”How can you understand the planet without walking upon it, sampling its marvels one by one, and then floating high above it, to see it all in a single eye-gulp?’’ Diane Ackerman, A Natural History of the Senses
On the 737 northbound from Sydney to Brisbane I think about the chaotic mess of family love I’m heading back to and what I’ve left behind in the Blue Mountains. I soak in everything I see from the window seat: a layer of clouds wedged into an invisible shelf, the moon almost full to the east.
I study the wide white sand beaches below, sipping South Australian sauvignon blanc from a plastic glass, and wonder if, for me, belonging is more about connecting with people than landscape.
It’s a short flight. I try to rally myself into some sort of excitement for the landscape below, for Brisbane, but I do not sense the same flurries of expectation that rise and fade away, that pass through me like sparks, when I first see Toronto from the plane.
My parents don’t live in Toronto, I didn’t grow up there and I have only lived there as an adult for a few years between France and England. Has Toronto gained celebrity status because I go there so rarely? Or is my youth in Ontario, memories of my parents and sisters and brothers and my nostalgia embedded in the CN Tower skyline? Or has Toronto become something special because it’s been my consistent port of return from Paris, Bordeaux, London, Sydney, and now Brisbane?
The cabin crew prepares for landing. I take in the dark patches of cloud shadows on forests below, the meandering curves of the ancient Brisbane River, the tall cluster of buildings in the city. If I could see our house, I tell myself, I might get that same feeling as Toronto, but I am on the wrong side of the plane.
Does anyone feel like they belong all the time? Or is it a momentary glimpse into infinity, like catching the clouds opposite the sunset at the precise moment when the light opens up, or admiring the beauty in one drop of dew on a single blade of grass? Or sharing Varuna, the writer’s house, with strangers who feel like family?
I remember a KLM flight when I was returning from Peru to the UK in August 2001. It was the last time I rode in the cockpit. The female co-pilot pointed out another plane flying parallel. ”It’s not often you see that,’’ she said.
That’s my tribe. We all took off at different times from different airports and we’re negotiating different terminals around the world, but somehow we’re heading in the same direction.
The thing is, initially I can never tell who will stick and who will slide off. Just like I don’t know what my reaction will be next time I see Toronto or Paris or fly over the Harbour Bridge in Sydney or the Brisbane River.
I tighten my seatbelt and look out the window. For the first time I wonder if my experiment in belonging is too contrived. I cannot force myself upon this country. I’ve been trying but all I feel is the lost beauty of a land that does not speak to my soul.
I am listening for its voice.