How do you feel about flying?
The strangers I select never know the important role they play for me—or do they? Is it their energy that draws me to name them as my angels? My hairstylist, the talented Kim who quarterly takes me from shaggy to coiffed and quips easily my greys are “natural highlights,” gave me the notion of angels in the air. During one appointment she handed me the gift of her technique for feeling more certain on airplanes: Look around and select someone to be your angel. For longer flights, maybe more than one.
Kim’s is a practice I’ve adopted and adapted; I choose upwards of four people and always make sure to name at least one person who I’m certain would annoy me were it not for his or her purpose in keeping me safe. If there are children getting ready to board, they are always additional angels, particularly tiny ones. I peruse the crowd at the gate in those moments that routinely stretch way out before boarding and name them silently in my head: man with a mustache in a red shirt, lady reading an oversized hardcover, attractive twenty-year-old with the French manicure and a carryon too many, harried looking Asian mother with two pig-tailed daughters.
As a child, I flew easily and all over, crossing the Atlantic unaccompanied five times by the age my daughter is now. Eleven looks stricken when I mention this. She loves home, and boarding school would not be a good fit. Her brother, Fourteen, grins broadly at the notion and suggests, “All the good books happen at fancy boarding schools. Send me.” “Hogwarts,” I disappoint him, “is not an option.”
I still flew regularly after I returned to American junior high. My father’s wanderlust took us to a variety of destinations in America and Europe. I flew back and forth to college, even as I became a confident and happy driver of distances short and long.
Then, in 1989, a DC-10 en route from Denver to Chicago crash landed in Sioux City, IA. Although historically the handling of the engine malfunction that preceded the crash and the quick-thinking response of the crew are lauded, the televised footage of the wreckage that included sections of the busted apart plane smoldering in a cornfield caused an unease to descend on me regarding flying. It didn’t stop me—I still flew regularly from my first real job on Long Island to my Iowa home, to the Caribbean, and even all the way from Kennedy Airport to Taiwan to visit, in 1992, the friend who claimed she would not come home to the United States until someone came to visit her.
Several Caribbean adventures, a couple of tours of Europe, and a move to Bethesda, MD, later, I flew up to Long Island from DC with a four-month baby bump. It was November 1998. The trip was uneventful; the visit nice. I didn’t know it then, but I wouldn’t again step foot inside an airplane for some time.
At first it was happenstance—while mommy friends flew everywhere with their newborns, my baby’s medical challenges kept me close to doctors and specialists for the first year of his life. We drove when we opted to visit grandparents, but it was most comfortable to stay home. As the baby grew and then his sister joined the fold, flying en famille seemed daunting to me. The rise in incidents and the ever-increasing cost of air travel versus the ease and flexibility of putting a family of four with diaper bags, car seats, portable cribs and more in the Volvo station wagon meant car travel won out in my planning every time. If I was aware that I was working around a gnawing fear, I let it be without close examination.
Then, in 2004 I needed to travel to Des Moines on a house hunting expedition. It would mark a number of firsts—some surprising for a thirty-nine year old woman. It would be the first time I had left Five and Two for more than a single night. It would be the first time I had ever rented a car or checked into a hotel on my own. And it would be my first time on an airplane in six years.
It was that flight that started me on the collection of practices I routinely employ to make flying feel comfortable to this day. Stepping onto the plane, I paused that day, put my hand on the outside of the actual plane itself and thought hard about pressing into that hand, turning on my heels and walking the other way. Instead I gave the plane a little pat and made my way to my seat. Luggage stowed and seatbelt secured, I thought, if I prayed, I would pray right now. That didn’t feel genuine, so I whispered the Sanskrit Invocation to Patanjoli under my breath. It’s what we used to begin each class at my studio in Bethesda, and I loved the ancient rich feel of it rolling through my mouth. Deep, steady yoga breathing followed until right before the plane started to taxi, at which point I dove into the book I was reading, strategically started ahead of time such that I was already absorbed by the plot.
Several incident-free journeys later, a family vacation to San Diego meant I had a choice—I could be the mother who transmitted my fear of flying to my children, by then Seven and Four, or I could be the mother my sterling friend Rachel advised me to be: The one who stowed her fear and showed her children the possibilities flying allowed.
I still touched the outside of the plane. I still found my breath and chanted in Sanskrit. But I did not look anxiously at the flight attendants’ faces searching for signs of the unusual as I had so many times before. “Whee,” I said, when the plane rolled over bumps. And in glow of delight and amazement in my children’s faces, I almost believed it.
Flying with my children made flying alone easier. Still, I hadn’t done that much of it when I was off to New York for a long weekend in 2011. It was during my pretrip haircut that Kim shared her angel strategy. In the early morning quiet at the gate, I gazed at the slowly assembling crowd. There were people blowing on coffee cups and people studying their electronics. Scattered around the gate area were several people in unusually bright colors, with elaborate, stagy hairdos and bulky musical instrument cases. In spite of being spread out, they were clearly a group and I elected each of them an angel.
Only near the end of my flight, during which the gentleman across the aisle from me and I had been chatting affably, did I put the pieces together. He was KC and the shimmering people who were seated randomly through the plane dozing were the Sunshine Band.
I haven’t had such famous angels since, but I’ve elected angels a-plenty each leg I fly. So it was a surprise to me last Saturday when my peeps and I, on our way for a summer vacation in California, were already comfortably seated in our row, luggage stowed, and nary an angel selected. I had been so happily occupied in the Minneapolis airport, enjoying a meal, purchasing chocolates, and arriving at the gate just in time to waltz on board, that I hadn’t scanned the folks at the gate to spot my angels. I looked at my peeps, Fourteen and Eleven, and we were laughing as we so often are, easily and freely. Then I knew: I had brought my angels with me. There is nothing accidental about them, but in their company I soar high and fearlessly.
At the full moon, I gave myself a posting break for this new moon … and then this post virtually wrote itself on the journey out to vacation in Napa, where by the magic of the Internet I can post even without my own computer. So here it is, celebrating all that is good about summer, not the least of which is family summer travel. When we return, the whirl of the new school year begins, but for now we’re relaxed and happy under the new August moon—called by various cultures the Sturgeon, Fruit, Dog Days’, Dispute or Woman’s Moon. With love & thanks for flying with me, Rxo