The View from 35,000 Feet


Peter Marlow/Magnum PhotosEn route from London to Melbourne, 2002

Olga Tokarczuk’s novel Flights is about movement, and it so happened that I read it in motion, mostly on planes. At first, it felt like one of those airplane encounters that confirm barely six degrees of separation between you and the passenger in the next seat: both Tokarczuk’s unnamed female narrator and I grew up in Eastern Europe; she studied psychology and I was raised by a psychotherapist father; both of us travel a lot, alone; I also wrote a book about life on the hoof. There was a map of my city of birth on page thirty-seven! I became giddy: it was like looking in the mirror. I delighted in the affinity—delighted doubly because of the exquisite intelligence of this new traveling companion, because Tokarczuk’s prose is hypnotic, spellbinding in both imagination and rendering.

Then I noticed: something in the mirror was awry.

The travel Tokarczuk portrays is the stuff of airport hotels and dinner vouchers. The protagonist, a perpetual traveler, intersperses essayistic observation on motion with sketches of other eccentric voyagers, real and fictionalized: Frédéric Chopin’s sister, a Scandinavian woman who documents abuse against animals worldwide, a Russian housewife who runs away from home. This narrator is “drawn to all things spoiled, flawed, defective, broken,” largely of the Kunstkammer variety: she lingers in museums of curiosities; several of her characters dismember and preserve dead bodies for the purposes of science or passion or for personal bemusement.

The travel I witness is often forced: exodus, the tribulation of exile, flight from violence or famine. I have spent my life documenting the world’s iniquities, and my own panopticon of brokenness comprises genocide and mass starvation, loved ones I have lost to war, friends’ children who died of preventable diseases. For nearly each elegant vignette I read in Flights, my world seemed to proffer an evil twin, until the looking glass of the novel became akin to a funhouse mirror: the book smoothed away much of the wretchedness I know.

On my flight from Atlanta to Raleigh, as my plane prepared for descent over the flooded Carolina coast where Hurricane Florence had made 20,000 people homeless and left half a million without power, I read: “Everything is well lit; moving walkways facilitate the migration of travelers from one terminal to another so they may go, in turn, from one airport to another… while a discreet staff ensures the flawlessness of this great mechanism’s workings.” On the trip from Honolulu to Dallas, I read: “The flight attendants, beautiful as angels, check to make sure we’re fit to travel, and then, with a benevolent motion of the hand, permit us to plunge on into the soft, carpet-lined curves of the tunnel that will lead us aboard our plane and onto a chilly aerial road to new worlds”—as south of my flight path thousands of migrants from Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador trudged northward in pursuit of a new world of safety and dignity.

The aggregate effect was a strange and haunting polyphony. “Each of my pilgrimages aims at some other pilgrim,” the narrator of Flights repeats throughout the novel. But where did anyone I knew to be real—the hurricane victims and the migrants, my makeshift families and temporary hosts in Afghanistan, Iraq, Mali, in the refugee camps of the Caucasus, fellow travelers who share with me their most intimate joy and grief— fit in to Tokarczuk’s world of these others? How was it possible that Tokarczuk’s intricately rendered cast of characters in movement—a young husband who goes mad after his wife and son briefly go missing during a family vacation, a émigré scientist who returns to Poland to help her ailing ex-boyfriend die in dignity—does not include these transitory people I’ve come across? In Flights, the traveling world exists as an antipode to the sedentary world from which Tokarczuk’s narrator feels alienated because she “did not inherit whatever gene it is that makes it so that when you linger in a place you start to put down roots”—but both worlds are sanitized of the people who belong to the less privileged realm of forced uprooting.

Halfway through the novel, a vagrant Russian woman delivers a spell-like soliloquy about perpetual motion as salvation from suffering: “This is why tyrants of all stripes, infernal servants, have such deep-seated hatred for the nomads—this is why they persecute the Gypsies and the Jews, and why they force all free people to settle, assigning the addresses that serve as our sentences.” Here, Flights came closest to mapping the sedentary world I know, one that treats rootlessness as a crime, militarizes borders, incarcerates children, tears apart families. But the novel stopped short of mentioning the horrors and hardships that settled states impose on people who are made to migrate. It is as if, in this hyper-informed era, chronicles of suffering are so numbingly accessible we have become inured to it. “Turn off the news / burn the papers / skip the funerals,” writes the poet Morgan Parker.

*

The average cruising altitude of most commercial airlines is 35,000 feet. From such distance you can imagine shrinking the world, blurring its peopled surface. “It could well be just a lump in the throat, this globe,” muses Tokarczuk’s narrator. And later: “If something hurts me, I erase it from my mental map.”

