paradise lost

flower children

I did some air travel during the recent holiday season, the last flight having returned January 5th.  As is my way, I chose the furthest seat back that I could.  This is because I’ve noticed that most people become crazed when they fly, for some reason.

They line up close to the entry door in the terminal at the first sign of a flight attendant moving for an intercom, jockeying silently yet stubbornly for position as if they were vying for the last heel of bread in a soup line during the Great Depression.  This seems strange since, as far as I’ve ever observed, everyone present is accounted for and manages to make it onto the plane before take off.

Once on the plane, the irrational behavior continues, with people apparently panicked that they will be cheated out of space for their carry-on luggage in the overhead bin closest them.  Again, as far as I’ve been able to see in my travels, every plane comes equipped with enough space for each passenger to stow one large item overhead and one small item under the seat in front of them.  I’ve yet to witness unlucky passengers – losers in the game of Find-A-Cubby – having their luggage wrestled from them by a flight attendant and tossed out onto the tarmac.  Still, this scavenger-like urgency always seems to be part of the ordeal.

Equally baffling is the phenomenon that occurs when the plane lands.  Like horses whickering and pawing the earth at the starting gate, eyes start to roll sideways, and metallic clicks ripple through the cabin as belt buckles loose before the captain officially turns off the overhead light.  Wait for it.  Wait for it!  At last, the familiar *BING* sounds – and they’re OFF!  Bedlam ensues as passengers jettison from seats, hunching uncomfortably in the cramped space, pressing into the aisles, elbows flying, in an effort to retrieve luggage and …

… stand there until everyone in front of them exits the plane in however long a time that takes, just like always.

So again, as I say, I choose a seat as close to the back as possible: a vantage point from which I can watch the chaos in relative peace, serenity and amusement until its over and I can exit at my leisure.

On my outbound flight, I had procured seat 24D – a window seat in the second-to-last row.  Directly behind me were a mother and her young daughter.  And across from them, occupying seats 25A and B, were a young mother and her rather rambunctious preschool son.  Both children held window seats, while their mothers occupied the aisle seats.

Despite being seated two feet from one another and having children about the same age – both of whom were obviously excited and a bit trepidatious about the flight – the two women did not speak to one another.

In perusing the other occupants of the plane, I noticed similar scenarios.  Strangers having to step over or around one another to reach inside seats, even brushing up against each other in passing, only pointed and smiled awkwardly by way of greeting and permission.  Earphones went in immediately.  Cell phones and iPads were checked right up to the last possible moment, without ever a standard greeting or exchange of names.  Mere inches from each other, sharing armrests, and yet people found ways of isolating themselves from their temporary neighbors instead of engaging.

Like I said, crazy behaviors.

Once we’d taken off and had broken through to the sunshine above, looking down at the tops of rainclouds beneath, people were settled safely into their cocoons of in-flight movies, books, magazines and sundry electronic devices.

All except the young boy and girl in the back row, that is.

The boy peered around his mother, who was rummaging through a large satchel on her lap.  He leaned as far forward as he could, his attention focused in the direction of the little girl across the aisle from him.  “Hi!” he shouted loudly, gesticulating enthusiastically in an attempt to gain her attention.

“Cody, settle down now,” his mother gently chided.  “Don’t bother those people.  Here.  Here’s a book.”

Cody fumbled with the book, but was not deterred.  “Hi, girl!”  he continued.

I heard stirring behind me.  Apparently, Cody’s tactics had worked.  He grinned and waved some more, and his eyes told me that she was looking at him.  “I’m Cody!”

A shy voice piped up over the hum of the engines.  “I’m Tamara.”

I turned my head slightly, amused that the children had found a way to interact, despite being as far apart across the row as possible – a feat that adults who were nearly on top of one another hadn’t figured out.  Or perhaps dared.

The mothers now made bashful eye contact, smiling almost apologetically.  Cody chimed in.  “Mom … can Tamara come over and read our book?”

“No, no, Cody.  They have their own seats and you have your seat.  I don’t think –“

Meanwhile, I heard the click of the seat belt behind me as Tamara loosed herself and squeezed past her mother’s knees, responding to the invitation.  Across the aisle she went, pushing past the other mother’s knees as if the woman were an aunt, and plopped herself down beside Cody.

Cody’s mother grinned sheepishly at Tamara’s mother, who had not succeeded in detaining her scrambling youngster.  “Do you mind?” asked Cody’s mother?  “No, if it’s OK with you,” said Tamara’s mother.

Cody’s mom unbuckled Cody’s seat belt and then wrapped it around both her son and Tamara.  There they were – strangers tied together, yet friends – grinning ear to ear as if it were both of their birthdays and the cake was on the table.  Cody’s mom opened the book on their laps and read to them.  One book.  Another.  Another.  The two new friends giggled and pointed and talked this way for the remainder of the flight, as if it were the most natural thing in the world.

And yet, isn’t it the most natural course, to say hello and exchange names with someone so close in proximity, and for such a length of time?  Isn’t it the “mature” and reasonable choice to share some polite discourse, to meet a new person, to step outside ourselves for a window of time in order to learn something about another human being beside us, with whom we share the planet?

Funny that children should be the ones to teach us what we have forgotten.

To remind us of a paradise lost perhaps somewhere back in our own youth.

To challenge us to experience again the simple lost arts of kindness, sharing and humanity.

ADDENDUM:  Our captain for the flight was Jim.  Drew was co-pilot.  And Gavin and Ben were the flight attendants.  How do I know?  I simply listened when they announced this prior to take-off.  During flight, I pulled out a blank “You Matter!” card (which I had designed for my friend Chad and the Penn State Clown Nose Club), and wrote a short note of thanks for a safe and comfortable flight, and wishing these four guys a happy new year.  Easy, free encouragement!  Try it!

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