Stories of the World

Finding Peace in the Land of the Sky

I’m writing this at 38,000 feet on a Boeing 757 flying west. I’m in one of those crazy exit rows hung out there like a promontory. I’m grateful for the extra legroom but feel oddly exposed without a seatback in front of me for my book, journal, and water, and without a tidy, ankle-height cavern in front to store the rest of my gear: fuzzy plane socks and slippers with rubber soles, a small zippered pouch with my iPod, snack, bat mask, pen, earplugs, hand cream and chapstick. I fly a lot, so I’m into nesting. Create your space, improve your world.
I’m glad to be going home, and though I’d imagined a longer hiatus from air travel, just today I booked a 2-night work stint in L.A. for next Wednesday. For nearly a solid two months I’ve been away with trips to Florida, Ethiopia, and Washington D.C. (each trip to and from my home-base of Seattle). That’s a lot of hours logged in the air and a lot of time away from friends and intimates. So what makes me do it? What’s the pull of distance?
Sometimes it’s business, corporate or otherwise. Sometimes it’s to celebrate a holiday with family. But in recent years I’ve intentionally expanded my personal perimeter. Various social issues have surfaced and burst into passion: obstetric fistula, access to clean water,  unexploded ordnances , the treatment of women. Then there was the creative residency on an island off the coast of Portugal that led to a 2nd year around the world, and a digital storytelling workshop teaching photography in a South African township. There was a month working for a safari company, traveling 3,000 miles in a Land Rover with a back door that didn’t open, and a German surgeon I almost married. There was a month living in a tree house in New Zealand picking lemons and calalilies and paua shells by day and evading possums and swimming with phosphorescence by night. But I’m supposed to be writing about world peace.
Looking out the airplane window, pressing my forehead against the cold rectangle of plexiglass to see the man-made sparkle below and the heavenly sparkle above, I feel equally suspended between the two. From here I can see both worlds. Humanity is too close to disregard entirely, though cares are dulled and dampened, like trying to converse in a muffled room. I’ve not yet ascended fully to the heavens, though I can see their peaceful luminescence waiting. How do others not see this place of balance for the miracle that it is?
Other people may find their God in a cathedral with marble columns, winged cherubs, and the mysticism of light through colored glass. Or meaning can be found in projects at work or at home. I know all this. But often, I find mine in enclosed spaces looking out a window just wider than the spread of my fingers, in a seat with legroom just shorter than my knees, with a community that passes cups and napkins over one another to the center aisle, who clucks in sympathy when an infant fusses during a steep descent.
Sometimes the majesty framed through that small window comes from the natural splendor created by spirit: a gleaming moon reflecting on the sea, a never-ending sunrise heading east, the first time I saw the shocking expanse of Sahara by air or the wild tufts of Scottish Hebrides. Other times I’m astounded by the earth dwellers, our turnpike ribbons and urban tapestries, or the way a plane traveling the opposite direction occasionally hurtles past and no one seems to blink.
My world expands on a regular basis when periodic emails show up in my Inbox from strangers who type, “A good friend of mine recently sat next to you on a flight and passed along your stories and website and I knew I had to write…” And some of these strangers become good friends. And sometimes they change my life.
It’s easy to isolate: busying ourselves with headsets and laptops, books and magazines. But what about the ways we can intentionally connect? What do we say to be kind, even without speaking, aloft with our cheek against the glass chasing the sun for 3,000 miles flying west, or on a four-leg journey to Afghanistan in a pink shirt and ponytail before reaching Dubai where we feel inclined to put on a headscarf and avert our eyes into submission?
What is possible during the magic hours, in the timeless land of the sky?
What scripts are possible to re-write in the air as we long for an alternative ending? What’s the last text we send before our electronic devices need to be shut off, in the event that it’s our final correspondence? What further consciousness can we bring? The worlds we deem as “real” or “virtual” are fluid in ways we don’t comprehend when both feet are squarely planted upon the earth. Sky-bound, it’s easier to see that things aren’t always as they seem; the inner layers of this life cake may end up being on top. Strangers become friends. Friends become strangers. We can choose.
I can make my neighbor’s life more comfortable, or I can make it hell. This is equally true upon the earth or above it. After all of my gear has been stowed in the seat back pocket in front of me, and on the floor below, and in the bin above, and an airline stewardess asks if I’ll give up my window seat for a middle section on an 11 hour flight across the Atlantic so an elderly Swedish couple celebrating their 50th anniversary can sit together, how will I respond?
How will you?