You can also use the elevation to take in more. From 35,000 feet in the sky, you can see 235 miles away. Media outlets often photograph mass migration from the air to emphasize its magnitude: here, the caravan of Central American migrants is snaking northward; there, in the pointillist nightmare of Dadaab, Kenya, one of the largest refugee camps in the world, almost a quarter of a million people who from the sky look like dots are waiting for a home, for arrival.

Ai Weiwei’s documentary about the global refugee crisis, Human Flow, also begins with an aerial view: a bird pushes off the surface of the Mediterranean Sea, its tail feathers and feet leave the slightest purled trace of white on the water. The bird is so tiny, and the endless sea around it is so beautiful, so ineffably, indifferently blue. A jump cut—and, instead of the bird, there is an inflatable boat crammed with migrants in orange vests; the boat, too, trails white wake.

On a flight from Raleigh to Detroit, I read about Flights’ narrator attending, at airports during layovers, pop-up lectures on travel psychology. Below the wing, one in seven people on Earth is migrating. I search the book in my lap for the world “refugee,” for the word “migrant.” They are not there.

You see? It’s all about how we choose to curate our attention. Ai Weiwei could have just kept the camera on the bird.

*

Kahului to Honolulu: waterfalls pour into the Pacific past the most fragrant forests in which I have ever walked, gurgle beneath a highway that during mango season must be cleared of fallen fruit by bulldozers to make the road passable. Bulldozers in Hawaii also play a more sinister role: they excavate sacred burial grounds to make room for corporations—a Walmart in Honolulu, the hotel where I will stay in Waikīkī. For the duration of my stay, vacationers and wedding guests will revel in luxurious restaurants and ocean-view rooms, and down below, under frangipani in waxy bloom, on the sidewalk that paves over the desecrated sites, dozens of hotel workers will be striking for days to demand a living wage. Grains of sand will stick to bridal slippers, to the soles of protester’s shoes, to my feet, and I will think of the opening lines of a poem by Mahealani Perez-Wendt—

O, The sands of my birth
The sands of my birth
Are digging places
Are trenching places
For excavators,
Earth movers,
And shovelers

—and there it is, just below my plane, skimming the blue majesty of the ocean: a sea bird taking off.

The night before I fly from Hawaii to Dallas, it rains over Waikīkī. A downpour sluices away dozens of stories of opulence and newly-wed hope; bangs on the windows of students and government workers; drenches people living in inadequate tents they have pitched in city parks; and striking hotel workers; and, beneath, feeds the roots of scented gardens and anoints ancestral bones that remain unbulldozed, before braiding into runnels that flow into the depthless ocean and rise again, as evaporation, to fall elsewhere.

*

One afternoon, a friend and I hike up the thousand-year-old ruins of a Kushan castle in Northern Afghanistan. The Buddhists who ruled the Khorasan for five centuries are long gone, and bits of sheep skulls and wisps of broken pottery dot the tall eroding walls. Below us, the alkaline desert shines white, and in that desert there are Taliban patrols and bandits, and, in the domed ceramic sky above us, American warplanes are supersonic specks. The slang term the US military uses for aerial images of humans killed from planes, I recall, is “bug splats.”

“Is it more important to bear witness to beauty, or to denounce horror?” asks a traveling photographer in a José Eduardo Agualusa novel. I wonder: Is it possible to do both?

I ask my companion, an old hunter whose nomadic grandfathers herded sheep in this desert, what he thinks of the place. He says: “This is my country. It is beautiful.”

Halfway between the Kushans and our hike, in the year 1207, in this same beautiful volatile desert, the poet Rumi was born, and became a refugee, a child migrant fleeing a Mongol invasion. In exile, he wrote:

I am so small I can barely be seen.
How can this great love be inside me?

Look at your eyes. They are small,
but they see enormous things.

How to take a clear-eyed view of the world’s complexities, how to grasp the world in its totality of dignity and shame? Can we hold all of it, grief and beauty and the rest, the way the world already does? On this hyper-informed planet, how do we not lose intimacy with one another? What does it mean to look past the mirror, to choose to see something truly other than what has become comfortable? To make a deliberate effort to see the world in a grain of sand requires a level of curiosity that supersedes the confines of our prejudice and fear.

At one point, Flights’ narrator finds herself gazing at a sarira, a fleck-like relic that sometimes remains after the cremation of the corpse of a Buddhist spiritual master, and wonders if the world’s beaches and deserts are “entirely made up of the posthumous essences of the bodies of enlightened beings?”—and acknowledges that she would never become such a grain, she was never devout enough. In this moment, her flight of imagination is so indisputably beautiful, so earnestly true, I feel that she has glanced into that immense beyond.

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