Last October, while traveling to California, I realized that I was flying at night for the first time. Surely if I had done so before, I would have remembered this particular blend of fascination and awe.
You may wonder what there’s even to see out an airplane window at night. After all, in the day, one has the pleasure of glancing down on serpentine rivers, miles of prairie, entire stately mountain ranges. Even previously unattainable clouds soon roll right below the plane in delicious, nearly-tangible temptation.
But outside my nighttime window, what caught my eye were the glimmering lights – always orange – scattered across the velvet carpet of the earth, spread so deceptively soft and quiet below me.
In the ear-compressing hum of the plane, I observed the abstract beauty under us, metaphors and similes seeping from my brain in a sudden rush like spilled wine. I saw distant webs of lights like hot copper wires, conducting electricity, energy, life through the cities and hamlets below, branching in the blackness much like darkly glinting metal ore spools through cold cave walls, a distant reflection of the molten rock surging miles below in the planet’s core. The towns looked like mercury trickled on black velvet, like candle wax dripped on a child’s best holiday dress, cementing permanently to the fabric landscape.
I once thought that no view could compare to the cornucopia of stars spread across a country sky, fireflies mirroring the heavens as the summer grass’s own constellated symphony. But it turns out we are our own stars, unsuspecting winks of gold to those above us, each lamp, light or candle a wish for anyone to make from up in the air.
At first, passengers flying through daylight may seem more likely to feel connected to humankind. Seeing the tiny trappings of humanity below them, they can finally fathom how many of us there truly are, how far our nation stretches, how little our lives really affect some grander scheme. In comparison, in the nighttime, one must feel like a tiny dot floating over an inscrutable void, an exclusive darkness filled with unreachable pinpricks of private life.
I have found the opposite to be true. When the sun shines on man-shaped fields, road-carved forests, and perfectly hollowed-out lakes, our world becomes even more abstract to me, meadows made into indecipherable patchwork, the longest trucks no bigger than bugs, sun-reflecting waters becoming dazzling eyes I cannot bear to meet. At night, I am able to see physical proof, laid out like the unrolled map of some universal design, like the secret constellations noted in an astronomer’s diary, that each light means some person is right there below me, living, dreaming, and dying. Even each dark space in the landscape, each pause in the orange tattoo of lights below, comforts me; it represents a place nature still holds for her own, hidden from us through unreadable blankness.
At the end of my trip, as we flew back home from west to east, the plane passed over Manhattan at around 5:00 a.m. To my astonishment, I could pick out Times Square, a tiny room flashing with riotous lights silent to our plane-bound ears, and surely silent to its empty early morning streets, putting on a show for no one. There was Central Park, taking up most of the ribbon of Manhattan with its encroaching furry darkness, another unknowable blot on the starry human map. I eagerly looked to the left, watching Brooklyn’s coastline come into view, and there – that tiny ink-black rectangle just had to be Sunset Park, meaning my brownstone lay only blocks, nay, millimeters away.
How comforting, how strange, that the outlines of our world really do reflect the maps we draw ourselves. How encouraging to know that in three dimensions, those maps are populated with the warm life-giving lights of the neighbors and strangers who surround us.
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This post was inspired by Hila's "Why I Adore the Night" challenge. While a night owl by nature, I enjoy both day and night for many reasons; this is but one new element of the night I have recently come to love.