Letter From 35,000 Feet
Hello from a fellow time traveler, plus an art mystery in progress.
My Dear Friends,
Hello and a very Happy Solstice to you. I had originally planned to take the rest of 2023 off from Substack, but as I sit beside the wood stove fire this morning and watch the winter day dawning over the mountains, I feel the urge to write to you.
I had a very busy six weeks before my designated holiday break this year. I hardly had a moment to catch my breath between reaching the end of my latest book draft and boarding an early morning flight to the States to visit family for the holidays. I was in California for less than a day, a happy accident, since the cheapest flight I could find included an extremely long layover in San Francisco, and now I am in New Mexico. I made it just in time to throw a little birthday party for my dad, and then by the evening of the very next day, all of the work and no sleep and travel caught up with me and I was struck down by some terrible virus or other. It was probably just a bad cold (my Covid test was negative) but I was so sick and exhausted that I could not do anything at all for about five days.
On the long haul flight from Paris to San Francisco, the plane was virtually empty. Once the seat belt sign pinged off, I asked if I could move to an empty row to lay down. The flight attendant said that I could. I tried to sleep, but found that I could not. The lack of sleep, and the darkened cabin, and the altitude, and the sound of the engine, and the thundering cold air outside the metal body of the plane, all conspired to produce within me a certain state of mind. If you’ve ever flown through the night on an airplane, I expect that you will know it. It is a state of mind that makes one very vulnerable to the emotional content of in-flight movies, and which I imagine is a little like being on certain kinds of drugs. You are at the whims of forces larger than yourself—pilot competence, aerodynamics, airline schedules, weather—stripped of your context, neither here nor there. I’d only managed to sleep for about two hours the night before, before I had to get up again to go to the airport, and so my mind was particularly malleable.
With more than eleven hours of air travel ahead of me before my layover, I decided to watch some movies. I decided not to pay for the in-flight wifi, otherwise I would probably have sent you a message that very night as I sat there in the dark with tears streaming down my face after watching the 2013 Richard Curtis film About Time. It is about time travel, and so, inevitably, about loss. It wasn’t even my first viewing, but still, vulnerable as I was in the darkened airplane cabin somewhere over the Atlantic, I was greatly effected and felt the urgent need to share my thoughts. This is what I wrote:
The most valuable advice we can ever get or give is so obvious that it’s nearly impossible to hear or understand. We can hear it but we can’t hear it. God knows that I myself will forget about this epiphanic feeling as soon as the plane lands and I am no longer strapped to a little seat in the sky, in the dark, with my coat and my carry-on stashed in the overhead compartment. This may reach you at a time when you’re feeling receptive to it and it may not, but the thing I want to share, in total earnestness, is this: this average day that you are right now living, this normal day of getting up, of feeling tired, of doing work, of going shopping, of travel, of taking care of errands, this day is one of those moments from the past that you will one day look back on. Somewhere out there in the vast quantum universe is a version of you who has already lived this day. This day, right now, is our greatest undiscovered treasure. Just imagine if you could travel back to one of the happiest days of your life and live it over again. If you could spend an afternoon with someone you loved who is no longer living. If you could travel back to a day that was not particularly special, but existed in a time when certain things or people were available to you that now are not. What would you do? Who would you see? What would you say to them? Now look around at your life and the people you love who are still living. We are in the business of goodbyes here on this earth. Nothing lasts, but the universal truth of impermanence can only be felt and seen in certain moments. The rest of the time it is, by necessity, invisible. But what if we could live through every day of our lives twice? Not to change anything, but just to get a better look at things the second time through, to increase the number of times we take a deep breath, or look up at the architecture, or notice the sky? What if we could have an automatic re-do, to notice all the people who are still alive on this day, including you, including me? What if we could pretend that we have all traveled back to this day together, this stupid, normal, lovely, uncomfortable, painful, rushed-off-our-feet day, and could see the potential in it? Just look at the miracle that is all of this. Sometimes this gift is given to us, where we are viscerally reminded of the fact that we are alive, and that many of the people we love are still alive, too. Sometimes we are given this gift, and can then inhabit the present moment as a time traveler from the future, who knows it will not last.
After I finished crying alone in the dark of the airplane, I ate a plate of airline cheese and crackers, and drank a can of seltzer water, and then watched some more in-flight movies. I saw Kelly Fremon Craig’s wonderful Are You There God? It’s Me Margaret, and Wes Anderson’s gorgeous Asteroid City. In many ways, a plane is the absolute worst place to see a movie for the first time, because the screens are tiny, and the sound quality is bad, and you’re often interrupted by announcements about turbulence or meals or whatever else the flight attendants or the pilot need to tell you. But in another way, it is the best place to see a movie, because of the way that air travel renders us vulnerable, captive and childlike. I had this strange sense, watching these movies, about time travel and puberty and aliens and art, while strapped to my seat in the sky, that it was impossible, actually quite impossible, that life was as meaningless—beautiful, certainly, and valuable, but nevertheless meaningless—as I had lately decided that it was. It was as if the opaque theatrical skrim of the knowable world was made slightly transparent to me for a moment, as though by a light lit behind it, and I could see something important there, something life-changing moving there in the depths that lay beyond, some scene or tableau that was not yet visible to me.
My normal ways of thinking soon resumed. We landed in San Francisco and I collected my bag from the luggage carousel and spent my long layover with family—a visit so short it was almost like a dream—and then caught my connecting flight to Albuquerque. Our descent over the Sandias just before midnight was so turbulent that the flight attendant came on the PA system to reassure us that “the plane could handle it,” which reassured no one, and in fact achieved the opposite. We finally broke through the rough clouds and flew so low over the city to escape the high winds that I could read the illuminated signs on the big box stores in the desert metropolis below.
Thank you, as always, for reading my newsletter. I am still catching my breath from the sprint of work I accomplished from October to early December, but I have a lot planned for the coming months. My next installments in the Essay Series are almost ready to go, and I have some longer topical essays in the works as well. I am, despite my physical exhaustion, feeling very inspired.
I am also still about 150 paid subscribers short of my goal for this year. If you have been meaning to upgrade your subscription, now would be an excellent time to do so.
For paid subscribers today, I thought I’d share with you one of my recent art finds. I am still working on the necessary scholarship, but I hope you will find it interesting as a work-in-progress nonetheless.
Here’s the story: an etching recently went up for auction, purportedly by Édouard Manet, that may be a rare image of Charles Baudelaire’s lover and muse Jeanne Duval, never before identified. Called “Jeanne,” the work resembles the labeled photograph I found of Duval by Nadar a few years ago in the archives of the Institut national d'histoire de l'art. Here is the etching: