. He is trying sudoku without a pencil. He stares for a while. No luck. He'll try the crossword soon, also without luck. As we leave the ground, the lights of cities look like volcanic magma seeping out of fissured earth. The branching patterns of roads and houses appear as rivers, glowing, red-orange.
The ventilation systems are pumping cool air, laden with moisture. It looks like soft fog rolling across the cabin roof, completing the crepuscular simulation. As we ascend, I listen to the sounds of voices around me, an awkward counterpoint of inflection and affectation. I imagine the plane opening up like a flower, breaking apart in a brilliant corolla of splintered metal and plastic. I imagine the strange patterns all our bodies will make in the air, like bits of scattered pollen. I imagine we'd be able to swim around and find one another. They say when you free-fall, it feels like you're weightless. The moments before skydivers activate their parachutes are moments of total stillness, even though they are moving at incredible speed. I imagine the artificial smoke and light of the cabin giving way to the real solar light and earthly smoke of heaven. I imagine the polyphony of our bodies as we fall, suspended midair, almost convinced that we're motionless... the way the lines of the most florid organum interlock and sound like a continuous, homogenous whole.
The man behind me is asleep now.
"Son, help me with this tray table... I can't reach it..."
"Dad, it's right in front of you."
"I can't reach it..."
"Don't do that! My arm will get caught!"
"Dad, I'm not doing anything."
"Ow!! Ouch! My arm!!"
When we land in San Francisco, I will probably sleep. I think I will probably dream about tomorrow, the work of singing and writing, of dressing and eating and meeting. But maybe I'll be especially still tonight because I'm at an airport. Maybe I'll dream of holy smokes.