Altered States

I wake in an altered state as we descend from Phoenix into JFK. My cylinders fire, my spindles spin, my cogs turn, but the time surrounding the machine is warped and delayed and advances without reason or relation. This happens with airplane travel.

I have just been to the desert for three days. I have been to the desert and I have eaten little and drunk little and slept little and in the desert I swam in an electric dust storm, sand and rain and ice pelting me, wind berating me, lightning cackling its menacing witchcackle at me from left to right, from left to right. I sat motionless, fearless, utterly thoughtless in the sparking desert dust storm and considered not the whirlwind, the storm, the earthquake. In the baking heat of the blazing sun of the burning desert I thought little of divine fire. I simply stood and stared out into the distance, listened numbly to the buzzing desert tree insects, wondered shallowly at the soft water in the green leaves of the desert trees nearby to me.

We descend further, passing Jones Beach. Jones Beach, where I went as a child, where I went as a burning teen, where I have returned since seeking quiet and calm, seeking even peace and even pulsation, seeking High Hill Beach, 1925. The place seems small from above, all encapsulated in one view, all of its parking fields and pavilions and piers packed into one small tablet for my eyes to swallow in a singular glance. I am glad for my altitude that keeps obscured the politically factious flags I know are flying above the boats moored in the bay. We fly northeast, up through Massapequa and Bethpage, and now as we turn northwest I am dipped low with the port side wing, bowing in genuflection to my home soil, to Jerusalem. We cross the Southern State Parkway, the LIE, the Northern State Parkway. I know this map as well as any. It’s so intimately familiar. We turn harder left, harder west, and as we pass Syosset High School below, suburban sprawl is replaced by a less unnatural arboreal sprawl: full leafiness defines the landscape—even more than the impressive, isolated mansions that men erected as monuments to mammon. The many Versailles of our fabled old gold coast, standing stately in the July sunshine! Monuments to mammon, yes, but no more than the grids of densely packed Levitt houses I just passed. Same mammon, different worshippers. Beneath us now, an old north shore graveyard, its headstones sticking out from earth like an elderly witch’s crooked teeth. We pass over tennis courts in yards, pools in yards, English gardens in yards. Past Mineola football field, and now the green recedes, the gray reemerges, the density increases, and the grid of roads forms a fine screen mesh with human beings and their tiny dwellings caught up in the hopeless sifting. We pass the gigantic Beth David cemetery with its neater headstones and larger monuments, and I stare at the vast expanse of that dead, living ground, and I see the way it is closely encumbered by overflowing Long Island suburbia, and—

I am glad to soon be moving to Austria: another country, another continent, another series of books lying patiently on a shelf. I am relieved of something that has long awaited me here and already poisoned my bloodstream through many many years of a slow drip into my unsuspecting veins. I do not know what will be different in Austria. I am not sure that it will be different. Yet I suspect that there is more to be found than what I have found. But I have been to the desert, and I have been to the poles, and I have been south to the swampy Delta, and I have been to mountaintops and endless flat lands, and I have been to the sea and to the woods, and I am beginning to suspect that the greatest thing to find is not something to be found, but something more bound up in the act of finding. Knowing that one is finding, that there is finding to be done. What one finds may even be discarded later, but the knowledge that there was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be more to be found is our ultimate gain. The ground approaches.

In the desert, I kept thinking: We will one day be old. We will one day be dead. We will one day be forgotten. I wonder now why I was so cognizant and appreciative there of my individual mortality, of everybody else’s individual mortalities, of our collective mortality as a generation of beings enduring this world, as a species enduring its one opportunity to exist. I think this pandemic has stirred something up. I breathe deeply now as the tires rumble hard against the ground.

I thought in the desert: I am the only poet here. I am the only one here longing to read and to write. I remember when I asked so many years ago: Why sit down to read when you have not stood up to live? I cannot tell another how they are to pass their existence, whether to sit or to stand, to write or to read, to love or to lust, to conceive or consider. What is left at the end of it all? What is the desert dust that with some water becomes clay that with some sun dries into bone that after a thousand years in the desert erodes into sand that after a thousand years of blowing is ground again into desert dust? The bell dings, the passengers crowd the aisle, the race resumes.

Hail, temporary traveler. Hail, temporary master of the earth and skies. How shall you pass your day?



Born and raised on Long Island, Scott Zukowski has also lived in Vermont, New Orleans, Alaska, and (currently) Austria. He has a Ph.D. in American literature and culture from Stony Brook University and is now a faculty member of the Institute for American Studies at the University of Graz, Austria.

Categories: Airplanes, Death, Trips

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