I am not a frequent flier. When I do travel by air, I sit by a window, as much to transcend my physical confinement as to relish the world from above. The seats are narrow and the hours are long, and I have to give myself over completely to the pilots inside their fortified cockpit and have faith in unknown flesh and machinery. This is not an altogether comfortable place for one who values self reliance.
Last week I flew from Hartford to Detroit, and from there to Lexington, Kentucky to visit my sister and her family. I am in one of those hard places where something deep inside is struggling to surface. Part of me fears what may emerge, "what rude beast, it's hour come at last, slouches towards Bethlehem to be born." The human heart has far more than its 4 physical chambers, and some of these I would much prefer to bypass.
And so I boarded the plane, carrying far more than my small carry on bag. And in such a place I found unexpected grace.
You cannot pick your companions when you fly alone. You can retreat into yourself and the too small space you have been allotted too close to the occupant of the next seat. Or you can find, beyond all expectations, a profound connection with a perfect stranger born of shared circumstance and mutual experience. When I used to rely on my thumb for transportation, backpacking in the Pacific Northwest or trekking across Southern Africa, the very act of accepting a ride from a stranger was a goad to conversation. Some of this was a way to take the measure of the other, but also to give rein to our better natures. You have to be open to the possible when you travel this way, to embrace the moment, to adjust expectations. I haven't felt like that for a long time.
On this flight, my companion had the middle seat while I was by the window. Yet it was she who directed my eyes to the afterglow of the buried sun. It was she who showed a friendly interest that turned my inward focus outward. What opened with talk of our separate journeys was soon revealed as twining paths with many interstices. We were both making the same connecting flight. She was a professor and woman of color whose star student from the Berkshires had just published an exquisite chapbook of poetry that grew from the loss of a first child in stillbirth. I know both of those places intimately, and suddenly she was reaching into her bag and handing me her second copy of this work of which there were only 30 made saying I was meant to have it.
From there, it was an extraordinary journey. We spoke of writing and what sets the story free to come. We spoke of Africa and race and finding common ground with those unlike ourselves and yet never apart from us. She revealed a love of the natural world born on a farm in South Carolina before the end of segregation, and how she felt when she saw her first whale. I talked of family history, and Faulkner, and what the world must have been like in the time before propellers when blue whales could communicate pole to pole. I told her the story from Africa I have never been able to write, but not the fresh and secret pain I carry in my heart.
This was not a confessional, nor was this other human being an angel or a muse. It was, however, a time of joy where none was sought or anticipated, of gifts freely given even as their impacts were not completely known. I liked who I was in that place. I value what was shared and allowed to shine. I carry that self knowledge with me now, able to look beyond the rim at the great unknown. And I am grateful for the gift of rising above the unkindness of silence, for that will abide long after I land.