One of my favorite parts of flying is the people.
For an introvert who often prefers her house and solitude, this might seem out of character. I should be clear: I like people. Just not a lot of them all at one time. Being a writer allows me to be a casual and, I hope, an unnoticed observer of people, who are generally fascinating. As long as I don’t have to make conversation, being surrounded by people is mostly entertaining.
The moment I set foot at the airport, I’m on the lookout for those who will be traveling with me. Will it be the woman at the curb who is also crying after her husband pulls away or the family ahead of me in the security line who let me ahead of them while the other members of the family check in?
At the airport, almost everyone is going somewhere. Or coming back from somewhere. And my writer’s mind concocts a hundred stories or more. It’s almost overwhelming. I had trouble falling asleep my first night back in Illinois because my mind was full of people and conversations and faces and possible stories.
There was the Jewish family I noticed in the waiting area at the gate. I knew they were Jewish because of the way they were dressed and their focus on finding kosher food. The older girl was excited to be flying for the first time in what seemed like a while. She was hoping for a window seat so she could see the houses get smaller. And to pass the time, she was asking questions that all began with, “Can you imagine …?” She wondered what it was like to be a flight attendant.
When we boarded the plane, they ended up sitting behind me, and her excitement was contagious and obvious. I, too, am a bit giddy about flying. I love the anticipation of the takeoff as the engines fire up. I love the feeling of power as the plane surges forward and we lift into the air. I hope I never get over the marvel of flight.
But mine is a quiet wonder. This girl could not contain her excitement.
“Flying is so amazing!” she exclaimed. And I could not help but think of my own children whom I hadn’t seen in almost 10 days and how they are going to experience their second flight in just a few short days. I hope they feel free to express their joy.
It helped that we saw a rainbow as we took off. I even mentioned it to the guys sitting in my row. I prefer to fade into the background on a flight and keep my nose in a book, but I didn’t want them to miss the beauty.
Ours was a low-key flight, little to no drama. Not like the last time I flew. No one was extra-memorable, and that’s okay.
Still, when you share a space with strangers, even it’s only for 100 minutes at 40,000 feet, they do make an impression. Even if it’s faint. Their faces are recognizable in a crowded airport, and because we were on a plane to the same destination, I can’t help but feel a connection. For a brief period of life, you and a plane full of strangers share a trajectory, though the paths before and after differ.
It’s not all that different in the rest of life, is it?
I think of all the people I’ve shared space with. Maybe not at 40,000 feet but maybe for a semester at college or a year at a job. And maybe not as impersonally as strangers in a plane but as roommates or classmates or colleagues.
When I really give it thought, I can count hundreds of people who have left some kind of impression on me, and they are scattered all over the world. We have shared experiences and some have been more memorable than others. There are those who have merely traveled the same trajectory and those with whom I’ve developed deeper relationships.
There are those who inspire me to look at the world with wonder, like the Jewish girl who wanted a window seat, and those who have helped me see beauty, like I hope I did with my seat mates and the rainbow.
It’s so easy to just go about our business and blend in and keep our heads down and not be noticed. Much harder to engage the people in the space around us, whether it’s in a house or at a job or in a grocery store. I’m definitely guilty of tunnel vision, with my eyes on the destination, no looking to the left or the right.
But the truth is we need each other, even when we don’t think we do. My seat mate on the plane took my beverage from the flight attendant and handed it to me. All I’d said to him before that moment was, “Look, a rainbow.” I probably could have reached the drink myself, but he did a kind thing.
I could have kept the rainbow to myself, but not everyone has a window seat to beauty, so I shared what I saw. It’s the same in life. Some of us are stuck in an aisle seat, with necks craned to catch a glimpse of what’s outside.
We’re all traveling somewhere. Maybe it’s not a literal journey. Maybe we’re not even sure where we’re headed. But if we take the time to look around, I think we’ll find our fellow travelers. And if we’re not sure of the way, we can lean on each other for guidance. We can share our stories of journeys past and commiserate when things don’t go according to plan.
We can take comfort in knowing there are others on the same trajectory. Others coming from the same place and headed in the same direction.
We might be together for as little as 100 minutes or as long as 50 years.
Sometimes all that matters is we’re not alone on the journey.