Recently I was on an early morning flight from New Zealand to Melbourne. As someone who has flown a bit (you know, more than the Wright brothers, less than a seagull) I’m reasonably calm in the air, and was sound asleep on my significant other’s shoulder in next to no time dreaming of being back in bed and ideally not in a Virgin Blue economy seat at the unholy hour of 5:45am. Out like a light I was, until the seat-belt sign flicked on, and that resplendent “ding,” noise chimed throughout the cabin denoting that yes, oh yes dear friends, we were to be expecting turbulence.
Usually at this point, I have a way of dealing with that fact that I am indeed trapped in a heavy tin can with wings attached either side in the middle of the sky which involves three highly refined steps; close eyes, ignore growing beads of sweat forming pools in clammy palms, and pray. Pray like Jesus in the desert, Moses on the mountain, and Adam after that whole apple debacle. Usually after some time doing this, the seatbelt sign disappears like the last cookie from the cookie jar, and I resume a state of relaxed mid-air delight and wonder at the fact that I am flying.
A few years ago on the same path across the Tasman I was seated next to a woman who, already exhausted from delays, sat down nervously next to me and after introducing her husband and herself explained to me during take of (while holding my arm, and her husband’s the other side) that she was in fact not a good flyer.
This particular flight happened to be on the same day that cyclone Yasi was coming across the Pacific towards Australia, and I do recall the captain mentioning something about “strong tail winds,” and a “bumpy flight ahead.”
All went smooth for the first couple of hours, my new flight-fearing friend shared her ice cream with me, I listened to Johnny Cash and read a book, and then in the final hour of the flight our old acquaintance, the resplendent ding of the seatbelt sign, chimed throughout the cabin.
Not a moment later the whole aircraft began to fall from the sky for…
Which on paper looks like, well, about four lines, but in the air feels like you might as well call little Johnny and tell him you won’t be home for Christmas. An air hostess toppled over landing in a heap on the aisle, a baby started howling, and as I picked my stomach up from somewhere around my ankles and lodged it back into place, the woman next to me shrieked like a terrified banshee digging her post-honeymoon fake nails into my right arm. After a pretty bumpy next forty-five minutes the plane began to land in Melbourne and we parted ways, each having shared an experience together and for her, likely some of my DNA lodged under her talons.
The other morning in turbulence I thought about that flight, and although I am no scientist, psychologist, or aviation expert (paper plane making experience, quite sadly, excluded) looking around the cabin noticing how different people were coping I began to think that perhaps, just perhaps, the difference between being a good flyer and a not-so-good flyer isn’t necessarily a matter of one individual being a valiant lion, and the other a scaredy cat, but maybe in part at least, it’s a matter of knowledge and experience – of being able to recognize what might be the signs of a crash, and what might just be a bit of turbulence.
I think life can be a bit like flying at times.
Sometimes life is so smooth. You have a window seat and there are great movies on. The food is tasty and more or less recognizable as distinguishable parts of a food pyramid, and that kid who usually wants to play punching bag with the screen on the back of your seat has miraculously fallen into a blissful dream. Sometimes life is so cruisy, and in times like those flying is wondrous. Other times though, just as Jesus said that “in this world you will have troubles,” we strike a bit of turbulence.
In the worst case scenarios, we just plain old crash and can’t go on flying anymore for a while, and in those times the best thing you can do is try to keep calm, put your life jacket on, and get into a life raft; and if you’re lucky enough to be in one with people you love, you’re probably exactly where you were supposed to be all along anyway.
Not too long after that resplendent ding the other weekend I fell asleep again. There were a few bumps along the way, and at times I needed to call on the Big Guy (Michael Jordan… kidding) but before long we landed in Melbourne and went on about our days although tired, all the better for the experience of taking off, and coming home safe.