En route to Istanbul
The four-hour wait at Newark airport for my second flight to Istanbul, the long one, was not so bad. The educated, quietly humorous man from Galway on the seat next to me at the airport bar had a fine way with words. He described someone who gave fake smiles as "looking like he had a coat hanger stuck in his mouth."
We boarded the 767 on time and I was delighted to find that I had more legroom than I had ever enjoyed on a plane, even in first-class. I helped the woman who took the seat next to me with her bag, and commented on our luck. But her mind was somewhere else. She started complaining that she could not see the screen where she could watch her personal choice of movies, and this was not okay. "I paid for this seat," she snapped at an airline person, 'and I can't get through the flight without movies."
She calmed a little when she was shown how to extract the screen that had been fitted into the arm of her seat. It seemed that our legroom was due to the fact that we were seated in what was once an exit row. The exit was gone, but not the other features - no fold-down table, but all that space.
I could not resist teasing my rowmate a little over losing her cool when in fact the world and those around her were treating her notably well. She spoke of the stress she'd been under. I gently observed that the universe responds to the attitudes we project, so we want to check those attitudes and choose where we put our energy. I said, "This is one of the things I help people to see." She turned a bit chilly, but a few minutes later she asked me to explain what I do. I told her, "I help people to be choosers in life." She allowed that she basically agreed with what I had said about choosing our attitudes; she practiced meditation and had studied with Zen teachers and others.
"Our personal truth," I said, "is what we remember and act upon."
She readily agreed. She was now eager to talk about everything from our favorite books to how she could improve her dream recall, to methods of conflict resolution, about which she proved to be highly knowledgeable. I started to look forward to an interesting conversation.
Our big plane taxied down the runway. Then there was a pop like the cork coming out of a bottle of champagne, except that this was no cause for celebration. The lights went out, the AC died, and the plane came to a total and silent stop on the tarmac.
As the heat rose and the cabin turned into a sweat lodge, there was precious little information. We were finally informed that the auxiliary engine had crashed. It controls all the electrics on the plane, including AC and ignition. Maintenance were coming to make a report. They would have the plane towed back to the gate where they could hook up some power and give us back lights and AC. My rowmate was resourceful. She used a miniature flashlight to get to and from the restroom without incident.
Next problem. When we were pulled up to the jetway, it was found that it wasn't working properly. So, no lights and no AC. They brought up a truck to deliver AC, but all that produced was the warm heavy air that makes you feel you are under damp laundry.
By the time I had lost two pounds in sweat, they told us we would have to deplane because the auxiliary engine could not be fixed that night. As we disembarked, I heard this exchange between two airline personnel, "What are they going to do now?" "No idea." Not confidence raising.
As we milled around in the gate area, waiting to see whether we would be given another plane or be re-booked and made to stay in airline motels overnight, a fellow from my flight started talking loudly about how we would not be able to leave because of FAA "time out" regulations, which limit the number of hours airline crew can work. "Excuse me," I hailed him. "Could you put all that eloquence and imagination into talking about how magic will happen and we will get another plane tonight?"
He turned out to be a sport. After only a moment's reflection, he declared vehemently, "They are doing magic. They got us a new plane and we will take off tonight."
He shrugged, not sure about what he had just done. Then he rushed back to the boarding gate to check. He shouted, jubilantly, "They did it! They've announced we will now depart at 9:45."
"You did it," I said. "You are a magician. You just changed the world."
There were a few more cliffhangers. They got us boarded just before the time window closed. Now my previous rowmate and I were back in what appeared to be the same seats, the ones with impossible legroom. The new 767 seemed identical to the one we were on before. Had we simply jumped event tracks?
Our conversation quickly became rich and often wildly funny and deeper than the ordinary world. We talked about magical realist fiction, about how the Ottomans gave sanctuary to the Marranos when they were expelled from Spain, about soul loss and the shaman Rx for it. My rowmate turned out to be a very smart and gifted woman, doing good work all over the map to resolve conflict and promote community healing. She had explored many paths in consciousness. Her Jewish tradition had led her to study with rabbis, like David Cooper and Zalman Schacter-Shalomi, who have explored Eastern and mystical paths and sought to marry the findings of neuroscience to the understanding of how the mind works to interpret larger realities.
I found myself marshaling my own (limited) knowledge of Kabbalah and Judaic mysticism. We were soon talking about Schachter-Shalomi's "Dream Assembly", stories of the Baal Shem Tov, of Abulafia and Aryeh Kaplan. She spoke with passion and knowledge about the importance of toning in Jewish mystical practice, and did not stop there. She started toning the YHVH, which is not only the Hebrew name for God but - in some versions of Kabbalistic tradition - the secret code of the universe, the key to making or unmaking worlds.
"Hold on," I half-joked. "You don't want to un-make the world by mistake."
"Oh, this is such great stuff. You do this for long enough, and it's like having sex with the Infinite."
She started toning again. It was now 1:30 a.m. back on the East Coast. A woman on the far side of the cabin yelled across the sleepers nested under their airline blankets. "Stop the talking over there! It's enough already."
I have never heard anyone yell across an airplane for people to stop talking. I noted the distinctively Yiddish turn of phrase, "enough, already." Now whispering with my rowmate, I speculated that the protester had been mobilized by the content, more than the volume of our conversation. "Maybe she has a point. This is high-explosive stuff. We don't want to blow up anything else tonight."
Then I was struck by an amazing life rhyme, echoing across 17 years. At the end of 1996, I entered a series of extraordinary inner dialogues and visionary travels with a guide who started talking to me in the liminal state between waking and sleep. In my book Dreamgates, where I record some of these episodes, I call him, half-jokingly, "G2". He seemed to speak with profound knowledge of a Western Mystery Order that incorporated some elements of Kabbalah. He introduced himself by telling me that we needed to begin our study sessions with the correct toning of the Tetragrammaton - an esoteric name for the four letters YHVH - including the hidden vowels.
I have had great conversations through "chance" encounters on planes, often mediated by screw-ups like lost connections. I opened my book The Three "Only" Things with five narratives of this kind. The conversation on my redeye flight to Istanbul is up there with the greatest of these encounters. How often have you heard someone tone the YHVH and talk about "sex with the Infinite" on a plane?
Now I am thinking about time loops and reverse causation. Did the engine crash because of what happened later? Now that would be an interesting story idea.
Taksim street car (c) Robert Moss