Thursday, October 11, 2012

Becoming a Village at High Altitude

Posted by Kim Klein

Flying Southwest Airlines is, in its own weird way, an experience of the commons at 30,000 feet. With no assigned seating, the entire plane is like benches in a long and narrow public park. You can sit where you want as long as no one is already sitting there. But unlike a park, you are forced to sit very close to total strangers—closer than most of us sit next to anyone except our lovers. And of course, it is not free, and you can’t really move around a lot.

But the commons part is not the price or the physical reality—it is the personas people take on in order to cope with flying, and the way we shed those personas and return to our true selves when the need arises. People in the “A” group get on and find a seat they like. Then they studiously avoid eye contact with anyone else hoping to keep the middle seat empty. Many people casually put their coat or briefcase on the middle seat to give the impression that someone is there. Someone seeped in zombie movies might well think she had entered a space full of them. The message from people you are going to be sitting an inch away from is “Don’t look at me. Keep your distance. Don’t say anything.”

I took a short flight to Austin a few days ago. I had noticed a soldier with his daughter in the waiting area. They were laughing and hugging. Later, when I got on, I could hear in the next row up the sound of sobbing. I looked and it was this little girl, quietly sobbing and every so often almost wailing. She was by herself. Pretty soon, seats filled up around her although the flight attendant kept her row empty. Our carefully cultivated “I can’t see anyone” looks melted. People around her tried to distract her. “You have such a pretty purse.” “Would you like some candy?” All efforts were met with louder wailing.

Finally a woman sat down next to her and asked her what was wrong. “I miss my daddy” she wailed. “How old are you?” she asked. Between sobs and hiccups, the child answered, “Five.” The man next to me said, “Five? How could someone let their kid travel alone when she is five?” Several other people nodded in agreement, showing how many of us were paying attention to this small drama. The flight attendant said, “Her father is being deployed tonight and she has to go to her mother.” We were temporarily silenced by that news, but then in some unspoken arrangement, we became a small village.
For the next 90 minutes several people took turns talking to the child. One woman held her hand much of the way. I contributed a red felt tip marker and scratch paper, and another person had a rub-on tattoo she put on the child’s arm. About 20 minutes into the flight, the little girl was smiling and talking. She said her mother was also in the service and that her parents were divorced. She said she lives with her dad most of the time, but now he has to be gone for awhile “to help another country.” None of us said aloud what I imagine many of us were thinking, “What if her dad does not return?”
I have no idea if my seatmates approve of the war or not. I don’t know how they will vote, or even if they vote. But I felt a little commons happened amongst us as we all set aside our magazines, books, I-pods and computers to comfort a little girl.

As we landed and disembarked, she had to wait for a flight attendant to walk her off the plane. We all wished her well and I think she was not the only one cheered up on that flight. I was reminded of how our instincts are to be helpful, to take care of those having a hard time taking care of themselves, and to be kind. Of course it shouldn’t take a sobbing five year old to bring that out in us, but at least it is there. I have to fly on Southwest again tomorrow. I am going to leave my Zombie persona behind and see what happens.

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