Sitting next to the young priest, I am shocked when he confesses to me that he is lonely. He says he has considered giving up the church to be with the woman he loves. They met when he officiated at her husband’s AND her father’s funerals. Through this deeply painful experience, he has fallen head over heels for her and the feelings are reciprocated. Alas, she rejects taking any action on her feelings and he is confused. I do not know this man, but, as I listen, I wonder if this is a common conundrum among priests, if he’s making it all up, or if it’s a rare and tragic dilemma.
I shrink when he asks me what I think, shocked that he is seeking out my advice. We have known each other for no more than 30 minutes, and moreover, who am I, a secular Jew, to advise a priest about something that I imagine is considered blasphemy. I offer my reflections… because we are from very different worlds; because we will never encounter one another again; because there is nothing to lose. When I get back home, I cannot resist googling him, because I have my doubts he is for real. And there he is, exactly as he has portrayed himself, a suburban priest, working in a traditional parish that has a choir and a social action committee, and a successful capital campaign he has described to me.
I get to thinking about the people I’ve met on planes with whom I’ve had intimate conversations. In fact, the reason I started this blog is because of an amazing blogger – Ann Handley – who spent a few hours as my seat-mate from Boston to LA, extolling the benefits of blogging. She is my only plane friend with whom I have maintained contact. (see Ann’s book, co-authored with C.C. Chapman, called Content Rules: How to Create Killer Blogs, Podcasts, Videos, eBooks and Webinars – http://www.contentrulesbook.com/)
What is it about that suspended time spent with a stranger, tens of thousands of feet above the ground? Perhaps it is the anonymity of the relationship. Or maybe these immediate zing-like bonds are inspired by a basic fear of flying, allowing us to use our potential last moment of connection to share the story of our lives. Or perhaps it’s simply to fend off sheer boredom, a way to make time pass quickly, or a way to experience adventure in a closed capsule where nothing can go horribly wrong. I’m not always up for a chat; there are certainly times that I appreciate the solitude of plane time, where it is easier to concentrate on work or a book or knitting without interruption. And I’m certainly not alone there, as tons of travelers dig into their ipads and spread sheets.
But I often welcome these contacts, and occasionally they “pay off” unexpectedly. I once told a woman with whom I was chatting in the back of the plane that I was considering leaving my consulting work and getting a stable job. To this total stranger, I posited that I should probably be “settled” into a “regular” job sooner than later. Why did I divulge this internal dilemma that I hadn’t shared with anyone else? We had known each other for a sum total of 20 minutes. But she listened well, and her advice was pivotal in my thinking. Either she was a quick read or she was very lucky, but whatever she said clicked, and I am forever grateful.
My friendships have extended to the flight attendants. On the way to Minneapolis, one flight attendant sold me a pair of orange-y glass earrings right off her ears that I love – designed and created by her daughter. On the way back from New Orleans, another flight attendant confessed that she hated her job and asked me to keep a look-out for her. And yet another gave me great advice about how to find a deal on his airline. It’s likely that I’ll never see any of these people again, and that is the beauty of it.
I used to hate getting on a plane because of my fear of flying. Many trips later, I now anticipate the opportunity to observe a slice of the universe, trapped together, as we all are, in close quarters.