What follows is my most recent essay for my Creative Writing Class--English 307: Reading and Writing Travel:
I don’t actually believe I can touch the sky. I’m too levelheaded for that. As much as I’d like to think that maybe skydiving or paragliding could accomplish this, I know in my mind that it’s just not possible. Besides the fact that the sky is an intangible entity, incapable of being “touched” in a definite sense, I can’t even imagine what it would feel like.
This whole obsession with flying began when I first watched “Space Jam” as a five-year-old. A favorite among Michael Jordan fanatics and Looney Toon loonies alike, this movie inspired a lot of impossible dreams in me. Right as the screen pans down on a young Michael chipping away at his basketball hoop, you can almost feel the motivation in the night sky, through the palpitations of R. Kelly’s “I Believe I Can Fly.” As you’re watching, nothing seems more pressing than your desire to traverse hills, mountains, and planets. A limit is nothing but that math term you learned once but forgot immediately.
I used to feel these things.
Sometime shortly after or shortly before I watched this film, I had my first existential dream. I actually remember it being a daydream. There was hardly any content to it; it was really just a visual eruption of my theories on life, up to that point. Engulfed by clouds, and perfectly “sky blue” skies, I floated in the air, wondering what it meant to be a human in a world filled with so much that isn’t human.
I mulled over this concept of humanity a lot; I wondered if anyone else—human or not—thought about things the same way I did. Maybe there was another five-year-old out there just as pathetically prophetic as I was. No matter, I didn’t mind being alone in this quest. Thinking about myself and my relationship to the world around me naturally seemed a one-woman task.
During the first several years of my life, I spent a lot of time at home, pondering what it would be like to be somewhere else. What if I were born to a completely different family, to a completely different culture, or to a completely different species? These were the questions that toiled me as I sat in the back seat of our 1995 Toyota Previa.
At least once a month I would dream about flying over some familiar place, like my neighborhood or school. Despite the fact that I was gradually growing taller, my perspective wasn’t changing all that much. I suppose I just wanted a change of pace. I was cruising at 10 mph, but what I really wanted was to break 200. What was it about home that made me want to fly?
When I was seven years old, I went on my first real plane trip (that I could actually remember). Those were the days when you could miss a week of school without playing catch-up the rest of the semester. The destination was Tuscon, Arizona. The occasion was my grandparents’ 50th wedding anniversary. The point was to have some fun and maybe deviate from my musings for a while.
The plane ride was fast.
I forget if that was my first time riding a horse or not. What a way to start, if it was. Gunpowder was his name; coldly delaying the entire group was his game. The trainer briskly handed me a stick to “motivate” my little horsie. I just decided to use my legs. For all that he lacked in motivation, however, Gunpowder certainly made up for in scaring the living daylights out of me. Everything that horse did and would ever do was for his own benefit. When he raced down a two-inch dirt road off the side of a mountain, it was because he wanted to get it over with. When he jumped in the air, it was because he wanted to shake off the horse that just bit him in the butt. He was sometimes about as useful as a keg of gunpowder, but where besides Lazy K Bar Ranch could I call a horse my own for a whole week? I couldn’t think of anywhere else at that age.
If I thought flying was risky, it had to be because I hadn’t yet experienced a whole world of risk.
I consider the night I almost lost my socks in the swimming pool to be my first real daredevil adventure. We were all defying social norms when we decided to break into Lazy K’s swimming pool and dive in, fully clothed. There’s nothing like a little physical discomfort to make you appreciate what you’ve just done.
I can say the same about the time I spent chasing the elusive roadrunner down endless trails of cactus pricks and tumbleweeds. One night I got so caught up in the excitement that I spent all of dinner picking pricks out of my side. I definitely didn’t fly that night. If I had, I probably would have been able to catch that little guy, and avoid the associated cactus pains.
In an attempt to recoup my medical expenses, I devised a lemonade recipe with my cousin. The ingredients: three parts whole lemon, two parts water, no parts sugar until we realized the concoction tasted like a pure alka-seltzer tablet. We eventually stumbled upon an adequately gullible (sympathetic) lady who gave us a dollar for our troubles. It was sometime after this that I saw something I never noticed in my high-altitude dreams. Where besides ground level could I ride a crazy horse, almost lose my socks in a swimming pool, chase a roadrunner while getting pricked by a cactus, and make a buck off of horrible lemonade? I can’t think of anywhere else at this age.
Maybe childhood facilitated my appreciation of my surroundings, no matter which perspective I took. Maybe something about that Dude Ranch awakened me to Earthly sights long gone unrecognized. Maybe I was just in a good mood that entire trip.
Every now and then I put on my headphones, listen to some nostalgic Christmas classics, and try to remember what kinds of wonder childhood held. Was it really any different being a sentimental child than it is being a sentimental adult? It’s not that I couldn’t transport myself to these former fantasies if I really wanted to. The real problem is that being a grownup doesn’t always allow me the time.
I think people are mistaken when they uphold the all-too-familiar trope that our magic gets lost somewhere in adulthood. This seems more a way of justifying mundane working-life activity than a way of describing any fundamental reality. There’s nothing inherently in us as twenty-, thirty-, or seventy-year-olds that deters our creative brain function any more than it did when we were seven. It’s not that we “don’t believe;” it’s simply that our lives are structured in such a way as to leave little time for real dreaming. Whether this deterrence mechanism is a product of times gone by or a more recent expression of what we think adults should be doing, it’s highly misunderstood. I’m not saying it has to stop. That’s just the way it (currently) is.
Sometimes I still dream about flying, and it’s fun. I revisit ideas of seeing the world from above, of escaping the little niche I’ve buried myself in. I think I’ve spent too much time at home lately. What is it about home that makes me want to fly?
But all of a sudden, when I travel to a new place, whether it be the Outback or the backwoods, the sky doesn’t seem so heavy anymore. Touching that “sky blue” no longer seems so pressing. The real worry is that I will stop valuing the ground I walk on, not for any grand metaphorical reason, but only because it’s someone’s home, if not my own. And the people who live there probably dream about flying too.
There is a lot in this world that isn’t human, but dreaming isn’t one of those things. Neither is changing your perspective, mentally or physically. It’s part of growing up—and that’s something we all can make time for.
I still don’t believe I can touch the sky. It’s not because I’m too levelheaded for it though. I’m still a dreamer in my own right. R. Kelly’s song still gets to me every time I hear it. And I still watch “Space Jam” hoping I, too, can defy gravity some day.
I still feel these things.
What I really fear is a day when I’m forced to skydive or paraglide in order to feel alive, to remember everything that was never really forgotten: my dreams.
Even if we can’t touch the sky we can take solace in the fact that we are grounded. Being human isn’t about breaking light or sound barriers everyday. In fact, being human is more about not knowing what it is to be human. At home, we think about flying, and when we’re away, we find new appreciation for our home. When it comes to being human, it’s a risk, but it’s a risk you can be sure to appreciate in adulthood.
Tops, Shorts, and Shoes: J. Crew. Necklace: Alexis Bittar.
All photos by Alex Zhu, taken in Bern, Switzerland.