On a warmish Sunday afternoon in April, my brother takes me up in a glider. A small airplane is still towing us through the sky, when we hit the first thermal. In that moment when terrific forces jostle us like the hands on a snow globe, I realize I’m at peace with my maker. Speaking in very general terms, hot air goes up and colder air goes down; air closer to the ground warms up and air higher up cools down, creating constant movement and interaction between massive amounts of air particles. We humans experience the movement of air particles as anything from a slight breeze to bone rattling thunderstorms to tornados that lay whole swaths of surface dwellings to waste. When we hit that first column of rising and falling air, I see why I am secured in with a five-point restraint. My feet fly up off the floor and my guts slosh to the seat and ground thousands of feet below us. The two of us are in a 250 lbs. shell that most certainly cannot stand up to another shaking like the one we just went through. We are about to die in an accident that will fill a couple inches in the Daily Camera tomorrow morning, and I calmly accept my fate.
A glider is essentially an aggrandized kite made from carbon fiber. With a kite you try to get enough wind under it to create lift and keep it from crashing back to the ground when you let go; in a glider, you create wind by dragging it behind a plane to start and then search for areas of rising warm air, thermals, to lift you up further. In an airplane, when they send everyone back to their seats because of turbulence and tell you they’re looking for smoother air, it’s because of rising and sinking air patterns; if an object is flying forward in a straight line and it hits air that is moving downward, it will abruptly sink and then rise as it continues traveling forward to the area where the air is moving upward. Passengers become frightened and annoyed when their orange juice goes flying and their stomach feels like it does on a roller coaster, so especially commercial pilots try to avoid turbulent pockets of air. However, traditionally a glider has no internal source of power, so you depend on air movement to move against the forces of gravity, which only want to pull you back towards the ground. As a result, you seek out areas of rising air in a glider. As my parents tell the story, my first airplane flight was when I was two weeks old. I passed the flight peacefully, asleep at my father’s feet, under the seat in front of him. I have no memory of the event, but I was no stranger to plane trips throughout my childhood, being the daughter of a parent who worked for the travel industry, got flight benefits, and loved to travel. I am not afraid to fly. But if flying in a large commercial airplane is like watching a National Geographic show on crocodiles, the glider was more like floating down a river in a flimsy boat, surrounded by mostly submerged prehistoric reptiles.
Once I accept that I might die and I might survive, depending on the skill of my brother, very newly licensed to fly a glider on his own, I decide to, like the enlightened Boulderite that I am, practice being as fully mindful and present in that time and place as possible. I exhale, let go of my parachute straps, and begin to look at the world around me. I notice that wearing a backpack with a parachute in it is unexpectedly comfortable. The wind blowing in through the edge of the window gives me fresh air to gulp down every time my stomach starts feeling upset. The bumps and turns in the plane remind me of being a patient on a gurney, heading to surgery, an observer along for the ride, letting my body sink into each movement. I think of the first time, back from college, I rode in a car my little brother was driving or many years later, in a boat he was sailing. It is just one more large machine my brother has sought to take control of, while I operate nothing faster or more complicated than my own two feet.
As we glide along the surface of the sky, I begin to see fingers running across braille in my head. Each time we hit a new thermal, the texture the glider draws out for us turns the invisible into something solid. You cannot see air movements, only secondary clues about what is happening up there, such as clouds taking shape and birds soaring. Before we take off, my brother stands there with two other men, looking at the distortion in an airplane’s contrail, deciphering if the afternoon is good to fly; they have studied, they see more than tea leaves at the bottom of the cup. I shrug and trust them.
I begin to see line graphs inlaid upon an X and Y-axis. Silently I chant—rise over run. Rise over run. Rise over run. Rise over run. As we go up in the thermal, I picture the line slanted up and to the right as we move forward. The glider has no motor, nothing propelling it forward; Newton’s first law says an object will continue to move a uniform direction until a force changes its movement. In our case, the airplane gets us moving up and forward, while gravity and friction pull us back in speed and height. As we slow down, we no longer have as much lift under the wings, and the forces pulling us down take greater control over our movement. The line on the graph is still moving up and to the right, but it’s shallower. Rise over run. I think of the middle school kids I used to tutor, trying to convince them these graphs and equations really were relevant to their lives, as they sketched out where they had been, where they were now, and where they were going through time and space. The graphs could make sense of questions the kids didn’t even know they had yet. Rise over run. They groaned and played with their pencils and the cooperative ones made guesses until I smiled and nodded, while the others tried to distract me with the topics they would rather talk about right then. But I take comfort as I watch the graphs sketch themselves out in front of me. I hope maybe a couple of those kids learned those graphs in their guts, whether or not they ever made sense in their heads. We hurtle forward, dependent on invisible forces like gods at play. At least I can trace out our movement above the earth.
From a position on the ground, it might be hard to imagine why a creature in the air moves the way it does. An airplane moving passengers or freight from one location to another seems reasonable. It also makes sense to move here and there according to the land below in order to observe it all from a new perspective. But destination and sightseeing are about human will, and my intentions play absolutely no role as I sit in the back of the glider. I surrender and try to understand what the air has written in it. I can’t tell you a story with plot and purpose. The air simply does what it does, because that’s what it does. It’s only humans who search for more meaning than that. As I sit there with my eyes closed, the invisible becomes visible. To someone standing on the ground, the sky is only the pale Colorado blue interrupted by a few flat clouds left from the cloud cover at the beginning of the day. Flying through it though, it becomes a mosaic of texture and color. I travel through a world that only birds, the microscopic organisms on specks of airborne dust particles, and a few humans ever know. What didn’t exist to me before going up takes shape and gains mass. Now I get to know it’s real.
I feel lucky to have touched this world just above the one I live in. I moved along and around its contours. I tripped over valleys and slid up its bulges. I was the primordial creature with no form or will, leaving all knowing to my stomach and the fluid in my inner ear. I have never steered a fast moving vehicle like the glider, but I managed to see the memory my muscles lack as my brother steered around the moving world around us. If he had stopped to think about his responses, we’d have already passed through one shape of our surroundings and into another. In reading braille, the fingers should slide smoothly across the paper, not stop to push in harder and have it break apart into a meaningless prism of parts separate from the whole. I always say that I love running, because all you need are some shoes and socks, no clutter from other hobbies, but I got a glimpse at why people might be drawn up into the sky. It is a vast emptiness until you touch it with wings.
Disclaimer: the above perspective is entirely that of Amelia, Elliot did not read any of this before she published it, and any errors are entirely Amelia’s fault. As is true in most things between this pair of siblings, there is probably at least one—likely, more than one- piece of Amelia’s perception that Elliot would disagree with. Amelia welcomes the disagreement and would be sorely disappointed if her brother agreed with her completely.