A friend told me once that she travelled by plane as often as she could because she hoped the plane would break into two or explode, “like it does in the movies”, and she’d die and wouldn’t that be insanely awesome? Sure it would hurt and feel horrible, because death in general must feel horrible since our bodies are built to do the opposite of dying. But if you die because you’ve fallen off a plane, then for a moment or at least half a moment, you’d look down and you’d see how incredible the earth looks once there’s a little distance between you and the ground beneath your feet.
I’m not sure what this says about me, but I get that sentiment. I’m not sure I’d actively chase plane explosions, but it’s true. Float up and away, and the details that make the world ugly become less visible and far less significant. Mumbai, for instance, looks like an overflowing treasure chest when you fly in at night. You can’t tell the potholes, the hardship, the breaches and the despair. It just glitters. I always think of my friend — who has, so far, not died but has notched up some serious frequent flier points. Bless — every time I land. Last week, I thought of her more than I have in a while despite having stayed very much at sea level.
I’ve spent much of the past week fretting over incidents and issues that don’t really affect me. Like earthquakes in foreign countries, like rapes of little girls whom I can neither reach nor help, like a bomb blast and a manhunt on the other side of the planet. I’m not alone in feeling that twang of horror when things like this happen. Thankfully, lots and lots of people feel this way. For those of us who are a little neurotic, it’s more than a twang. We follow the news desperately, we imagine scenarios, we froth around the mouth. The stories consume us, which is silly because these stories are not ours and we have no parts to play in them. We don’t help, we make no impact, but we care nonetheless. We think about them, turn their stories round and round in our heads, and all that we’re left with at the end is the depressing knowledge that there’s no protection against the bastards and idiots of this world. The rapists will keep raping; the bombs will keep going off; the young — suspects, terrorists, police officers, innocents — will keep dying; the stupid will keep talking; the ones with power will remain powerful; and occasionally, the earth will rumble.
The world has looked like a very ugly place this past week, unless you’ve seen it through the camera-ed eyes of Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield’s stream of photos from space. Hadfield is the commander of Expedition 35 and he’s cool enough for me to have spend pretty much an entire Sunday watching YouTube videos of him. The last man I did that for was Viggo Mortensen after I saw The Fellowship of the Ring.
Hadfield is funny, he sings, plays the guitar. In videos, he floats around, ‘hangs’ upside down and does things like the Hadfield shake on the treadmill. And he tweets the most incredible photos of earth from space. If Hadfield posted blurry rubbish, it would still be pretty incredible to see images within minutes/ hours of them being taken in a space station that’s god-knows-how-many-thousands-of-miles away. But Hadfield’s photos are frequently exquisite. There’s no explaining why a photo posted of, say, the Bahamas makes my pulse flutter a little optimistically and makes everything around me seem a little less bleak. But it does and over the past week in particular, Hadfield’s photos have been like magic spells. Just for a little bit, the photos make you forget how messed up things are at ground level because from up there, the world is still beautiful. And in that, I find a strange, inexplicable hope. Distance and perspective — maybe that’s all we need.
Below are some of my favourites from Hadfield’s Tumblr, which is highly recommended for its loveliness. It’s an instant pick-me-up. Check him out on YouTube (this is how he takes the amazing photos) and look him up on Twitter. He’s delightful.