Gratitude looks to the Past and love to the Present;
fear, avarice, lust, and ambition look ahead.
I didn’t see the couple board. Too busy settling into the single seat on the left aisle of the express jet. My pre-flight routine consists largely of getting ready to nap. I am frequently asleep before take-off.
My eyes were closed, ready to rest after a morning flight delay. But I was aware of a mild commotion across the aisle one row ahead of me. I didn’t want to look. How else to honor private boundaries in a congested public space? But the noise continued and I gave up any notion of sleep. This is when I first saw her. She was frazzled. In every way. Her hair. Her clothes. Her eyes. Her soul.
I heard him say that these were definitely not their seats. A tad irritated but not rude. She sat and began tussling with her seatbelt. He removed a newspaper from his computer bag, then returned the case to the overhead bin. Things settled a bit and I tried once again to nap.
A flight attendant came back and said, “Sir, you are right. You should be in the seats up front. I’ll ask the other couple to swap.”
“No. No. We’re fine.” He spoke quietly but firmly. “We’re fine now.”
Another settling. Then a voice, higher in pitch, crossed the aisle. “But we should ALL be wearing them.” She was all tangled, head up, hands reaching beneath her legs. “This is a dereliction.” I could see her face, brows knitted together, eyes feral.
“Shhhh! Hush, dear.” These words would be repeated many times in the hour-long flight. Sometimes they heralded a brief respite. At other times, the directive was ignored. “Everything is going to be fine.”
More words, spoken quietly, passed between them. Then, she became strident again. “This is WRONG. WRONG.”
He touched her hand and spoke again, again firmly, this time with less patience. “Calm down. We are fine.”
But she wasn’t fine. Not even close. She was a wounded animal caught in a trap. “It is wrong. We should all be wearing life vests NOW. We are in a potentially life-threatening situation.”
I had never witnessed such fear of flying before. My first thought when I heard her remark was, “Ma’am, if the pilot sets this thing down in Lake Purdy, we have bigger problems than life vests.” I ached for both of them by now. An irrational person cannot see truth. Every moment is a potentially life-threatening one. A driver two lanes over could have a heart attack and create havoc on the interstate. One laugh during a dinner and a morsel of food could get stuck. I’m a fatalist. I’m going to die. I don’t know the circumstances. But I am going to die.
We had not yet begun to taxi. I looked at him for the first time. Tall, erudite, no wildness present. He wore a impecabbly tailored navy blazer over a deep blue v-neck sweater and pale blue oxford shirt. His softly draping khaki slacks had a knife-edge pleat. Socks of the same hue showed slightly when he sat. Expensive leather loafers befitted one who sported a Cartier tank watch. As precise as she was disheveled, down to the second hand.
Then she spoke again, tearfully. He held her hand as she said, “I know you were afraid I’d be more upset if we sat in the back instead of the seats you booked. I’m okay.” The words and expression didn’t match but the gratitude rang true. He patted her hand and she became quiet again and doubled over in her seat.
We finally began to taxi. Suddenly, she sat bolt upright and leaned over the seat in front of her. He reached for her but could not quieten her again. “I’m so sorry,” she said loudly, “but I have to get off this plane. I have to get off.” He pulled her down and whispered to her. This time when he sat back, the fatigue was obvious. She whimpered and I saw him grimace. She moaned and he rolled his eyes slightly upward, a silent prayer for help.
This continued for a while and then silence. He picked up his paper, folded it, and began to work a crossword puzzle. They laughed a few times even. But the panic resurfaced when someone raised a window covering. Silence seemed to terrify her as well. She fought it, created chaos with her constant chatter and incessant twitching. Much like a nephew who refused to go to his bed, saying, “Bad dreams live in there,” she would not visit the quiet. Her husband smiled as one accustomed. He frowned when too accustomed.
When we landed, I reached for my computer case after he retrieved his. I noticed that she had somehow managed to cross over from her window seat. Five people ahead of her husband, she pushed ahead, panic written on her face. He proceeded calmly. They had danced this dance before. A tango of love and fear.
I never saw them again. They had reached their destination. I had a two-hour wait before my next flight. The time passed quickly as I walked through the Houston airport until departure. I thought of what I had seen. He had her back as much as humanly possible. She knew this. But he could not remove her panic.
In her fear, she could not, did not, listen but heard only words that gave a temporary fix. In her fear, she was totally alone. Terribly, completely alone. In his awful role of Her-god, he was equally alone.
To live a spiritual life we must first find the courage to enter into the desert of our loneliness and to change it by gentle and persistent efforts into a garden of solitude. The movement from loneliness to solitude, however, is the beginning of any spiritual life because it it is the movement from the restless senses to the restful spirit, from the outward-reaching cravings to the inward-reaching search,
from the fearful clinging to the fearless play.
I pray for solitude for each of them.
For a lightness of being and a more beautiful dance.
For quiet days and quiet nights.
For a passionate life.
For safe travels, within and without.