I’m officially terrified of flying. I never saw it coming. I used to LOVE flying when I was a kid. For my sisters and I, the flight WAS the vacation. It didn’t matter where we were going, we exulted in the adrenaline rush of taking off, the moment of weightlessness when the plane reaches its maximum takeoff height and hesitates there in outer space before angling to the left or the right.
Now that moment in space feels like the top of the roller coaster when you have finally crept as high as the metal gears will take you and you know the tiny cart will creep no higher and just as you think you might raise your hand and ask to take those rickety metal safety stairs back down, (why on earth do they have those little stairs?) the cart drops as if it has come off its tracks and you are falling through the clouds, your stomach in your throat, your throat in your brain and your brain somewhere out there hovering in midair. It is that dropping, hurdling through space feeling that I am constantly waiting for when I fly.
I can breathe my way through the take off, convincing myself that even though we are ramping at an alarming angle and the engines sounds as if they might give way at any moment and the exterior walls of the plane and the tail are lurching and flexing as if they may break in half at any moment, soon we will level off and the bell will ding and the captain will speak and all will be well. That small period I can get through, it is the first sign of turbulence that makes my head swim, my eyes, blur, my armpits sweat and my stomach turn. I really believe, in those bumpy moments that we all may die.
And why does that notion scare me so much? Especially as I sit next to my incredible husband, holding my infant daughter and sitting next to my three year old, shouldn’t I feel some peace in knowing we are all here together? Truthfully, it’s not the passage from this life to the next that scares me. I’m not one who clings to life. I would not miss the trappings of this world. I hold on to the belief that there is beauty far greater, air much fresher, food more alive and wine far finer elsewhere. That aspect of death is exciting; it draws me in and whispers mysteriously to me, like the voice of a friend I haven’t seen in years; like a memory I can’t quite recall.
No it isn’t death per se that paralyzes me with fear, it is waiting for the plane to hurdle towards the ground thousands of feet bellow at hundreds of miles per hour.
It is a wonder to me that airplanes aren’t subject to anarchy all the time. How, I ask myself as I sit gripping my arm rests waiting for my head to it the luggage rack above me, are all these people sitting so calmly reading their magazines and sipping their cokes as if death isn’t imminent? Fools. Why aren’t they screaming the obscenities that are racing through my head? But they aren’t scared and maybe I shouldn’t be either, I think.
So I turn the bumping, rocking, trembling airplane ride into a spiritual lesson. I pray and mediated and breathe and ask God to take my fear; I remind myself that I am not in control of anything and to let go and rest in the lack of control. But this never works.
I have found over the course of the last few flights that the only thing that does seem to work is Mika on the ipod and airplane chardonnay over ice.
The game is to drink the furniture polish-tasting wine as fast as I can while listening first to, Love Today then Relax, perhaps finishing off with a little Billy Brown or Big Girl. By the time I get to We Are Golden, I am indeed feeling fairly golden. I am of course no safer on the plane because I am drinking wine in the afternoon than I was moments before, sober and terrified. But something about having a light buzz enables me to see the big picture. It relaxes me enough that I can pull myself out of the microcosm of my momentary struggle, reminding myself that I probably will land at my destination, I will enjoy my week and likely live to face the anxiety of the return flight.
Maybe flying is just the avenue for the fear. Perhaps that kind of anxiety lurks below the surface of our calm façades. Maybe a turbulent flight is the outlet our fears and anxieties need to let off steam—for others maybe fear comes in the form of a panic attack, an outburst of anger, in sabotaging relationships, or overconsumption of food, gadgets, clothes, alcohol. Maybe inside we are always screaming in desperation, searching for some way to have more control over our lives; power over what happens to our children, power over the choices our siblings and parents make, power over the difficulties our friends face, the loss of loved ones, the loss of jobs, environmental travesties, oil spills, murder, genocide.
Maybe humans are constantly functioning in a delicate balance of ignoring reality and self-medication, trying to live in some semblance of happiness and peace when we know on a deep level that the world we are living in is often not peaceful or even close to happy. And once in a while the realness dares creep in. When the airplane ride becomes turbulent the velocity at which you are traveling becomes apparent. When you are cruising smoothly along you might as well be floating slowly down the River Thames on a still day as flying unnaturally fast through the stratosphere. But then the bumps happen and you realize your incredible speed; how unnaturally fast your body is traveling. And the façade is dissolved.
So to in life turbulence wakes us up to the reality that all is perhaps not well. We can breathe through it, pray for peace, grip the arm rests and sweat it out, or have another drink and put on the headphones.