I smelled him as soon as he passed me on the way to finding a seat on our flight from Spokane to Denver. It was the combination of the smells that struck me (not just alcohol, not just cigarettes, and not just something sweet that could have been marijuana). It seemed unnecessary for all of the smells to be tied up in one person at one time.
As soon as he sat down one row behind me in the opposite aisle seat, he started to move.
First, it was his legs and feet. Wiggle, wiggle, jiggle, jiggle. Nervous energy that seemed to have no end. It started with toes, then moved to his knees, and finally both of his legs were working up a storm.
Next, it was his fingers. Tap….tap…tap, tap, tap. A rhythm that only he could hear. One that definitely needed to get out of him. More energy. Tap…tap…tap…tap, tap, tap…tap, tap…tap. Try it – each ellipses set is a pause. It started with one finger, then moved to his whole hand drumming, and ended with both hands -sometimes alternating while at other times combining in rhythm.
Finally, it was his whole body in motion. He rocked, he swayed, and his head turned and bobbed. He seemed to be at his own wedding dance with really loud rhythms that only the exceptionally carefree (or intoxicated, in my experience) enjoy. The seat could not contain him.
This was all before take off.
A friend of his sat next to him a few minutes later, and he calmed a bit. However, the rhythms returned.
“Are you high?” his friend asked. No response.
“Dude, seriously, are you high? Drunk? Both?” his friend asked again. No response.
The movements continued, and the airplane physically moved with him.
We need to pause here for a moment. This flight, for me, was a return from a serene – almost retreat type – weekend. I had enjoyed calm, had learned to drink tea, and had slept well. Having the world around me forced into movement by a young man kind of shocked my system.
When the plane reached cruising altitude, I had figured out how to ignore the constant rhythm behind me. Somehow the next hour and a half went by without my mind engaging in the potential anger I could have for the young man’s dance party behind me.
As we started to land, the movements intensified. And then the laughter started.
I had disengaged to this point, but I could not help but eavesdrop. Nonsense, total nonsense, poured from the two young men’s mouths. This was followed by an amount of laughter that I rarely have witnessed.
“We are so high,” the friend said, and they both broke out in floods of laughter.
I had clearly missed something during the flight.
By the time we landed, the tapping, rocking, and laughter made it impossible to ignore them. As we all stood awkwardly waiting for the cabin doors to open, I glanced at these two men. Clearly, they knew each other well, and this was not their first flight in such a state. They thought they were extremely funny while at the same time it was clear that they knew they were only funny to themselves.
The good news, for the dance party young man, was that his body had calmed. Perhaps flying caused anxiety for him. It is quite common. Perhaps he had too many chemicals at war within him combined with the movement of flying. Whatever it was, it stopped when he stood up. I was thankful that he had not vomited at some point during the flight.
As I walked off the plane, stating the required “thank you” to the flight attendants as I did, I thought about how many of us stifle the movement we feel inside of us in order to conform to the social norm. This man had no conforming in him, and it seemed to free him enough to laugh…and laugh…and laugh. Lucky man, really.
While the social setting does always permit this sort of freedom, I think we sometimes create an additional layer of reserve. When I do that, and then you do that, we lose our ability to laugh – or cry – or even engage with emotion at all. A bunch of stiflers with no access to emotions makes for a tough society, and we all suffer when this happens.
This semester, rather than teaching a class at UMary, I am taking an online class from Brené Brown about vulnerability and being authentic. One of my take-aways so far has been that we do not set each other up for engaging in real conversation with one another.
When we are real with one another, we learn to ask much more authentic questions with the intention of creating a safe space for the other to respond and expand on that response without any personal agenda (including that the interaction be quick) for that conversation.
This young man was real – a bit too real perhaps? – and part of me envied him for being able to let out all of that energy and laughter with 135+ other strangers around him.
As January comes to a close, I want to encourage us all to identify one place where we need to show up, be present, and provide that space for others to be present. We cannot change and move airplanes overnight, but one small step in the right direction can happen.