Something About Clouds and the Cities Under Them

Heavy Bodies

 

I want things I can touch,

whole bodied objects to learn by hand,

my fingers making maps.

By them I will navigate,

not by stars,

not by unremarkable light

so far away.

 

What have the stars ever given me

except heartache?

 

The universe is a collection of nearly empty spaces

where matter moves away from other matter

and everything expands.

 

I want to grip worlds in my fists,

to fall in love with flesh,

to recount the countries

where, if we touch, it is not by accident.

 

There is something about clouds and the cities under them when seen from the window of an airplane at more than 30,000 feet that makes me forget, if ever so briefly, that I am, indeed, on an airplane, a metal box with wings that I have no control over. I love it best when the plane is high enough to be just above a sparse layer of clouds. In those times, it looks as though the clouds are snow piles sitting on ice covering the top of a completely clear lake. The cities then, look like multicolored piles of sediment kicked up by the creatures still moving in the depths of the lake, even in winter.

The mechanics of bird flight are this: lift is created by the “action of air flow on a wing,” the flap of each wing providing thrust, allowing the bird to counteract its own weight, the weight of gravity on it, the effect of its own shape and how that body interacts with the air, causing the bird to move forward, to move up or down, to simply go. How often I have wanted to simply go, to get in the car, to keep driving, to see if what comes around that unseen curve of road is better than the sometimes hurt of this place, the thousand memories inscribed on each mile marker in my mind.

But bird flight is built into a body, natural in a way that a plane feels unnatural. Though the wings of birds are composed of three main bones with names familiar to those who have spent any time considering our human arms—humerus, ulna, radius—we weren’t born to this. All the statistics in the world can’t make me forget that, no amount of mechanical understanding will make me feel any less out of place in this metal box.  Still, it is so lovely up there, and on a plane I feel strangely buoyant, my body no more than a speck of air, dandelion tossed by wind and soon gone.

Maybe it is important to be reminded sometimes that we are small. Yet perhaps it is precisely this fear that I am forced to confront each time I step in a plane—that I am small, that my needs are small, that my hurts/wants/desires are small. Who among us wants to feel this, to be reminded that all our hands are capable of holding is fleeting?

I know I am not the first to consider the idea of legacy, to consider what it means to be mortal, to consider what a small thing a single life is. After all, it seems to be the topic of most National Geographic magazine articles, preservation of what exists, or reclamation of what has been lost, the searching for clues or any kind of understanding. In the magazine, some species disappear entirely, as though they had never been—victims of fate, progress, cunning, or strength—leaving gaps in the fossil record, no trace of their skeletons sandwiched between layers of sediment like leaves pressed between book pages, until they are nothing more than speculation, not really animals anymore, merely the idea of them. Some remain, but fragmented, incomplete—in one village, half the male monkey population is lost to food poisoning when rummaging through a hotel’s garbage pile.  Such a swift decimation, a generation’s worth of death in the span of a few days. Only the smaller male monkeys remain; the legacy their bodies will shape, inevitably different.

When I am on planes, considering the clouds and the cities under them, I think of these kinds of articles, and how too, each year, bones are shuffled between museums or labs in an elaborate game of not it, small, careful coffins shuttled through the postal service like unwanted letters from creditors or exes or glossy circulars advertising sales. For each body strung together with wire and placed in a glass case  for tourists to ogle are another of these boxes, a thousand fragments whose bodies can never be made whole, whose selves split eternally on tables, who are always asking more questions and refusing to answer.

Looking down from a plane’s window on all the rivers and farmlands crosshatching the countryside, I wonder how my body will hold its shape in the ground, if future settlers will brush the dust gently from my skull’s forehead with small bristles, or put my bones together again, slowly, like a puzzle one has lost the picture for, wonder what, if anything, my body could hope to teach them. Will my body be heavy or will my legacy be light, a nearly empty space, like the nearly matterless universe,  as seemingly insubstantial as one of these clouds parting way above those little cities, leaving behind nothing but sky?

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