Meeting the angel

by Cliff Bostock
(Originally published in the "Paradigms" column of Creative Loafing, Atlanta, Feb. 21, 1998)

One of those stories of modern life, now mythologized, is the airplane confession. You get on an airplane, you meet a stranger and you tell one another intimate details of your life that you've never shared with another person. You get off the plane feeling lighter, never to see your confessor again.

I spend an awful lot of time on airplanes and I have never had that experience. In fact, I began writing this column on a flight between Dallas and Los Angeles, on my way to Santa Barbara. My intention was to write some psychological thoughts in lieu of confession to the person sitting beside me. Here is what happened:

I am wired.

To be wired means to be anxious, in a state of alarm. It also means to be "plugged into" current technology. On an airplane, you see the two meanings completely coalesce. Obviously, I, working on a laptop, am wired. A young man two seats away from me is wired into a portable CD player. He appears to be sleeping despite listening to a band whose CD cover features illustrations of violence and death. Judging from the noise I'm picking up, shrieking can be a lullaby.

Across the aisle is a woman who is in a hyperactive state. Between calls on the cell phone embedded in the back of the seat in front of hers, she rifles compulsively through a brief case stuffed with color-coded file folders. She peers in each folder, slams open a three-ring binder full of notes, makes more notes, applies post-it notes, makes stars, highlights things in two or three colors, summarizes everything on note cards, wolfs low-fat and salt-free pretzels, gurgles gallons of water and (twice) sorts vitamin pills kept in a huge baggie.

These are a few conspicuous examples of many similarly wired onboard. In a way, though, everyone on the plane is wired, just for the fact that each of us is inhabiting a space created by high technology. Now, as Marshall McLuhan wrote more than 30 years ago, technology accelerates thinking, amputating consciousness from the body. The mind loses consciousness of the body, which in turn produces a symptomatic condition.

I notice, for example, that the woman in her mad fit of organizing and telephoning is bouncing her legs like someone running in place -- or, as I would metaphorize it, she is "getting nowhere fast." I am even guessing that she suffers an eating disorder, given her strange bingeing on pretzels and her painfully thin condition.

The boy next to me, I think, is not so much sleeping as "playing dead." Just as the woman's body reveals her actual psychic experience, his reacts to the music he hears. Thus, all about me is a heightened example of how the body can indicate psychic reality even when it is not mentally articulated.

I turn my consciousness toward my own body. As always -- and as I also do at movies and any other public event -- I am sitting on an aisle. Although my laptop is directly in front of me, my knees are in the aisle, as if I am prepared to leave my seat. This is precisely how I've led most of my life -- feeling crowded, as if there wasn't enough room for me and that I must always be ready to get the hell out of Dodge at the drop of a hat.

I take a deep breath and align myself in front of the laptop, feeling suddenly more present. Looking around, though, I'm keenly aware how in this space -- where the air pressure and the noise make hearing difficult, where the ground is literally out of sight -- everyone is in a relatively disassociated space. I drift off ...

An amazing thing happens.

A young man stands up toward the front of the airplane. He is almost female in his beauty -- Italian with a face as innocent-looking as a kitten's, with long eyelashes he closes slowly over eyes that seem wet. Everyone stares at him as he walks down the aisle. He is wearing a green suit. His lapel has some kind of name badge on it and he is carrying a book in his hand.

He stops in the aisle, between me and the maniacally organizing woman. He grins at her. The woman is dazed. He squats and I focus to hear their conversation. His voice is soft as a child's.

"Would you like to pray?" he murmurs to the woman, whose chewed fingernails fly to her mouth.

"No," she says sharply and he turns toward me.

"Would you like to pray?" he says. I notice that his name badge identifies him as "Elder ... " The book is a Bible. He places it on the arm rest.

"Sure," I say, lost in the boy's eyes. I feel a little ashamed. There is nothing erotic in this experience -- at least not that I'm aware of -- but he looks into my eyes with such complete vulnerability that I fall into his gaze. To me, looking into another person's eyes so deeply is like penetrating heaven. My breathing eases as he recites a Bible verse in his musical voice. He smiles radiantly. He never closes his eyes completely. He maintains his gaze with me, just lowering his eyelids slowly now and then, almost in humility. It doesn't even cross my mind to shut my eyes.

I try to focus on what he is saying. The usual phrases -- "the Kingdom of God," "salvation" -- float through the air. For some reason, I recall those medieval paintings in which the angelic voices are depicted as writing that appears on banners that unfurl in the air.

"Though I speak with tongues of men and angels, but have not love, I have become as sounding brass ..." He recites Corinthians I:13. I am suddenly recalling how as a child at Bryn Athyn Academy, I had to learn that passage from the Bible. My lips begin moving. "For we know in part and we prophesy in part." That phrase makes sense to me for the first time, I remark. The boy smiles. "For now," he says, opening his eyes wide, "we see in a mirror, dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part, but then I shall know just as I also am known." We are silent.

Then, it occurs to me, in a flash, that I have evoked an angel. Here, thinking of how wired I am, disconnected from my experience and finally bringing awareness to my situation, I am suddenly visited by an image of transcendence, an angel. What he actually has to say doesn't matter so much, but his presence -- beautiful and full of solace -- is a great balm

So it is every day when we pay attention.

The boy touches me on the arm and moves away, returns to his seat. Of course, I don't see him again.

Copyright 1998 by Creative Loafing | Published Feb. 21, 1998

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