Looking Up, Looking Down

When I topped the bridge, smoke twisted like tornados from the stacks of chemical plants in Sulphur and Westlake and rose a thousand feet into the sky. It is hard to say why the scene impressed me this time. We live with the industrial: city-sized puzzles of pipes and tanks that glitter under the sun and become constellations of tiny lights in the night. It was cold and clear yesterday, so perhaps the pollution was more visible. I drove on to the swim meet, thinking that when we remember to look up, mysteries reveal themselves.

That billboard on the highway in St. Louis: “Do you have babyfingers?” it says. A man on the sign examines his hand. At that speed it is dangerous to look and is gone quickly.

That ocean liner one day, years ago, creeping along the top of the jungle canopy, big as the Empire State Building. The vision nearly ran me off the road. Oh yes: the Panama Canal lay somewhere behind the trees.

That smile, from a stranger in Key West, the kind that defeats misery, the kind that saves, the kind remembered 20 years later for no good reason at all.

My sons, heels against the base of that skyscraper, leaning back to look up past their reflections to a sky dizzying with possibility. I look up and they are growing into those possibilities, unfolding and fulfilling them.

At the swim meet parents and children looked down at their phones when events did not involve them. The backs of sleek heads and muscled backs shined and shed water as competitors pulled themselves forward, kicked toward, across, against, along, through, to the other side. My elder son’s turn came, and I watched him breathe as I did when he was an infant asleep. He churned, turned in his lane, sped away again.

On the way home, a bright-yellow crop duster banked hard over the highway to make its approach to the field. The pilot in his canopy looked down at me looking up at him. We were close enough briefly to speak the way you might call to someone in another room of your house. He waggled his wings like an RAF pilot, the big radial engine roared, and he flew on to his work in the broad band of blue above.

John Griswold

John Griswold is a staff writer at The Common Reader. His most recent book is a collection of essays, The Age of Clear Profit: Essays on Home and the Narrow Road (UGA Press 2022). His previous collection was Pirates You Don’t Know, and Other Adventures in the Examined Life. He has also published a novel, A Democracy of Ghosts, and a narrative nonfiction book, Herrin: The Brief History of an Infamous American City. He was the founding Series Editor of Crux, a literary nonfiction book series at University of Georgia Press. His work has been included and listed as notable in Best American anthologies.