It was one of the worst flying experiences I’ve had – and that’s saying something. This one was worse than the midnight, mid-air turn around, leaving me stranded overnight in an ATL ice storm. It was worse than the near-fatal, almost-wheels-down steep bank back up into the sky after the pilot was belatedly informed of another plane on our landing runway. It was worse than the 2-hour marathon seated in front of an inconsolably angry boy with autism and his divinely patient, saintly mother.
Delays, false assurances, hidden charges, ill-trained flight attendants, surly gate agents, incompetent customer service…suffice it to say: I will never, ever fly Frontier again. The part of the trip that has a hold on me, though, had almost nothing to do with the airline.
Because Frontier charges at least $8 for you to pick your own seat, I was stuck in the middle seat of the farthest row. I slid in, punched my bag under the seat in front of me, gathered my wide-ish shoulders as close together as I could, and steeled myself for a couple of uncomfortable hours. The young woman next to me pulled her headscarf further over her eyes, slammed the tray table down and fidgeted with her plastic grocery bag full of snacks. She muttered something under her breath.
Some commotion emerged from my other side, someone demanded to see the seat assignment of the woman sitting across the aisle. She looked up from her iPhone prayer app, pulled her headphones out of her ears and apologized in heavily accented English. “Yes, yes, I will just move here, okay? Okay. Yes, sorry, sorry, I move.” She plunked her large purse and her large self down beside me, smiling slightly. She pushed the buds back into her ears, Arabic streaming out of them and into my own.
It was late. I had been out of town for the last six weekends in a row, and I was finally headed home. My nerves were frayed and I was tired, but something made me pay attention. Something was…off. The women on either side of me didn’t speak to each other, but the older, praying one on my left keep glancing over at the younger, muttering one on my right. Something was weird. “Are you really so lowbrow that you can’t handle sitting between two Muslim women?!” I asked myself, probing not-so-gently at what I thought might be some unwarranted racism. But that wasn’t it, not really. I was uneasy. Something was wrong.
We took off, finally. The woman on my left put her head in her hands, chanted prayers still seeping from her headphones. The woman on my right threw her hands in the air reaching for…what? Her overhead light? The flight attendant call button? Her elbow slammed my shoulder on the way down. I turned, offered to help: “do you want the light on?” She shook her head, silently, turned away. I opened my book.
Gradually, the woman on the right’s muttering grew louder. She fidgeted, throwing limbs this way and that, finally turning completely around, kneeling on the ground with her head in the seat, attempting – I assume – sleep. The older woman glanced over, again and again, but said nothing. I closed my eyes, tried to sleep.
About halfway through the flight, the muttering finally grew audible. She wasn’t singing, as I’d convinced myself, or praying, as I’d hoped. She was cursing: violently and at herself. “Fuck you, bitch!” “I said shut the fuck up, you bitch!” “NO. Fuck you, bitch.” The older woman glanced over, dropped her head back into her hands. My heart sank, and broke a little bit. The cursing continued through the flight, through the landing, through the protracted wait for a Dulles gate to open up and receive us. I started praying.
When we finally landed, everyone grabbed their carry-ons, scrambling frantically to stand up and wait again in slightly less cramped positions. The older woman looked over at the clearly agitated younger one. “You okay, Fatima? You tired, eh? Sleepy a little?” Fatima did not answer, just kept cursing, though now it was only under her breath.
I do not know what demons Fatima was fighting. I don’t know if she has companions in the battle. I don’t know if the woman sitting with us in that airplane is her mother, and I don’t know if she has taken her to a doctor, or a counselor, or an imam. I don’t know if she has a diagnosis or medication, and I don’t know if that kind of cursing is something that happens all the time or only when things get particularly confining, anxious, strange.
Most of the time, spiritual practices and prayer feel to me like eternal slogs through a mundane and unchanging landscape of selfishness. Occasionally I will get a glimpse of how deeply self-involved I am. Once in a while the tragic gap between what I am and what I ought to be gets revealed. But sometimes, in very rare moments – I can see how God has been at work all the while, sanding and scraping away at a particular chunk of barnacle-like boorishness. This is evangelical language, pietism in stark relief. And it is the truth.
I sat between the cursing Fatima and her praying companion and noticed the change in atmosphere. I was aware, and concerned, but I did not freak out and I did not shut down. I paid attention, and I prayed. That might not sound like much to you. It might sound like what any old person with any sense in their dense heart would do. But I’m telling you, it was something.
This is one of the million things that have changed for me since becoming a pastor, agreeing to open myself to other people’s stories. It is one of the billion things that I understand both more and less. I heard in Fatima’s cursing the curses other people I have learned to love. I saw in her mother’s drooping head and prayer app other mothers I’ve learned to know. And I was not afraid.
When the line of people finally began to move, I stood up. Fatima stood behind me and as I slid out of the aisle and toward the door, I heard her whisper quietly: “I am so sorry.”
She might have been talking to me, but I have to tell you that I kind of hope she was still talking to herself. We could all use some absolution.