What happens when you’re not ‘all there’…
It was not my proudest moment.
The cloying air hung with stale perfume, faint sweat and an almost tangible dryness. Warm bodies were pushing against me as I shimmied my way against the tide. Behind me, the kind blonde in blue said, “Don’t worry, you’ll be able to get it before everyone deplanes. It will be easier than you think.”
My seat was in row 1 (settle down, it’s JetBlue. There is no first class) and I had purposefully selected a bulkhead seat for this particular trip. Only all the overhead bins in the first five rows were already full and I had expressed my irritation to the flight attendant, who helped me store it over row six.
If you’ve been in this situation, you know that there’s no convenient way to work your way back up the aisle of an aircraft while the masses are boarding. A very tall, very broad man in his 50s snarled at me as he squeezed by.
“What is this – your first time on a plane?”
“It is not,” I snapped. “Who peed in your Wheaties this morning?”
I did mention this was not my proudest moment, right?
I mean… really? That was the best I could come back with?
Rude, insufferable and intolerant jerk.
Wait, me or him?
Back in my aisle seat in row 1, at 37,000 feet, I sullenly munched my Terra chips. What triggered such a defensive reaction?
I can list a thousand different reasons for feeling stressed. I had spent the past three days buried in boxes and bubble wrap, preparing for my second cross-country move in six months. I had been traveling every week for the four consecutive weeks prior, so despite all best intentions to get ahead of my packing for the move, it just didn’t happen. I was certain there was some detail of the move that I was forgetting – and it would undoubtedly be something dreadfully important. I was deep in my head, a head crammed with dates and times for collecting my house keys, receiving furniture deliveries, the arrival of my zoo, of the cable guy… and then I’d need to register my son in school (his third this year), find new doctors and dog daycare and, and, and…
I am not making excuses. It’s just where I was at the moment. At the moment where the best comeback I could think of was about a 1970s cereal that Millennials have never heard of (and yet they all know Caitlyn Jenner… go figure…) A moment where I didn’t respond. I reacted. Poorly.
It was a three-and-a-half-hour flight. An hour in, I realized that I wasn’t getting anywhere. I wasn’t going to solve the problem of my rude behavior by rehashing it in my mind over and over. It happened. There wasn’t anywhere to go with it. Yes, I have been taxed mentally and physically lately. Yes, I needed sleep. And yes, I realized suddenly, I needed space. Mental space. Get out of my head and its cluttered mess. And where better to take it, to sink lushfully back into a practice I had neglected for the past few weeks, then on an airplane? Isolated at 37,000 feet. Perfect.
So, I put in my headphones, closed my eyes and set my phone to play a guided meditation.
There was a tugging on my sleeve.
The older woman next to me – maybe mid 60s in age – in an exotic tunic and pants set in a wild yellow, white and black leafy pattern, was gently tugging at me.
“Bathroom?” She gestured up and down the aisle.
I pointed to the door less than ten feet away from me, to the lav next to the cockpit. She smiled and stood.
I had wondered briefly, when we first boarded, if this was her first flight. My son, in the window seat on the other side of her, had helped her put her seatbelt on after watching her unsuccessfully fiddle with it for a few minutes. And earlier in the flight, I had called back the flight attendant who had already gone a few rows past us with beverages when my neighbor realized that there was juice on the beverage cart and it was free. She took pineapple juice. Two of them.
I leaned back into my seat, back into my meditative journey.
Maybe ten minutes passed. Perhaps fifteen. Not more than that.
There was a sudden pressure on my arm again, but this time, it was a leaning, not a tugging. Slowly, reluctantly, I open my eyes again. A bright yellow, white and black arm was stretched across the front of me and this time tugging at the man standing in the aisle. He was perusing the snack tray set on the counter back by the flight attendants’ seats. She had grasped the back of his sweater, leaning across me and was tugging with one arm and gesturing at the snack tray with the other.
He turned and looked at us, saw her outstretched arm attached to his sweater. “You want chips?”
“Yes,” she grinned. He handed her a bag. “Two?” He gave her another.
I shut my eyes again.
I don’t know how much time passed, and I think I fell asleep, though I don’t know for how long before there was a bumping against my upper arm. A nudging.
She was pointing to my tv screen, which was tuned to the exciting channel of CSPAN so that I wouldn’t be tempted to forego meditation and watch mindless shows instead. “How?”
I showed her the channels control, the volume button, and where to plug headphones in.
She didn’t have headphones.
I realized I was not going to meditate.
My initial reaction was a piling on of irritation. I just wanted space. I just wanted to rest. I just wanted to move forward, get to my destination, move on with my life and start to my future.
Why was I being continually assaulted? First, the man in the aisle, then the woman in the center seat. Each interaction was yanking me abruptly – into the present.
When hurt or angry, my friend Liz always asks, “So what’s the lesson in this?”
And I used to think, a little defiantly, maybe there isn’t one. Sometimes life just happens. Stuff just happens. Does there always have to be a lesson in it?
There’s a lesson if we want it.
And it struck me that my lesson of the day was so obvious. And I had been oblivious.
For weeks, my head was filled with future actions, future needs, future dreams. I plowed through daily activities focused only on getting to the next step. I was plowing through this plane ride, just trying to get to the destination, where I would charge forward again.
But trapped at 37,000 feet, I was being tugged, nudged, shoved and rudely taunted into being present. In THAT moment. With THOSE people. My attention was forced. And I was irritated. It was in that irritation that I realized: I do have a lesson here.
When I am not present, not taking care of my current moment, I am not taking care of my current energy. I was letting frayed nerves about future events own my present moments… future moments that I could neither predict nor control were running away with my patience, my clarity and really, my joy. My brittle energy was feeding a brittle present.
Is that really what I wanted my present to be?
There is a rush of brittle, icy air. A wildly bright yellow, black and white arm is thrust into my personal space.
“Thank you. Thank you. God Bless you.” Her dry hand held mine gently but pumped my arm with gusto. She turned to my son and grabbed his hand. “Thank you. Thank you. God Bless you.”
She shook hands with everyone in row 1. And with each flight attendant. Then smiled as she waved to everyone and moved slowly onto the chilly jetway.
“I don’t think she’s all there,” my son said to me. “She woke me up several times. Couldn’t get her seatbelt off, didn’t know how to turn the tv on, just didn’t seem to really to get it.”
“Maybe she’s just never been on a plane before.” We were walking down the jetway ourselves now, bracing against the cold we were so unaccustomed to.
“Maybe,” he shrugged. “But I think she’s just not all there.”
Nah, I thought. She’s here. She gets it.