By Ellen Nimmo
Fresh lobster. It’s the sort of luxury that people travel miles and miles for and the sort of meal whose choice reputation is reflected its price tag. But I didn’t like it. Call me rube, but the ruby red glow of a bug-like body on a plate was an experience I don’t think I’ll return to. The green goo that accompanies the minimal meat I scraped and scrounged for coupled with the fact that I splashed all my dinner mates with crustacean-water just makes it all that much less appealing.
I’m glad I tried it, but I guess it’s just not my thing. Still, people go nuts for lobster, don’t they?
The reason I was in fresh lobster territory to begin with is because I went to Maine; I went to be with two of my oldest friends from back in the day. We each recently turned 40 and it was our way of celebrating our lives and longstanding friendship by simply being together. We laughed, we spent time exploring Maine’s beautiful outdoors, we ate foodie-food, swam in the cold water of pools that claimed to be heated, danced in plastic Adirondack chairs by the light of a fire, to music we, as middle-schoolers bumped-and-grinded to at many a school dance. Did I mention we laughed? It was an awesome trip, but right now I want to share about the plane ride back home.
Wading down the narrow aisle I spied my assigned middle seat, as one does, several rows before arrival. My scan was met by the attentive gaze of what was to be my neighboring passenger. The woman in seat 12D welcomed me by way of initiating conversation. “It’s a good thing you’re tiny,” she said, ushering me into the seat. “I’ve gained 50lbs since Covid started,” she continued, “so I’m in no position to sit in the middle seat,” not knowing I’ve had my own struggles fitting into the pants of 2019, literal and otherwise. She laughed awkwardly and proceeded to seamlessly transition from sharing about her newly found hobby of baking (and tasting) treats to deliver to EMT personnel, firefighters, and her hometown police units, to educating me on the world of CSPAN and beyond.
It’s possible I was overly sensitive (it’s one of my calling cards, for better or worse), but it felt like she was the only person talking on and during the entire flight -she might as well have been using the pilot’s intercom: “We are expecting a smooth flight and here is my viewpoint on various political and social topics of the day . . .” Her intensity was palatable and her political leanings distinctly contrary to mine. But there we were, elbows touching, noses nearly, and no way to escape. I felt myself flush underneath the mask and beads of sweat began to develop underneath my arms and knees. Like a lobster in hot water. It was uncomfortable for so many reasons. But instead of attempting to escape the pot, I leaned in. Working against the sweat and sensitivity, the tide pools of discomfort, I decided to try listening on for size and left my book and headphones stowed underneath the seat in front of me. I decided it’d be a grand adventure, to try my hand at putting bias aside and see what there was to learn in this situation, from this woman, on this plane ride from Philly to Chicago.
After I made peace with the decision to sit back and submit to the situation I was in, I began to enjoy the ride.
Listening wasn’t my first choice, I’d rather have been quietly reading, but the delight it gave her to teach me all about the joys of CSPAN was so penetrating, I just had to grin. And despite my snap judgement, she had a lot more nuance to her viewpoints than I’d originally guessed. Her love for her country and her concern for the people in it was admirable. Still, one doesn’t have to be particularly “sensitive” to notice that her passion for staying informed on all things politics was also causing a swirling anxiety, an angst that she couldn’t quite quiet. She’d tell me about this or that thing that was going on in this or that realm of our Nation’s governing affairs and quickly follow the story with something like, “You know, it really worries me.”
We had found our common ground.
There’s so much that happens in our world, in our administration(s) of past and present, that I find confusing at best, duplicitous and deceptive at worst. Much like air travel itself, the whole business of government seems to be a little off its rocker. But the more I listened to my neighbor, the more I got the sense that her passion had perhaps been turned ever subtly to a consuming consumption of information. By feasting on the anxiety, more anxieties were being created. Ever more information needed, more control, more involvement, more, more, more. “I live alone,” she said, “so I have this stuff on in the background pretty much all the time.” You could tell. Her thoughts seemed to race with urgency, a channel syndicated by fear. When I told her that I also live alone, she asked me how I deal with the silence. “I try and embrace it,” I said. I’m not sure if she audibly gasped or if it was simply the look of bewilderment in her eyes, but I felt like I should follow the beat with another sentence. “It gives me space to process my day and pray,” I continued in all the hesitation of a middle seater.
It turned out that we had some more common ground after all and by touchdown I felt a strange affinity for this person, this fellow sojourner which Providence had strapped me next to as we sailed the friendly skies. The feeling, I suspect, was mutual. We had both given a vow to the other: Me to pay closer attention to what’s happening in the political realm and she agreeing to try out three minutes of silence a day. We shook hands on it. And hugging our goodbyes once, then again after bumping into each other post-flight in the Garrett Popcorn line, I knew keeping my book in the harbor of my carryon was the right choice.
Even though it wouldn’t have been my initial preference, I’m glad this small exchange happened. It revealed to my heart what my mind would have claimed to already know: There’s so much unity to be enjoyed if I can humble myself, working against the sweat and sensitivity, to see a complex and interesting individual next to me. The lobster didn’t do much for me, but this encounter on the plane allowed me to pinch just a bit more sweetness out of a trip that included both dear old friends and curious new ones.