Friday, December 31, 2010

Of Easy Wind and Downy Flake

Snow has become emblematic for winter in the northern hemisphere, and most people (even those who are no longer schoolchildren) can appreciate a pretty white dusting now and then. This year, however, snow made itself unwelcome to a large number of would-be travelers when it fell in great piles throughout England--and most inconveniently, over Heathrow airport--on the Saturday before Christmas. For the students who had planned to go home for the holidays, this meant that they were stuck in their dorms or flats, or even at the airport, for many days, and some never made it home at all. I had not originally planned to go home for Christmas, but a pouty IM conversation between me and my mother led to some last-minute fare-checking and a flight home (booked before the snowstorm) for Wednesday, 22 December. By that time, all the runways had been cleared, and I felt rather guilty walking past people who had obviously spent at least one night at the airport as I checked in for my flight...especially because I had spent the whole snow day on Saturday building a giant snowman and a snow imp (Lincoln's mascot) and walking around taking photos of Oxford with my flatmate (who was meant to fly out on Sunday, but was stranded till Tuesday).

Once on the plane, I found myself seated next to a US Airways captain, and I asked him why he wasn't up in the cockpit. He replied that he was deadheading, and that all flights to and from England during the snow had required a backup crew to fly along with them, just in case the intended crew for the next flight was unable to get to the airport (this, it seems, was the real reason for the mess that was British Airways in the aftermath of the snow: even though they were able to clear the runways and prepare planes for flight, they had crews stranded in towns that had no bus or train service to get them to the airport). Shortly after settling in, a flight attendant came back and told the captain he was welcome to move up to envoy class; he offered me his aisle seat, so I then had both the comfort of the aisle and an open seat beside me where I could keep my coat and underneath which I put my backpack so I had more leg room. I felt bad to think that someone probably would have liked to fly standby in that seat to get home, but once we took off I decided there was nothing I could do but enjoy it.

And then I was home, where everything is familiar and delicious and overwhelming and noisy and lively and loving and everything home ought to be. Christmas deserves its own post, so I will skip it for now and go on to the next adventure in snow, which happened the day I was meant to fly back...

December 26 is a cheap day to fly, because no one really wants to fly out immediately after Christmas if they can help it. I knew that I had a lot of work to get done during the break if I wanted to stay on top of everything during term, so I was happy to be headed back after four days at home (just long enough to see the family and friends and get a taste of home, but not so long that I fell out of work-mode or lost my British vocabulary). Of course, Mother Nature heard all the wishes for a white Christmas and delivered, albeit just a day late. About eight inches fell on the east coast over the course of the day, and though my flight was one of about five that did not get cancelled, my father decided that it was not worth it to try to drive through the snow to the airport. Fortunately, because the snowstorm was anticipated, US Airways put out a travel advisory offering a free flight change for my trip, as long as it was within 7 days of the original date and to the same destination. That night we spent four and a half hours on hold (that is not an exaggeration; I mean literally 4.5 hours) before giving up and going to bed. The next day I spent three more hours (and six minutes, to be precise) on hold before finally getting through to a woman in Arizona (US Air headquarters is in Phoenix) who changed my trip to the next available flight, which was Wednesday. So I ended up spending a week at home, despite my best efforts, but at least I did it for the price of an after-Christmas-sale flight. The snow in New Jersey wasn't wet enough to make a good snowman, unfortunately, but it was just as pretty to see everything sugar-coated at home as it had been in Oxford.

On the flight back I had a window seat, and though I tried to sleep as much as I could, there were long spans of time during which I gazed out the window to see what I could see. As we left Philadelphia, I watched the city lights, twinkling like those of a Christmas tree, and in some places moving in great winding masses, like a glow worm wriggling its way across the pavement. There were large black areas that could have been lakes or fields or bits of the river. I knew there was still a lot of snow, but it just looked grey in the nighttime, and I was disappointed not to be able to see the white-out from above. We followed the coast for a long while, so there were lots of light clusters to mark the distance, and I wondered if I would be able to see the ocean once we got out over it, though I immediately thought that we would probably be too high and it would certainly be too dark for me to make out anything clearly. After they turned out the cabin lights I slept for a while, and woke at some point in the night when the man next to me was watching a noisy film that I could hear through his headphones. I lifted the window shade, which I had closed after dinner, and was quite moved by what I saw. I don't often get the urge to write poetry, but I took out a piece of paper (my printed boarding pass, actually) and scribbled down the words that came to mind as I watched an astonishingly beautiful night give way to a gilded morning, which then became a murky fog once we had landed. It is not great art, but it was the closest I could come to the way it struck me in that moment.

Frost-flies suspended between double panes
Greet my sleepy eyes as they unclose.
Beyond, the moon, a lustrous sickle lies
Between two dippers and a planet-star
As close to me as to each other, they
Are my companions in the silent sky,
And I marvel that they look me in the eye.
A glowing, vast cloud-tundra fills the air
With its relentless, cold infinity,
Floating marble, soft as snow,
Serene in nonchalant obscurity,
Till an auroral lake blooms from within,
Inviting colour and a melting warmth
That spreads like shame on a child's cheek.
The creeping morning swells to life and kills
The peaceful majesty of the black night.

The pressure shifts.
I yawn
To find my ears again.

The now-pale crescent fades into the wan blue,
And already the stars have been dissolved--
Absorbed into the golden rays
Of sunrise over England.

Down there the sleepy city rolls over
To snooze beneath its cosy cloud covers
For a while longer.
We circle, swoop, and slowly sink
From blue and gold to white, and then to grey
Swallowed by the cotton swabs and spat (or shat)
Back out below the frothy wisps of morning.

As we descend the smoky billows blot
The glorious dawn from my double panes,
And I am falling, forgotten and fearful,
Into foggy blindness and uncertainty,
Clutching at the memory of what there was
Above, and Before, and what still is, Beyond.
The earth is a surprise, after knowing the skies.
I hope to see clearly again, in time,
And meanwhile continue to insist,
That heaven does exist--
Even on the darkest days.

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