I can’t remember the last time I looked out the window of a plane with anything like wonder. Nowadays, if I look out at all, it’s to check the weather when I land. Usually, I’ve either got the laptop out or I’m asleep. But it was the verge of night, just a thumbnail of rose and vermillion along the horizon and for an instant there was something transcendent in my senses, the patchwork of fields was still just visible – the varied greens and browns fading together, each laid like a tile by the hands of men in a mosaic that transformed the land all the way to the horizon, and then the lights coming on, at first just random pinpricks, then as the darkness settled, towns appearing like scattered handfuls of jewels, the forests two and three centuries back having given way to the fields and now the fields giving way to the night and the night giving way to the lights of man, the march of human history seen from six miles up, and there was something beyond the sight, something in its grandeur and scale, some secret that made my breath catch, a sense that the sight had gotten inside my being and was expanding there, trying to make its meaning known, and I felt as though if I could just form a word for it, I would vomit up God.
But I had no word for it. I watched all the way to Chicago as the scattered lights of the small towns gave way to the larger lights of the suburbs, the interstates and major roads beaded with streetlamps and strung with streams of taillights, the suburbs slowly clumping into a seamless sea of yellow and white, even the industrial parks and strip malls of the south side seductive as we descended into Midway. Everything was so beautiful seen from the air, and I tried to hold that thought as I wrestled my carryon from the overhead bin, as I trudged in the zombie businessman cattle procession through the plane and up the gangway, as I found my car in the lot and paid the sullen attendant and headed up Cicero past the shoddy liquor stores and the motels offering hourly rates, as I turned up the ramp past the ramshackle man with the Old Testament beard, the tattered raincoat and the Will Work for Food sign, as I drove down the crumbling potholed canyon of I-55, the industrial parks on either side, seeing the same sights, but all their sparkling grandeur now lost in dirty concrete, the airborne sense of man’s orderly triumph overwhelmed by the sea-level chaos of human banality, the fast-food joints and gas stations and convenience stores flashing past like a kinetoscope of triviality and greed, and the spaces inside me that had been inflated with meaning on the plane felt dried up and empty, and the lights of man became a carnival show, a Potemkin Village behind which we hide our true natures from the eyes of God.
And I homeward plodded my weary way.